Archive for September 2016

Confronting My Inner Scrooge McDuck

Confronting My Inner Scrooge McDuck
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (9/25/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Timothy 6:6-19 and Luke 16:19-31.

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon is significantly different from the written text.)

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Ever since I first looked over the scripture readings for this morning, I’ve been debating with myself whether we should listen to the song “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. I think it would be fun, but the fact that I don’t know how the sound system in here is set up – and also some gentle counsel from Faith – has led me to leave the song out this time around. But just so you know, it’s going through my head.

I’m kind of excited to be talking about hell this morning. I don’t know about y’all – maybe you grew up in different kinds of churches from where I grew up – but I almost never hear my kind of peace-loving, compassionate, socially progressive Christians talk about what the Bible says about the long-term consequences of sin.

But today I’ve got my big chance. Our gospel reading this morning is probably the most outstanding story about hell in the whole Bible. Because you know, despite the intense focus and fixation that many Christians have on the idea of heaven and hell, the scriptures really don’t talk about it much – not in a way that meshes with popular conceptions of the afterlife. In most of the Bible, both New Testament and Old, hell isn’t really a big concept. There’s this idea of Sheol – also known as “the pit” or “the grave.” It’s a big, dark, fairly sad place underground where everyone goes when they die.

The Greeks had a very similar concept of the afterlife. They called it “Hades.” This Greek word shows up in the New Testament a few times – including in our scripture reading today. Traditionally, Hades wasn’t really seen as a place you’d want to be – after all, who wants to be dead? – but it also wasn’t seen as a place of torment for evildoers. Just a place for dead people to chill out forever. Sort of like a back-stage area for the drama of life.

More recently, though – in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ ministry – there was a growing trend to think about the afterlife in terms that are more familiar to us today. Many people had come to believe in an afterlife paradise for the righteous, as well as a corresponding place of torment for the wicked. For many Jews, this was connected with the idea of bodily resurrection.

It was in this context that Jesus told the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus, and used contemporary concepts of heaven and hell to demonstrate what life in God’s kingdom is all about.

In this story, the rich man enjoys a lavish lifestyle of fancy clothing and delicious feasts every day. Meanwhile, Lazarus lays outside his gate, enduring both hunger and illness – weeping sores so severe that the dogs would come and lick him. Pretty gross.

But it turns out the joke’s on the rich man. When he dies, he finds himself being tormented in Hades while Lazarus is peacefully resting with Abraham. On the rich man’s side of Hades, there is fire and suffering. This side is separated from Lazarus and Abraham’s side by a great chasm – a dividing line of some kind that prevented any real connection or relationship between the two sides of Hades.

I find this story really fascinating. Because you see, most people who are really big fans of the concept of eternal conscious torment in hell – they tend to be focused on certain criteria for who gets into heaven and who goes downstairs. It tends to be about beliefs, and probably about some of their favorite sins – sexual immorality, abortion, and other hot-button issues that inflame the imagination.

But when Jesus gives us a vision of hell, his focus is on economic and social justice. Both here, and throughout the New Testament, Jesus makes it clear that it’s impossible to be in right relationship with God without also being in right relationship with the people around us – especially the poor and marginalized. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus lambasts the social and physical separation of the wealthy one percent from those living in poverty, the people who are being devastated by the effects of income inequality.

In our other reading this morning, the author of 1st Timothy echoes this message when he writes that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” He says that, “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

The love of God and neighbor, and the love of money, are diametrically opposed. They refer to such opposite states of being that it seems inappropriate to label both of them with the word “love.” The love of God is about self-forgetfulness, humility, spiritual rest, and trust. The love of money produces only anxiety, self-focus, cynicism, and fear.

When I think about examples of destructive, pathological love of money, there are many to choose from. Oddly enough, the first one that came to my mind was a cartoon. Did any of you ever watch the cartoon show, Duck Tales? Scrooge McDuck is a such a perfect icon for the love of money that I believe, if Jesus were telling his parable today, Scrooge would be a great choice to play the rich man.

In Duck Tales, Scrooge is ridiculously wealthy. He’s so rich that he has a money vault the size of a skyscraper where he regularly goes for a swim in gold coins. Scrooge approaches the love of money with a practically religious devotion. Scrooge worships money. He serves money. Money is his focus in life. In the context of Duck Tales, the greatest possible crisis is when Scrooge is at risk of losing his beloved pile of money forever.

Scrooge McDuck is a funny character, but he isn’t happy. He’ll never be happy. Despite all his wealth and influence, Scrooge lives a life of bitterness, fear, and worry. He spends his days managing, counting, and protecting his money. He can’t sleep soundly at night, because he’s so anxious about the status and safety of his coins.

Scrooge’s love of money is an energy-stealing, life-denying parasite that feeds off of his happiness and leaves only anxiety. Instead of being grateful for the joys of life and the fantastic people and places around him, Scrooge prioritizes an illusion of security and importance. For Scrooge, the false promises of security, predictability, and control have become more important than his relationships with other human beings.

Does any of this sound familiar? I think that each of us has a little bit of Scrooge in us. I know I do. When presented with a choice between relationship and security, faithfulness and professional advancement, kindness and success – what do you say? I’ll be honest: I find it incredibly hard to say “no” to the world’s priorities and “yes” to the vision of God’s kingdom. Perhaps especially for those of us who live here in the DC metro area, the pressure to have more, be more, and do more is intense. The love of wealth, status, and our own sense of self-importance, has us anxiety-ridden, overworked, over-committed, and overwhelmed.

This money-loving culture we live in is one of grasping, insecurity, and fear. It’s one that diminishes our health, our happiness, and the extent to which we feel free to make ourselves available to follow in the radical way of Jesus.

It also has a devastating social impact. Thousands of DC children experience homelessness each year, thanks to our collective love of money as a society. Many thousands more live in poverty right here in the capital of the wealthiest nation the world has ever seen. We, the rich men and women of Washington, DC, don’t have to look very far to find Lazarus sitting outside with the dogs.

Which brings us back to hell. Given our wealth amidst a sea of both local and global poverty, what makes us think that we’re going to heaven with Lazarus and Abraham? Is it possible that we’ll end up in torment along with the rich man in the story?

What is hell, anyway? What would it mean to go there? Hell is a lack of loving, compassionate, human relationship. Hell is when we look at our lives and say, “I made it, I keep it, it’s mine.” Hell is when we choose the illusion of self-sufficiency over the hard work of community. Hell is separation from God, but it often begins with separation from other human beings.

It’s no accident that the major feature of Hades mentioned by Luke is the gulf between the rich man and Lazarus. The love of money, the fear of others, the anxiety of security tempts us to build walls, shut doors, and refuse to see one another. This is the highway to hell. This is the road that we’re on right now as a people, as a city, and as a nation. It’s a road we’ve been on so long that it’s come to seem normal.

The first step to addressing our addiction to money, power, control, is to admit that we have a problem. The next step – if we’re ready – is to take a serious look at what it would mean for us to turn our lives around. What will it take for us to get off this road to perdition? What does it mean for you and me to choose the kingdom of God rather than the tyranny of wealth?

There are no cheap and easy answers to this question. It begins with putting money in its proper place. Wealth is meant to be subordinate to the life of our community, our church, and the ministry that God is calling us to be engaged in here in our city. It means seeing that our money, resources, and even our career choices do not belong to us as individuals. They are tools we hold in trust for the people of God and the Holy Spirit’s work in the world.

The surest road to hell is when we allow ourselves to be deceived into viewing our wealth, possessions, and relationships as a means to the end of personal satisfaction. That’s the road to slavery. Because there’s no end to the search for satisfaction. There’s always another itch to scratch, another fantasy to fulfill. You and I will never be satisfied by the things of this world. No good, service, or promise of security can ever satisfy the longing that we innately possess to belong to the beloved community, the mission of Jesus, the kingdom of God.

It’s this false love for self, for our own ideas and selfish pursuits, that separates us from one another and from God. It’s our fear of losing out, losing face, and losing control that keeps us firmly on one side of that hellish gap, burning in our agony, while Abraham and the poor watch us sadly from the other side. Rather than risking heaven, we fight to preserve and protect our own personal hell from intrusion by others. Because, hey – this may be an awful way to live, but at least we’re in control!

We can’t escape hell by ourselves. It’s no accident that the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers about what he had learned too late. He knew that his family members were just like him. In many important ways, we here in this church are just like one another. We are shaped and defined by the people we choose to be in relationship with.

Here at Washington City Church of the Brethren, we make our choices and walk our path in community. So if we’re on the highway to hell, we’re on it together. And if we hope to escape it, we will have to rely on one another for support and encouragement to walk in a different path – the narrow and loving path of Jesus.

Related Posts:

There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses

So You Want a Revolution?

So You Want a Revolution?

So You Want a Revolution?
When I became a Christian, following Jesus seemed like the most revolutionary thing I could do. The teachings of Jesus are radical. The way the early church lived out the gospel inspires me to go deeper, give more of myself, and nurture a grander vision for what human community could be like.

The more I read the New Testament, I more I find myself pushed towards a lifestyle that challenges our present society to its foundations. In contrast to the radical individualism of consumer capitalism or the enforced conformity of most religious communities, the way of Jesus demands both radical openness and profound submission to the guidance of the Spirit.

This revolutionary new reality plays out in love for enemies. We find it when we choose relationship and trust rather than money and self-interest. It comes alive in the healing power of forgiveness and the daily practice of justice.

The freedom of the gospel looks like insanity to middle-class, safety-conscious America. For those of us who are a wrapped up in the world’s priorities, the simple act of forgiveness looks like weakness. The Christian’s refusal to take refuge in wealth and privilege seems like adolescent silliness at best. At worst, the humble-yet-prophetic way of Jesus can activate the defense response of those in power. Violence. The emperor does not like being told he’s stark naked.

My years as a Christian have been filled with a sense of longing. I’ve yearned for the revolutionary days of the early church. I’ve looked back to the fiery, apocalyptic campaigns of the early Quaker movement with admiration. And I’ve wondered: What must we do to ignite this kind of movement in our own time and place? What must I do to be part of God’s continuing revolution?  

I know a lot of other people are experiencing this same yearning. We live in frustrating times. Stuck times. Times in which we all find ourselves longing for upheaval and change.

I hear words like “revolution” being thrown around a lot. In Christian circles, the word “revival” is often a popular choice. Heck, even I’ve used this word once or twice. Quakers and Christians of all stripes throughout the world are longing for revival – the restoration of that movement-church fire, the Holy Ghost power of a people gathered by God to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.

It’s a beautiful vision. It’s the right vision. And it’s a vision that we are completely unprepared for.

I’ll be completely honest: For a long time, I’ve blamed God for the lack of transformation in my own life and in the communities where I’ve served. I’ve been baffled at the lack of forward momentum, Spirit-led change and healing despite how much I and many others have prayed for it. Looking back to the miracles of the early church and the prophetic Quaker movement, I’ve been perplexed. If God could do that in the first century and the sixteenth century, why won’t he do it now? Why doesn’t Jesus send the Holy Spirit like he used to?

I’m seeing now that I’ve been wrong to blame God. The Holy Spirit is alive and ready for action any time we call on her. God isn’t the problem. I am. We are.

We’re not ready for the spiritual revolution we dream about, precisely because it is a dream. Far too often, our ideas of revival are a fantasy of spiritual highs, supportive community, and connection with God. But when’s the last time you fantasized about losing your home, your bank account, your sense of security? Does your imagined revival include beatings, persecution, and social ostracism? Does your vision of the beloved community involve sacrificing career, enduring hardship, becoming a community that our culture laughs at and punishes?

Mine neither.

Lots of Christians talk a big game about revolution and revival. (I myself talk about both.) But it’s all a delusion if we aren’t ready to embrace the cross, the sacrifice that comes when we choose to be friends of Jesus. I’m weary of all our talk of revival – I’ve gotten fed up with my own words! You and I have no business talking about revolutionary transformation of our society when we have yet to take seriously Jesus’ call to repentance. 

The whole Christian movement is founded on the idea that we must profoundly change our way of life. If we think that we can follow Jesus but keep our toys, our security, our status, and our noble conceptions of ourselves, we’re going to be very disappointed. I know I have been.

How much longer will we chose to wander in the wilderness of conformity to the 21st-century capitalism, self-centeredness, and the world’s conception of what’s important? How long will we refuse to let go of our dreams about community and embrace the real relationships that make the church a revolution – not a club? When will the numbing effects of our opiate religion make us so nauseous that we resolve to sober up rather than choking on our own vomit?

Jesus has told us time and again that the way to life is narrow. The passion and beauty that we admire in the early church and other Spirit-filled movements has always emerged from sacrifice and struggle. Until we repent – until we turn away from our involvement in the consumer-capitalist war machine and all its false promises – we will never be that community we dream of. But if we do embrace this challenge, Jesus has promised us life, real life. Gathered in his victorious and comforting Spirit, revival is possible. 

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Are You Sleepwalking Towards Death?

Do You Have the Courage to Face the Horizon?

Are You Sleepwalking Towards Death?

Death is one of the few guarantees. It comes for each and every one of us. Yet, not all deaths are created equal. There is the tragic death that comes in youth, and anticipated death in old age. Sudden death from accident or violence. A slow, managed death in a hospital. There is diversity in death.

In another sense, though, there are only two ways to die: Awake or asleep. We see a reality, presence, and dignity in the deaths of people like Malcolm X, the passengers of Flight 93, and Archbishop Oscar Romero. These are people who died with their eyes open. They understood the moment in time that they occupied, and they seized it.

One of the greatest fears of the medieval European Christian was of dying suddenly, without the chance to confess sins and prepare for the hereafter. Yet today we live in a society of sleepwalkers. Our culture denies the reality of death and loses touch with the visceral beauty of untamed life. Each day, each breath, each interaction is rippling with vibrancy, but so often we are oblivious to it.

I, too, have been a sleepwalker. I believed that I had to mortgage today to purchase tomorrow. I bought into a lifestyle of delayed faithfulness. In exchange for a mirage of responsibility and security, I surrendered the vibrancy, freedom, and power of the present moment. Rather than being renewed and transformed, I allowed myself to be conformed to this darkened, crumbling world.

Fear. That was at the heart of it. Fear that the truth wouldn’t really “work” after all. Fear that my ideals and passion wouldn’t bring home the bacon. Fear that this present moment, with all its beauty, still wasn’t quite as real as my uncertain imaginings about the future.

I’m choosing not to live in fear anymore. 

It’s simple practicality: Fear just doesn’t work. Numbing myself to the joy of the present has never paid off in any way that really matters. Buying the future with the past is the game of the principalities and powers – the capitalists, politicians, and elite rulers. It’s not a game for me or mine. Our life, our calling is to serve the Lord. Today. Come what may. And there’s joy in that. There’s freedom in that.

Death comes to each and every one of us. No one escapes this final fate – no matter how rich, powerful, or successful they are in the eyes of the world. All that really counts for anything is: Will you die with your eyes open, your heart prepared, your spirit at peace? Or will you be one of the millions of sleepwalking zombies who goes to the grave with a life unexamined, joy unexperienced, love unexpressed?

Death waits for no one – and neither does this precious moment. Right now. Will you seize it?

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Do You Have the Courage to Face the Horizon?

Theology is Great, But What I Really Need is Jesus

What Would You Do If ISIS Killed Your Child?

I recently read a blog post by a US Army chaplain, who talks about his struggle with Jesus’ call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In a military context, he regularly finds himself asked some version of the question: “If ISIS killed your child, would you pray for them?” His answer? “Yes, while I am on my way to kill them.”

I understand this answer. It’s my natural answer, too. When others wrong me, I want to strike back. I want revenge. There’s something deeply human in the idea that we can somehow restore a measure of order, balance, and justice to the world through violent retribution.

But for people like that army chaplain, and for any of us who claim Jesus as our Savior, Lord, and Teacher, this is not an answer that we can ultimately accept. Jesus has commanded us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. The meaning of Jesus’ words are clear, unambiguous. If we take the Bible seriously – and, more importantly, if we take Jesus seriously – we must embrace the way of love for enemies.

Jesus’ actions are even clearer. Through his saving death on the cross, he demonstrates for us the way that God handles the sin, darkness, and horrible injustice that has spread like a cancer in our world. Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, apart from God. Jesus died for us when we were his sworn enemies. Jesus’ death was no accident. We killed him.

Yet God in Jesus demonstrates a reaction that is so foreign to our broken human nature. Where we rush to seek bloody vengeance, Jesus allows his death to become a doorway to forgiveness, healing, and transformation for we who have been the murderers.

In Jesus, we discover that our own rush to judgment and violence is a reflection of the fallen order – the darkness that God would free us from. When we become friends of Jesus, when we choose to follow him, we are led inevitably into an encounter with the cross – and that cross disarms us forever.

Nevertheless, we are called to a certain kind of warfare. The life of a disciple is full of struggle, since we are called to go against the grain of the surrounding society. History has shown time and again that many who choose to follow the way of Jesus will be subject to trouble, persecution, even death. In the midst of this challenge, our war is one of selfless love that stands firm in the face of hatred, evil, and darkness – exposing it to the light for all to see.

Violence, oppression, and all sorts of evil hide behind a veneer of respectability and authority. The role of the prophetic church is to issue an invitation to see what’s really happening behind the curtain. As disciples of Jesus, we are given authority to unveil Empire, challenging all the powers and principalities that twist our society and harm our communities.

And when they come for us, when they slander and attack us, we have only one defense: prayer for enemies, and the courage to continue our powerful witness in the face of social pressure, threats, and violence.

Is that the kind of church you belong to? Do you want to? I’d like to invite you to join us for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering (October 7-10). We’ll be exploring how we can actively, imaginatively, and faithfully follow Jesus in a chaotic and broken world. Registration is open now. I hope you’ll consider attending. Together, we can live more deeply into the way of courage, the way of the cross, the way of Jesus.

Related Posts:

There is a Spirit which I Feel: The Cloud of Witnesses

How We Can Wage Peace Amidst the Chaos