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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?

Related Posts:

Have Progressives Made Trump God?

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

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?

Related Posts:

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

Is Your “Justice” Really Just Revenge?

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.

Related Posts:

Works Versus Faith? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

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.

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Works Versus Faith? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

Works Versus Faith? You're Asking the Wrong Question
Which is more important – works or faith? Christian leaders and theologians have been fighting over this question since the beginning of the church.

Even in the pages of the New Testament, you find an intense conversation about the role of faith versus works. The Book of James seems to argue for the supremacy of works as the path to being in right relationship with God. Paul in his epistle to the Romans makes a strong case that faith, not works, is the foundation of life with God.

Why would the apostles hold such diverse views of what it means to live in faith? How could the early church lift up writings that seem to contradict themselves on this subject? Which is the true path to God – works or faith?

There must be something deeper going on here. Contrary to the opinion of some skeptics, the Bible is not riddled with contradictions. Not when it comes to substantive matters of faith and morals. However, it can often seem that way at first glance, because the witness of scripture is rich with paradox.

The core paradox of the Christian faith is that God is at once utterly transcendent and overwhelmingly powerful, yet he took on the form of a slave, suffering shame, agony, and death. The eternal Word of God, through whom the world was created, became a weak and helpless baby, and was nailed to a cross by sinful men. These two truths, as outrageously contradictory as they seem, are at the heart of the gospel.

These things don’t make rational sense. It’s the kind of truth I have to accept in order to understand. This kind of truth requires humility and submission to God. To receive it, I’m forced to abandon my own defenses and rational arguments. I’m forced to recognize that God’s thoughts are higher than my thoughts.

All this makes me wonder if the apparent contradiction between works and faith might be a similar divine paradox. What if faith without works really is dead, and good works without faith are hollow and sterile? Alternatively, could it be that neither “faith” (in the sense of right belief) nor good works (in the sense of right action) are sufficient for life in the kingdom?

Can someone to believe all the right things and do all the right actions, and still be lost? On the other hand, what if someone believes all sorts of wrong things and acts wrongly on a regular basis, but still finds themself walking in the way of Jesus?

In my experience, this happens. All the time.

Rather than pitting faith against works, it may be better to think of them as two sides of the same coin. Both works and faith point to something deeper.

I think that the story that best illustrates the holy center that animates both works and faith is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee held all the right beliefs. He also did good works – even tithing a tenth of his income. But he lacked all humility, all real trust in God. He thought that through his beliefs and his works that he had God figured out.

The tax collector, on the other hand, knew that he had neither works nor faith. His job was rooted in extortion and collaboration with foreign occupiers. His faith was limited to coming to the Temple and asking God for mercy, knowing that he didn’t measure up in any way.

Yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying that it was the tax collector who went home justified in the sight of God, not the pious Pharisee. The tax collector had something that the Pharisee, with all his orthodox beliefs and righteous actions, did not. The tax collector demonstrated sincerity of intention. Despite his lack of works or faith, his heart was aligned towards God. He wanted to know God, to draw closer to him. He longed for God’s mercy, and was acutely aware of his need for God.

God readily moves into this broken space of humility. When we become aware of our need for grace and mercy, the Spirit intervenes. Our lives are filled with energy for good works. Our hearts are opened to faith. Sincerity of intention before God opens up the possibility of both faith and works. Through our living relationship with God, we discover the way of Jesus.

This is a liberating realization for me, because it means that I don’t have to fret about belief or actions. Instead, I can focus on opening my life to God and seeking him with sincerity and a willingness to change. He will give me faith I need, and he will direct me in all good works.

What is your experience of faith, works, and the role that God plays in both? Has God given you the gift of faith? Has he directed you to do right actions? Have faith or works seemed more important to you at one point in your life or another? What have you found to be the source of them both?

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The Mountain Top is Great to Visit, But I Wouldn’t Want to Live There

Micah y el Horizonte
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/6/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Exodus 34:29-35 & Luke 9:28-36. 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

When I was in college, I visited Mexico for the first time as a foreign exchange student with Brethren Colleges Abroad. I spent seven months there, living mostly in the eastern city of Xalapa, Veracruz – where Xalapeno peppers come from. But first, I spent several weeks studying in a language institute in the city of Cuernavaca, Morelos, just outside the Valley of Mexico.

I studied in a Spanish-language institute, rapidly improving my ability with the language and immersing myself in Mexican culture. I lived with a local family, experienced my first earthquake, and explored Cuernavaca, a city made famous by the conquistador Cortes, who set up a palace there after his victory over the Aztec Empire.

On the weekends, I took a lot of trips. Together with my fellow BCA students, I visited cities and historical sites throughout central Mexico. One of the sites we visited was an ancient Olmec city, Cacaxtla. Cacaxla was built on top of a high mountain, overlooking a vast landscape below. The archeologists told us that the residents of this city were very powerful and demanded tribute from all the peoples living in the valley below.

Today, the city is just a tourist attraction. But the sense of majesty and power remains, if only because of the incredible view of the countryside below.

I still remember how I felt sitting on the edge of the mountaintop, looking out at the horizon. There’s really nothing like being 19 years old. At least for me. I don’t know what late adolescence was like for the rest of you, but for me it was deeply challenging on a whole lot of levels. I was confused. I got angry a lot. I didn’t know where the future would lead me. I still didn’t really know who I was, but I desperately wanted to find out. There was so much life ahead of me, but everything felt so urgent, like I might not make it through tomorrow.

But as I looked out over that vast horizon, as I observed the fields and valleys below, all of that fell away. I could feel the power of the mountain, the peace in the air at those heights. Somehow, for a moment, I had left my anxiety down below.

While I was sitting there on the edge of that mountaintop, someone snapped a photo. They titled it, Micah y el Horizonte – Micah and the horizon. They got it exactly right. That’s exactly what was going on in that moment. It was just me and the horizon. And, in retrospect, maybe God, too.

All my problems and worries and insecurities were still waiting for me when I came off that mountaintop. But for a few minutes, I was able to get outside of myself. I escaped the chaos of my own head. I heard the silence that sometimes only seems possible at such great heights.

I don’t know how old Jesus’ disciples were. Many of them were probably teenagers, just like I was when I first studied abroad in Mexico. And from the gospel texts, it seems like they were full of the same kinds of anxieties that impact all of us, but perhaps especially the young. Who am I? What is my purpose in life? Where do I belong? What is truth? How can I live a life that is full of meaning, power, and authenticity?

At this point in the story, things are really ramping up. Jesus has just sent the twelve disciples out to proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick. King Herod is taking full notice of Jesus and his followers now. Jesus is attracting huge crowds of people eager to hear his words, and Jesus feeds them, both with bread and with loaves and fishes.

The crowds hope that Jesus might be the Anointed One that God promised to save his people Israel from Roman oppression. And the disciples closest to Jesus are becoming increasingly convinced that he is indeed the One. Just before our reading today, Peter identifies Jesus as the “Messiah of God.”

But in response to this, it says that Jesus sternly commands the disciples not to tell anyone. Why? Because, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

“Don’t tell anyone what you know about me,” says Jesus. “Don’t tell them I’m the Anointed One of God. That will just give people the wrong idea. Because my way is one of suffering, rejection, and death. That’s not something the people are ready to hear.”

I’m not sure the inner circle of disciples were ready to hear it, either. But there it was. The authorities were closing in. Jesus was about to make his way to Jerusalem, the center of power where big moves could be made and terrible things could happen. And now he was telling his closest followers that the way of the Messiah was not to be one of conquest, but rather of suffering and loss. This wasn’t what these hopeful, confused, anxious young people had signed on for.

In the midst of this growing pressure and confusion, it says that Jesus took his closest friends – Peter, James, and John – up with him to a high mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

Jesus looked like Moses did when he met God face to face. Moses’ face was so bright and overwhelming that he had to cover it with a veil, so as not to overwhelm the people.

But Jesus didn’t cover his face for Peter, James, and John. They saw his glory and didn’t turn away, as terrified as they were.

As if all this weren’t enough, suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear, talking there with Jesus! I imagine it must have been a scene like out of Return of the Jedi, at the end of the movie, where Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda appear to encourage Luke. Except these guys aren’t ghosts. They’re really there with Jesus, talking with him about the “exodus” that Jesus is about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

At this point, the disciples’ minds are blown. What in the world is going on here? Peter is kind of a doer, so he butts in – “Uh, excuse me – Jesus? I couldn’t help but notice that you, Moses, and Elijah are having a really great conversation. What do you think about prolonging the magic? We could build a tent for each of you, so you can camp out here as long as you like.” The scripture says that Peter “didn’t know what he was saying.” No kidding.

While Peter was still talking, a cloud came and overshadowed them. It was just like the cloud that covered the mountaintop when Moses talked to God so long ago. It was like the cloud that led the Israelites in the wilderness. It was the same cloud that filled the tent of meeting in the desert, and the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God was in the house.

And God spoke out of the cloud, saying to the disciples: “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!”

Listen to him.

Peter and the disciples were running around in confusion and anxiety. They couldn’t figure out their own lives, much less what Moses and Elijah were doing there with Jesus on the mountaintop. Before they got to the mountaintop, they were full of worries. How they’d feed the five thousand. How they would preach the good news in the villages of Israel. How they were going to lead an insurrection against the Romans. Their minds were so fully of anxiety, they had left little room for divine intervention.

The disciples weren’t expecting God to actually show up, Old Testament-style, and start speaking to them with a booming voice out of the cloud! When Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain to pray with Jesus, they had no idea that they were stepping onto the new Mount Sinai, the holy dwelling place of God.

Listen to him.

The disciples were busy freaking out about everything, except the most important thing. Moses and Elijah stood there representing the Law and the Prophets, the whole tradition of Israel. But even they weren’t the stars of the show. When the cloud descends and the Father speaks, it’s to remind the disciples of what John the Baptist’s disciples already heard at the river Jordan, when Jesus was baptized and covered with the Holy Spirit. “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Listen to him.

Peter and the others are so dazzled by the light show that they miss the point. When they were down in the valley, they were distracted by the things of men. Now on the high mountain, they’re confused by the things of God. Moses, Elijah, bright lights – it’s all too much for them.

The voice of the Father comes from the cloud, to cut through the confusion. He reminds them that only one thing is needful:

Listen to him. Listen to Jesus, the living reflection of God, the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Center yourself on him and cease to be blown to and fro by the wind and waves of daily ups and downs, political pressure, and mystical experiences.

Listen to him.

I wish I could tell you that I came down from that mountaintop in Mexico a transformed young man. I wish I could say that I found the same kind of clarity that was given to the disciples that day on the mountain with Jesus. At most, I got a few moments of openness and receptivity before I descended back down into the valley below. It was a beautiful moment, and I believe it prepared me for greater depth and maturity. But it was just a moment.

We see the same thing in this story. Even after something as amazing and show-stopping as the transfiguration, the next day Jesus was down among the people. Just like Moses, he came down from the high mountain and re-entered the tensions and fray of everyday life.

It says that the disciples kept quiet about what they had seen on the mountaintop. They didn’t tell anyone until after Jesus’ resurrection. They were obedient in that; Jesus had told them to keep silent about the miraculous visions they had experienced.

But the disciples had received the message. They knew what God required of them: Listen to him.

My experience in Mexico was literally a mountaintop experience. But most of my most profound encounters with the holy have happened at lower elevations. Throughout my life, I’ve occasionally found myself in a special moment with God. In seasons of trouble or moments of joy, sometimes God just shows up in ways that are hard to explain.

But, at least for me, these holy moments are the exception, rather than the rule. They serve as encouragement and reminders of the Spirit’s presence and power in my life. They are oases in the desert. There are times that I would have died of thirst without these moments of refreshment and remembrance with God.

All too often, though, I am just like Peter. In my joy and confusion, I want to preserve the holy moment through sheer force of will. I try to build tents for Moses and Elijah. I want to camp out on that mountaintop forever.

The scripture this morning reminds me that the goal of the spiritual life is not to live on the mountaintop. It’s not to win the struggles going on in the valleys of human society, either. Rather than mystical escapism or pragmatic realism, God calls us to obedience to Jesus, the one in whom the Father has revealed himself.

This obedience can hold us steady and keep us faithful as we navigate both peaks and valleys. Through obedience, our lives can become so transfigured that the Kingdom of God is incarnated in our own face. Listening to Jesus, we can shine like Jesus. Listening to Jesus, we take up the cross as he did. Listening to Jesus, we can experience the life of the Spirit and dwell in the Father’s love.

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Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?

Can We Discover Monastic Prayer in the Midst of the City?
Last week, I shared about my experiments with the Episcopal liturgy. The liturgy comes as a liberation from the type of prayer that I was exposed to in Quaker circles. Quaker theology seemed to require that I either feel immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit, or not pray at all. Through the daily repetition of a spoken liturgy, I’m invited to pray more consistently. Regardless of how I might happen to feel at any given moment, I just show up.

As I continue to explore this framework for regular prayer, I can stop worrying so much about my own emotional state. Instead, I return to God. I remember why I’m here. I rededicate myself to the love God calls me to. I am reminded of what a miracle it is to be alive.

The liturgy empowers me to pray alone. A challenge of the Quaker tradition, in my experience, is that there is a great emphasis on corporate worship and prayer. Oftentimes, I felt a lot of pressure to gather other people for worship simply to get my own spiritual needs met. I’ve found that Quaker worship often doesn’t work very well for me if the group gets too small (less than half a dozen). Doing Quaker waiting worship on my own can often feel more like merely sitting in silence and less like standing in the presence and power of the Lord.

What’s fantastic about praying the hours is how much freedom it gives me to go solo. While the liturgy is well-suited for corporate worship, it is equally effective for personal prayer. If others want to join me in praying the hours, all the better; but if not, I can pray alone. This takes a lot of pressure off. I can invite others to join me in this spiritual discipline, but whether or not they find it worthwhile doesn’t impact my ability to practice it on my own.

I do believe that corporate prayer and worship is essential. I’m not called to the life of a hermit, and I’d like to pray with others if given the opportunity. For the last few weeks, I’ve been praying the hours on my own. Now I’m pondering what might be the best ways to invite others to explore this practice with me.

During the rise of state-run Christianity, the desert fathers retreated to the Egyptian wilderness to practice a monastic faith deeply rooted in personal prayer, scripture reading, and the psalms. These early monastics withdrew from the co-opted Christianity of Empire and devoted themselves to personal transformation in the way of Jesus. They often lived alone, retreating into the desert to fast and pray. Yet even among the hermits, there was community. They joined together for corporate worship. They counseled and watched out for one another.

What might this kind of monasticism look like in the midst of the great imperial city, Washington, DC? Is it possible to bring the wilderness into the streets of the new Rome? Can a desert spirituality emerge in the midst of daily life, work, and family? What can I do to cultivate this kind of presence, awareness, awokeness?

Despite the great individual freedom allowed by the liturgy, the need for corporate faithfulness does not go away. The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic – yet we cannot be any of these things if we refuse to reach out to one another in love.

How do I live into this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community of love? For now, my best guess is to continue praying the hours, attending the Church of the Brethren on Capitol Hill, and encouraging the Friends of Jesus Fellowship. I’m “play-testing” and refining my personal prayer book. I hope to make it available soon, in case others might find it useful. If you’re interested in receiving a copy, let me know. Perhaps, like the 4th-century desert fathers, we can find a community of prayer in the midst of our spiritual wilderness.

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