Archive for October 2016

As the Election Looms – God, Be Merciful to Us

God, Be Merciful to Us
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (10/23/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Luke 18:9-14 and Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22.

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon is significantly different from the written text.)

Listen Now On SoundCloud

I was raised in an activist household. My parents had really strong political opinions, and I grew up in an environment of really intense ideology. For me, as a child, that ideology was what would today be broadly described as “progressive.” Our family was actively engaged in struggles for peace and justice in a variety of ways. We were hard-core Democrats.

Living in Wichita, Kansas, being an outspoken Democrat meant something. It meant swimming against the current of our surrounding political culture. It mean being a loser during our mock elections at school. Later on, in high school, my outspoken views meant that I didn’t have many friends. I was openly mocked by other students, and sometimes even by teachers. I got used to living a life of resistance to the mainstream culture, but being socially excluded was painful in ways I don’t think I even fully understood at the time. Standing by my beliefs meant being judged on a daily basis, and I grew to be a pretty judgmental person myself.

When I was really young, in grade school and middle school, I had some amount of ideological stability, some ground to stand on. Because even though my family was in the minority as Democrats in Kansas, I still felt like I belonged to a well-defined and somewhat respectable camp. Bill Clinton was president for most of my conscious childhood, and I was a big fan. I admired Clinton, and looked to him as a champion of the ideas and causes I believed in.

But early on in high school, that all fell apart for me. In the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, President Clinton launched Tomahawk missile strikes against a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. They said they were making VX gas there, but it turned out it was mostly aspirin.

This really upset me. I felt certain that Clinton had timed the strikes to draw attention away from his embarrassing political situation at home. I was shocked and disillusioned by what I saw as my president’s willingness to sacrifice the lives of others to maintain his image and grip on power. From that point on, I was no longer a fan of Bill Clinton. Soon, I didn’t even consider myself a Democrat.

I stayed away from mainstream partisan politics for quite a while after that. It wasn’t until the 2008 presidential elections that I allowed myself to get excited about a potential president. For me, Barack Obama was a truly inspirational candidate. After eight years of nonstop war, growing poverty, and environmental destruction, I was desperate for someone who would aim our country in a better direction. Still, I felt really nervous about pinning my hopes on this freshman senator from Chicago. I couldn’t forget how deceived I had felt in the past when I had put my trust in the partisan political establishment.

But Obama promised he would help the poor. He promised he would heal the earth. I wasn’t sure whether he was the real deal or not, but I decided to take a chance. Along with so many in my generation, I cheered when Barack Obama was inaugurated President of the United States.

In the seven and a half years since Faith and I just about froze to death watching Obama’s inauguration on the Washington Mall, the political situation in our nation has gotten worse in many ways. Now, I don’t want to deny the real progress that has taken place over this time. I’m thinking of the extension of health care benefits to millions more Americans. The growing recognition – both legal and social – of LGBT equality, and a broadening conversation about what it means to be black in a country that was built on the backs of millions of African-Americans. I can see how we are growing as a country.

And yet, during this same period, so much has gone wrong. The endless war on terror, launched by President Bush and his henchmen, has only been expanded under President Obama. This administration has developed the high-tech surveillance state to extremes unheard of before in human history. And despite Obama’s promises to heal the planet, the threat of climate change is even more dire today than it was when he was first sworn in.

And the whole spirit of this country. It’s gotten terrible. I mean, I don’t mean to say that things were great before. But during the last eight years, we’ve been going to a whole new level of nastiness. Open hatred has become normal. Religious bigotry. Racism. Misogyny. Classism. All types of behavior that were once considered limited to the lunatic fringe of American politics have been ushered into the inner sanctum of our newspapers, television broadcasts, and presidential debates. It’s hard to know how to respond sometimes.

And I’ll be honest, I don’t always respond well. It’s easy for me to hate people who are on the other side from me politically. I often find myself casually dismissing their humanity, dismissing the very real fear and anxiety that so many Americans, of all political persuasions are feeling right now. Rather than let myself feel that pain, it’s easier for me to get into battle mode. It’s easier to attack others, to project my own fears onto them – the worry I have about the direction our country, our world is headed in.

This is something that I need to be real about. It’s easy to hate people, and it’s getting easier. This whole environment we’re in right now encourages it. We separate ourselves from one another – by politics, by class, by race, culture, geography, and so many others. Rather than having the hard conversations with one another, it’s easier to stand far off and judge others – often people we don’t even know.

The Gospel reading today is all about this kind of anonymous hatred. Jesus asks us to imagine two people standing together in a public place. And – I hope you’ll forgive me – I’m going to take some liberties with the story this morning. We don’t have a Temple today, and there are very few places where people of all shapes and sizes come together. So let’s imagine these two parents sitting next to one another in their cars as they are waiting to pick up their children from the local elementary school.

One of these parents is a socially conscious progressive. She buys organic. She drives a Prius and is getting solar panels installed on her house. She contributes a good chunk of her income to charity, and she volunteers for all sorts of good causes. She considers herself one of the good people. She’s part of the solution. She’s on the right side of history. She wishes others would get on board and come around to her perspective. Or at least get out of the way.

There’s another parent out in front of the school, waiting for her kids to come out. She drives a beat-up SUV with an NRA sticker on the back windshield. She’s not sure whether President Obama was really born in America, but she’s suspicious of anything the liberal media has to say about it. One thing she does know for sure: This country needs a change immediately, because things have gotten pretty bad.

So as they’re sitting next to each other in their cars, waiting for their children to emerge, they’ve got some time to think. The first person, she’s thinking about the lady in the SUV. What a gas guzzler. She notices the NRA sticker, and she wonders how anyone could actually think that way after all the mass shootings we’ve seen in the last couple years. That lady is probably a racist. She’s probably voting for Donald Trump. Thank God I’m not like her.

The other woman doesn’t have any idea that she’s being judged. She doesn’t know, because she’s not really paying a lot of attention to what’s going on around her. She’s deep in prayer. It looks like the bank is going to foreclose on her house. Her husband lost his job a year and a half ago, and keeping up with the mortgage has been a struggle since then. She’s praying, because she knows she needs God’s mercy. She knows that there’s no way she is going to get out of this situation by her own devices. She needs a miracle. In her frustration and despair, she cries out – “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

The point of Jesus’ story seems clear enough to me. It doesn’t really matter whether the lady in the Prius is making better life choices. (The Pharisee was definitely making better life choices than the Tax Collector.) The most important thing to God isn’t whether a person’s ideology is right, or whether they follow all the rules. Jesus tells us that what God really values is a broken heart and contrite spirit. Genuine repentance is more pleasing to God than all the superficial righteousness we can produce on our own.

This is relevant to me. I don’t own a Prius, but I fit the bill of this modern-day Pharisee. I like to think that I make good choices, that I’m a good person, and that I get the blessings that I deserve for my good behavior. Maybe you do, too. This is a pretty normal, natural way of thinking.

But it’s not Jesus’ way of thinking. In Jesus, I meet a God who longs for me to let down my defenses and embrace the reality of my own spiritual poverty. I want to believe I’m strong, but I’m not. I want believe that I have it all together, but I don’t. I want to belong to the right causes, the right church, the right political party. But God is a lot less concerned than I am with being right. In the face of all this darkness and despair, Jesus is focused on being love.

I believe this story – the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the self-righteous progressive and the Republican – is relevant to all of us, regardless of our politics. Because the sickness that we’re seeing in this election goes a lot deeper than an election. It’s much bigger than the candidates who are asking for our votes. It’s not just a matter of parties, lobbyists, and super-PACs. It would be so much easier if we could locate the problem outside ourselves and go about curing it. But the reality is that there is something truly wrong with us. This sickness is within us, and it’s being played out in our daily lives.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to look our sickness straight in the eye – to own it, and ask God to make us whole again. Jesus invites us to live lives of courage. Following him is going to demand bravery, because this life is really scary sometimes. Instead of seeing the fear, and ugliness, and pain as our ultimate reality, Jesus shows us how to embrace these challenging situations and take them as an opportunity for redemption. Forgiveness. Sacrificial love.

When I hear the hatefulness being spewed by the media, both right-wing and progressive. When I see those Trump bumper stickers and sneer. When I look at people around me and judge them because they’re not as enlightened as I am. I’m living my life in fear. I’m living my life outside of the love of God. I’m not being a friend of Jesus.

It’s hard to imagine sometimes – for me anyway – this life of God where tenderness is more important than winning, and love is more powerful than walls. It’s a challenge to stay awake to all the times that I judge others – and feel like I’m well-justified! It’s humbling to realizing that even when I’m right, my judgment and bitterness make me wrong.

In this country that is being torn apart by the need to be right, the need to win, this obsession with overcoming our fears by defeating external enemies – both real and imagined – what does it look like for us to walk in the broken, humbled way that Jesus shows us? What does it mean for us to see ourselves in the Tax Collector, and open ourselves to the forgiveness that we desperately need?

We can’t do it on our own, but the Holy Spirit will give us power and strength if we ask for it. If we cry out together – “God, be merciful to us, sinners!”

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In this Election, Our Real Enemy is Fear

In this Election, Our Real Enemy is Fear

In this Election, Our Real Enemy is Fear
How many urgent campaign emails have you gotten in the last month? How many voices on television and social media have been telling you what a terrible situation we’re in? How many political marketers have been whispering in your ear: Be afraid. We have to fight. If their candidate wins, we will lose our country.

Regardless of our political affiliations, we are all being bathed in a sea of fear and fury. As a culture, we have been reduced to our most primal instincts – fight or flight. For years, they’ve told us that every political battle is a fight for the very survival of our family, our nation, our planet.

This propaganda is so seductive, because there is a lot of truth to it. We do live in a time of great danger for our nation, the international community, and the created order that sustains us all. There are a thousand reasons to be concerned.

The powers know this. They feed on it. We’re living in the midst of a huge, complex battle between political parties, corporations, think tanks, and marketers. They all use fear to push their agendas, because fear works. Fear sells.

We’re living in the midst of a global arms race, and fear is the weapon. The same marketers are working for both our friends and our enemies. They have terror and manipulation down to a science, and they’re throwing everything they’ve got at us. To win the election, to steer the debate, to take our country back. They will win this war, by any means necessary.

But this isn’t a war, this is a country. We’re not a battleground, we’re a community. And for quite some time now, our community and cultural institutions have been burning – ravaged by this scorched earth policy of the politics of fear.

This can’t continue forever. Fear is a limited resource, yet this extractive political industry is intent on draining it to the last drop – and beyond. All of these ideological forces – left, right, and center – are strip mining our shared consciousness. They’re sapping our strength and drowning us in a pool of fear. They can only scare us so many times before our adrenal glands dry up and we have nothing left but cynicism and despair.

The good news is that we don’t have to yield to this culture of terror. As followers of Jesus, we are given power to see through the deception. We have a solid rock to stand on, that endures beyond the froth of cable news and social media updates. He teaches us to feel the world’s pain and embrace our responsibility to participate in the healing process. The Spirit guides us in a life that is concerned, but not fearful; engaged, but not terrorized.

The future of our country doesn’t rely merely on who is elected this November, but rather on our own willingness to embody the love of God in the world. This is a question of both personal and collective responsibility as the people of God. Will we demonstrate an alternative reality to the destruction and terror that our nation and world is currently embracing?

In these times of cynicism, outrage, violence, and despair – who we will choose to be? How will we choose to respond to the fear, paranoia, hatred, and bitterness that is festering throughout our culture? How will we be peacemakers, justice-seekers, and lovers of our neighbors? Regardless of who captures political power, will we choose to live in the love and power of Jesus that casts out all fear?

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This Wall Is Coming Down. Which Side Are You On?

This Wall Is Coming Down. Which Side Are You On?
This is a sermon that I preached at the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering on 10/9/2016, near Washington, DC. The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 16:29-33 and Zechariah 4:6

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon is significantly different from the written text.)

Listen Now On SoundCloud

As the Second World War was nearing its end, the Nazi order was falling apart, and the Allied powers raced to carve up Europe and establish the conditions of the peace.

At war’s end, Germany was divided into four military jurisdictions. The Russians controlled the east, while the US, Britain, and France controlled the west. The German capital of Berlin was divided the same way, despite the fact that it lay deep within the Soviet jurisdiction of East Germany.

As you can imagine, tensions were running high from the beginning. Having a western military enclave in the midst of Soviet East Germany was deeply frustrating for the Russians, and the Soviet leaders did everything they could to push the western Allies out. Probably the high water mark of these tensions came in 1947 and 1948, when the Soviets closed off the roads to the city, hoping to starve the western powers out. In what became known as the Berlin Airlift, the US and its allies succeeded in holding out for almost a year, supplying the city with around-the-clock air deliveries of food and other vital supplies. By the summer of 1948, it was clear that West Berlin would remain under Allied control.

Still, West Berlin represented an ongoing problem for the Soviet-aligned authorities in East Germany. The western powers worked hard to make West Berlin a showcase of democratic governance and capitalist economics. With its shining buildings, modern jobs, and free markets flourished, many East Germans weren’t satisfied to watch from across the line. By 1961, about 20% of East Germany’s population had defected to the West – most of them passing through West Berlin.

That year, the East German government finally had enough. They decided to close the “West Berlin loophole” and end the massive brain drain out of East Germany.

It started as check points and barbed wire around the whole of West Berlin – 91 miles. Soon, they erected concrete barriers, walling West Berlin off like a city under siege. Over time, the East German government kept developing taller walls. They installed a broad “death strip” in the middle, where those trying to flee across the barrier could be shot on sight. By the time the wall was fully developed, it was massive – with concrete sections twelve feet high and four feet thick. Barbed wire, observation towers, and regular canine patrols sought to ward off any who would dare attempt entry into the forbidden city.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the standoff began to fall apart. In the face of widespread protests and a weakening Soviet grip, the repressive East German government was teetering on the edge of collapse. Even in this environment, it was a huge surprise for ordinary Germans and people around the world when the East German government announced that the wall would be opened for free movement of people, effective immediately!

In response to this dramatic news, the people of both East and West Berlin were out in the streets that very night, celebrating. That weekend, more than 2 million East Berliners crossed over to the west, holding one of the greatest street parties in human history. Ordinary people began to physically dismantle the wall with hammers and chisels. Berlin was free, and very soon all the rest of Germany would be, too.

And the whole world was left wondering – how did this happen? How do you go from shoot-on-sight, concrete barriers, and razor-wire bunkers to free movement, literally overnight? How could the Soviet-backed regime in East Germany that seemed so powerful, collapse under its own weight in a matter of months? In January of 1989, the long-time leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker had predicted that the Berlin wall would easily stand for another 50 to 100 years. How could he have been so wrong?

It makes you wonder what kinds of nonsense we’re taking for granted today. Think of some of the institutions, authorities, and economic forces that seem so invincible right now. Will they last another 50 to 100 years? Could it be that they’ll collapse in the next few months?

One of the things that made Jesus so special to his first disciples was the way that he could see beyond appearances. Jesus saw through the veneer of holiness and authority of the priests and religious leaders in his society. He saw beyond the bristling power and raw brutality of the Roman occupiers and their puppet dictator. While most everyone around him imagined the future as an extension of the past, Jesus saw that the past, present, and future have one sovereign author.

When the priests insisted that their systems of power and social control would last forever, Jesus predicted a day not too far off when the Temple would be laid waste. And when the Roman rulers threatened him with terrible torture and death, Jesus could see to the end of them, too. He saw past the pomp, grandeur, and violence of human ambition. He bore witness to the truth – to a kingdom that has overcome the power of death.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Take courage. I have conquered the world!” Crucified by the powers and raised from the dead, Jesus Christ has unmasked the rulers and authorities of this world who claim their own self-sovereignty and deny the power of love. Jesus has revealed the bankruptcy of the powers, the emptiness of their threats in the face of the all-powerful, never-ending, fearsome love of his Father. Our Father.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but the spirit of this wall is alive and at work in the world today. There are millions of us in our country right now whose primary solution for the very real fear and grief we feel is to “build the wall!” How much we’ve forgotten. It wasn’t so long ago that building walls was recognized as a signature mark of authoritarian regimes and oppressive dictatorships.

And yet, this idea of building walls is nothing new. How many of you have actually seen the wall that divides the United States from Mexico? You wouldn’t forget it. It’s taller than the Berlin wall, for one thing – 21 feet tall, and six feet deep. On the US/Mexico border – today, before we “build the wall” – right now there are 580 miles of border fence. That’s six times longer than the Berlin wall.

There are many other walls throughout the world – walls dividing Gaza and the West Bank from the rest of Israel/Palestine. Barriers separating eastern parts of Ukraine from the rest of the country. Border fences holding back a tidal wave of desperate refugees who are seeking refuge in Europe. We live in the age of the high wall and guard tower.

But I don’t want to dwell here, reciting a litany of injustice. Because Jesus didn’t. Jesus was perfectly capable of delivering a stunning critique of the powers that be – both the local ones, and the big powers like the Roman Empire. Yet his most important message was not a criticism of the dying world of greed, selfishness, and human ambition. Rather than wallowing in the propaganda of Empire – reflecting on the apparent strength of the darkness that binds us and separates us from one another – Jesus offers us peace. Jesus offers us victory. Jesus offers us a kingdom that is right now, here in our midst. Jesus tells us, “Take courage. I have conquered the world!”

In preparing to speak to y’all tonight, I have felt very clear that the heart of the message is this: We don’t need to be afraid.

We live in an age of fear. Have you noticed? All the television channels are dialed up for maximum terror. Every news item, every advertisement, every weather alert, practically every piece of media that we commonly encounter is designed to tap right into our most base instincts – our lizard brains that know very little beyond fight, flight, and… another f-word.

We need to be real about this. I know that we know this. Intellectually, I think that every one of us in this room realizes that we live in a culture of fear and manipulation. But do you enter your day prepared? We are in a spiritual warfare here. The powers of evil – Wall Street, the Pentagon, cable news, Facebook ads – this whole culture is busy seeking to pull their false world over our eyes.

Don’t be afraid. Have courage. Jesus has conquered the world.

But stay awake. Stay awake with Jesus, and don’t be fooled by the siren-song lullaby of marketers and politicians. Stay awake and keep watch, because the Holy Spirit is on the move.

The Holy Spirit is here tonight. The same power that overcame the Berlin Wall is right here with us, ready to break down the walls that separate us from one another. From love. From the truth.

We can’t do this on our own. We can’t stay awake without help. We can’t see like Jesus sees unless he guides us. But the good news for those of us gathered here tonight is that Jesus can. He will guide us. “Take courage! He has overcome the world.” And we can, too.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” – those are Zechariah’s words to us. The Lord of Hosts – that means, the “Lord of Armies” – he’s a conquering God. In Jesus we worship a conquering God. Not a conquerer like the world understands it – not a bloody tyrant of guns, germs, and steel – but a loving God who overcomes the darkness with light, hatred with love.

Still, I have to ask myself: Why did the Berlin wall fall when it did? How could it be that the rulers and authorities of East Germany were so confident in the oppressive order they had established? How could the leader of East Germany, the very year that his government would collapse, how could he predict that the wall would stand for another 50 or 100 years? And why did most of the world believe him?

We live in an age of wall and guard tower. We live in a time when there are so many Berlin walls that remain standing, seem invincible. Here in this city where we meet. Our nation. Our world stands divided on so many levels. Our friends and family – we ourselves – have been deceived. We have traded the truth for a lie. We’ve chosen to live in darkness and despair, rather than dwelling in the victory and power that Jesus promises. In this age of walls, barbed wire, vampire capitalism, and ecological catastrophe, it feels like the powers of death and oppression are eternal.

We are here tonight to declare that these powers have already been defeated. Jesus has conquered them. They stand naked and empty. Their authority has been stripped away by the blood of Jesus. Think of the Berlin wall the day before its gates were opened. Judging by outward appearances, it was as solid and fearsome as ever. But the Spirit of Jesus could see deeper. He saw to the heart of the matter. He knew with infallible, loving justice that that wall would fall tomorrow.

The injustice we see in the world today has already been conquered by the sacrifice and Spirit of Jesus. As his friends and disciples, it is our great privilege to walk with him in revealing the spiritual nakedness of Empire, and the spiritual emptiness of its walls. Each one of us is invited to take up a hammer and begin chipping away at the dead edifice that stands so fearsomely before us.

And, like the people of Berlin, we are called to the greatest street party the world has ever known. Even when it hurts. Even when it seems like we can never win. The Holy Spirit gives us confidence to be like Jesus in this world of walls, bombs, and guns. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”

Take courage. Jesus has conquered the world!

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Shake Off the Deadness and Embrace the Challenge
Do you remember? Back then the Spirit was present with us. We felt sure that God was guiding us somewhere new, faithful, full of life. We held gatherings at churches, colleges, seminaries. We met in homes and on the street. We felt sure that revival was imminent. Christ was doing a new thing in our time and place.

And then, somehow, we forgot. The weeds of everyday life choked out our awareness of the seed of truth that once seemed so alive.

It didn’t happen all at once. There wasn’t some big decision or line in the sand. But over the course of months and years, through a million micro-decisions, our focus shifted. Our habits changed. Our hope grew dimmer as we set our sights on the things of this fallen world. The promise of Christ’s kingdom – the beloved community – began to seem like a fantasy, a dream. Beautiful, but not realistic.

It’s futile to try and recapture a season that has passed. There’s no rewind button for life. Our struggle, our pain, our redemption all takes place right here, in the very ordinary conditions of the present moment.

Yet the Spirit who animated our lives in the past is still alive and at work. The life and power that inspired all those gatherings, meetups, and actions is still available to us. We can’t turn back time, but we can turn our lives around and once again open ourselves to the reign of God that wants to break forth in our present-day experience.

I wrote in a recent blog post that we have no business talking about revival if we are unwilling to engage in the act of repentance – changing our lives to reflect the truth we know in our hearts. That’s true. But if we are willing to repent, if we are ready to change the way we’re living and embrace Jesus’ way of humble submission in love, then talk of revival is appropriate. The Spirit hovers in our midst, ready to transform our minds, our sight, our lives.

I need this repentance more than anyone. I need a change of mind and lifestyle so that I can become the life-filled follower of Jesus that my heart longs for me to be. It’s time to shake off the deadness, stare down the fear, and embrace the challenge and joy of life as a disciple.

Are you feeling this sense of calling, too? I hope you’ll consider joining me this weekend for the Friends of Jesus Fall Gathering in Silver Spring, Maryland. It’s not too late to register.

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