Devotional – 1 Timothy 6.10

Devotional:

1 Timothy 6.10

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

Weekly Devotional Image

In the United Methodist Church we spend a lot of time every fall preparing for Charge Conference. Charge Conference is an annual meeting in the life of the church where we evaluate where we’ve been and where we’re going, we discuss challenges and new approaches, and we vote on things like the budget and pastoral compensation.

Paying pastors is one of those things in the life of the church that we like to handle quickly and then move on to a different subject. Frankly, whenever we talk about money we want to address it as fast as possible and then get back to “doing church.” Money makes us uncomfortable.

On some level this is a good thing. We know that Paul writes to Timothy about the love of money being a root of all kinds of evil. Or we can think about a time when the fear regarding finances sent the church in a frightening direction. Or we can reflect on how the love of money has reshaped a relationship with a friend or with someone in our family.

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However, money and wealth is one of the things that Jesus talks about more than anything else, and we have slowly removed it from our common experiences in the life of the church.

On the Virginia Conference website for the United Methodist Church there is a page dedicated to the bishop. On that particular page anyone can find narrative information about our bishop, but there is also a link to what is called the “Appointment Workbook.” If you click on the link you will have access to a list of all the pastors in the Virginia Conference, how long they served, how many new people are attending their churches, how much their churches are required to pay in apportionments, what percentage of the apportionments have they paid, AND their annual compensation. This is good and important information for the life of the church, but the fact that the entire list of pastors is not organized by name, or region, or new disciples, but by salary, shows how we have wandered away from the faith.

Paul warns us about the love of money in our individual lives and in the community of the church. When we become so consumed by the pursuit of money whether we are a teacher, or a doctor, or a denomination, we fall captive to the evil the sends us wandering away from the faith. As Christians, our ultimate call is to grow in our faith and Christlikeness, not in our annual salary.

On The Death Penalty

Mark 10.26-27

They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Luke 23.44-47

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”

Controversy Original

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with The Death Penalty.

 

 

He was sitting with his friends when the police rushed in. Everything moved in a blur while tables were overturned, bodies were thrown to the floor, and he was placed under arrest. The journey to jail and to the courthouse was strangely quiet, but he kept his head down and his mouth shut. Others came and went, he received strange and knowing looks, and he wondered if any of his friends were arrested as well.

When they dragged him in front of the judge, the courtroom was packed and people kept screaming from the back. The judge waited for everyone to calm down and the whole proceeding came down to one question, “Did you do it?” The man replied, “If I tell you what happened, you won’t believe me, and if I ask you a question, you won’t answer.” Again the judge asked, “Did you do it?” And the man replied, “You say that I did.”

In response, the judge smacked his gavel onto the wood and declared, “What further testimony to do we need? We’ve heard it ourselves from his own lips.” And with that, the man was condemned to death.

The courtroom erupted into celebration as the gathered people shouted “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” What made everything worse was the fact that the dead-man walking recognized some of the people who were shouting for his death, but nothing could stop the inevitable.

Time passed, and eventually he found himself walking to his own demise; walking down death row. With every footstep he thought about what had led him to this, he thought about his family and friends that had abandoned him at the end, he thought about how this would be the last time he’d feel the ground beneath his feet.

The executioners were ready to begin the moment he arrived. They took off his clothes, and laid him down. Only then did he notice that two other men were about to be executed as well. Their faces held grave expressions of fear, guilt, and sorrow. But just like with the man, they were on a path that had only one outcome- death.

It was about noon when everything started moving quickly, and the man noticed that it was strangely turning dark outside. They strapped him down until he could barely breathe and then they stood back and waited. With each moment he felt his life slipping away, his chest heaved for air that ceased to fill his lungs, his vision went blurry, and then he died.

His name was Jesus and he was executed by the state.

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Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life, and more often than not it comes down to this: “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and we have it in the Old Testament in our Bibles.

The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and we still employ it for a number of reasons. To kill someone for committing a crime is the only way to guarantee they will never recommit the same crime. It works and functions as a deterrence to influence others to not commit the crime. It helps bring closure to a family who is grieving the loss of someone who was murdered. And it saves the state a lot of money from having to keep someone in prison year after year after year.

In the United States, there are roughly 3,000 people on death row right now, and the death penalty takes place primarily through lethal injections – a poison is injected into someone’s blood stream that brings a quick and painless death, but many states still let people choose between the electric chair and lethal injection. The state of Washington however, still uses a noose to kill those who have been convicted. Across the county at least 56% of Americans support the death penalty.

And the state of Virginia, where we live, has executed more prisoners than any other state.

So why are we talking about the Death Penalty in church? Why is this a controversy that we need to confront?

Because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

The main reasons that people often sight to justify the death penalty can just as easily be argued from a different perspective. The death penalty often fails to work as a deterrence because in the south where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. The closure that families experience in the short-term is present, but in the long-term they tend to experience more guilt and depression in a response to another person’s death. It actually costs the state a lot more money to put someone to death because of the required appeals process and the amount of time and resources that it necessitates. And, this is a very important ‘and’, since 1976 about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell.

But all of the statistics and the facts, all of the psychology and the economics, are dwarfed by the fact that Christians still support the death penalty, even when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.

We Christians love our crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skin and we wear them around out necks, I even carry one over my shoulder all over Staunton every Good Friday. But we have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.

Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, then we’d be wearing nooses around our necks instead of crosses. If Jesus died 50 years ago, then we’d be bowing before an electric chair in the sanctuary instead of a cross. And if Jesus died today, then we’d hang up hypodermic needles in our living rooms instead of crosses.

The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injection of modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crime.

The fact that 1 in 9 death-row inmates have been exonerated should be enough to give us pause. The fact that the state has murdered innocent people just like Jesus was murdered should give the church reason to repent. But if that’s not enough, then maybe this is: With God nothing is impossible.

And I’ll admit, there are scriptures in the Old Testament that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Old Testament and the New Testament who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.

We like to think about Moses’ encountering the burning bush, we like to imagine Moses leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.

            We like to think about David approaching Goliath on the battlefield, we like to imagine him dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with his wife.

            We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground by God on the road to Damascus, we like to imagine him writing letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered countless Christians before his conversion.

christians-and-the-death-penalty-views-on-both-sides

            With God nothing is impossible.

That’s the beginning and the end of theology, that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the drink, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging out our nooses? Why do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we keep strapping them down for a lethal injection? Why do we keep hanging people on crosses?

The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. Mercy for an adulteress woman who was about to be stoned by the crowd, mercy for short tax collector who preyed on the poor, mercy for a criminal who hung on a cross right next to Jesus. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away without consequences, it doesn’t mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the justice system.

For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing the same crime. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can continue to take place without disrupting our daily lives.

But people are being murdered for murder.

Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” To retaliate murder for murder will only ever beget more violence, or as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

God sent his son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, not with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice. God sent his son to walk among us in order that we might catch glimpses of the kingdom. God in Christ ministered to the last, the least, and the lost, people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row. And God sent his son to carry death on his back to the top of a hill to die, so that we might live.

So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent true repentance and new life from taking place in those who have fallen prey to evil. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible. Amen.

 

Devotional – 1 Timothy 2.1-2

Devotional:

1 Timothy 2.1-2

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.
Weekly Devotional Image

Two weeks ago I preached a sermon on the separation of church and state. As a congregation we looked at a few passages that addressed the tension between the state and the church and I proclaimed that perhaps now is the time for Christians to reclaim those things that make us seem strange in the eyes of the state (like refusing to bow and worship our country and politicians as if they were gods, or gathering together on a day set apart to hold ourselves accountable to honesty, truthfulness, and peace, or sitting before a table of ordinary bread and wine that become the extraordinary gift of body and blood).

After worship I invited everyone to join us for a time of further conversation on the topic so that it would feel less like a lecture and more like a dialogue. I used guided questions to help get the conversation rolling, and one particular question got everyone fired up: “Should Christians vote in the upcoming presidential election?”

Immediately individuals asserted that not only should we vote, but that we have to vote. As a right given to us through the constitution we must line up at the polls and decide who should be running the country. I tired to get the gathered group to think harder on the subject by asking if it would be more faithful not to vote, and therefore actively embody the fact that Jesus is Lord and that it doesn’t matter to us who wins the election; they didn’t buy it.

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The conversation moved on from there to an assortment of other subjects, and when it was clear that we had exhausted the topic, we prayed together and prepared to leave. However, one person approached me as we were cleaning up and said, “I think the most faithful thing we could do is actually pray for our politicians, and in particular for the one we don’t want to wind up in the White House.”

Paul wrote to Timothy and urged him to remember to pray for everyone, including the kings and people in powerful positions. This was, and is, a call to pray for people who do not reflect the same kind of values and beliefs that we might hold. This was, and is, a call to pray for both Republicans and Democrats, for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

To be faithful during this particularly tumultuous political season requires prayerful discernment, and it also requires us to actually pray for our politicians.

On Creation vs. Evolution

Genesis 1.1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Controversy Original

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit during the series that you won’t agree with, and if (and when) that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we continue with Creation vs. Evolution.

 

“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.

“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google the answer and the young man rolled his eyes and opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.

I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, almost as if a whisper, “That can’t be right.”

“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”

            And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old.”

creation-evolution-possible

In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Perhaps no words in all of scripture have been more analyzed, prayed over, and interpreted throughout the centuries. Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.

And it stands on the battlefield of the fight between Creation and Evolution.

Here’s the controversy: Centuries ago a man named James Ussher set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old. However, with the advent of modern science and the likes of evolutionary biology and carbon dating, scientists have determined that the earth is 4.5 billion years old.

There is a big difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.

For a very long time, we humans considered the earth a relatively recent phenomenon. The Christian church established itself as the predominant leader of information distribution, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.

This has manifested itself throughout the centuries in a number of ways including the fight between the Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.

“How old is the earth?” It may seem like a pretty simple question without too many ramifications, but it is a big one, and the way we answer it has a lot of consequences.

A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.

It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.

I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.

I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?

But at the same time, some of my Christian friends stopped going to youth group and they stopped going to church. In learning about evolution their faith in church diminished. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned that the earth was older than what they heard in church, their faith was crushed. I, however, was fortunate to have pastors and older Christians who helped me to see the similarities between science and faith. But my friends only saw the battle.

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The title of this sermon is Creation vs. Evolution for a reason. I titled it this way precisely because that is the way that many of us see the relationship between the two; Faith and Science represent opposite ends of the spectrum. One is archaic and illogical; the other is scientific and intellectual. One represents backward thinking; the other is forward thinking. One should be left to sanctuaries; the other is for the classroom.

The conflict between science and faith exists because of us; Christians who became defensive when scientists learned more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s creative majesty. Christians who were quick to jump ship when we discovered there was more to the world than just what we can read about in the bible; Christians who saw scientific discovery as a work of the devil and retreated further away from the world.

But are science and faith really at odds with one another?

Young-Earth Creationists are those who believe (like Ussher) that God created the earth over 6 24 hours days 6,000 years ago. They dismiss scientific discoveries like the Dinosaurs and carbon dating as a way for God to test our faith.

However, there are other ways of looking at the biblical account of creation from Genesis 1 that harmonizes with, rather than battles against, science.

First, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.

We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.

Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to master the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us who and why God created.

Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the zenith of God’s creation, was human life.

            Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.

The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.

And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.

But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.

In the beginning, the very beginning, there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, and inky blackness. And in the midst of this nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.

           The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and who we aren’t. It is God Word for us. Amen.

The Problem with The Pledge of Allegiance

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

bible-american-flag

It has been ten years since the last time I placed my hand over my heart and said the words to the pledge of allegiance. For the better part of eighteen years, I started every morning in school by standing up with my classmates, turning to the corner where the flag was standing, and saying those words that countless Americans have said throughout the decades. But then I stopped, and I haven’t since.

I was in 8th grade and living in Alexandria, VA when 9/11 happened. I can remember my father taking me out of school before it went on lockdown. I can remember sitting on the carpet in the living room watching the towers fall over and over and over again on television. I can remember my dad saying, “I bet Osama bin Laden had something to do with it” and I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was, or how my dad knew who he was. I can even remember realizing that nothing would ever be the same.

In the weeks that followed everything was a blur of red, white, and blue. The country had not experienced a wave of patriotism and nationalism to that degree since the end of World War II. My friends and I had conversations in the lunch hall about how we needed to go to war and kill the people who killed our people. We seriously wondered if the country would reinstitute the draft. And we proudly stood each and every morning to pledge our allegiance to the flag that was now flying in every front yard and on every car-bumper.

Over the next few years my dedication to the eradication of terrorism grew and grew. When members of Amnesty International painted our high school rock with words about peace and love, I got my friends together and we painted over it in black and red paint with things like “Pro-War” and “Bomb Saddam.” When we learned about how our country had played a major role in the chaos of the Middle East, I tuned out my teachers and ignored the textbooks. And when President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier to declare that we were victorious I beamed with pride.

But then a strange thing happened; I started really paying attention in church. I waited for our pastor to echo the same sentiment of celebration that President Bush declared. I waited to hear him give thanks to God for our victory over tyranny and oppression. I waited to learn about God’s saving hand over America from the pulpit. And those things never came. Instead we were asked to do something bizarre: pray for our enemies.

I heard the words of Jesus in a way I never had before, and it forced me to confront my own sinfulness. The more I read the bible the more I realized that my behavior was just like the crowds standing before the cross shouting, “crucify!” The more I read about Jesus’ way, the more I realized that I had fallen short of God’s glory and that I needed to repent. The more I experienced God’s grace the more I realized that my feelings were in conflict with my faith.

And then the words of the pledge of allegiance started sounding strange. I continued to stand with my peers throughout high school, I placed my hand on my heart and said the same words, but it made me uncomfortable. And then one day I stopped, and I haven’t since.

This has been particularly awkward at times; like when I was asked to speak before a local Kiwanis meeting and I felt the eyes of everyone in the room when I did not participate in the pledge of allegiance, or like when I gathered with a community band on the Fourth of July to play patriotic music and I was the only one who did not pledge allegiance to the giant flag waving gently in the breeze.

I am not against the American Flag, and I do not wish to be disrespectful toward it. I am not against our military nor am I a traitor. Instead, as a Christian, I have problems with the pledge of allegiance.

When we pledge our allegiance to a flag and whatever it stands for, it means we are pledging our allegiance to everything the flag represents; The flag that stood at the frontlines of Native American massacres; the flag that orchestrated coups in foreign countries for our own benefit; the flag that suppressed minority voices and segregated races; the flag that has benefited the rich at the expense of the poor; the flag that symbolizes “freedom” but really means “if you’re not with us, then you’re against us.” Our flag, and what it stands for, is something that puts me at dis-ease and is not something that I can blindly pledge allegiance to.

When we pledge allegiance to one nation under God it means that we believe that we are one nation, and that we believe in one God. We are not one nation. Just turn on the news for five minutes, or listen to the bickering of our politicians, or the activists from Black Lives Matter, or anything else and it is clear that we are not one nation. Day after day we are at odds with one another over some of the most important and some of the most frivolous things. And we are certainly not all Christian. Oddly enough, the words “under God” were not added to the pledge until the 1950’s when the Christian church in America started to decline. Though Christians are called to make disciples, we are not called to do so by conscription. To expect and force all citizens to pledge an allegiance to one nation under God fundamentally goes against the freedom of religion that we so dramatically praise on a regular basis. Moreover, to expect and force all citizens to pledge their allegiance to one nation under God fundamentally goes against Jesus’ command to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” If we would not stand to pledge our allegiance to one nation under Allah, or under Buddha, or under Krishna, then we should not expect others to do the same to God.

When we pledge allegiance to a nation that stands for liberty and justice for all we must wrestle with the fact that our country does not have liberty and justice for all. The rise of voter registration laws that unfairly affect those of a lower socio-economic status means we do not have liberty and justice for all. The frighteningly high incarceration rates of minorities mean we do not have liberty and justice for all. The unbelievably prevalent examples of gender discrimination and wage gaps mean we do not have liberty and justice for all. The seemingly endless episodes of violence against those who are different than the norm mean we do not have liberty and justice for all.

I am grateful for the freedoms that this country affords me. I believe in paying my taxes even if they are used for something I might not agree with. I am thankful for a military that defends the weak across the world. But my allegiance is not with America; it is with Jesus Christ. And that doesn’t make me un-American. It just makes me a Christian.

Devotional – Luke 15.1

Devotional:

Luke 15.1

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.

Weekly Devotional Image

What kind of people do we want in church? What kind of people do we want to encounter in our lives? Day after day I am bombarded by articles with titles like “The Top Ten Ways To Get Millennials Into Church” or “Why Churches Are Losing Young Families” from concerned people within the church. Similarly, because I am considered a “Young Adult Clergy Person” I am often asked (as if I have some magic answer) “What can we do to get young people to come to church?” Our general church culture is consumed with this desire to get younger people sitting in the pews, and therefore makes the assumption that bringing younger people in will fix everything.

Jesus, however, drew in a different kind of crowd.

Through the proclamation of God’s kingdom, and through radical acts of healing, Jesus’ ministry brought in all the tax collectors and the sinners. They, the kind of people we would rather ignore or complain about, were the ones drawn to hear what Jesus had to say. They dropped their daily tasks to discover what God incarnate was really up to.

We, however, want our churches and our lives filled with “good” people. The kind of people who have their lives figured out, pay their taxes, and love their children. We want people with open and uncluttered schedules who can serve on different church committees and can volunteer to work in the church nursery on Sunday mornings. We want people who will sit quietly in the pews during worship and listen intently without questioning what we do.

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Can you imagine what the church (or our lives) would look like if we did our best to attract the same kind of people that Jesus did? What would we have to change in order to draw them in, and what kind of expectations would we have to crucify in order to love them with Christ-like love?

The larger community rejected tax collectors and sinners during the time of Jesus. They were viewed with suspicion and were kept at a distance. And yet Jesus offered something they wanted to hear. Who do you view with suspicion? Who are the tax collectors and sinners of our day? How would you feel if they showed up in church on Sunday?

On The Separation of Church and State

Romans 13.1

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

John 15.12-19

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.

rethinking

Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is something different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit over the next two months that you won’t agree with, and if that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we begin with The Separation of Church and State.

The Church and the State have a long and complicated relationship. Like a number of romantic couples from popular TV shows, think Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane, Jim and Pam, Luke and Lorelai, and even Kermit and Miss Piggy, the “will they/won’t they” question of their relationships has happened over and over and over again.

It began during the days of Jesus. A wandering and poor Jew developed a following that threatened the power dynamics of the Jewish leadership and the Roman Empire. His actions might have appeared innocuous, feeding the multitudes by the sea, healing the blind, walking on water, but what he said terrified those in power: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” sounds the beginning of a call to revolution.

And for living and healing and preaching the way he did, Jesus was nailed to a cross. But three days later he rose from the dead. The Christian church began in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, the power of the Good News of God’s triumph over death spread throughout the region and small groups gathered together to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. The book of Acts, and Paul’s letters, help us to see how the story traveled and took hold of the communities where it was received. Lives were transformed; the gospel spread, and the kingdom began to become incarnate.

But whatever the church stood for, and whatever the state stood for, was very different.

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Most of what we know about the early church comes from scripture. Which is to say, we know what the church thought about the church. However, we do have some idea of what the state thought about the church. Pliny the Younger was the governor of Pontus (Asia Minor) from 111 to 113 CE. During his rule he wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan about the Christians in his community in response to their unwillingness to worship the Emperor: “They [the Christians] asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault of error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, not to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food – but ordinary and innocent food.”

The first Christians were strange, with their singing songs to a man who died on a cross, and sharing bread and wine, and promising to be good and trustworthy. How bizarre. And for nearly 300 years they were persecuted, abused, and killed for following Jesus. The state, Rome, resented the Christians and their weirdness. They refused to bow down to worship the Emperor like everyone else. Instead they believed some guy named Jesus was Lord. And for that, they were punished.

But then things changed.

In the year 312 CE something happened that forever affected the relationship between the church and the state. I cannot overemphasize this point enough; it changed everything. The story goes that emperor Constantine was preparing his troops for a battle against a rebellion from within the empire, and on the night before the battle he had a vision of the Greek letters Chi (X) and a Rho (P) in the sky and the words, “in this sign you will conquer.” From this vision Constantine ordered all of his troops to be marked with the Chi-Rho, which looks like the symbol on the right hand page of your bulletin. Chi and Rho are the first two letters of Christos (the Greek version of “Messiah”). After doing so, Constantine’s army won a decisive victory and he entered Rome shortly thereafter as the undisputed Emperor. The battle gave him complete control of the Western Roman Empire and it paved the way for Christianity to become the dominant faith.

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The very next year Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity an officially recognized and tolerated religion in the Roman Empire. Within a dozen years, he called for the Council of Nicaea, which was the first attempt to attain a consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom.

From a vision of two Greek letters in the sky, Christians went from being persecuted and murdered, to being part of the state religion.

And now we fast-forward to today, to the United States, to a country founded on the principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and the Separation of Church and State. After centuries of the church and state co-mingling to a frightening degree, the founders decided to move in a different direction. After being persecuted for their different religious convictions they envisioned a new way forward. Recognizing that this place was, and could continue to be, a melting pot of differing ideologies, the forefathers articulated a political system whereby the state could not control religion, nor could religion control the state, and that those two things would find their fullest potential while being completely separated.

Constantine’s vision of conquering under the sign of Christ was over, and the time of secularism began.

Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, said, “Be subject to the governing authorities.” This is to say, follow the laws of the land, pay your taxes, be good citizens. Paul’s words echo through the centuries and reverberate here in this sanctuary: Do as the country tells you to do. If you’re called to serve in the military, go to war. If its time for a presidential election, vote with your conscience. If the government says there’s a separation of church and state, keep it that way.

And Jesus, speaking to his disciples said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.” Jesus’ words echo through the centuries and reverberate here in this sanctuary: Following me means acting like me.   If people are being persecuted, you are to love them with every fiber of your being. If the government starts belittling people for what they believe, you need to stand up for the oppressed. If you feel called to live like a disciple, prepare yourself to be hated by the world.

These two scriptures from Romans and John contain the tension of what it means to be a Christian in the United States. We constantly wrestle between being subject to the governing authorities and pushing back against the governing authorities. We wrestle between what it means to love the world and what it means to be hated by the world. We, as disciples, live in the world but we are not of the world. We may be citizens of the United States, but our truest citizenship is in heaven.

Years ago there was a civil case raised against an organization for displaying a nativity scene on public property. Because of the separation of Church and State, the concerned citizen believed the nativity scene had to be removed. However, when the matter was brought to trial, the court ruled in favor of the Christian display. The reasoning was that because the nativity scene was next to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus, it had every right to be there. Christians across the country rejoiced when the matter was settled and celebrated what they thought was a decisive victory for the church.

But was it? Should we celebrate a time when the nativity is one of many signs of the holiday? Or should we savor its sacredness? Do we want the nativity to be the same as holiday cartoons, or do we want it to symbolize the profound incarnation of God in the flesh being born in a manger?

A few years ago there was another civil case raised against a baker for refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. Because of the freedom of religion, the baker believed it was within his right to refuse service to people who went against his religious convictions. The matter went to trial and the judge ruled that the baker unlawfully and illegally discriminated the couple for their sexual orientation. Christians across the country protested when the matter was settled, and vehemently opposed the ruling.

Were they right? Should Christians support the freedom to pick and choose who they serve? Or should they follow the command to love the way Jesus loved? Do we want the church to be connected with the religious liberty that isolates particular people, or do we want to go against the conventions of fanatical Christianity and love people regardless of any particular identity?

The separation of the Church and the State is a good thing because for too long the state controlled the church. The Constantinian revolution was certainly responsible for spreading Christianity across the globe, but it also led to things like the Crusades and the Inquisition. Constantine co-opted the church for the role of government in such a way that it limited the qualities that made Christians strange, and instead made them normative. Gone were the days when people lived by the convictions of Christ, and instead they went to church because that’s what they were expected to do.

But the era of Constantine did not die when our nation was founded. Though we articulate beliefs like the Separation of Church and State, it still says, “in God we trust” on our national currency, children still pledge their allegiance to the flag and country under God every morning before school starts, and we still have many courts where we must place our hands on a bible and are asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

So perhaps now is the time, the best time, to recover those qualities that will make the world hate us. Not the qualities of religious bigotry and prejudice that for too long have dominated the state’s view of the church. But the qualities of Christ-like love that drive the state crazy. Like refusing to bow and worship our country and our politicians as if they were gods, and instead worshipping the risen Lord. Like gathering together on a day set apart to hold ourselves accountable to honesty, truthfulness, and peace. Like sitting before a table of ordinary food of bread and wine that becomes the extraordinary gift of body and blood.

We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We might have national citizenship, but our true Lord is Jesus Christ. We are like strangers living in a strange land. Amen.

 

Controversy Original