Archive for May 2017

How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?

How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?
The good news of Jesus isn’t just that Jesus loves me. Of course that’s part of it, but the rabbit hole of God’s love goes way deeper than that. The really radical gospel message is this: God loves my enemies. To be like Jesus, I have to love my enemies, too.

I often don’t let this sink in enough: the incomprehensible nature of God’s love. The message that Jesus loves me, that he loves those whom I love – that’s nothing special. Any God, any religious system is going to provide that. In any human religion, the center of the moral universe is always me and mine. But Jesus points completely beyond me. His message removes me as the center of the moral universe. God himself becomes the center.

The God that Jesus points to doesn’t belong to me. He doesn’t belong to those whom I deem good people. He’s the God of all people, all creatures, all creation. God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

God loves my enemies as much as he loves me. Even when they’re hurting me. God loved the enemies of Jesus, even as they were nailing him to the cross. Jesus loved his enemies so much, he was willing to lay down his life and to suffer a shameful death.

To me, that’s still incomprehensible. I have to admit, I don’t get it. To write these words is one thing; digesting their truth is another.

What it will take for me to truly believe and embrace that God loves my enemies? Jesus died for his enemies. If I’m going to be like Jesus, I have to be willing to die for my enemies.

I must be prepared to lay down my life. Not because I have to, and not because I feel guilt. Certainly not because I feel righteous. I must be ready to give up everything out of love for those who hurt, betray, and steal from me. If I am to be like Jesus, I must love those who threaten me.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. It doesn’t just feel superhuman and supernatural, but inhuman and unnatural. Nothing in my genetic makeup encourages me to love my enemies, and to pray for those who persecute me. There’s no natural instinct to risk myself for the sake of those who hate me.

And yet that’s exactly what God calls us to do. What seems natural to us, what has become natural in this fallen world, is in fact unnatural. God created the universe good, in unity with itself and with the Creator. But we live in a broken version of the love and symbiosis that God built into the creation.

The fallenness of our present reality manifests itself in how we respond to enemies. In this broken nature, forgiveness is impossible. Violence and hate are easy. It’s hard to act on what we know is right.

I need God’s guidance to respond to this world with love. I need the Spirit’s help to be able to tell the difference between justice and vengeance. I need God’s grace to see the face of Jesus in those who disappoint me, make me uncomfortable, and threaten my life.

For me, this will mean baby steps. I want to embrace Jesus’ courage on the cross, to ask God’s forgiveness for those who want to attack and kill me. But I should probably start by forgiving those who stole my lawnmower.

I need to be faithful in small things if I want to be prepared for big challenges.

Most of all, I need others to be Christ to me. I need people in my life who forgive me when I’ve done them wrong. People who show kindness to me when I’ve intended evil to them. My salvation is linked to those who show the love of Jesus when I’m only filled with hate.

I thank God for the way that he reaches out to me through others. I’m grateful for those who shine God’s light on both the righteous and unrighteous. Even when the unrighteous person is me.

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The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?

The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy

The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy
One of the most cherished beliefs in mainstream American culture is the idea that anyone can make it to the top, if they work hard enough. No matter your circumstances, you too can be healthy, happy, and whole, if only you put your mind to it.

This idea permeates pop culture, politics, and business. From Oprah Winfrey to Mark Zuckerberg, the leaders of our culture tell us that the only limit to our success is our own imagination and grit. It’s almost impossible to go a day without being exposed to a commercial message reminding us that we’re not good enough, strong enough, healthy enough – but that we can be, if we keep pushing ourselves.

American mythology is one of upward mobility. All our lives, we’ve been sold the idea that the best and brightest can have it all. And if you and I don’t have it all, well – we must not be the best and brightest. We must not deserve it. At least not yet.

This myth of American meritocracy is a tempting one, because it seems to be full of hope. Greatness is within our grasp, if we’re willing to push ourselves. Any shortcomings we experience can be explained by our lack of talent and tenacity. Our lack of merit. If our lives don’t measure up to what we were promised, we have only ourselves to blame.

Meritocracy is a powerful ideology. It directs the lives of millions, including many who consider themselves followers of Jesus. Yet Jesus never taught anything resembling meritocracy. Quite the opposite. The life and ministry of Jesus teaches us a way of downward mobility.

Through his cross, Jesus demonstrates a God who releases power, control, and security in order to show love and forgiveness. As a poor carpenter and itinerant prophet, Jesus denies the supremacy of wealth and human influence. And through his association with the outcast and despised – tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “unclean” people of his day – Jesus reveals an upside down kingdom.

The way of Jesus is the furthest thing from the meritocratic myth of corporate America. It’s a community of God that upsets all expectations of our status-seeking, results-driven society. It’s a Spirit whose power is felt on the margins of society, whose love permeates those who have lost everything. The way of Jesus is not a road to glory in any human sense. It is a path marked by humility, brokenness, and shared suffering with the poor. In this kingdom, the last will be first and the first will be last.

Through his parables, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what this kingdom might look like for us. In one of these stories, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a homeowner who goes out early in the morning to Home Depot, to hire workers for a renovation project. There are men standing around in the parking lot, waiting for work, and the homeowner agrees to pay them a decent day’s wage. They jump in the back of the homeowner’s pickup truck.

Around noon, the homeowner realizes he could use some more help, so he heads back to Home Depot and finds other laborers standing around in the parking lot. He hires them, too.

Finally, late in the day, the homeowner returns to Home Depot. There are still some men there in the parking lot. They haven’t been hired by anyone, so they’ve just been standing around all day. “Come with me,” says the homeowner. “Work for me the rest of the day, and I’ll pay you whatever is right.” The laborers don’t have anything else to do, so they agree.

It’s getting to be dinnertime, and the sun will be setting soon. The homeowner calls the workers together and gets ready to pay them. He pulls out his wallet and begins to pay each laborer, starting with those who showed up last. To everyone’s surprise, the homeowner pays the first workers a full day’s wage, as if they had spent all day hauling bags of concrete and installing drywall.

Seeing this, the rest of the workers get excited. If the homeowner is paying a full day’s wage to these men who only worked for an hour, surely the rest of the workers would be paid more! But the homeowner pays each laborer the same wage.

By the time the last laborer is paid, those who had showed up earliest begin to complain. “Listen here, mister. How are you going to pay us the same as those guys who showed up just an hour ago? You’re acting like they worked as hard as we did. We slaved away all day in the sun!”

The homeowner just shakes his head. “Come on, friend. I’m not doing any wrong by you. We agreed on a fair day’s wage, didn’t we? Are you really going to complain if I am generous with those who showed up late? It’s my money to spend as I choose, isn’t it?”

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

The reign of God isn’t about being productive, or smart, or strong, or worthy. It’s not about knowing the right people or being clever. The way of Jesus is one of radical equality, even for those who we think don’t deserve it. Why? Because God says so. It’s his world we’re living in. Doesn’t he have the right to be generous?

We all need God’s generosity. The myth of meritocracy imagines that somehow each of us can earn our daily bread. But Jesus teaches us that no one can earn grace. None of us, not the richest magnate nor the homeless man on the street can say, “I built this. I make it, I keep it, it’s mine.” The whole earth is the Lord’s; our very lives belong to him. We own nothing, we earn nothing. In the kingdom of God, all that is left to us is gratitude. 

This can be scary, but also liberating. When we realize that we can’t earn anything, we awaken to the reality that we don’t have to. Our lives don’t have to be justified by the myth of productivity. We were created by a loving God who will care for us, just like the birds of the air and the grass of the field. Bad things can still happen. Birds do die, and grass withers. But no longer must we carry the burden of earning our keep. We can’t. God doesn’t expect it, and we only stress ourselves out trying.

What does it look like to shake off the shackles of meritocracy and embrace the radical grace of God? What would it mean to share in the upside-down kingdom of Jesus? Especially for those of us who have been working all day for our wages, what does it look like for us to embrace God’s abundant generosity for everyone, including ourselves?

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Is Jesus the Only Way to God?

Is Jesus the Only Way to God?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/14/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Peter 2:2-10 & John 14:1-14. 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 love our gospel reading this morning. I think that the reason I love it so much because I used to despise it. As a skeptical young person growing up in Kansas, this passage from John was one of the Scriptures most often used as a weapon by Bible-thumping Christians. It was a proof text, used over and over again to demonstrate that Jesus is the only way to heaven. It’s used to imply that anyone who doesn’t hold the right beliefs about Jesus is headed straight to hell.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s an powerful statement. It’s a phase that has been used so many times to bludgeon people who are seeking, skeptical, and hurting. Those who have doubts. Those who have questions. Those whose experience of the world makes it hard to believe that a loving God would arbitrarily sentence billions of people to unending torment based on something as trivial as whether those people have said a particular prayer or accepted a narrowly defined set of doctrines about Jesus.

“No one comes to the Father except through me.” From the mouths of self-righteous Christians, these words of Jesus sound like a threat. “No one comes to the Father except through me. Don’t even try it. Angry Jesus will stop you.”

For those of us gathered here in this community, we know and bear witness to the fact that this kind of bullying doesn’t represent the character of Jesus. The Jesus we know is the one who came not to condemn the world, but to save it. The Jesus of our experience is a man who was willing to lay aside everything, even his own life, to pour out the unlimited love of God on people who hated him.

That’s very different from the Jesus of the fundamentalists. It’s a different kind of God, one who is more concerned with mercy, transformation, and wholeness than with being right. This is the kind of God we meet in Jesus. He challenges the violence of the mighty and the self-righteousness of religious people. He shows shocking love and forgiveness to those whom the world judges as outcasts and sinners.

As we heard in our scripture reading this morning from first Peter, Jesus is the stone that the builders rejected. He was rejected, despised, and discarded by the builders. But he has become the chief cornerstone, the key that unlocks the cosmos. The greatest minds and most powerful rulers considered him to be worthless, but God has revealed him to be essential. Jesus is this “living stone… rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.”

Are we to believe that Jesus has come to present us with capricious threats and ultimatums? He is the rejected cornerstone, nailed to a cross by all the best and brightest. Is he here to threaten those who don’t meet the religious tests of modern day Pharisees?

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Anyone who repeats these words as a threat is no friend of Jesus. To interpret these words as a message of condemnation makes Jesus into a Pontius Pilate rather than a liberator. It turns him into a tyrant and a torturer rather than a savior worth abandoning everything for.

Jesus brings us good news of the kingdom. Jesus brings us freedom from slavery and fear. Jesus comes so that we might have life, and have it more abundantly.

So how are we to understand these words of Jesus? If they’re not a threat, what does it mean when Jesus says that no one comes to the Father except through him?

In order to understand most anything in the Bible, it’s important to zoom out a little bit. Context matters. If Jesus were saying these words while sitting on his heavenly throne, reigning in judgment – like he is depicted in Matthew 25 – that would impact their meaning. So what is the situation here, when Jesus says there’s no way to God but through him?

It turns out, these words of Jesus are part of a love song. Really! Let’s take a look at what Jesus was saying to the disciples right leading up to this.

Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Back in Jesus’ time, there was a proper way to go about getting married. When a man asked a woman to marry him, if she and her family agreed, they would announce the engagement. But before they actually got married, the husband-to-be had some preparation to do. In ancient Palestine, it wasn’t like today, where newly married couples are generally expected to move into their own residence. In Jesus’ day, families were much more tight-knit. The whole family lived together. So when a woman married a man, she literally joined her husband’s extended family.

In order to make room for the new couple, it was typical for the husband-to-be to go home and build an addition onto his parents’ house. Once the construction was complete, he could go back to wherever his fiancee was and marry her. The room was prepared. They had a place to live together, under the same roof with the man’s whole extended family.

So let’s hear the words of Jesus again: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

Jesus is proposing to the disciples! Now, some people might say this is kind of creepy – proposing marriage to twelve people at once. And if he was, in fact, proposing to all the people of the world – well, that would make Jesus the greatest polygamist of all time.

But once you get past the weird, “Jesus is my boyfriend” aspect of this scene, it’s actually kind of amazing. Jesus isn’t standing in judgment. He’s inviting us into an intimate relationship with him. He’s proposing that we come to live with him, as part of his Father’s household, together with the whole family of God. Jesus is singing his love song.

Have you ever played that game? You know, the one where you start flipping through the radio and try to guess in the first two seconds of a song whether it’s a pop ballad, or a praise song? I mean, I don’t know if you’ve listened to the radio lately – but have you noticed how similar praise music and love songs are? A lot of times I have to wait until I hear the words “baby baby” before I can tell the difference.

But seriously, I think this points to something important. What if our relationship with God is less like a test to be passed and more like a romance to participate in? What if following Jesus is less about having the right answers, and more about giving ourselves over to a relationship and a community bigger than ourselves?

Jesus tells the disciples that he’s leaving to go prepare a place for each of them in his Father’s house. Then he tells the disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas, who we know is the skeptic of the group, objects. “We have no idea where you’re going! How are we supposed to find the way?”

And that’s when Jesus says it: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Like most religious people, Thomas was being very task-oriented in his faith. He wanted a method, a map, a set of rules and steps that would get him where he was going. But in response to his demand for a roadmap, Jesus points him to relationship. “Look at me, Thomas. Look at me. I am the way. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. You don’t need to keep looking. Rest in my love.”

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” All this time you’ve been looking for a system, or a set of rituals, or a test to pass that will give you connection to God. But you’ve been missing the reality who is standing right in front of you. Look into my eyes, Thomas. You haven’t really seen me yet. If you can finally see me for who I am, you’ll know the Father.

There’s a singularity in Jesus. Like his Father, Jesus is who he is. There’s no substituting for him. There’s nothing that can replace a real relationship with him. No one comes to the Father except through a genuine relationship with Jesus. We can’t just speak the right words, or have the right beliefs. We’ve got to look into his eyes. We have to experience his love. We have to see him, really see him, if we want to see the Father.

Now, I want to do something that is maybe a little silly. You remember how I said that I often have a tough time telling the difference between love songs and worship music? Well, a good example of this is the song “Only You,” by The Platters. This song came out in 1955, and it was hugely popular. It was played on jukeboxes everywhere. I’m sure you’ve heard it.

Right now, I want to invite you to hear this song again, in a fresh way. Let’s hear it as a love song to Jesus, as a reflection of the kind of passionate, personal, intimate love that he expresses for each of us in our reading this morning.

Only you can make all this world seem right
Only you can make the darkness bright
Only you and you alone can thrill me like you do
And fill my heart with love for only you

Only you can make all this change in me
For it’s true, you are my destiny
When you hold my hand I understand the magic that you do
You’re my dream come true, my one and only you

Only you…

Amen.

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How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?
This past weekend the Friends of Jesus Fellowship gathered in Barnesville, Ohio. Our theme was “Stay Awake” – drawn from the teachings of Jesus to his sleepy disciples.

Even 2,000 years before cell phones, streaming music, cable news, and video games, it was hard to stay awake. The original Jesus community struggled to stay conscious, aware, and focused on the things that matter. Even when Jesus was with them in the flesh, teaching and leading them, it was a challenge to stay grounded. Peter, James, and John couldn’t even stay awake with Jesus for one hour while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane!

When Jesus was arrested and hauled off to be executed, every single disciple fled for his life. Just hours before, they had all insisted they would die rather than abandon Jesus. Now where were they?

The first disciples struggled to stay awake and responsive to Jesus’ voice, but it seems like we have an even greater challenge. While the twelve apostles knew Jesus as a man, we today only know him through the Spirit. It’s easy to lose track of who Jesus is in our lives. It’s easy to forget that he’s even real. In the midst of so many worries, comforts, and distractions, most of us operate in a state of practical atheism.
Friends of Jesus Fellowship Spring Gathering 2017
This is certainly true for us in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. We’re all tired. We get get our priorities mixed up. We lose track of who Jesus is and where he’s calling us. Like Martha, we are worried and distracted by many things. But we need only one thing.

Our time together in Barnesville was a reminder of that one Life that gathers us together. We reconnected with the still, small voice of Jesus who speaks to us when we’re ready to listen. We are part of a Spirit-led community that draws us out of distraction and into a more true and beautiful world.

It was a joy to have several families at the gathering, and to care for one another’s children. We watched them play together as friends in the family of God. Our young ones reminded us that we are all part of a larger community of friends. We’re knitted together in the love of Jesus. I’m very grateful for the grounding and sense of place that I find as part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

Coming back home to Washington, DC, I need to remember that sense of connection and purpose. The distractions have not gone away. I spent four days unplugged from electronics, but my screens were waiting for me as soon as I left the gathering.

It’s easy to wish for a simpler, more innocent age. People have always longed for that, regardless of their circumstances. But I’m not called to that kind of nostalgia. I’m wondering how I can embrace an abundant, Spirit-filled life in the midst of urban America.

My challenge now is not to remove distractions, but rather to repurpose them for good. How can I use technology to foster greater faithfulness, connection, and resilient community? Rather than distract myself, how will I connect and focus? I need more signal and less noise. How do I get there? More importantly, how do we get there together?

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Don’t Worry. Death Is Your Friend

Image by Zoe Delautre (https://twitter.com/ZDelautre/status/850365114490421249)
I’ve always been fascinated by death. The reality that I’m going to die is a major motivating factor in my life.

I may be a little strange. When I graduated from high school, my predominant mood was one of foreboding. I had passed this milestone, and now I was another step closer to the end. Today I’m graduating high school, tomorrow I’ll be turning fifty. Soon I’ll be six feet under.

In the middle ages, these kind of thoughts would have been normal. Medieval society was fixated on the reality of death, summed up in the Latin term Memento Mori: “Remember that you have to die.” For European Christendom, all of life fell under the shadow of death. The present took its ultimate meaning from the reality that it was all about to end.

American society, on the other hand, is almost ridiculous in its optimism. We couldn’t be more different from the death-focused culture of the Middle Ages. We view death as something to be avoided. Even to mention it is often seen as morbid at best, bad luck at worst. We should focus on the present. Better yet, focus on the future. Because it’s only getting brighter.

Despite my innate tendency to reflect on my own mortality, I’ve been deeply formed by my death-denying American upbringing. I’ve seen death’s icy gaze, but I haven’t welcomed it. I’ve fought it. Fled it. My remembrance of death has often served as an impetus to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I’ve placed great pressure on myself to accomplish something worthy of the time I’ve been alloted. Death could come at any moment. That makes it all the more important to justify how I spend my days. The worst imaginable outcome would be to look back from the moment of death and see only a life wasted.

This attitude has spurred my ambition, creativity, and exploration. It has also been a heavy burden to place on the countless mundane moments that make up an ordinary life. I’ve spent much of my time feeling guilty for not being more heroic, more daring, more prepared to smile back with pride from the brink of death. Rather than making life important, my relationship with death has made it urgent.

My relationship to death has begun to alter. For most of my life, I’ve experienced death as a foe to be outwitted and conquered. I’ve sought a life that laughs in the face of its end. But something has changed. Slowly, subtly, surprisingly, I am discovering death as a friend.

A strange sort of friend, to be sure. But I can no longer see death merely a constraint that forces me to live life to the fullest. Death is revealing itself as an integral part of my existence. To truly live, I must learn to die. Not just at some sudden moment in the future, but right now. Each day, I must learn to release my life and be handed over into death. 

I’m seeing the way a thousand little deaths accumulate. Losing a job. Giving up on a dream. Letting go of one passion to seize another. Moving to a new city. Surrendering singleness for marriage, and selfhood for parenthood. These are some of the little annihilations that make room for something new to emerge. The deaths that make real life possible.

This process of dying is more powerful than my own self-directed living. This way of dying provides me with glimpses of the cross of Jesus. In surrendering my life and will, I begin to taste the cup that he drank from. My hopes, certainties, and assurances are stripped away one by one. Nothing is left except a long walk on the road to Emmaus.

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