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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

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

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

Works Vs Faith? You’re Asking the Wrong Question

Is Your “Justice” Really Just Revenge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related Posts:

How Can God Love Both Me and My Enemies?

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

The 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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Did God Really Ask Abraham to Sacrifice His Own Child?

Did God Really Ask Abraham to Kill His Own Child?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/2/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Genesis 22:1-14 & Romans 6:12-23. 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

This is a tough passage to preach on. It’s one of the most iconic stories of the Bible – the time that Abraham and Isaac went up to that mountain, and Abraham only thought only one of them was coming back.

God told Abraham to take his son up to the mountain top. He told Abraham to take wood, and fire. He told him to kill Isaac and burn his body as an offering. This was the command of the Lord, and it’s clear that Abraham would have gone through with it.

If you google “Isaac and Abraham sacrifice” and do an image search, there’s no shortage of paintings and drawings. Renaissance art is full of paintings depicting this scene, the moment that Abraham lifted the knife to take the life of his son, only to have God intervene.

Some of this art is better than others. The best of these images focus on the drama unfolding between Abraham and his son. Isaac, laid out on the pyre. Abraham, holding the knife and gripping his son by the back of the neck. There must have been a struggle.

Our text this morning leaves a lot to the imagination. It’s not very detailed, and you can read it a lot of different ways. It’s possible to read this story and imagine Isaac as innocently confused, but obedient. His father told him to lay down on the wood, so he did. His father pulled out the knife to take his life, and Isaac accepted it. Abraham, for his part, conducted himself with simple obedience and calm. He didn’t start crying, he didn’t lose control. He didn’t shout or lay hands on Isaac. He just obeyed the command of God, and so did his son.

But I know that’s a lie. Or, at least, I hope it is. Because if that were true, if Abraham was psychologically prepared to murder his son with no displays of emotional conflict, that would make him something less than human. And Isaac – what young man, what human being accepts a violent death at the hands of a loved one without a struggle? Without horror? Without desperate cries for mercy and tears of disbelief?

There are images that present Isaac and Abraham as dutiful pawns in God’s strange chess game. In these paintings, the two of them are placid, serene, looking only to God.

I know that these images must be false. I can feel it in my bones. When I look at these peaceful depictions of this violent event, there’s no soul, no humanity. Abraham becomes a monster, and Isaac a bovine creature with no real human spark. Lost is the Abraham who argued with God over the fate of Sodom. He convinced God to spare the city for the sake of just ten righteous people. Couldn’t he be bothered to argue for the life of his own child?

And not just any child. The heir of the promise. This was the child that God had promised Abraham for decades. The miraculous boy who was born when his parents were far beyond the age of child-bearing. Isaac was the living proof of God’s faithfulness – his intention to make Abraham into a great nation, to make his offspring as numerous as the stars. Isaac was the tangible substance of God’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah.

But more important than any of this, Isaac was Abraham’s little boy. He wasn’t just a means to an end. He was a real person, a child. And Abraham loved him.

I think of my son, George. I think of what it would mean to me if I thought God was asking me to kill my son and burn his body. Forget the promise. Forget great nations and offspring as numerous as the stars. This is my son, whom I love. I’d rather die than do to George what God told Abraham to do to Isaac.

What kind of psychopath says “yes” to a request like that? But more importantly, what kind of God would ever make such a request?

And for what? To test Abraham’s faith? To be sure that he was really committed? What kind of friend would test a relationship like that, much less the most high God, creator of the universe?

There’s a long tradition of not taking this story literally. And that’s good. Because honestly, it’s just too horrifying. Who could worship a God like that?

So this morning, I want to continue in that tradition. I want to invite us to experience this story as an allegory, as a narrative that opens up a moral dimension to us that is simply not accessible through anything less than a shocking but true story.

None of this diminishes the horror of the story. What God asks of Abraham is unfathomable. But in this ancient horror, we are also given a mirror into our own spiritual condition. We can find ourselves in the experience of Abraham, and that of Isaac. We can recognize in them our own challenges, our doubts and fears. The existential dread that stalks us.

When I heard this story, I’m forced to ask myself: What does it mean to sacrifice my Isaac? Because again, for the purposes of this allegory, Isaac is not merely a beloved child. He is the instrument of God’s promise. He represents everything that Abraham understands about who God is and how he is in relationship with God. Isaac is the most fundamentally important thing in Abraham’s life. Without Isaac, Abraham has nothing to hold onto, nothing to assure him that God really cares for him and has a plan for him.

So for God to demand that Abraham sacrifice Isaac – well, it just doesn’t compute. It’s like a snake eating its own tail. How can God ask Abraham to end the very life that demonstrates their relationship? It’s as if a husband said to his wife, “if you really love me, you’ll throw away your wedding ring and move to another city.” This request doesn’t make any sense.

But the incomprehensibility of God’s request is exactly what makes it so important. When God tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac, he’s essentially asking Abraham this: “Do you trust me enough to let go of everything in this world that connects us? Do you love me more than my gifts, more than my promises, more than my presence in your life?”

That’s pretty deep. Because to be honest, most of the time, I want God for his gifts. I want him for his presence and power in my life. I want him because he helps give my life meaning and purpose, a sense of perspective beyond myself.

But that’s not what God wants. The kind of relationship that God desires with you and me doesn’t hinge on reasons or benefits, outcomes or external validation. The relationship that God is seek with you and me is one that stands beyond all incentives or proofs. It’s the relationship that Jesus demonstrated when he hung on the cross and cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The story of Abraham and Isaac has often been taken as an analogy for Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross, in submission to God’s will. In this view, God is often seen as represented by Abraham – the sacrificer – while Jesus is represented by Isaac, the sacrificed. But this is a backwards view of things. During his struggle in Gethsemane, his torture by the religious and imperial authorities, and his death on the cross, Jesus found himself in the position of Abraham. Like Abraham, he was forced to abandon everything in this world that gave him assurance of God’s love. Jesus had to accept absolute risk.

On the cross, Jesus sacrificed the “Isaac” of his earthly ministry. He experienced terrible grief and failure. He experienced the absence of God, the loss of the promise. In that moment, all of his work was for nothing. It all ended on that nihilistic cross of suffering and shame.

In his Letter to a Young Activist, Thomas Merton writes about this journey into loss and unmooring, which is essential to the path of Christian discipleship. He speaks about how we often use our God-given work “to protect [ourselves] against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of [the] work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love.”

We’ve heard a terrible story this morning. It’s a story of a father’s love for his child – his hope, his future – being overcome by his greater desire to be in relationship with God. It’s a story of cutting loss and heartbreak. It’s a story about how each one of us must move beyond assurances and guarantees if we want to experience the full depth of relationship with God.

This is a story about Abraham seeking a truer, more authentic faith. Beyond pleading and promises. Beyond rewards. Abraham gives himself to God unconditionally – even if it means the loss of everything else, including his ideas about God.

Our scripture this morning is an invitation to self-examination. What are the ways that we have turned our faith in God into a transaction, rather than full submission? Do we love the gifts God gives us more than we love God himself? What are we being called to surrender, so that we can be more fully embraced by God?

What does it mean to be like Jesus, who let go of every guarantee, every promise – even the promise of God’s presence and protection – in order to live in the naked reality of God’s kingdom?

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

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

It's Hard to Love When They're Trying to Hurt You
Most days, I go for a run. About three miles. Lately, I’ve been choosing a route that takes me along a trail that winds through a public park in the eastern tip of the District.

This past week, my run has been a struggle. Not because of the summer heat, or tired legs. Those things I can handle. My struggle has been with people. Young people. Boys throwing rocks at me as I pass, calling me names. A little girl on the playground who cocked her hand like a gun and pointed it at me, drawing attention to my whiteness.

Yesterday my struggle came in the form of violent ambush. Teenagers lay in wait for me, attacking me with fireworks. They recorded it on a cell phone for later amusement. All I could do was run, duck, and dodge.

Today, I chose not to run along the wooded paths in the park. Instead, I ran on sidewalks and streets. The more visible the better. Throughout my workout, my eyes scanned for threats. My ears listened for footsteps behind me. My body assumed that anyone moving towards me might be a danger.

We’ve lived in this neighborhood for five years. This isn’t the first time I’ve felt targeted. I’m one of very few white people in an area that is 98% African-American. My neighborhood is home to several large low-income housing developments. I stick out like a sore thumb, and people aren’t always polite.

But this last week has been different. Three separate incidents of escalating antagonism and violence while running. But wait, there’s more. Our car was also broken into. Our lawnmower was recently stolen. Last week when I was working from home, teens came into our back yard. Casually, they destroyed one of our stepping stones.

After a week like this, it’s hard to be here. It’s hard to love the people around me. I’m having a hard time seeing my neighbors as anything but a potential threat. After a week like this, I’m tempted to move. At the very least, I could build a high fence for our backyard. Rather than risking the streets, I could get a gym membership and drive miles away to exercise.

I’m not asking for your sympathy. I’m not a victim, or a hero, or anything else. I’m just a middle class white man who would like to be on good terms with his neighbors. Or at least not face taunts, theft, and violence. That would be a good start.

This is a confession. I’ve been trying to follow Jesus for more than ten years, and I still don’t have any clue how to love those who hate me. When those kids chased me with lit Roman Candles, I didn’t have any desire to bless them. When others threw rocks at me and called me names, I didn’t feel anything resembling love. No, the honest truth – I felt hate.

I want to be a follower of Jesus, but I have no interest in being nailed to a cross like he was. Martyrdom sounds noble when you read about it in books. That’s because it’s in a book. It’s a beautiful theory – a lie we tell ourselves to justify horror.

But when Jesus died, there was no cause, no glory, no revolution. Only people who hated him for no reason. Just his decision to submit himself to the Father’s will.

I don’t have that kind of strength. What’s worse, I’m not sure I want it. I’d rather move away, or build a fence, or get that gym membership. I’d rather avoid contact with those who want to hurt me. Let the police handle them. I’d rather do what every rational human being wants to do: Protect myself and those I love.

But what would Jesus do? Surely, somehow, he would find a way to love.

Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.

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How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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