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Is Your “Justice” Really Just Revenge?

Is Your "Justice" Really Just Revenge?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/3/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-15 & Romans 12:9-21 & Matthew 16:21-28. 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

They say that to achieve mastery in something, you need to put in about 10,000 hours of practice. You’d think that after spending more than a decade learning about God, going to seminary, doing ministry out in the world, and trying really hard to follow Jesus – you’d think after all that, I’d have more than 10,000 hours of practice put in. You’d think I’d be good at this by now.

But for me, the process of discipleship, of becoming a follower of Jesus, has been all backwards from what I expected it would be. As funny as it sounds, I think that I peaked, as a Christian, a few months after I decided that I could be one. In a way, it’s all been downhill from there.

When I first became a Christian, I was super excited about everything. I thought that my generation was going to change the world. I was sure that my ministry was going to be really impactful and important. I felt the power of God in my life, and I assumed that this meant that I was on the right path. I didn’t really take into account the stories I was reading in the Bible about how God often shows up in the most desperate of times, when things are at their worst.

For the last ten years or so, I’ve been going through a process of continually realizing that I’m way less awesome than I thought. The further I get down this path, the more I realize that not only is the world not the way I’d like it to be; I myself am not in the condition that God created me for. I’ve got anger issues. I’ve got selfishness issues. I’ve got all kinds of problems with my character and my behavior. And every time I see those traits in others, it’s a reminder that they’re present in me, too.

It’s amazing how much is hidden from us. It’s like Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount – it’s easy to see the speck in another person’s eye, but much harder to notice the log that’s stuck in my own eye! This is one of the most powerful things that the Holy Spirit can do for us. She exposes our selves to us. She shines light in the dark places where we don’t want to look. All those selfish, hateful, fearful tendencies that we hide beneath layers of excuses, justifications, and imaginary virtue. The Spirit has the power to cut right through that. If we’ll let her.

I knew, during my first week at seminary, that there were deep, dark places of my soul that I wasn’t even ready to look at yet. The Spirit was revealing them one piece at a time, at a pace I could handle. Years later, I know that this is still true. So much of my psyche – my subconscious will and motivations – lies like an iceberg beneath the surface.

I’ve got all sorts of hidden ice inside me that gets in the way of following Jesus. Of being fully human. Of completely giving myself over to God and allowing him to guide my life. One of the biggest of these submerged blockages is my instinctive need for vengeance.

I like to call it “justice.” That’s how I’ve been able to carry this iceberg around for so long. I take my need for vengeance – which God denies me – and name it “justice” – which God demands of me. As if a change of vocabulary could sanctify my thirst for retribution.

This is an old human problem. Ancient. Every human culture that I’m aware of has established a way for people to deal with the need for violent retribution against others. In most times and cultures, this has taken the form of ritual sacrifice, often of animals – sometimes of people. That’s a big reason we still have the death penalty in the United States. It’s why so many Americans got very excited when Osama Bin Laden was assassinated in Pakistan. Deep down, we have this primal need for blood.

For us as followers of Jesus, we have access to blood. The blood of Jesus, shed for us on the cross, has the power to take away the sins of the world. This isn’t some esoteric religious jargon. It’s practical and actionable truth. Without Jesus, without his sacrifice for us, we are trapped in the cycle of violence. The only justice we know is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, life for life. Our spiritual ancestors often mitigated this by sacrificing animals instead of people, but these rituals could never remove our visceral human need for something that we like to call “justice,” but which is more properly called vengeance.

The God of Abraham, of Moses, of Jesus, is a God who says, “Vengeance is mine!” These are the words from the book of Deuteronomy that Paul references in Romans 12, which we heard this morning. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.” Paul repeats Jesus’ command from the Sermon on the Mount: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” He reminds us that the way of Jesus is to feed our enemies when they are hungry, give them something to drink if they are thirsty. As followers of the risen Lord Jesus, we must “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This is far easier said than done. I know it is for me. I’m still carrying around this deep, hidden iceberg of fear and vengefulness inside me. It’s hard for me to trust in God’s power when there are people who threaten me, threaten my ideals, threaten the people I love. I want to protect myself and the ones I love. I want to punish the evildoers.

All this reminds me of a scene from Les Miserables, when Jean Valjean has recently been released from prison. He’s hungry, he’s desperate. He’s cut off from all human society. And in the midst of his despair, he is taken in by a local bishop, who feeds him and gives him a place to stay for the night.

And how does Jean Valjean repay the bishop? By acting like an animal. By stealing all of his silver and running off into the darkness of night.

But with all that clanky silverware, Valjean is a pretty obvious target for the police. They bring him back to the bishop in shackles the next morning. Jean Valjean has told them that the bishop gave him the silver, which they know is a lie. But to their shock, the bishop confirms Valjean’s story. And he takes it a step further: He insists that Jean Valjean has forgotten the silver candlesticks, and insists that he take them with him. Valjean is released, a free man with a bag full of silver.

After the police have left, the bishop says to Valjean:

But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man

By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

There’s this supernatural, unexplainable love of God pouring out of the bishop. Like his master, our Lord Jesus, the bishop is willing to be wronged rather than wrong another. He blesses those who persecute him. He seeks after the good of his enemies. He sees the thief as a brother who is not beyond the love of God, whose life can be redeemed through the way of the cross.

The bishop has “done the work.” Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the bishop has spent decades wrestling with the part of himself that demands vengeance. Now, as a true follower of Jesus, he is able to accept the passion and the blood that frees him. God has released him from any need to violently balance the scales. Trusting the Spirit, he has the strength to leave justice in God’s hands. Accepting the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, he has become a loving imitator of the Master. Where once there was hunger for retribution, the bishop is filled with compassion and concern for a man who abused his hospitality and robbed him.

Wow. Awesome story. Wouldn’t it be cool if we were like that? I mean, I don’t know. I don’t want to be presumptuous. Maybe there are some folks here who are at the “some dude just robbed me so I told the police I gave him the stuff” level of holiness. But I’m not. Apart from a lightning bolt-level intervention by the Holy Spirit, I can’t imagine myself doing what the bishop did. That big iceberg of vengeance inside me bristles at the thought!

God is calling me to be more like the bishop, more like Jesus. But I’m also realistic about the fact that this is a really hard road to go down. It was for Jesus’ original disciples, too. In our gospel reading this morning, we heard about how Peter reacted when he heard Jesus talking about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die.

Peter took Jesus aside and tried to talk some sense into him. “Come on, Rabbi. What’s this crazy talk? We’re not following someone who’s about to die. You’re going to win! You’re the Messiah, the holy one of God, the king of Israel! You’re gonna rule the world, and we’re coming with you!”

Now, if you look at the Scripture in context, just a few minutes before this, Jesus was praising Peter. In fact, it was just before this moment that Jesus called Simon Peter “Peter” for the first time. Peter means “rock” – as in, “upon this rock I will build my church.”

So imagine how shocked Simon must have been when Jesus turned around and let loose on him. “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” That’s quite a turnaround, from hero to zero in about thirty seconds!

Jesus was inviting Peter to go much deeper, to embrace the real meaning of Messiahship. The disciples were expecting Rambo. They were expecting a hero of violence to bring about the vengeance that they thirsted for. They believed in a God who punched Romans and made it go viral on Twitter. It was hard for them to hear that Jesus really meant all this stuff about turning the other cheek, loving enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. The iceberg of darkness, vengeance, and fear cried out within them. Their hearts rejected the way of the cross that Jesus insisted he must go down.

Two thousand years later, not much has changed. I want to consider myself a follower of Jesus, but just like Peter in our reading today, I’m still a long way from truly accepting the way of the cross. Loving my enemies is a heavy lift, especially when they’re real enemies who want to harm me or the people I love.

In John 15, Jesus says to the disciples: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” There are no secrets anymore between us and God. Anything we want to know, all we have to do is ask. We know that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross, the way of yielded love and gospel nonviolence. The dark icebergs that dwell within us are still there, but Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit to illumine us, to melt our hearts, and empower us to walk in the way of compassion and love with him.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as holy as the bishop from Les Miserables. I’m grateful that I don’t have to earn this kind of love. Jesus doesn’t call us to be his disciples based on our performance. He calls us first in our brokenness, violence, and sin. And then, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God begins the work of transforming our hearts.

God already knows the full depth and breadth of that iceberg within. He’s not scared to look at it, and he won’t turn away from us. The question is, are you and I willing to see what he sees? Will we let God shine his light on us, so that we can recognize that darkness that so desperately needs a victim, a sacrifice, a violent resolution to our trauma?

Through the gentle, persistent, and powerful leading of the Spirit, we can become people of the cross. By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood, we can learn to accept Jesus’ sacrifice as the only justice we’ll ever need. Through his cross, we can gain the strength and confidence to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us. Through his sweet spirit, we can embrace a love so powerful that we are compelled to work for true justice in the world, which is the healing and restoration of each person – a society that reflects that love, justice, and priorities of Jesus.

Related Posts:

How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies

It’s Hard to Love When They’re Trying to Hurt You

For Radicals, Living in Peace and Quietness Can Be A Challenge

For Radicals, Living in Peace and Quietness Can Be A Challenge
I’ve never been a quiet person. By temperament and training, I’ve always been outward-focused and active. I’ve always wanted to change the world. I’ve wanted to be a person who changes hearts and minds. Someone who develops new institutions and structures that serve humanity better.

I want to be where the action is. I have an innate desire to ponder and debate great ideas, to wrestle with difficult decisions. I want a role in shaping our society. For better or for worse, I am driven to be a leader.

In recent years, I’ve been wrestling with a new and surprising experience. It’s a sense of leading that pushes back against my own natural tendency to leadership and action. Every step I take leads me deeper into silence, self-questioning, and observation.

Something is changing inside me. In my twenties, I possessed a remarkable amount of clarity. My sense of vision was strong. My faith was sure. I knew exactly where I was going.

I no longer feel that way.

My sense of moral integrity remains steadfast. But my ability to articulate a clear way forward has diminished. I’m astonished at the complexity of this world. What I once considered “radical” now appears foolish to me. It’s easy to push for immediate, revolutionary change. What’s challenging is to produce change that is truly positive. Change that heals people and avoids harsh backlash and unintended consequences.

Complexity. I guess that’s what I’m learning. Human beings are extremely complex, and we live in a natural world that is even more complex than we are. It was arrogant for me to think that I had an easy answer for anything. There are no easy answers.

So what’s left? If I can’t provide solutions for the world – if I can’t be the radical change-maker I always thought I was – what can I do?

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I’ve been praying the Episcopal liturgy lately. There’s a particular prayer in the liturgy that has been standing out to me:

Most holy God, the source of all good desires, all right judgements, and all just works: Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, so that our minds may be fixed on the doing of your will, and that we, being delivered from the fear of all enemies, may live in peace and quietness; through the mercies of Christ Jesus our Savior. Amen.

After all these years of “radical” thrashing, I’m resonating with this prayer to “live in peace and quietness.” I’m realizing that, for me, “revolution” had become both means and end. There really was no end game. I wanted change for the sake of peace and justice, yes. But ultimately, I wanted to make change for its own sake. It was a way to exert power over the world and feel important.

This need to change the world is something I am being called to shed. That doesn’t mean I stop caring about justice. Quite the opposite. But the goal of my life isn’t to change the world – though love may often require substantial change. Instead, for me as a follower of Jesus, life’s meaning is to participate in the peaceable kingdom of God: To love my neighbors as myself. To bless my enemies. To give freely, just as I have received freely.

Change isn’t an end, it’s a means. The change that God wants to see isn’t something that I have to produce. I don’t need to stress out about winning the struggles of this life – whether my personal worries or the grand concerns of planetary survival. Instead, I am invited to receive “that peace which the world cannot give.” Offering my whole life to God, I am freed from the need to change the world. Instead, I can allow myself to become an agent of Christ’s love. That’s revolutionary.

Related Posts:

How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.

The Mountain Top Is Great To Visit, But I Wouldn’t Want To Live There

How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.

How Can I Follow Jesus in this Time of Hate? By Loving My Enemies.
We’ve seen horrifying things this weekend. Nazi banners, shamelessly unfurled just a short drive from the nation’s capital. Armed gangs of white nationalists in the streets of an American college town. Unchecked violence. Murder in the name of radical hate. All this comes as a reminder that white supremacy is one of the founding doctrines of the United States. Our nation remains captured by the demonic influence of systemic, generational oppression of non-white – and especially black – people.

It should go without saying: White supremacist ideology is not merely mistaken. It is evil. It is anti-Christian. White supremacy is a blasphemy against the image of God in humanity. It is impossible to embrace white supremacy and to be a follower of Jesus, the crucified Jewish Messiah.

American racists often hide behind a veneer of Christian piety, but white supremacy is utterly incompatible with the way of Jesus. The Nazis understood this. In Nazi Germany, and in many other countries where other versions of fascism emerged, Christianity was actively corrupted, subverted, and opposed where it dared to challenge the authority of the fascist state. Adolf Hitler’s inner circle of rogues and radicals were generally atheist or pagan, preferring the false gods of their imagination to the humble Jew who died on a cross.

The the quasi-fascist Donald Trump regime is similarly anti-Christian in its convictions. It’s impossible to love God while hating others. No follower of Jesus can incite racial hatred, threaten nuclear war, and spread lies and fear in the way this administration has done. We see Nazis parading through American streets. White nationalists dictate policy in the White House. GOP leadership in Congress either does not have the courage to confront this evil, or is actively encouraging a politics of hate, violence, and fear.

How are we to respond? As friends and followers of Jesus, how will we challenge white supremacy? 

There’s not one answer for each of us. Our family is expecting a newborn baby any day now, so I probably won’t be joining protesters in the streets anytime soon. Others of us are already being called to be physically present in the streets where many of these struggles are taking place. There is both room and necessity for a diversity of gifts, actions, and tactics as we seek to be faithful in these times of hatred and fear.

In this diversity, though, there is an unmistakable unity. While we all have particular parts to play, the character of Jesus does not change. He sends us into the world according to the spirit of love, not according to the fearful spirit of the world. Each one of us has different roles to perform, but all of us are called to walk, and speak, and act in the spirit of Jesus.

What are the marks of a Christ-like response to evil? How can our communities identify the way of Jesus, and encourage one another to walk in it?

The way of Jesus is always marked by love. Love for neighbor. Love for enemies. Love in the face of violence and persecution. The love of Jesus isn’t intimidated or overcome by fear. It doesn’t give in to slogans or posturing. It rejoices in the truth. The love of Jesus seeks healing and reconciliation for everyone, even the people who nail him to the cross.

Many of us – myself included – are tempted by the myth of redemptive violence. The idea that we can destroy evil by attacking the evildoers is a powerful one. Especially for men in our society, there is an expectation that we prove our strength and care for others though our willingness to inflict violence on people who threaten our loved ones.

Jesus was the strongest man the world has ever known. His life, death, and resurrection repudiate the false narrative of redemptive violence. Through his courage, God has shown us that true love is cruciform. His love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

So must we. If you and I wish to follow in the way of Jesus, we must rid ourselves of the illusion that our violence can transform the world. We may be called to die for love, but never to kill. Jesus calls us to be light in the midst of the darkness of white supremacy and Nazi ideology. As friends of Jesus, we have an obligation to stand in solidarity with those who are being directly impacted by personal and structural racism. All followers of Christ must stand against violent ideologies and powers.

The tools of our resistance cannot be different from those that Jesus himself has given us. He has commanded us to heal the sick, raise the dead, and preach the good news of God’s kingdom to the poor. Through his faithfulness on the cross, he has shown us how far we must go to seek the healing of others, even those who despise us. Being willing to die for our friends is challenging enough; Jesus calls us to lay down our lives for our enemies, too.

No one who is paying attention can deny that we have enemies. Those who promote race hatred and fascist violence – whether in the streets or in the White House – are enemies of God and his people. Yet our response, as maddening and unnatural as it is, must be to seek healing and transformation even for those who seek to destroy us. Not because we would choose this for ourselves. Not because we are sure it will “work” as a strategy. But because Jesus himself has borne the cross of genocidal oppression. He has shown us the way from death into life, and it comes through love of enemy. 

This is a truth that most professing Christians have failed to embrace. The way of Jesus is one of good news for the poor and oppressed. Sight to the blind, liberation for the captive, resurrection from the dead. We obtain this resurrection through indiscriminate love.

What does it look like to love a Nazi who is pepper spraying you, beating you, running you over with a car? What does it mean to be the face of Jesus to a soul that is twisted by the evil of white supremacy? These are hard questions, and I don’t pretend to have easy answers.

Rather than trying to provide a pre-packaged solution, I urge all the friends of Jesus to turn ourselves over to the wisdom, compassion, and power of the Holy Spirit. She alone has the ability to transform us from frightened children, lashing out at every threat, to mature imitators of Christ’s joy, compassion, and power. We need her now more than ever.

Holy Spirit, come. Transform our hearts. Inspire our response to the evils that afflict our nation. Make our lives good news to the poor and oppressed. Teach us how to love the world so much that we are willing to lay down our lives and privilege, in imitation of our friend and savior, Jesus.

Related Posts:

How Can God Love Both Me and My Enemies?

If Humans Are Basically Good, How Did We End Up With Trump?

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?

Related Posts:

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There Will Be No Tomahawk Missiles in the Kingdom of God

There Will Be No Tomahawk Missiles in the Kingdom of God
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/9/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Philippians 2:5-11 & Matthew 21:1-11. 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

Our gospel reading this morning is about Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, just days before he would be arrested and executed.

Jesus is riding on a donkey, and the people are all around him. There were massive crowds in town for Passover, and Jesus’ arrival in the city is perfectly time to cause a stir. The thousands of pilgrims are waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The crowd was hopeful that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that the king of Israel would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. As Jesus enters this city, this is a royal procession. He is the Messiah, coming king of Israel! The crowds welcome him, waving palm branches and laying them down on the ground before Jesus.

It wasn’t an accident that the crowds were waving palm branches. I know most of us grew up seeing palm branches as part of Palm Sunday, but Jesus didn’t invent palms as a religious symbol. In fact, palm branches were a very potent political symbol throughout the ancient world. Think about the wreaths and garlands that ancient athletes and rulers would wear. Think of the laurels of Olympic champions. The palm was a similar symbol for the ancients. The palm was a symbol of victory.

It was also a sign of resistance. The palm branch was a major symbol in the Macabeean revolt (167-160 BC) that freed Israel from the rule of the Seleucid Greeks. Waving palm branches was a symbol of power, resistance, and Messianic expectations. It was a big middle finger to Rome. It expressed the hope that this this Jesus of Nazareth might be the one who would finally throw off the yoke of the Roman oppressor. Would Jesus finally establish the long-awaited Jewish kingdom in the mold of king David? That was the burning hope and desire of thousands of Jews that day.

Our other reading this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This passage provides us a deeper understanding of what Jesus is going through during his entry into Jerusalem. Paul talks about how Jesus rejected the way of power and domination. He writes about how Jesus was willing to be humbled and take on the form of a slave to serve others. Because of this humility and self-emptying, God highly exalts Jesus. He went as low as you can go, and God lifted him up. The one who suffered and died was given the name that is above every name. Absolute power, joy, triumph.

With Paul’s words as background, I want to take us back to the Passover crowds in Jerusalem. Hear their cheers. Feel the hope they have for Jesus. The desire to see Israel become a great nation again. To have a king, a military ruler who can end the Roman oppression and bring justice to the land. That’s what the crowds are expecting from Jesus.

But God never desired his people to have a king like the nations. God has always wanted to lead his people himself. For generations, the Hebrews wandered with God in the wilderness. He lived in a tent – no temple built by human hands could contain him. He was a mobile God. A mysterious God. A God who dwelt among his people and guided them directly.

It was only after Israel got a king that God “settled down.” It was only during the time of Solomon that God moved from the tent to the temple. And it was never clear that God was entirely willing to make that move. The God who says, “I AM what I AM,” will not be contained, immobilized, and idolized.

Before Israel had a king, the people got their marching orders directly from God. They listened to God together – when they were still in the desert, it says that Moses would speak to God at the Tent of Meeting, and everyone else in the camp would stand at the entrance to their tents and look on as Moses spoke with God. He spoke with God like one speaks to a friend.

When Israel became a monarchy, there was no more speaking among friends. Instead, one man would call the shots, according to his own judgments. One man would be exalted above all the others, and Jewish society would begin to take on the pyramid shape of the social order that God had liberated them from in Egypt.

When Israel instituted a kingship, the prophet Samuel warned them: “OK, you can do this. But this new king you’re asking for, he’s going to take your daughters for his harem and servants. He’s going to take your sons for military service, and get them killed in foreign wars. He’s going to demand huge taxes and tributes to feed his royal court. By the time this is all over, you’re going to wish you’d never asked for a king. This isn’t what I want. It’s definitely not God wants. But if you insist on going this way, he’s not going to stop you.”

Despite his warnings, Israel decided to anoint a king anyway. This was really depressing for Samuel, who know what this decision represented. But God told Samuel, “Don’t make this personal. This isn’t about you. They’re not rejecting you, Samuel. They’re rejecting me.”

To have a king is to reject God.

But when the people of Israel looked at Jesus, a king is what they wanted to see. They saw a military leader. They saw a strong man. They dreamed of a new King David, someone who would fit into this kingship model that so displeases God. They all knew the story. They knew that kingship was, at best, a compromise solution. And yet it was the best outcome they could imagine.

But Jesus isn’t the Messiah they’re looking for. Jesus isn’t a messiah at all, according to the Davidic model. If anything, he’s an anti-messiah. Rather than doing the killing, he’s going to be the one getting killed. Rather than doing the humiliating and torturing, he’s going to be the one being humiliated and tortured. Instead of being in a position of strength, he’ll be in a position of weakness. He’s not going to be the master, he’s going to be the slave – the slave of all.

Things haven’t changed that much in two thousand years. We’re still looking for a king. A military messiah. A strongman who can shout orders, sit on top of the pyramid, and bring order to a hierarchical, unequal society. What was true for the Jews is true for all of us: Even in our dreams of liberation, we sow the seeds of tyranny and oppression.

We were reminded of this reality last week, when the president ordered missile strikes on another country. This was a revealing moment – not in what the president did, but in how our country reacted. We all know that American presidents wield almost godlike destructive power without any apparent checks and balances. They can drop high explosives on another country without most of us even considering it an act of war.

We know this. We know that America is the most powerful empire in human history. It’s not surprising that the president can throw his weight around and attack weaker nations with impunity. What is remarkable, is the way the American elites view this kind of violent action. As Donald Trump rained millions of dollars in high explosives on Syria, the news media and virtually the entire US political establishment praised his actions as “presidential.”

Politicians on both sides of the aisle who had long been pushing for military strikes in Syria cheered the president for dropping the bombs. News outlets that are normally critical of the president lined up to endorse this new war. The New York Times praised Trump for “following his instinct.” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said that, with this attack on Syria, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams waxed poetic about the beauty of Tomahawk missiles. He quoted Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

“I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Those crowds waving palm branches 2,000 years ago – they were guided by the beauty of their weapons. The Romans with their legions were most definitely guided by the beauty of their weapons. By the beauty of their weapons, they nailed the prince of peace to a cross. By the beauty of their weapons, they embraced the kingship of Caesar and rejected the living presence of God. By the beauty of our weapons, America is embracing the broad way of death. By the beauty of our weapons, we will inherit the legacy of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome.

The kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of this world. As followers of Jesus, we know this. Yet it’s so hard to break away from the mentality of death that grips our society. God has called us to be his people in this world. But just like the ancient Israelites, we’d rather have a king. A winner. A champion who will deliver us from suffering, even if it means forcing others to endure it.

I’ll be honest, I’m more comfortable with the way of Caesar than with the way of Jesus. Most of the time when I’m looking for salvation, I don’t want someone who’s going to be humbled. I’m not looking for someone who’s going to be put to death.

When I’m picking my leader, I want someone who’s going to triumph. I want someone who’s going to defeat my enemies. I want someone who’s going to establish a new kingdom, a new political order based on coercion and violence. Because that’s the only way I really know how to deal with human beings.

“But from the beginning it was not so.” That’s not the way God wants to deal with us. The God we serve is not a violent God – though we have often imagined him to be so. Our God is a creative intelligence. He wants to build and grow and cause life to flourish, not to break down and destroy.

The way of kingship is built on aggression, coercion, violence, and threats. It’s built on the unequal distribution of wealth and power. It’s founded on the beauty of our weapons and the arrogance of our intellect.

But God’s intention is for us to live together as one family, with one Father and Mother. God calls us to become humble servants to one another, to put the interests of others beyond our own. God calls us to lower ourselves, so that we all might be lifted up. Not by the beauty of our weapons, but by the life of the Spirit.

True greatness in the kingdom of God doesn’t look like triumph in the eyes of the world. It doesn’t look like being a billionaire. It doesn’t look like launching Tomahawk missiles on distant lands whose refugees you have denied hospitality. It doesn’t look like becoming popular with politicians and having the corporate news media singing your praises.

Greatness in the kingdom of God looks like being willing to receive suffering out of love for others. It’s being willing to lay down your own prerogatives so that others can get what they need. The kingdom of God doesn’t always feel like joy and light. Sometimes, it can seem like darkness.

We’re in the midst of that darkness this morning, together with Jesus. We’re with him as he marches into Jerusalem, marching into this city that will put him to death in the most terrible way. We also know that, because of his humility and yieldedness to the Spirit, God will exalt Jesus and give him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

Jesus has the victory. It’s not a victory that the world understands. It’s a victory that comes through compassion, service, and emptiness before God. We can share in this victory. When we reject the pyramid scheme of Empire and embrace Jesus’ upside down kingdom, we experience the triumph of the resurrection.

In the midst of all the darkness this morning, I want to celebrate. I want to celebrate the victory of Jesus. Even though the world misunderstands him. Even as our nation’s leaders insist that they want a King David rather than a King Jesus. Even as Jesus marches into this city that will be his judge, jury, torturer, and executioner. Jesus is victorious.

We can participate in this victory. We can embrace his humble way of self-emptying. We can be set free by his fearless love, without regard for the consequences. Despite this world’s bombs, lies, and terror, we can be God’s bold, peaceful, and triumphant people.

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Is America Headed Towards Theocracy?

Is the United States Headed Towards Theocracy?
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve known that some Christians want the United States to become a theocracy. I was surrounded by this kind of Christian in middle school.

Many of them were lovely people; others were not. What they all had in common was this: They believed that America could – and should – become a “Christian nation.” They believed in a society where our leaders held the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other. They had faith that “godly men” in positions of power and influence could bring about the salvation of our nation.

These friends, teachers, and classmates were part of a very powerful movement. Since the 1980s, this ideological force – the Religious Right – has gained enormous power. At the heart of this movement is the ideology of dominionism, the idea that Christian leaders should dominate all areas of society.

Dominionism identifies seven spheres in our nation’s culture: religion, government, business, the arts, education, family, and the media. To bring about the kingdom of God, each of these must be captured by godly leaders.

From my childhood experiences among the Religious Right, I know that this movement runs deep. An extensive network of preachers, politicians, congregations, and think tanks are working nonstop to transform our country into a place where godly men rule and everyone else obeys. Yet I have often underestimated how widespread and powerful this movement actually is.

This article from Salon.com – “How a Christian Movement is Growing Rapidly in the Midst of Religious Decline.” – helped remind me. It details a powerful dominionist network, rooted in the charismatic movement, that is intent on transforming American society. It differentiates itself from more traditional Christian movements in the following ways:

  • Rather than focusing on building congregations, it puts its energy into spreading beliefs and practices through conferences, ministry schools, and the media.
  • It focuses less on proselytizing non-believers and more on transforming society by placing like-minded leaders in powerful positions.
  • Rather than formally organized denominations, the movement is a network of independent leaders.

Reading this article my first thought was: “Hey, this sounds a lot like the Friends of Jesus Fellowship!” While Friends of Jesus does have a leadership core, we have a lot of freedom in how we organize ourselves. We don’t have a top-down structure. Instead, we encourage one another to explore what bold faithfulness looks like. When we take action, it is because the Holy Spirit directs us, not because a human leader ordered it.

We’re also not locked into building new congregations. Most of us attend a variety of churches – both Quaker and non-Quaker – that we did not start. We have gravitated towards building momentum through gatherings, teaching, and internet outreach.

And, like the dominionists, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship has not primarily aimed our message at non-believers. We’ve had a lot more success in energizing and encouraging folks who are already on the path.

So is Friends of Jesus a dominionist movement? No way! Here’s why:

Dominionism is obsessed with placing its leaders at the top of the pyramid. Friends of Jesus’ mission is to follow the homeless Messiah, the outcast, the forgotten one. We want to be friends of the Jesus, who became a slave and served others rather than placing himself over others.

Friends of Jesus is the complete opposite of dominionism. We’re a bottom-up community. We seek to follow Jesus’ example of self-emptying love.

The kingdom of God isn’t a domination system. It doesn’t look like our present world, except with better overlords. The way of Jesus doesn’t replace the rich, powerful people at the top with new elites. The Holy Spirit turns the whole social pyramid upside down!

It’s a huge challenge to think about what Jesus means when he says, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Because this isn’t a mysterious metaphor. It’s economic, social, and political reality. The kingdom of God is about the presence of real love and justice, not the authority of human rulers. The only “dominion” in God’s new order is that of a servant, a lover, a friend.

Many Christians are chasing after political, social, and economic dominance. But we Friends of Jesus have another calling. To a more beautiful, joyful life. A life rooted in love, relationship, and reliance on God. An existence so free of anxiety that we are unafraid to lower ourselves and lift others up.

There’s room for you here. In the midst of all the confusion and hatred, come find the humble way of Jesus with us. Like any good network, we have a gathering coming up.

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How Can I Love You When You’re So Wrong?

How Can I Love You When You're So Wrong?
This week I spent a couple of days driving across the Heartland, from Kansas City back to my home in Washington, DC. I hadn’t packed any music to listen to, so I ended up listening to about 16 hours of radio.

I don’t normally listen to much radio, and I’m a terribly fickle listener. I hate commercials, and I’ll change the station whenever I start getting bored. In the course of an hour, I probably listened to at least half a dozen stations.

Making my way through the Midwest, I discovered that a huge number of these radio stations are home to far-right talk shows. I listened in astonishment as men in studios spouted racist vitriol against Muslims, calling them rapists, murderers, savages. I learned that white civilization is being overrun by barbarous Arabs and Africans. It was almost hypnotizing. As if I had been transported back to the 1930s, I was listening to real, home-grown American fascism.

At first, I thought that these guys were probably local radio personalities, going to extremes to boost their ratings. But soon I realized that these are major, syndicated radio hosts. Sean Hannity of FOX News. Rush Limbaugh. These men have enormous platforms. For many Americans, they are a primary news source.

And it got me to thinking. How different am I, really, from those millions who listen to far-right radio? I tried to imagine a world in which FOX News was the most progressive source of news that I regularly consumed, and extreme right outlets like Breitbart and Sean Hannity were main ingredients in my intellectual diet. What would my worldview be like? Would I be any different from the millions of other Americans that watch MSNBC as their primary source of truth, supplementing it with Huffington Post and TruthOut?

Most of us are locked into a very narrow worldview that refuses to listen to the concerns of those beyond our ideological tribe. We accept information from our preferred sources, and we shut it out from sources that have a different ideological take. While some of us work very hard to vet our information and seek the truth, most folks on both sides are generally content to accept whatever the current talking points are for their side in the culture wars.

This is the part of the essay where you might expect me to start making an appeal for “civility” – and maybe that is what we need. But “civility” feels like too dainty of a word for the kind of challenge we are facing at this point. We are in a spiritual warfare, and none of the major ideological camps seem to realize that we’ve been captured by the forces of deception and division. Truth exists, but it’s mostly absent from the outrage industrial complex of cable news and agenda-driven blog sites.

What does it look like to be followers of the Lamb in a society that is engaged in such spiritual, emotional, and physical violence? What does it mean for us to be publishers of truth in a world where “truth” is often code for fundamentalist dogma (right-wing or left wing) that is used to bludgeon people – often the most vulnerable?

It’s disturbing and humbling to admit it, but we have all been captured to some extent by the forces of confusion, hatred, and self-righteousness. Regardless of how correct our analysis is, we have all fallen short of the Holy-Spirit-filled love, justice, and compassion that Jesus calls us to. I know that I have.

What does it mean to be a friend of Jesus in the midst of all this mess? What does it look like to lead a life full of hope, tenderness, and mercy? How can we truly love the people around us, especially those who believe all the wrong things?

Our struggle is not with human beings, but with the hatred, fear, and alienation that has so thoroughly insinuated itself into our public life. As followers of Jesus, we are called to enter into this struggle as loving agents of reconciliation. In the midst of a culture war, we have an opportunity to engage in a deeper battle of meaning, healing, and restoration.

We’re all so broken, this kind of transformation seems impossible right now. Yet in Jesus, we encounter hope that extends beyond the present moment. It’s a hope that points us to struggle nonviolently for a restored creation. It’s hope that enables us to reach out to others, beyond our ideological camps, trusting that Jesus will be present among us.

Whoever you are, whatever you believe, and whatever ideologies you’re invested in right now: I love you. We may need to struggle with one another. And maybe that’s OK. While we do, let’s pray for one another. May God show each of us how to live more deeply rooted in love, truth, and compassion. May God use each of us as instruments of healing and reconciliation in a dark and broken world.

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