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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?

Related Posts:

The Harvest is Plentiful – Why Are the Workers So Few?

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.

Related Posts:

How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?

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

How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?

The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Don’t Worry, Death is Your Friend

Is Jesus the Only Way to God?

Is Jesus the Only Way to God?
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 5/14/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Peter 2:2-10 & John 14:1-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

I love our gospel reading this morning. I think that the reason I love it so much because I used to despise it. As a skeptical young person growing up in Kansas, this passage from John was one of the Scriptures most often used as a weapon by Bible-thumping Christians. It was a proof text, used over and over again to demonstrate that Jesus is the only way to heaven. It’s used to imply that anyone who doesn’t hold the right beliefs about Jesus is headed straight to hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only you…

Amen.

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How My Faith Blew Up and I Learned to be Human Again

There Will Be No Tomahawk Missiles in the Kingdom of God

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There Will Be No Tomahawk Missiles in the Kingdom of God

There Will Be No Tomahawk Missiles in the Kingdom of God
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 4/9/17, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Philippians 2:5-11 & Matthew 21:1-11. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs significantly from the written text.)

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To have a king is to reject God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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