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Our Culture is Spinning Out of Control. Only One Thing Can Save Us.

Our Culture is Spinning Out of Control. Only One Thing Can Save Us.
This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 1/21/18, at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; and Mark 1:14-20. 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

I don’t need to tell you that we’re living in a particularly dark, chaotic time. We can all feel it. Our national government is off the rails in a very visible way with the present federal shutdown. But our dysfunction as a society goes far deeper than this particular game of political brinkmanship. The top leadership of our nation – political, economic, and spiritual – is filled with people who could rightly be described as wicked. Pathological liars who seem willing to do anything to win the game of power, regardless of the cost to our society.

Our culture’s present state of imbalance and disorder is fueled by a whole class of public intellectuals: TV news personalities, members of think tanks, and partisan strategists. They have orchestrated and engineered the toxic soup that we as a society have been drinking in for years. We’re all caught up in this. Regardless of our political commitments, social class, or religious affiliations, we’ve all become disconnected from reality to some degree. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into identity- and ideologically-based tribes. We’ve been lied to, bamboozled by the rich and powerful for so long that it’s often hard to tell which way is up.

Can you feel it? Anxiety is gripping our country. The government shutdown is just a symptom. We live in a society with no shared sense of moral commitment, or even historical reality. There is no longer any solid foundation for us to cling to. We look out on the world, and what we see is so overwhelming. “What can I do? What difference can I possibly make in the face of this level of confusion and mayhem?”

In times like these, our membership in the body of Christ is revealed to be so important. As friends of Jesus, we have access to a source of truth that reaches beyond our present state of confusion. Through Jesus, God is reaching into history and speaking directly to us. Regardless of what we see on TV or Twitter, the Holy Spirit is available to us as a trustworthy source of guidance.

We are participants in a tradition that spans back thousands of years. We are part of a people and a community that has survived even worse evil than that which we see in our present context. The church of Jesus Christ is a community capable of living truth boldly, speaking into times of hatred and chaos. In this community, God binds us together in the spirit of love, even in the face of this world’s rancor and blind hatred.

We’ve just passed through the Christmas season. Christmas is a time that we tend to sentimentalize. We think about the joy and wonder of the star and three wise men. We focus on the love of the mother Mary for her infant son. On the sweetness and vulnerability of the Christ child, lying in a manger. Star of wonder, star of light; star of royal beauty bright.

And the light of that star is real. There is joy in the season of our savior’s birth. But we are also cognizant that God had to send that starlight for a reason. That dim light could be so clearly seen in the night’s sky, because it was indeed nighttime in Israel. The age of Jesus was a time of deep darkness, sorrow, and loss.

It was a time when a petty dictator like Herod could slaughter all of the infant children in a town just to eliminate a possible rival. A time when thousands of Jews were crucified by the sides of the road, a testimony to the futility of rebellion against the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire. Only in retrospect can we perceive that the days of Jesus were ones of hope and promise. For those who lived them, it was deepest darkness.

People knew they needed a savior. The common people of Israel flocked to Jesus, because they knew just how desperate their situation was. And not just Jesus. The people of Israel were desperate for healing and liberation, and they were looking for God’s love wherever they could find it. That’s why they came to John by the thousands. That’s why they joined this wild man in the desert, by the side of the river Jordan. That’s why they sought John’s baptism – immersion in water as a sign of repentance.

This is where Jesus began his ministry: immersed in the waters of the Jordan; emerging from the river and seeing the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. This is where Jesus received his call to ministry. A call to be light in the darkness. To take the ministry of John, the call to repentance, and take the next step.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.” This was Jesus’ first sermon. This is the foundation and core of Jesus’ ministry. The announcement of the reign of God on earth, coming now and immediately. Repentance: turning away from the darkness and wickedness of this present world and throwing our lot in entirely with God.

It can’t be overstated how foolish this message must have seemed to those in the centers of worldly power at that time – in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and in Rome. The domination of Rome’s empire seemed just as absolute and unquestionable as global capitalism and nuclear-armed military powers seem today.

The idea that a little nobody like Jesus, emerging from a region that even the Jews considered a backwater, could represent a real threat to empire was preposterous. For him to declare the empire of God in the midst of Roman occupation was almost as unbelievable as preaching an economy of love in the midst our culture’s economy of wealth accumulation and income inequality.

But, as implausible as Jesus’ message was, there were some who did believe. Those who were so desperate to see the light that they were ready to die to darkness. Women and men who flocked – first to John, and later to Jesus – immersing themselves first in the waters of the Jordan and later into the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite the darkness of the world around them, their lives were transformed. They became a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome them.

Are we light in our present darkness? Are we repenting like Jesus calls us to? Are we surrendering our lives to the love, life, and power that Jesus wants to reveal in us?

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.

Paul is exhorting the church to become fully repentant, fully given over to the life of God’s kingdom. To be transformed by God’s love, justice, and spiritual power. He invites us into a journey of faith that utterly breaks down the facade of normalcy that we live in. Paul writes that the age of darkness and wickedness is coming to an end. We can no longer act like it’s business as usual.

Do you believe that? Do you feel it in your bones? Can you sense that this present order is passing away? That in the midst of this darkness, the true light that enlightens every person is coming into the world?

Repentance is a tough word. It’s a word that has been severely damaged by two thousand years of human religion. We’ve turned it into a moralistic, goody-two-shoes word that is mostly focused on personal sin and feeling bad about our naughty deeds. But the original meaning of repentance is far deeper than that. It’s not just about changing our behavior and doing fewer bad things.

Repentance, in the biblical sense, is about a total transformation of character and perspective. It is about becoming a member of the revolutionary God movement. It’s about being baptized into death, and emerging into another life altogether. It’s about awakening from the slumber of this numb and stupefied world, to see reality as God sees it.

Repentance means we have to stop in our tracks and refuse to participate in the everyday evil that surrounds us. Even if it costs us greatly. Even if it puts us out of step with everyone around us. Even if it means discomfort, being socially ostracized, losing our jobs – or worse. Repentance means that we have left the kingdoms of this world and entered into the sovereign power of the crucified savior.

This kind of repentance is not mere pietism. Repentance is not a matter of sentiment or emotional catharsis. It is the very mechanism by which the gospel can be enacted and experienced in our lives, and in our shared life as the people of God.

We learn from the prophet Jonah that repentance is essential to survival. For as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

The wrath of God is real. In the face of violence, oppression, deceit, and abuse, God’s anger is real and justified. Just as God sent Jonah to proclaim judgment on the city of Nineveh, he is sending prophets to our own city. God is sending the prophets to preach repentance, before it is too late.

Because this path we’re on as a nation, it leads to death. The wickedness of our city, of our nation, cries to heaven. We’re no different from Nineveh, or Sodom, or Rome. In his very great love, God is sending his prophets to call us to a different way of life. God is calling us out of the death-ways of Babylon and into the beauty and love of the New Jerusalem. As the apostle writes in Second Peter:

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

The day of the Lord is coming. Darkness will give way to the light. What has been hidden will be revealed. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Will we be like the people of Nineveh, who heard the judgment of God and turned from their evil ways? Or will we be like the people of Sodom, who tried to abuse and humiliate the angels who were sent to warn them? Will we cling to the comforts of complicity and silence, or will we become instruments of transformation so that our city might be saved? God promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if he could find even ten righteous people in it. Are there ten righteous among us today?

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” This is an invitation to a radical new way of life. “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We have an opportunity to embrace a kind of love and joy that is presently unimaginable.

What would it look like for us to be a fearless, repentant people in the midst of an empire even greater than Rome? What does it mean for us to repent and proclaim the gospel message to the culture around us? Could we be the prophets that God wants to send?

We must not underestimate the urgency and reality of this call. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The power and justice of God is present with us, and he will judge us. He will judge us, and he will judge this society that we live in. Are we ready to stand before him and receive that judgment? Is our city, nation, and world ready? How does God want to use us to ensure that every person, every power, every institution will hear the gospel message and have an opportunity to repent?

God is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but that all to come to repentance. But have no doubt: without repentance, we will perish. Without God’s love, we will self-destruct. Without the light of Jesus, we will drown in the darkness.

Will we become the light?

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Why the Church Is Not And Will Not Be Revolutionary 

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?

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Have Progressives Made Trump God?

Have Progressives Made Trump God?
We live in times of heightened emotion. Enmeshed in digital media and captured by our “always-on” culture, it’s hard to unplug. The bare-knuckle fights of politicos and pundits come straight to our phone.

The moment we inhabit exhilarates us with the adrenaline of combat. It wears us down with the relentlessness of total war. Our society is tearing itself apart, and there seems no alternative but to choose a side and dedicate ourselves to fighting for it.

We have, as a society, been captured by spectacle. Reality TV has exited the screen and come to inhabit our daily lives. We are drawn into a dizzying world of celebrity drama and cultural transgression. We are warned of the groups that we should fear and despise, and encouraged to stay tuned for the next episode when the enemy camp will be humiliated and exposed for the hypocrites and evildoers that they are.

In this cultural hurricane that we now inhabit, personalities reign supreme. We are united around the people we hate. The right is united by deep hatred for people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The left is united around total disgust for Donald Trump, above all, and secondarily Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.

Donald Trump has become the center of this vortex. He has become the writhing center of our nation. This is true not only for those who vehemently support him and his white supremacist rhetoric, but perhaps especially for the millions of Americans who reject him in the most furious terms possible. Resistance to Trump has helped make him the energetic center of American life.

One of the most disturbing things about the rise of Trump is the way that he has colonized our minds. Most of us can’t get through the day without thinking about him. Regardless of what visceral rejection his image  may provoke, Donald Trump has become the focus of our consciousness. Many think about him more often than they think about loved ones. Many of us who consider ourselves “religious” turn our minds to Donald Trump more often than we do to God.

There is a spiritual principle at work here. We choose the things that lie at the center of our reality. Love is not the only power that is capable of centering us in this way. Hatred is a powerful religious force. It is able to create gods that define our lives. The terrible irony is that, the more we hate anyone, the more we place that relationship of hatred at the heart of our lives. Through our fury at Donald Trump and his violent, racist agenda, we actually lend him more power.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie, The Fifth Element. Humanity encounters an evil presence that intends to devour all life in the universe. Predictably, our response is to attempt to destroy the presence with nuclear weapons. But we learn that this is precisely what the presence of evil was counting on. Every time it is attacked, it grows and expands. After being attacked twice with larger nuclear salvoes, it grows much larger, destroys the attacking vessels, and begins a journey towards Earth, to destroy us all.

Attacking evil only makes it stronger. Battling hatred with hatred only produces more devastation. We learned this lesson from Jesus. Jesus says that we should not resist an evildoer, but instead to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. It’s always been hard for me to accept these sayings by Jesus. How could it be that I should actually submit myself to evil?

What if Jesus is asking me not to submit to evil, but rather to de-center evil in my life? Could it be that, by resisting evil head on, I make it more powerful? By making the evil person the enemy, is it possible that I end up creating more evil? What does it look like to turn the other cheek in the face of real evil, the kind that God knows should be stopped in its tracks?

This is a live question for me, and I don’t have an easy answer. What does it look like to deny the racist, violent, life-destroying posture that Donald Trump embodies, while refusing to place that evil at the center of my life? What does it look like to love my enemies – including Donald?

What changes when I commit myself to seeking the restoration of all people, even those whose souls are twisted with hatred and selfishness? What happens when the love of God in Jesus becomes the center, and all the evil people of this world become mere satellites of that radiance?

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Does the Bible Contradict Itself About Faith Versus Works?

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

Listen to the Sermon Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I usually don’t give them anything.

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

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

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

Faith without works is dead.

James goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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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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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