Archive for 2017

When Your Personal Brand Becomes Your Personal Hell

When Your Personal Brand Becomes Your Personal Hell
“Who am I?” It’s never been an easy question to answer. Adolescents have always struggled to define themselves, but these days it seems like we’re all teenagers. Each of us feels pressure to create a personal brand. Whether we meant to or not, we’ve all become political agents, minor celebrity personalities, and part-time philosophers.

Our entire society is caught in a perpetual quest for identity. We’re hungry to understand who we are. Because we honestly don’t know sometimes. There are far too many variables to juggle. Every time we think we may have found a satisfying answer, a new cultural trend, marketing campaign, or political scandal hits and we’re thrown into doubt and insecurity all over again.

Ours is the age of market segmentation. Identity has become a super buffet, with virtually unlimited mix-and-match options. Each one of us has a whole slew of identity-laden merit badges: attachments to a variety of communities, multiple ethnic and sexual identities, and unique commitments. Identity has become a patchwork quilt, uniquely cut for each individual.

In other times and places, identity had relatively little to do with the individual. It was something inherited – from family, tribe, nation, and religious communities. When new identities did emerge, it was in the context of mass movement. The rise of the early church, the early Quakers, nationalism and communism – each of these was a community you joined, a movement you gave yourself to.

In this new age of consumer choice, identity and community aren’t necessarily linked. Identity is available in single-serving doses. In fact, it’s become a challenge to get it in any other format. Identity has become yet another commodity that we consume. A product to sell us. We can be anything or anyone we want to be, a combination as unique as our social media graph and Amazon browsing history.

Yet at the heart of this single-serving life, we find emptiness. We are given a thousand and one ways to differentiate ourselves from those around us, and we do. Almost as if by plan, we have become so unique that our only common life is the consumer economy. Our baptism is buying. Our prayer life is selling. The closest we come to holy communion is our shared participation in the market.

In some ways, this is new. The degree and scale of our market-based atomization is certainly unprecedented. Yet in other ways, this experience is ancient. The idolatrous power of the market, and its ability to redefine identity and subvert community, is as old as civilization.

This is the way empire has always worked. In the ancient world, consumer activity was explicitly tied to worship. Shoppers in ancient Rome were required to offer a pinch of incense to the divinized emperor, paying tribute to the gods of the marketplace. The object of worship was the wealth and power of the state, the security it provided and the terror with which it reigned.

Things aren’t so different today. Despite our claims to individuality, we bow before the gods of the market. We may not be able to find unity in party, religion, culture, or science – but there is near unanimity when it comes to economics. Even those who rail against the system and see the evils of capitalism cannot resist it in practice. “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

For those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus, the deck is doubly stacked against us. On the one hand, we are scattered and distracted by a multitude of competing identities, causes, and subcultures. On the other, we are seduced by the ubiquitous ad campaign of consumerism. Our creative energies are drained by the demands of a system that promises us luxury, but only in exchange for unquestioning devotion to the gods of productivity. We are offered autonomy and self-determination precisely in those realms where we are ultimately powerless – that of personal self-conception and representation. Meanwhile, the imperial economy demands our obedience in every way that matters.

How long will we obey?

What would it look like to reclaim our freedom from the gods of the marketplace? What would it mean to reject the lure of the personal brand, primping and styling our myriad identities without end? What would it feel like to question the unquestionable – the economic and social order of this world? Such a change would require an alternative community, a new kind of identity and social order.

The kingdom of God is this alternative. It is a life and community that stands in stark contrast to the economies and value systems of empire. Jesus invites us to an economy of love and self-denial.

The kingdom of God and the consumer cult of empire are mutually exclusive. As citizens of this kingdom, we utterly lose ourselves – and find our true identity for the first time.

What is this true identity worth? In world ravenous for identity, what am I prepared to sacrifice to never hunger again? What would it look like for me to subordinate all of my identities to the true self I find in Jesus? What hardened walls would I have to let down? What debates would I have to be willing to lose? What kinds of people must I learn to call “neighbor”?

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Should Christians Question Authority – Or Obey?

Should Christians Question Authority – Or Obey?
The Bible’s teachings on authority come not primarily though a set of terse doctrines set forth in a few lines, but rather through hundreds of stories. We learn about God’s authority and humanity’s original rebellion in the Garden of Eden. We encounter Moses’ authority, and the challenge it represented to the authority of Pharaoh in Egypt.

We learn that words spoken with authority can bring death, such as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira in the Book of Acts. On the other hand, godly authority has the power to bring life. Jesus often healed the sick, the lame, and the blind with the laying on of hands and words of authority.

When Jesus spoke in the synagogues, the people marveled at the authority with which he spoke. He opened the scriptures, not as a dead letter to be adhered to, but as a promise and a challenge to be received with joy and trembling. Jesus’ authority – the power of his ‘yes’ to truly mean ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to mean ‘no’ – was a hallmark of his ministry.

There is a thread in the biblical tapestry that argues clearly and forcefully for subjection to authority. Romans 13 comes to mind as an important – and often abused – example of this line of thinking. All authority is instituted by God, says Paul. The governing authorities are to be honored and obeyed, not just out of fear, but for the sake of conscience. God wants us to obey.

This is fascinating, coming from Paul. After all, Paul regularly tussled with the established authorities – religious and political – publicly challenging their world view. He was no one to shy away from upending the religious and cultural chieftains of his time and place. It’s not a coincidence that he regularly had to flee for his life. He spent much of his time in jail. How strange that among his teachings should be the idea that a violent, often tyrannical government like that of Rome should be honored and obeyed.

It’s not just Paul. We encounter this unexpected message in the life of Jesus, too. Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist – not because he was in need of repentance, but “in order to fulfill all righteousness.” John’s ministry possessed authority, and Jesus found that in submitting himself to John, he was submitting himself to the Father.

Jesus didn’t submit himself to every authority. Jesus openly defied the life-denying teachings of the Pharisees and priests that dominated Jewish religious and political life. He challenged Herod, the notoriously unjust local strongman who murdered John the Baptist, even calling him names at one point. Jesus seemed to have no problems picking fights with those in authority.

And yet, when Jesus was arrested by the Sanhedrin in Gethsemane, he ordered his disciples not to fight. He submitted himself, first to the abusive authority of the priests, and later to the state violence of Rome. According to scripture, Jesus had no defiant words for the Pilate. The Roman governor was amazed at his passivity! Jesus exercised a ministry characterized by direct confrontation with those in authority, yet he was led to his death without resistance.

No matter how much some of us may resonate with the maxim, “question authority,” the Bible gives consistent witness to the importance of obedience. Jesus himself is the ultimate authority. In him all things hold together. Everything that does not join with him scatters. All authority is instituted by God; it is the skeletal system of the God-created cosmos. The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but power.

We live in an age in which almost all of our authorities and civic institutions are being ripped down. The individual reigns supreme. In the absence of authority, truth becomes a moving target. With no one able speak with authority about the things that really matter, we are all relegated to the realm of “alternative facts.”

Despite the twistedness of our human authorities and value systems, we clearly need them. God instituted authority when he said “let there be light!” and divided the day from the night. Through his supreme, creative authority, God drew us out of chaos and into a beautiful, ordered universe. Only God’s authority can overcome the chaos and confusion that now reigns in our personal and civic life.

Yet there’s good reason that so much authority has been rejected. Our authoritative institutions in government, business, and religion have all been thoroughly discredited. Corruption abounds. It’s hard to see how we should submit ourselves to an authority that is so hollowed out, so rife with injustice and hypocrisy. The Bible supports us in this conclusion, too, with its many stories of resistance to an unjust social order.

How do we reconcile this biblical ambiguity? Are we to submit to the governing authorities – to the civic and religious institutions that govern our society – even when they’re wrong? Or is it more important to stand up for truth, even if it means trashing the authority structures that lend shape and coherence to our communities, nations, and the world at large?

It would be easier if we could simply say, “submit to authority, always” or “question authority, no matter what.” Black-and-white rules are easier to follow than principles guided by conscience. But for better or worse, we don’t live in a black-and-white world. God has given us free will, in clear anticipation of the challenging and nuanced choices we are called to make.

What does it mean to imitate Jesus in our relationship to authority? What does it mean when he teaches us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which belongs to God”? Like so many profound teachings, these words of Jesus contain a tension that demands discernment on our part. We are to subordinate ourselves to the authority of the state. Yet we can only rightly submit ourselves to human authority in the context of our ultimate submission to God.

Who are the authorities in your life? Police, the IRS, employers. The money economy, church leadership, social expectations. Fashion, loyalty to sports teams, family. Here in the United States, we like to think of ourselves as free and independent people, beholden to no one. Yet there are so many authorities that we answer to. What does it mean to obey – or to resist?

Paul, who in Romans calls us to submission to the civil authority, also writes, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” All authority is instituted by God, yet not all authorities are to be obeyed. How does Paul navigate this dilemma? How do we?

Though not an author of the Bible, C.S. Lewis provides a clue when he writes that the devil doesn’t create anything. The Father of Lies can only twist the good creation that God has made. God created all authority to bless and give life, but through our rebellion against that holy and healthy authority, we have allowed the creation to become twisted. Authority no longer works as intended. Rather than acting as a skeletal structure for the body of Christ, it can be misdirected to empower evil.

How do we tell the difference between authority instituted by God and demonic strongholds that must be challenged? Sometimes it seems impossible to sort out all the mixed motives in our relationships and institutions. Fortunately, the author of all authority is available to guide us in our discernment. Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would be present, speaking through us as we interact with authority. As we submit ourselves to God, we can be instruments of healing and reconciliation for earthly authorities that have become twisted with rebellion and diverted from their God-given purpose.

This process of courageous discernment requires that we maintain an awareness of who is in control. All authority is delegated by God, and so all authorities are answerable to God. The Holy Spirit lives and speaks in us, so even the weakest of us can be called to speak in God’s authority. We are called to submit to the governing authorities, and to all authorities that God has instituted over us – citizen to government, child to parent, worker to employer. Yet in all these relationships of authority, God must always reign supreme. Each one of us stands or falls before our own master – the Lord Jesus. We are primarily and ultimately responsible to him. We must be mindful of our obedience to him even in the midst of our subordination to lesser authorities.

As the early church said to the religious authorities who ordered them to speak no more in the name of Jesus, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

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That Gospel – I Don’t Think It Means What You Think It Means

That Gospel - I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/3/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, & Mark 13:24-37. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I’ve been accused of many things. But I’ve never been accused of being without imagination. When I was a child, I had what you could probably describe as an overactive imagination. Every book I read, every cartoon I watched, I wanted to act it out. I wanted to live it. I wanted to make it my own.

There is something delightfully self-centered in small children. I say “delightful,” because there is nothing malicious in it. A child doesn’t have the layers upon layers of self-deception that we adults tend to have. All of it is right up on the surface. Children are better than anyone at placing themselves in the center of the story.

For me as a kid, I was really good at this. I could always imagine myself in the role of the protagonist. When my parents showed me pictures of Russian dancers, I got some of my mom’s pantyhose and used them for tights, so that I could be a Russian dancer, too.

When I was maybe four or five years old, I was mildly obsessed with the Disney movie The Rescuers. I loved the characters and the story. Most of all, I was enchanted with the lead character, a little girl named Penny. Maybe you can guess what happened next. Before long, I had put my hair into ponytails, just like Penny. I ran around in the backyard wearing a makeshift brown skirt, role-playing all sorts of death-defying scenarios of intrigue and adventure.

I may have been a particularly theatrical child, but even as adults, most of us have a certain inner flare. We’ve got a taste for story. We find it totally natural to place our lives, our experience, within the context of that story. Nowhere is this more true than in the most important story, the narrative arc that we are exposed to through the writings of the Bible.

For thousands of years, women and men have read the Scriptures in a participatory, childlike way. We imagine ourselves as Moses, parting the Red Sea. We participate spiritually in the adventures of the apostle Paul, imagining what we would have done in his place.

Those of us who are particularly daring also cast ourselves in the role of the villain. What was it like to be Pharaoh, with his hardened heart? What was Cain thinking when he murdered Abel? How did Judas feel when he came to his senses and realized that he had betrayed his master and friend to death? When we imagine ourselves as the heroes of the story, we’re invited to take on the virtuous traits that they exhibited. But when we put ourselves in the shoes of the evildoer, we are able to wrestle with the same darkness that exists within us and could lead us to the same terrible actions.

So all this is to say, I like my inner child. I like yours, too. I think our inner five year old is essential to our spiritual development. Only that daring and imaginative inner child has the guts to fully take on the story of the Bible and try it on for size. Through child-like play, we discover ourselves in the stories. And then, hopefully, we are able to apply what we learned their to our everyday lives.
But while this is a vitally important way of engaging with scripture, reading ourselves into the text can also present some problems. Think about all the doomsday cults throughout history that have read themselves into the more apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Filling in all the blanks, we human beings are capable of weaving an intricate, internally-coherent web of deception that distorts our vision. These false visions can even lead to death.

Apocalyptic cults are not the only ones who misuse scripture in this way. The crusades, anti-semitism, and slavery—all of these were justified and perpetuated by a distorted reading of scripture that places people like us at the center, and relegates those who are different to a marginal role, at best – and to outer darkness at worst.

So while it’s generally a natural and healthy thing for us to read ourselves into the scriptures, we have to be careful. Who are we reading ourselves as, and how does our story-telling position us in relationship to Jesus, who emptied himself and became obedient even in the face of shame and death?

Sometimes the danger in reading ourselves into the text is that we don’t really understand the context of what is written. I think of the Renaissance painters who depicted first century Romans and Jews as being white Europeans, dressed in medieval garb. They read themselves into the story so much that they imagined the times and cultures of the Bible were no different from 1500s Italy.
In our gospel reading this morning, it’s dangerous for us to be ignorant of context. It is problematic to imagine that we are the intended audience of the text. It is a mistake to assume that we have a grip on what Jesus is talking about, the situation he’s speaking into.

In 1988, Ched Myers wrote a ground-breaking commentary on the gospel of Mark, called “Binding the Strong Man.” This book has helped raise my awareness of the situation in which Mark was authored. Myers makes a strong case that the gospel was written by Galilean Christians during a period of upheaval in Roman Palestine, just before the destruction of the Temple.

He argues that the gospel of Mark came into being during the years in which the Jews were in open rebellion against Rome. The Roman legions would soon crush this rebellion, lay waste to Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple once and for all. But in the meantime, the Christian community in Galilee found themselves in the desperate position of rejecting both the Roman invaders and the zealot insurrectionists who reigned from Jerusalem.

The audience of Mark’s gospel was a people under mortal threat – both from the established empire of Rome, and the rebel empire of Jewish revolutionaries. In the midst of this death, destruction, and upheaval, Mark’s community found themselves being called by Jesus to stay true to the kingdom of God, even as the nations raged all around them.

It’s in this context that Jesus says to the church in Galilee, “Stay awake.” It would be easy to fall asleep, to breathe in the lies of Roman supremacy on the one hand, or theocratic Jewish ethno-nationalism on the other. To stay awake in the midst of war and domestic conflict means risking a lot. Acts of violence against authority, or submission to it, can both provide an illusion of safety. But the followers of Jesus in Mark’s community could not afford any such illusions.

It’s in this actively dangerous context that Jesus is explaining to the church in Galilee about all the tribulations that are coming their way. The destruction of the Temple. The desolation of Jerusalem. False messiahs, famines, earthquakes, wars and rumors of war. To stay awake meant to acknowledge these present realities and resolve to follow Jesus, despite the cost.

Today, it’s easy for us to look at Jesus’ words in Mark 13 as being foreboding and mysterious. Millions read these words as a prophecy about some mythological “end times.” But for the Christians in Galilee, Jesus’ words weren’t mysterious and other-worldly. They were concrete and actionable.

The community that authored Mark was watching Jesus’ words unfold all around them. Everything he said was true to their experience. Despite the apocalyptic ravings and resistance of the zealots, Rome was on the move to destroy the holy city. False messiahs sprang up every day, attempting to deceive the Galilean church, baiting them into a clash of civilizations. In days before rapid transit or communications, rumors of war must have been rampant.

And just as Jesus had predicted, the greatest threat to the church was often the civil and religious authorities that sought to regulate the faith of Jewish people on the one hand, and bolster an insurrectionist agenda on the other. Mark’s community was being delivered over to councils and beaten in synagogues. Their livelihoods and families were threatened as they refused to take up arms with the rebels, or collaborate with the invading Romans. The church in America likes to talk a lot about the “end times,” but the Galilean church was living it.

So the church in Galilee was experiencing the pain and confusion that Jesus refers to at the beginning of our reading today, when he says, “after that suffering.”

It is “after that suffering” that “they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.” It is “after that suffering” that Jesus will gather his people from the four winds and the ends of the earth. It is “after that suffering” that the kingdom of God will be revealed.

It would be dangerous for us to imagine that we are the intended audience of these words of Jesus. It would be easy for us to use these words to put ourselves to sleep, rather than staying awake as Jesus commands us. It is tempting for us to skip straight to the “great power and glory” without having experienced the lesson of the fig tree. In the Middle East, you know it’s about to be summer when the fig tree puts forth leaves. In the family of God, you know Jesus is about to come to reign when we as a community suffer for his name.

And as much as some Christians today like to talk about “persecution,” let’s be real. That’s not us. I don’t want to downplay the serious trials and sorrows that many of us experience at different times. But we as the church in America are not, generally speaking, being persecuted for our faith.

I mean think about it. Seriously. When was the last time you had to make a major sacrifice to be true to your Christian convictions? When was the last time that we, as a congregation, faced the active disapproval of the civil authority and paid a price for it?

And that’s great! I’m very happy to live in a country where my faith in Jesus is not grounds for persecution. Following Jesus is hard enough without adding on the burden of a hostile regime.

But we need to be real about the fact that we are not the early church. We are not the audience of this text, the gospel of Mark. The original audience of this piece was facing death, torture, and all kinds of brutalization in the midst of a nasty, Vietnam-style war in their homeland. They were facing exclusion and persecution by their non-Christian Jewish countrymen.

For the community of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus was coming to inaugurate the kingdom of God very soon. He had to, or there would simply be no survivors! As Jesus says in Mark 13:20, “And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short these days.” That’s what the kingdom of God meant to the Galilean Christians: A chance to survive and overcome the horror.

What is the kingdom of God for us? What does it mean for Jesus to tell us, “stay awake”? How are we to learn the lesson of the fig tree? The community that wrote Mark was living in late spring; summer felt very near. What season are we living in?

Until we can answer those questions, we’re really not much different from a five-year-old Micah Bales, dressing up in pig tails and a skirt, running around playing Penny from the Rescuers. We’ll be living in a story that isn’t our own, one that blinds us to the real work that God is calling us to in our own time and season.

All that being said, there is at least one part of Mark 13 that was definitely written to us specifically. We know this because Jesus explicitly says so. He warns his followers that no one knows the hour at which the master will return. None of us knows when our own time of crisis may be coming. No one knows when the kingdom of God will shine out of the darkness for everyone to see. So Jesus warns us that regardless of our context, regardless of the season, we must stay awake.

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

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Why the Church Is Not And Will Not Be Revolutionary

Why the Church Is Not And Will Not Be Revolutionary
I’ve always liked to think of myself as a radical. I come by it honestly. That my parents named me after the prophet Micah should have been your first clue. When I was a kid, our family aided refugees fleeing war-torn Central America. My parents blocked trains carrying nuclear weapons. They got arrested for demonstrating at military bases. Our Christian faith was always tied up in subversive activity, undermining the status quo and demanding a more just world.

When I became a Christian as an adult, I followed a similar path. I identified Jesus as the the ultimate prophet. He spoke truth to power and overturned the rulers of this world along with the tables in the Temple. For me, nothing could be more radical than the gospel. Jesus was a revolutionary.

In many ways I still believe that. Yet in recent years I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with this Jesus-as-revolutionary paradigm. For one, it’s often used to link Jesus to left-wing politics. As if he were just an exemplar the Democratic Party, or socialism, or anarchism, or whatever other ideology we want to project onto him. But this can’t be. Jesus isn’t a spokesman for human ideology. Rather, he is the power and presence of God breaking into the world, disrupting all of our belief systems and power structures.

In the wake of the 2016 election, I’ve been encouraged to see large parts of the church finding its voice and speaking up for justice. For far too long, much of the church has hidden its prophetic light under a bushel. But in the face of the growing blasphemy of the anti-poor, anti-life, and anti-earth policies of the Religious Right, millions are re-discovering the social justice implications of the gospel. They’re speaking about it in openly theological terms. This is a hopeful sign. It could point towards a revival in an American Christianity that is rooted in the gospel of Jesus rather than the idolatry of power.

In the midst of my hope, I’m also concerned that the “progressive” church is at risk of becoming a liberal analog to right-wing Evangelicalism. The rise of the Religious Right was a disaster for both America and the church. An emergence of a Religious Left could be just as much of a catastrophe. Binding ourselves to political expediency and the dictates of human ideology, we risk once again diluting the gospel into talking points for cable new shows and slogans for marches.

This always seems to happen. From the earliest days of our faith, the people of God have often chosen politics over our allegiance to Jesus. Why? There are many factors, but one big reason may be that we on the progressive end of the spectrum have fundamentally misunderstood the relationship of Jesus to the powers and principalities of his day – and ours.

For those of us who lean progressive in our political outlook, it’s very easy to see Jesus as a scrappy freedom fighter. He’s the underdog who triumphs in the end. Jesus has the courage to speak truth to power, and the truth is vindicated. How does this occur? Maybe it’s through the power of the people. Or historical inevitability. We’re not really sure. But in any case, the meek inherit the earth and “love wins.”

In this way of looking at the world, the powers and rulers of this world are strong, and Jesus is weak. Jesus overcomes the might of the powerful through his clever teachings, charisma, and great community organizing skills. The authorities can kill Jesus, but they can’t kill the revolution – because the power of the people don’t stop. In this vision, the kingdom of God is always an insurgency, forever nibbling at the edges of the kingdoms of this world.

That’s an easy way for progressives to understand Jesus, but it’s not the truth. Just as the Religious Right warps the kingdom of God when they conflate it with their favorite politicians and a right-wing political and economic order, the Religious Left is tempted to view the kingdom of God as synonymous with a politics of resistance, and perpetual weakness.

The gospel isn’t revolutionary. Revolution is about the overthrow of the established order. It’s about the weak, the illegitimate, the unacknowledged seizing power from those who have every right to wield authority. Revolutionaries are rebels who assert their legitimacy through brute force.

Jesus is no rebel. Jesus has every right to power and authority. He is the legitimate ruler of the universe. He is not a revolutionary who seizes the mantle from the powerful; he is the king. The apparently mighty rulers, politicians, business leaders, and celebrities who lord over our society today – they’re not the established authority. They’re rebels and revolutionaries against our true Commander-in-Chief!

If Jesus isn’t a rebel, but rather the Authority, where does that leave us? We’re not radicals or dissidents. We’re loyalists. In the midst of a darkened and confused rebellion, we remember who the king is. The kingdom of God isn’t about overthrowing the rebel institutions and power structures of this world; it’s about holding fast in our loyalty to our true leader.

That has a different feeling, doesn’t it? Very different from the partisan political clawing that’s going on right now. This world begs, cajoles, and shames us into joining their ideological camps. It seeks to pull us into a sisyphean game of “king of the hill.” But we know who our king is. We have the peace that the world cannot give. We engage the suffering, degradation, and pain of this world with the confidence that comes from being not rebels, but servants of the true king.

How might this shift in perspective impact all of us who identify as followers of Jesus? Both for those of us who hold conservative viewpoints, as well as those of us who lean progressive, what does it mean for us that this world’s political, ideological, cultural, and economic systems are fallen and in rebellion against the kingdom of God? What does it mean for us to be loyalists of the one true king of the universe? How might our shared identity as citizens of the kingdom of God serve to unite us across partisan barriers?

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Have Progressives Made Trump God?

Have Progressives Made Trump God?
We live in times of heightened emotion. Enmeshed in digital media and captured by our “always-on” culture, it’s hard to unplug. The bare-knuckle fights of politicos and pundits come straight to our phone.

The moment we inhabit exhilarates us with the adrenaline of combat. It wears us down with the relentlessness of total war. Our society is tearing itself apart, and there seems no alternative but to choose a side and dedicate ourselves to fighting for it.

We have, as a society, been captured by spectacle. Reality TV has exited the screen and come to inhabit our daily lives. We are drawn into a dizzying world of celebrity drama and cultural transgression. We are warned of the groups that we should fear and despise, and encouraged to stay tuned for the next episode when the enemy camp will be humiliated and exposed for the hypocrites and evildoers that they are.

In this cultural hurricane that we now inhabit, personalities reign supreme. We are united around the people we hate. The right is united by deep hatred for people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The left is united around total disgust for Donald Trump, above all, and secondarily Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.

Donald Trump has become the center of this vortex. He has become the writhing center of our nation. This is true not only for those who vehemently support him and his white supremacist rhetoric, but perhaps especially for the millions of Americans who reject him in the most furious terms possible. Resistance to Trump has helped make him the energetic center of American life.

One of the most disturbing things about the rise of Trump is the way that he has colonized our minds. Most of us can’t get through the day without thinking about him. Regardless of what visceral rejection his image  may provoke, Donald Trump has become the focus of our consciousness. Many think about him more often than they think about loved ones. Many of us who consider ourselves “religious” turn our minds to Donald Trump more often than we do to God.

There is a spiritual principle at work here. We choose the things that lie at the center of our reality. Love is not the only power that is capable of centering us in this way. Hatred is a powerful religious force. It is able to create gods that define our lives. The terrible irony is that, the more we hate anyone, the more we place that relationship of hatred at the heart of our lives. Through our fury at Donald Trump and his violent, racist agenda, we actually lend him more power.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie, The Fifth Element. Humanity encounters an evil presence that intends to devour all life in the universe. Predictably, our response is to attempt to destroy the presence with nuclear weapons. But we learn that this is precisely what the presence of evil was counting on. Every time it is attacked, it grows and expands. After being attacked twice with larger nuclear salvoes, it grows much larger, destroys the attacking vessels, and begins a journey towards Earth, to destroy us all.

Attacking evil only makes it stronger. Battling hatred with hatred only produces more devastation. We learned this lesson from Jesus. Jesus says that we should not resist an evildoer, but instead to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. It’s always been hard for me to accept these sayings by Jesus. How could it be that I should actually submit myself to evil?

What if Jesus is asking me not to submit to evil, but rather to de-center evil in my life? Could it be that, by resisting evil head on, I make it more powerful? By making the evil person the enemy, is it possible that I end up creating more evil? What does it look like to turn the other cheek in the face of real evil, the kind that God knows should be stopped in its tracks?

This is a live question for me, and I don’t have an easy answer. What does it look like to deny the racist, violent, life-destroying posture that Donald Trump embodies, while refusing to place that evil at the center of my life? What does it look like to love my enemies – including Donald?

What changes when I commit myself to seeking the restoration of all people, even those whose souls are twisted with hatred and selfishness? What happens when the love of God in Jesus becomes the center, and all the evil people of this world become mere satellites of that radiance?

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Does the Bible Contradict Itself About Faith Versus Works?

Does the Bible Contradict Itself About Faith Versus Works?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/15/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: James 2:14-26 & Romans 4:1-12. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I feel really lucky to be preaching today. We’re in the middle of our sermon series on James, and I get the passage that is maybe the most memorable out of the entire letter: “Faith without works is dead.”

In this passage, James says it’s not enough just to believe in God. We need to follow him, become like him. Real faith looks like action: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with our God.

But what’s really interesting is that a lot of Christians, now and throughout history, have not agreed with James’ view of faith. A common belief throughout Christian history – perhaps even the predominant one in many times and places – has been the idea that pure faith is the only way that human beings can find relationship with God. Because of our human sinfulness, they argue that we are totally incapable of doing anything righteous. We are so lost, so mired in sin, that the only hope we have is to have faith in a God we can never understand, and a kingdom that we can never truly enter this side of death.

Christians who have this view of sin, faith, and righteousness, tend to be really big fans of Paul’s letter to the Romans. That’s not surprising. Paul takes a deep dive into some really deep and mysterious theological questions in this letter. He spends a lot of time reflecting on the law, sin, and what it means to be a righteous person. Romans is a fascinating letter, and well worth our attention.

Given how important and influential Paul’s letter to the Romans is, I thought it was worth reading together with today’s passage from James. Paul and James seem to have such divergent views on what it means to have faith, and the role that works play in this whole process of salvation.

Before we get to Paul, though, let’s just walk through James for a minute – make sure we understand what he has to say. Our passage today starts with this:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

This passage really convicts me. I work near the White House, and after I drop George off at daycare, I walk through Chinatown and most of downtown before arriving at my office. On my walk to work, I pass a lot of homeless people. Some of them are just hanging out, doing their own thing. But some are usually panhandling, asking for money. Most days, I get asked for money at least once.

I usually don’t give them anything.

I don’t have any legit excuse for this behavior. Jesus says pretty clearly in the gospel accounts that we should give freely to everyone who asks of us. It doesn’t speak well of my faith in Jesus that I don’t even manage to follow his clear and basic teachings.

I know I should do better, but the truth is, much of the time, my faith in Jesus is outweighed by my desire for comfort. I don’t want to have that awkward interaction with a person I don’t know, asking me for money. I don’t want to stop in the middle of my commute and get pulled into someone else’s life. I don’t want to give some stranger my money. But most importantly of all, I don’t want to be drawn into an interaction that makes me feel nervous, guilty, or diverted from my goals for the day.

And that’s OK. That’s pretty human. But it doesn’t exactly scream, “follower of Jesus,” does it? How much faith can I really have in Jesus if I don’t even stop to give change to a beggar?

Faith without works is dead.

James goes on:

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?

I can believe in Jesus all the live-long day. I can believe that he healed the sick, raised the dead, preached good news to the poor, and triumphed over death. I can believe these things as historical facts. And James says, “that’s all well and good – but the evil spirits believe all those things, too. You’re still in the realm of facts. That’s not the stuff of faith.”

Real faith, for James, involves doing something about it. Faith in the Lord Jesus is powerful. He raises us from the dead. Any life that is being touched by his is going to be radiant. Faith in Jesus changes a person. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”

As James goes on, and he uses the historical examples of Abraham and Rahab to show us what he means when he talks about the kind of faith that brings life:

Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

I think this just about sums up James’ view on what it means to live a faith-filled life. Faith is brought to completion by works. Faith is the seed, but works are the necessary flower. Without the growth of the flower, the seed has no meaning.

Now what’s really interesting for me here is that James and Paul use the exact same example to make what appear at first glance to be contradictory arguments about faith. James points to Abraham as an exemplar of faithful works. He notes the phrase from Genesis, which says that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” From this, James concludes that Abraham was such a faithful person in his works, that he was called a friend of God.

Paul takes a different view on the relationship between faith and works. And what’s fascinating to me is that he uses the exact same example from scripture to make his point. Like James, Paul zeros in on Abraham as being an exemplar of faithfulness. But listen to where he goes with this, starting with the same phrase that is the crux of James’ argument:

For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

So Paul is saying here that is that Abraham’s righteousness is itself a gift from God. Abraham didn’t earn it through his actions. He was without works, but God “reckoned his faith as righteousness.” Abraham was righteous because God said he was righteous. According to Paul, it wasn’t works that saved Abraham – it was trust in God.

For those of us who grew up in traditions that told us that every word of scripture is dictated by God and divinely guaranteed for its accuracy, this presents a conundrum. It seems like James and Paul are in disagreement here. Which is it? Is faith only real when expressed through works, or are we saved through faith alone, without works?

In order to answer this question, it’s important to look at what James and Paul meant by “works.” Because while I do think these two men were in general agreement about what the word “faith” means, I would argue that they have very different definitions of works.

For James, his entire discourse is immersed in this idea of works being based in mercy, social justice, and acts of risk-taking to express the love of God. In the case of Abraham, the example of works that James holds out is his willingness to sacrifice his only, beloved son. Abraham was willing to take real, tangible risks for God. His trust made him able to sacrifice the things – and even the people – that meant the most to him.

I don’t think anyone thinks that human sacrifice would be an example of good works, but the fact that Abraham was willing to give up everything for God demonstrates how much more powerful his faith was than mine. I know I don’t have the strength to sacrifice one of my children for God. Most of the time I can’t even muster the strength to stop and open my life up to panhandlers on my commute through downtown. This road of uncomfortable faithfulness is what James calls me to when he says that “faith without works is dead.”

Paul’s vision of works is different. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is singularly fixated on the Jewish law. He’s doing theological reflection on what the law means to him, to Christians, and to the Jewish people. He’s taking a look at religious ritual and trying to make sense of what role it should play for the followers of Jesus.

Above all other aspects of the Jewish law, one that was most concerning for the early church was the rite of circumcision. For Jews, it was required of all men. For most pagans – and for Christians who had once been pagans – it was a painful form of genital mutilation. Honestly, how many gentile converts to Christianity would there have been if the price of admission had been cutting off part of your penis?

The early church was wrestling with this. Paul, above all, as an apostle to the gentiles, was digging deep to understand what really mattered in the life of faith. Was circumcision an essential matter that the church had to stand firm on, or was it an optional rite that some could take part in and others didn’t need to?

In this context – in the midst of all these thoughts about the law, the gentiles, and the Jewish people – Paul writes about the relationship of faith and works. And what a difference that context makes! Unlike James, Paul views works as a secondary matter. The crucial thing is to believe God, trust God, have faith in God. Everything else flows from that. Works – religious rituals – are at best a reflection of faith. Not strictly necessary.

When Paul talks about works, he’s not talking about the same thing James is. There’s no mention of social justice – care for the poor, the weak, the elderly. For Paul, who is thinking very deeply about Jewish/Christian tradition and liturgy, the “works” being referred to is the keeping of religious traditions and observances.

When Paul talks about “righteousness apart from works,” it’s proper to understand works as referring to things like circumcision, wedding ceremonies, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday-morning worship, water baptism, hymn singing. These kinds of religious observances and rituals may serve a positive purpose. They may build us up and bind us together. They can help provide a sense of meaning and continuity in our community and our religious traditions. But these works are incapable of saving us. Without faith, they are empty and dead.

When you start to consider the context out of which both James and Paul are writing, their different views on faith versus works start to make sense. It’s true that faith is dead without the works of justice and mercy. It’s also true that the works of religious rites, ceremonies, and seasons are dead and useless without the power of faith to animate and redeem them.

Faith without works of righteousness is dead. The works of human religion are empty and without meaning in the absence of faith. True faith is demonstrated by acts of justice and repentance, not ritual and adherence to tradition.

So what does this mean for us? What does faith mean in our community? Do we believe God? Are we open to the ways he reveals himself to us every day? Do we believe Jesus? Do we believe him when he teaches us, through the written words of scripture and the living word of his resurrected presence? Do we believe the Holy Spirit when she speaks in our hearts?

If we do believe – if we believe God and our faith is reckoned to us as righteousness – what do those works of righteousness look like? Are we more focused on the religious works that Paul talks about – our worships and conferences and baptisms and songs? Modern day circumcision. Ways to remind ourselves that we want to follow Jesus, maybe. But not enough to save us.

Where are the works of righteousness that James talks about, the works without which our faith is dead? Maybe it’s time for me to start stopping and interacting with people who ask me for money. Maybe it’s time for me to start questioning the way I interact with the money economy altogether. Certainly, it’s time for all of us to follow the clear commands of Jesus and the witness of the early church. To care for the poor and marginalized, turn away from greed and selfish pleasure, and turn our lives towards those in need all around us. These are the works that our faith can’t live without.

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With So Much Fake Religion Out There, How Can I Find What’s Real?

With So Much Fake Religion Out There, How Can I Find What’s Real?

With So Much Fake Religion Out There, How Can I Find What's Real?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/1/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: James 1:19-27 & Philippians 2:1-13. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

I know anger very well. It’s my primary emotion, the feeling that comes most easily in any given day. Anger can be very useful. It flags when something is going wrong. When there is injustice, disorder in a relationship, a situation that should not be allowed to continue – anger identifies it immediately. At its best, anger is that trusted friend who tells you, “you don’t have to put up with that!”

It’s interesting to me how often people – perhaps especially Christians – demonize anger. I’ve heard people say that anger is destructive, corrosive, unhelpful – a sin! But I’ve always known that can’t be true. That can’t be the whole story. How could something that God made such an important part of my personality be without any good purpose? Both the Old and New Testaments speak frequently of God’s righteous anger. The gospels say Jesus got angry. How could an emotion that Jesus himself experienced be sinful?

Anger isn’t sinful, but it certainly is dangerous. The most powerful and important things often have the most potential for misuse and destruction. Anger is such a powerful emotion that the authors of the Bible are very interested in its right use. Like sex, anger is not something to be taken lightly. The authors of scripture warn us not to be promiscuous in our anger. As the author of James reminds us this morning, we are not called to be without anger. But we are called to be quick to listen and slow to anger.

Why do we need to be so careful with anger? What is it about anger that makes it so dangerous? Strange as it may sound, anger is one of humanity’s most God-like characteristics. God is truly powerful, a world-shaking Spirit – and anger is about power. Anger is about changing the things that are out of order in the world. The God-given purpose of anger is to cause disruption that clears space for new life, new order, greater wholeness in the world.

That sounds great to me. I’d like to let my anger rage, so I can clear out lots of space to remake the world as I think it should be. And therein lies the danger. Unlike God, the same things that are wrong with the world are also wrong with me. When my anger focuses outward, I may make some changes, I may clear out a space for a new order. But I’m liable to fill that space with the same old brokenness and sin that I carry inside myself. So often, my fallen nature uses anger to create not the kingdom of God, but the kingdom of my ego.

This is why the author of James exhorts us: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” He says that our anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Anger that emerges out of my own selfish will cannot produce godly results.

What is the alternative to this ego-driven anger? How we place God at the center of our lives, rather than our raw will to power expressed through self-centered anger? James tells us that the first step is to turn inward, to rid ourselves of the wickedness and self-will that draws us into unhealthy anger.

So how do we do this? James knows that it’s impossible for us to cure ourselves from sin and spiritual blindness, from the anger that destroys life rather than healing it. The solution, says James, is not any reliance on our own strength or abilities. Quite the opposite. Instead, we are to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save [our] souls.”

What is this “implanted word” that James talks about? It’s what the author of Second Peter refers to when he says that “we have a more sure word of prophecy, which you do well to heed, as to a light shining in a dark place.” The implanted word of God, the word of God within, is the Spirit of Jesus. It is the Spirit that inspired the authors of the Bible, the Spirit that created the world. This same Spirit is available within each one of us. We have direct access to God’s teaching. James reminds us that this indwelling Spirit will guide us into all truth, if we will wait on her and listen with meekness.

Hearing the word of God is not simply a matter of reading the words of the Bible. The scriptures are a vital resource for us as Christians, but they are not sufficient to bring about our salvation and transformation into new life. The Bible can’t make us followers of Jesus. Only this “implanted word”, the living presence of Jesus in our lives, can accomplish that. We have to obey the command of God, which he gave us on the day of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan: “This is my son, the beloved – listen to him!”

As James goes on, he reminds us that listening to Jesus, listening to the implanted word of God, involves more than just hearing. He says:

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

It’s easy to hear the word. So many of us have heard the word of God, both through the teaching of the church and through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But a huge number of Christians throughout history and to this day have rejected the word of God and chosen our own way. This is how you end up with Christian crosses carried by crusaders and conquistadors. That’s how so many of us, myself included, end up calling ourselves Christians and going to church, while struggling to obey most of what Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount.

We’re doing a lot of hearing. But are we listening? Are we doers of the word?

James tells us that when we choose to hear but not obey, we aren’t just being naughty. We aren’t even merely separating ourselves from God. When we fail to act on the message that we are hearing from God, we risk losing our most fundamental identity.

When we hear God’s word for us and fail to act, James says that we suffer a sort of spiritual amnesia in which we forget who we are. It’s like we’ve seen ourselves in the mirror, but then turn away from our reflection and can’t even remember what we look like. Paradoxically, when we choose our own way rather than listening to God, we are actually lead away from ourselves. When we turn away from our true identity in Christ, there’s nothing left for us but blind groping in the darkness and destructive anger.

So, let’s say we actually do manage to not just hear Jesus, but to listen. What does it look like when we are doers of the word? James is always practical, and he gives us a pretty straightforward answer to this question:

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

What can we take away from this last passage of our reading from James? First of all, those who are doers of the word demonstrate it through lives of self-control. When we are doers of the word, there’s no room in our lives for the ego-driven anger that James warns against. This kind of damaging, godless anger comes out most frequently through hateful words and hurtful speech.

This speaks to my condition. I like to talk, and I have a pretty loose tongue. If I’m not careful, I can say things that are hurtful to other people without even really thinking about it. I see myself as being a straightforward and honest person, but a lack of care and self-discipline is not the same thing as truthfulness. James challenges us to embrace self-discipline in all aspects of our lives, including our speech.

But talking a good game isn’t enough to make us doers of the word. In addition to bridling our tongues, James says that real religion consists of two things: simple acts of tangible compassion, and separation from the wickedness and confusion of the world.

James is pretty explicit in his instructions here. If we are to be doers of the words, we are to “care for orphans and widows in their distress.” When James says we’re to care for orphans and widows, he means this literally.

In the ancient world, just like in many places today, women who lost their husbands and children without parents were the most vulnerable members of society. Both women without husbands and children without parents had no means of social support, no place to plug into the family structure that gave meaning to life. Widows and orphaned children were often desperate, destitute, and reduced to begging or prostitution.

When we are doers of the word, we will care for those who are the most needy, of the lowest status, and least able to pay us back. This is in keeping with the teaching of Jesus, who says in Luke 14, “…When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

To be doers of the word is to utterly defy the rules of our capitalist economy. The world we live in rewards us for meeting the needs of those who have money to pay and honor to bestow. But Jesus calls us to turn our attention to those whose need is greatest, even when they have nothing to offer us in return. When we become doers of the word, we encounter God in meekness and let selfish anger give way to self-giving love.

So, the other passage we heard this morning was from Philippians 2:1-13, in which Paul describes Jesus’ humility, the way that the living Word of God became a human being. He took on all of our limitations. Jesus embraced the lowest position in society. The Word of God, the one through whom all things were created, should rightfully have reigned as king of the world. Instead, he took on the form of a slave. He suffered torture, shame, and death on a cross. He went as low as a human being can possibly go.

In his ministry on earth, Jesus was the ultimate doer of the word. He demonstrates for us what it looks like when a human life is entirely in sync with God’s will. And it doesn’t look pretty. It doesn’t look glorious. It doesn’t involve “so much winning that you get tired of winning.” As doers of the word, our way is the cross of Jesus. It is the path of downward mobility, emptiness, and renunciation. It is the life of poverty and surrender, with no room for any anger but the true righteous anger of God that brings healing to the nations.

But as James reminds us, we can’t get there on our own. We can’t be doers of the word without listening first. We’ve got to humble ourselves. We’ve got to abandon our own hopes, fears, and ambitions, and listen within for the living word of God. This life and power is implanted within us. This Spirit has the ability to save and transform us. If we’ll get still and welcome it with meekness.

Related Posts:

Works Vs Faith? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

Is Your “Justice” Really Just Revenge?