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In the Ash Heap and By the River – There’s Only One Way Home

In the Ash Heap and By the River - There's Only One Way Home
When I first felt called to ministry over a decade ago, I had a lot to say. I thought I had solutions to important problems. There was so much I wanted to contribute.

For many years I was extremely active. I studied and traveled. I spoke and wrote. I plumbed the depths in spiritual exploration, and shared with others what I had found. I was on fire for the truth, and I wanted to share it.

In recent years, I’ve gone through a process of slowing down. I transitioned from full-time ministry to a life full of secular work and family responsibilities. Things were bound to change when my wife and I began to have a family. Raising children takes a lot of time, energy, and resources.

As I found myself withdrawing (or being withdrawn) from the kind of ministry I had known in my twenties, my voice began to change. The herald’s trumpet that I had been wielding no longer suited me. My basic convictions had not shifted, yet my clarity about how to apply them had. Who am I to instruct others, when my own life is full of such struggle, compromise, and uncertainty?

The events of the past year – in politics and culture – have also made speaking more complicated. With the rise of extremist political ideology, our public discourse seems filled almost exclusively with trumpets and war drums. Brash, self-styled prophets who have no volume setting lower than ‘maximum.’ Pundits, bloggers, and Twitter jockeys who fill the airways with righteous indignation, furious condemnation, and apocalyptic certainty.

As these voices have gotten louder, mine has grown quieter. As the trumpets blare, my gospel song seems less audible – and perhaps less relevant. Some days I feel that I am losing my voice. After all, what is left to say? The world is full of shouting. Maybe what we need most right now are praying hearts and working hands.

I have always prided myself on being strong, but I have become weak. I was full, but now I’m empty. I’ve never been at a loss for what to say, but these days I feel muted. I resonate with the words of Job, who finally saw the face of God and the fearsome nature of the universe: “…I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know… therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”

I have faith that God is providing a voice and a witness that can speak in these times of turmoil and confusion. Amid this age of blaring trumpets, there is a need for the lament of violins, and the praise of choirs.

In a time of many words, where is the power of silence? In the face of arrogant ideology, what does genuine humility look like? In a whirlwind of violent and chaotic spirituality, who are the peacemakers? What does it mean to repent in dust and ashes?

I am becoming convinced that this is precisely what God is requiring of me: Not solutions, but repentance. Throughout the pages of the Bible, in times of tragedy and crisis, God is always seeking men and women who respond with repentance. God spared Nineveh, a truly violent and wicked city, because its king and people humbled themselves, repenting in sackcloth and ashes. They pleased God – not by building a monument, establishing a new philosophy, or solving their economic issues – but by simply stopping cold and turning towards God.

When Jesus began his ministry, this was his message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” The kingdom of God is at hand. But first, repentance. First we must stop dead in our tracks and turn around. Turn again to God so that we might be healed.

The calling for me in this war-like age is not to double down on the things I think I know. It is not to fight to win. The way of Jesus does not defeat the enemy and establish a kingdom through force of argument or strength of arms. Instead he invites us into a life of humility and self-emptying. His ministry is one of healing and reconciliation. His challenge is one of endurance. We need marathon strength to answer hatred with love, injustice with righteousness, violence with firmness and compassion.

I say again with Job: “Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” I have nothing to offer but surrender, trusting that the God who created this world will sustain it. In turning, we can be healed.

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In the Beginning Was the Word

When Your Personal Brand Becomes Your Personal Hell

When Your Personal Brand Becomes Your Personal Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long will we obey?

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

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

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

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

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Should Christians Question Authority, Or Obey?

Why the Church Is Not And Will Not Be Revolutionary

Should Christians Question Authority – Or Obey?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Does the Bible Contradict Itself About Faith Versus Works?

Does the Bible Contradict Itself About Faith Versus Works?

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I usually don’t give them anything.

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

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

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

Faith without works is dead.

James goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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How Can I Ever Measure Up?

How Can I Ever Measure Up?
Early Quaker leader George Fox taught that each person has been given by God a certain measure, or portion, of life from God. Not everyone has the same abilities. Some of us are stronger or weaker, smarter or less intelligent, possessing greater or lesser faith.

Because human beings are not equal in our abilities, Fox taught that God expects different things from each of us. A small child is not expected to get a job and provide for the family, but an adult parent is!

This teaching is perhaps best summed up in the words of Jesus found in Luke 12:48: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

This a very challenging concept, especially for those of us who have received a great deal of privilege in our lives – safety, family, education, wealth, job opportunities, and so many other factors that benefit us. From those of us who have received much, a great deal will be required.

But I am also finding these words of Jesus to be liberating. Because there is another side to this coin. While I am responsible to use the gifts I have received, there are so many things I am not responsible for. There are so many ways in which I am weak, lacking in talent, and deficient in understanding. In these areas, less may be required of me.

Jesus shows me that I don’t have to grip so tightly to my own sense of self importance. I don’t have to volunteer for every good project. I’m not responsible for the outcome of the human race. Because that stuff is way bigger than me – way beyond my measure. Like the servants in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents, I will be held accountable for the gifts that God has given me. Not for the fate of the whole world.

For an overachieving control freak like me, that’s really good news. It’s good news that challenges me to examine myself. What are those few talents that God has given me to steward, and what are the many other important matters that I can lay aside? After all, God has other servants to take care of those.

I’m used to taking on more than is truly my responsibility. But when I release those things that are beyond my measure, I discover the easy yoke that Jesus promised. It’s a life of challenge, but not burnout.

What are the talents that God has entrusted you with? How do you distinguish between the many good things, and the few necessary things in your life? What does it look like to live your life in measure?

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