Not To Boast, But…

2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of this call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

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“I’d like to come by and shoot a story about St. John’s.”

The producer from WHSV had called the church and when I heard his request through the phone I was both nervous and excited. A story. About St. John’s. On Television. But then I realized I needed to ask a question.

“About what exactly?”

We do a fair amount for our local community, but I had a feeling this request was for something else. And in the pit of my stomach I was worried that he wanted to do a story about the controversy series we recently finished. After two months of standing up in the pulpit and belaboring different points of friction, I was looking forward to leaving the controversies aside for a little while, and did not want to speak on behalf of a church where we are clearly divided over a number of issues.

But then he said, “I saw on your website that your church is hosting a communion service on Election Day, and I thought that was something more people should know about.”

He arrived about 30 minutes later with a bag full of camera equipment and a spiral bound notebook full of questions. He set everything up in the office and ran a microphone cable under the desk and into my lap to pick up on all of the dialogue. We tested for light and volume levels for a couple minutes, made sure I was in the frame, went over the specifics about looking at him and not directly into the camera, and then he pressed the record button.

“Tell me a little about the church…”

“Well,” I began, “Not to boast, but, this is the best church in the entire Shenandoah Valley. We’ve got a Preschool that has been in existence for about 30 years and has the greatest reputation for its education. The children are nurtured by our beloved teachers, they receive the necessarily information to excel when they leave for Kindergarten, and we strive to teach them about the virtues of love, grace, and mercy.

We have a solid youth group that meets on Wednesday evenings from 7-8pm for communion, discipleship formation, and bible study. The group contains the best and brightest kids from Staunton and they regularly out disciple me, their pastor. They have a hunger for the Word and are willing to vulnerably encounter one another in questions about their faith. To be honest, they give me hope for the future of the church because they believe in what we are doing almost more than most of the adults.

We have a lectionary bible study of which more than half of the attendees are not members of our church. Every week they gather in the room next door to read four scripture texts and prayerfully discern what God is saying to them through the text. They bring their experience and love of the bible to that group and all of us have grown in our faith because of that bible study.

On Sunday mornings we have some of the best worship that any church in Staunton has to offer. Our order of worship is streamlined for maximum impact, our hymns directly relate to the greater theme and narrative of worship, most of the time the sermons aren’t half bad, and we’ve got an organist who can really make our organ move and groove. The kind of hospitality that our church members extend to strangers and longtime members is worthy of imitation by all churches and they are truly the reason people come back week after week.

On any given week our building is used by a number of local civic organizations including girl scouts, cub scouts, and boy scouts. We have a quilt-for-a-cause team that regularly works on quilts that are then given away to local children in need. We’ve got a group of volunteers called the Cheer Team who take time to visit with those who are lonely or afraid in the community. We’ve got others who go to the Trinity Soup kitchen to cook and serve food to the homeless. We send a mission team of youth every summer to help different communities in need. We’ve got…”

“Just a little bit” he said. “Now,” he went on, “tell me about this Election Day communion service.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to know more about St. John’s? I really could go on, I was only really getting started.”

“No, let’s try to stay on task.”

So for the next 45 minutes he recorded as we went back and forth about the current state of politics in our country, we waxed lyrical about pamphlets and fliers we’ve received here at the church about who we should vote for as Christians, we explored the theological implications of a communion service in the midst of such political division, and we even discussed the practical matters of how much bread to purchase and how many people we should expect to attend.

All in all, we examined just about every aspect of the Election Day Communion service and when we had gone through all his questions, we shook hands and he left to get some exterior shots of the building. The last thing he said was, “It should be on the evening news in the next day or two.”

We don’t have cable at the parsonage, but you better believe I kept checking the WHSV website for the story about our church. With every click to reload the page I dreamt about how many people would see the wonderful descriptions of the church, I imagined how many people would hear all the things I boasted about, and I began picturing our pews filled to the brim on Sunday morning.

Two days later, the story finally appeared on in the news cycle. The opening shot was an image of our altar, the one right behind me, and as the news anchor began introducing the story my teeth chattered with excitement.

The anchor said, “St. John’s Pastor Taylor Mertins has this to say….”

Then the shot cuts to me in the office, with Star Wars figurines and works of theology on my shelves. Here was the big moment. And then I watched myself say, “We are going to pray for our political leaders whether it’s the person we voted for or not. That would be the most Christian thing we could do.”

And then it ended. 10 seconds. The vast majority of our conversation was left on the cutting room floor, and 45 minutes of bragging was reduced to a 10 second sound bite.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that WHSV came to do a story about our Election Communion Service, it will be a profound moment of unity in the midst of chaos and division, I only wish that everyone watching got to hear and experience all the things that make our church what it is.

And then I reread our scripture text for this morning.

2 Thessalonians is one of the earliest Christian documents that the church has. It is the second letter written by Paul to the church in Thessalonica. And apparently, the Thessalonians have their act together. Not only does Paul mention the fact that he gives thanks and prays for their little community, but also Paul boasts about their church to all the other churches. They are the city on the hill to which all the others churches should aspire to, they are the standard by which other churches should measure themselves, and they are worth bragging about.

But why did Paul choose to brag about them?

Was it the number of people they had in the pews on Sunday morning? Perhaps they had a remarkable preschool that was helping to shape the future? Maybe they had a youth group that met once a week for communion, fellowship, and bible study? Or perhaps they had streamlined their worship services to connect all of the hymns with the scripture, and the sermon, and the offering, and the prayers?

No.

Paul boasted about the Thessalonians because they remained steadfast in their faith in the midst of persecutions and afflictions. Paul boasted about their church because they grasped and lived into the mission of the church: to grow in love of God and love of neighbor.

We, the church, are a different people. We, the church, are an alternative form of community. Rather than being labeled and defined by the marks of culture that surround us – consumption, power, greed, political parties, nationalities, sexual identities, economics – we are like strangers living in a strange land.

What we value and desire is not what the world values and desires.

            What we proclaim and believe is not what the world proclaims and believes.

            What we worship and affirm is not what the world worships and affirms.

            We are a different people, we Christians.

Though the world may change, though new presidents may reside in the oval office, though new pastors can be sent to different churches, we grow in love of God and love of neighbor. That is our mission, and if anyone can say we love God and others, if that’s what they boast about, well that’s good enough.

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So perhaps, the ten-second sound bite about the Election Day Communion service is precisely what the community should know about our church. They don’t need to know about our different activities and ministerial programs, they don’t need to know the specifics of our Sunday liturgy, they don’t need to hear a forty-five minute speech about all the best things we’ve got going on at St. John’s.

All they need to know is that we are growing in love of God and neighbor by putting aside things like all of our political differences and joining together to feast at God’s table. Instead of being captivated by the world as the results pour in on Novembers 8th, we will be here loving one another and remembering that we worship the living God.

Therefore, maybe it is our sense of challenge, our willingness to return to this place Sunday after Sunday that connects us with the church in Thessalonica from so long ago. They suffered under persecution and affliction and were able to keep the faith. We wrestle with the competing narratives that vie for our allegiance and we keep the faith. Rather than falling prey to the whims of the world, instead of being consumed by the popularity of politics, we remember that we are God’s people. This land is going through a time of great division and schism, but because of God’s grace, we have not lost sight of who we are and whose we are.

To this end we pray, asking that God will continue to make us worthy of the call and that God will fulfill by His power every good resolve and work of faith so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, and us in him, according to the grace and mercy of God.

The mission of the church, and the mission of all Christians, is to love God and love others. That’s it. Amen.

 

Devotional – Luke 19.1-2

Devotional:

Luke 19.1-2

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
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In a few weeks many churches will celebrate All Saints Sunday. In the United Methodist Church we use it as an opportunity to prayerfully give thanks and reflect on the lives lost in the local church over the last year. Some churches will ring bells and read off the names of the dead, others will cover their altars with belongings from the deceased, and others will invite grieving family members to come forward and offer thoughts on those who died.

But when we think of the Saints of the church, we tend to think about incredible figures from church history: Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, etc. We think that to be saintly requires a life of such profound faithfulness that most of us will never come close to it. Therefore, the saints we daydream about are the ones also found in stained glass windows and famous paintings.

Saints, however, are the people who inspire us to be totally different. And more often than not, the truest saints are those who were once a lot like us, and were radically changed by an encounter with the living God.

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Zaccheaus is a beloved and often overlooked person from scripture. The wee-little tax collector, despised by the town, wanted to catch a glimpse of Jesus, so he climbed a tree. Jesus, upon seeing the man up above, called him down and invited himself over for dinner. This interaction fundamentally transformed Zacchaeus’ life and propelled him to return what he had taken “even four times as much.”

Some of God’s truest and most peculiar saints are much more like the little tax collector who recognized his weakness enough to climb a tree to catch a glimpse of the Messiah. Zacchaeus was a strange man and his interaction with Jesus was equally strange. The result of sitting together for a meal was enough to radically transform his life forever. But even in his strangeness, we catch glimpses of the truth; we begin our journeys of faith by recognizing our need, but doing something in response to that recognition, and then discover that the love and power of Jesus has transformed our lives in ways that we never could have anticipated.

Zacchaeus is the kind of saint who could inspire us to change our lives precisely because he is so much like us. If we were only inclined to confront our brokenness, climb a tree to catch a glimpse of the Lord (or walk into a church on Sunday morning), we might just hear Jesus say, “I’m going to your house today,” and our lives would be transformed.

Devotional – Luke 18.9

Devotional:

Luke 18.9

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Weekly Devotional Image

Jesus knew how to use his words. When he was surrounded by day laborers, he used parables about seeds and vineyards. When he encountered the wealthy and the elite, he used parables about banquets and wedding feasts. Even when he called the first disciples (fishermen) he knew to use imagery about fishing for people to drive the point home.

The stories and parables of Jesus are magnificent in their ability to convey a greater point about the kingdom of God in a way that is approachable and applicable. This is why some of the most memorable sermons we hear (even today) are those that confront and reimagine Jesus’ parables for our time.

However, the beauty and applicability of Jesus’ parables are also a fundamental challenge in that Jesus often used specific parables for specific people. The day laborers heard about seeds and fields because it would make sense to them in a way that it wouldn’t to someone so wealthy they ever had to enter the fields. Similarly, what Jesus says to the rich young man (sell your possessions and give the money to the poor) was meant for the rich young man. Yet, today, many of us preachers apply Jesus’ parables generally for all with ears to hear and not necessarily in the same specific manner that Jesus did.

The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is one that receives a pertinent introduction: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” This is to say that Jesus used this particular parable for a particular set of people because they needed to hear it. Yet, this Sunday, many preachers will take the time to preach these words to their congregations whether the people trust too much in their own righteousness or not.

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Jesus knew how to use his words, and sometimes we do not. In this particularly vitriolic political season we post Facebook statuses as if we hope someone who disagrees with us will read it and be transformed. We send snide emails to family members and friends with the belief that we are right, they are wrong, and our email will fix everything. We speak down to the people around us with mixed metaphors and problematic parables because we are so consumed by judgment that we forget what it means to “be” with others.

It is good and right for us to remember to listen when Jesus speaks whether Jesus’ words were meant for a particular group or not. For it is when we immediately assume that Jesus meant his words for someone we are bickering with, that Jesus is actually talking about us.

On Homosexuality

Leviticus 20.13

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Colossians 3.12-15

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

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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 has been different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of the sanctuary, we have confronted some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I have said something from this pulpit during the series that you don’t agree with, and I am thankful for the vulnerability and honesty that has been present in our conversations following worship. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we conclude the series with the topic of Homosexuality.

 

When someone rings the doorbell at St. John’s, you can hear it throughout the entire building. More often than not our wonderful church secretary will answer the door with a smile on her face and direct the person to their particular destination. We regularly have people down on their luck knock on our door looking for a little bit of financial help, sometimes we have people in the midst of a crisis who want to speak with a pastor, and every once in a while we have someone who is just interested in learning more about the church.

A couple months ago I was sitting in my office working diligently when the doorbell rang. I listened for the echoes down the hallway to discern what kind of interaction I was about to have when the secretary called my office and said, “Someone needs to talk to you.”

The visitor was an older woman, recently to Staunton, dressed to the nines with a gold cross hanging across her neck. When she offered her hand in order to introduce herself she had a subtle grandmotherly smell about her that immediately elicited visions of old books with tattered dust covers, prescription pill dispensers, and Vicks VapoRub.

She said, “I’m a United Methodist.”

            I said, “How wonderful, so am I.”

            She said, “I’m new to town, and I was just driving by and saw the sign out front and I thought I’d like to know more about the church.”

For the next thirty minutes we sat in the front pews of the sanctuary and I gave her the elongated elevator speech about St. John’s UMC. I pointed to the particularly pertinent aspects of our Christian architecture here in the sanctuary. I shared with her about the hilarity and joy of our Preschool that meets in the basement. I offered her reflective stories about the intellect of our Circle group of youth who are regularly more faithful than their pastor. I talked about our lectionary bible study that meets on Thursdays and how they contribute more to the sermon on Sunday mornings than they get credit for. And then I started to tell her about how we worship, how we let the Lord speak to us through scripture, hymns, prayers, and even sometimes the sermon.

When she asked about our attendance and giving, I proudly proclaimed our Sunday average and told her that we are about to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row. When she asked about the kind of people who participate in the life of the church, I told her the truth: that on Sunday mornings this placed is filled with the most beautiful and brilliant people Staunton has to offer.

For thirty minutes we discussed the ins and outs of the church, and for thirty minutes I watched her fall in love with the descriptions I shared. With every anecdote and short story I could see her seeing herself becoming a vital part of our worshipping community. Honestly, it was one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while and when it ended she said that she was eager and excited to join us in worship on Sunday morning.

We shook hands and said goodbye, but right before she made it to the door she turned around and said, “Just one more question… What do you think we should do about the gays?”

            Without hesitation I said, “I think we should love them.”

            “Well then,” she said with a sigh, “I won’t be coming back.”

Human sexuality, and in particular homosexuality, is one of the most polarizing issues in the United Methodist Church today. Like all of the controversies we have confronted over the last month and a half, it requires a tremendous amount of vulnerability and patience whenever it is discussed.

The controversy regarding homosexuality and the church is made manifest in a number of ways. For many, like the woman I met in the sanctuary, it is the defining question that determines whether someone joins a church or not. That specific conversation is not the only time I have been asked about the church’s stance on homosexuality in the middle of a conversation about joining or participating in the life of the church. In fact, during my second week at St. John’s, I received a phone call from the Newsleader inquiring whether or not I, as the pastor, offer sessions to counsel individuals out of their gayness. Which is to say, our local newspaper wanted to know if I could turn a homosexual into a heterosexual.

            But beyond church participation and local media questions, the controversy is one at the heart of what it means to wrestle with being a Christian today.

The United Methodist Church has a governing document called The Book of Discipline that is edited and republished every four years. In it we receive our organizational structure, the means by which individuals can become ordained clergy, and a host of other relevant church matters. In that book you can find the following statement regarding homosexuality: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers the practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The language in the Book of Discipline about the incompatibility of homosexuality has led the church to also assert that any bishop, clergy member, or local pastor may be tried (as in a church trial) when charged with the following offenses: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same sex wedding ceremonies.

So, to summarize, according to the United Methodist Church to be gay is to be incompatible with Christian teaching; you cannot be a clergy person if you are in a gay relationship, and clergy can be punished for marrying a gay couple.

When it comes to the bible, the witness of scripture is explicit regarding homosexuality. In Leviticus, God proclaims that anyone engaged in homosexual behavior is an abomination and should be put to death. In Paul’s letters, the sin of homosexuality is listed along the likes of envy, murder, deceit, gossip, slander, and faithlessness.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the United Methodist Church has taken the stance it has, and that many a preacher proclaim the incapability of homosexuality from the pulpits in the churches they serve.

At this point, I could point out that the few texts that do speak about homosexuality in scripture have been overly emphasized again and again whereas other biblically prohibited behaviors are tolerated. For instance, some of us like to eat shellfish, some of us have tattoos on our bodies, and some us have let our hair become unkempt (all worth punishment in scripture).

Or I could talk about how our country guarantees the rights of its citizens to not be discriminated against because of their sexuality, and how it has affirmed the constitutional right of its gay citizens to be married.

Or I could mention how many scientists and geneticists believe that one’s sexual identity is not a choice and is instead fundamentally wired into who they are through a particular gene.

Or I could bring up the fact that God, rather than condemning the marginalized and calling them incompatible, commands us to go to those on the fringes of society to be present with and for them.

Or I could make mention of the fact that Jesus [remember him?] says absolutely nothing about homosexuality in any of the four gospels.

But I won’t talk about that.

            Instead, I want to talk about repentance. Not the repentance the church thinks someone from the LGBTQ community should confess because of their identity. But the repentance the church desperately needs for singling out a particular community and denigrating them for decades.

175 years ago, many pastors across the United States preached sermons from their pulpits about how the bible reveals a divine sanction of slavery. There are plenty of verses in the Old and New Testaments that seem to affirm the subjugation of one people by another. We, as a church, were wrong.

60 years ago, many churches across the United States believed that scripture makes it clear that white churches should remain white. There are scriptures in the Old and New Testaments that can be interpreted to proclaim that society needs to be segregated and that birds of a different feather are not supposed to flock together. We, as a church, were wrong.

50 years ago, and still today, many Christians throughout the country believe that a literal reading of the bible makes plain God’s design for women to be submissive toward men. There are verses from the Old and New Testaments that can be understood to advocate for women to not have the same rights as men. We, as a church, were wrong.

And for all the wrongs we have committed, we confess and repent. We look back on the days long gone and shake our heads about how foolish we once were. We dig up old dusty sermons and can’t believe that a pastor would be so filled with hatred to single out a particular group of people and label them as property, or unworthy, or subordinate, or incompatible. We see the scars that are still very present in our society because of what the church once believed and for that we pray for God’s forgiveness.

            And we need to do it again today.

For too long, the church has abused its power to dominate and condemn particular people out of fear and bigotry. Pastors all across this land use pulpits like this one to isolate the LGBTQ community and tell them they are incompatible, they have no worth, and they have no value.

            Can you imagine what it would feel like to bravely take a step in faith to attend a Sunday worship service at a church only to hear that you are incompatible with Christian teaching?

Can you picture the pain and agony that would come if you felt God calling you to ordained ministry and the church said you’re wrong because of who you are?

Can you imagine the anger that would percolate inside you if you found someone you wanted to spend the rest of your life with and the church told you it would not be a part of your wedding?

If we’re honest, our answer is probably “no, we can’t imagine.” We can’t imagine what it would be like because we sit comfortably in our ivory towers of heteronormativity, assuming that the world would be a better place if other people looked like us, thought like us, and acted like us. But the beautiful and wonderful diversity of humanity is part of God’s divinely created order, and it is one that we foolishly try to fix on a regular basis.

Months ago, a woman wandered into this sanctuary to ask about the church, but what she really wanted to know was what we should do about the LGBTQ community. In her question, and response, I experienced the fear and loathing that is fundamentally disconnected from the love and grace and mercy of the living God. And I wish could go back and change my answer. Not because the answer I gave her was wrong, but there’s a better one.

“What do you think we should do about the gays?”

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We are supposed to bear with one another and forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven us. Above all, we are called to clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

If can’t agree that the least we can do is love them, then we have no business calling ourselves Christians.

Devotional – Genesis 32.28

Devotional:

Genesis 32.28

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

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I gather in the choir loft of the sanctuary with the entirety of St. John’s Preschool every Wednesday morning at about 9:30am. By that time the children have all had an opportunity to get out most of their “wiggles” before sitting down in the stiff church pews and learning a story about God from the Bible. I generally try to start the academic year off with stories from Genesis and make my way through up to the stories of Jesus leading toward Easter Sunday.

When we learn about God making light from Creation, we turn the sanctuary lights off and on and talk about what a great gift it is to have light. When we talk about Adam and Eve hiding from God after eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, we play hide and seek in the sanctuary and talk about how God never stops looking for us even when we’re lost. And this year, when I was foolish enough to teach them about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we played red light green lights in attempts to reflect on how God offers us the wisdom of when to go and when to stop.

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Last week we met in the sanctuary to talk about one of my favorite stories from Genesis: Jacob wrestling by the banks of the Jabbok river. Jacob has run away from his family after stealing and tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing and is about to reencounter his brother. But before he can meet his fate in Esau, a strange man arrives in the middle of the night and wrestles Jacob until he, in a sense, learns his lesson. And from this struggle he receives a new name: Israel.

In order to bring the story to life, I had the preschoolers line up one by one and each of them were tasked with knocking me over in a wresting match. They all came forward and gave it their best shot (some were oddly more prepared for this than others) and I would pick them up and spin them around in circles. When one of our last two year olds came forward, I let him knock me to the ground, but instead of pounding on me like some of the older kids, he wrapped his arms around my neck and hugged me.

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I was then able to stand up with the boy in my arms and tell the kids the most important part of the lesson: God loves us so much that even when we’re angry, God will never let us go.

To be a Christian today almost implies a degree of struggling with God. We want to know why a hurricane, like Matthew, can wage destruction in places like Haiti, the Bahamas, and the East Coast of the US. We want to know why our presidential political system is filled with such vitriolic and hateful language. We want to know why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people. Yet, even amidst all the struggle and questions, what a blessing it is to know that God’s love is so strong that God will never let us go.

On War

Matthew 5.43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

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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 the sanctuary, 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 topic of War.

 

The airfield was remarkably dark in the middle of the night so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were so many people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. Though he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated. 70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing,

But then Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

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But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to Syria to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

To follow Jesus, to be disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War, it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is very easy for me to stand up in this pulpit, in the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley, and preach about the virtues of pacifism. No one is dropping bombs on our picturesque community. We are not at risk for an invasion from a foreign oppressor.

It is easy to be a pacifist in America.

And we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled, otherwise people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

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On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

So where does that leave us? What are we to do about the controversy of War?

Right now, countless innocent lives are being killed in Syria as a result and consequence of War. For years, Syrians have struggled to escape their war-torn homes and find a new beginning somewhere else, but many of them are still there. The United States has largely remained uninvolved in the conflict due to diplomatic and militaristic complications. So I thought it would be the perfect example to bring up this week in one of our bible studies regarding the moral responsibility of our country. Should we send troops into Syria in order to prevent the loss of innocent lives? Should we remain isolated from the conflict?

I turned the question on the group and asked, “What are we to do as Christians?”

“We could take in more refugees.”

“We can advocate for better responses out of our politicians.”

“We can pray about it.”

Then I said, “Well, what if the United Methodist Church announced that it was sending 5,000 missionaries to Syria? We know how to send missionaries, we do it all the time.”

And someone responded by saying, “We can’t do that; they’d be easy targets.”

I’ll admit that we can’t do that, but not because they would be easy targets. We can’t go there and do that because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something that bold. But we once did.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back. Amen.

Controversy Original

From the Archive: The Power of Words

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One of the remarkable things about posting sermons online every week, is the fact that I can look at the statistics of which sermons receive the most attention. For instance: Over the last year my sermon titled, “What Does The Bible Say About Divorce?” is easily in the top three as well as a recent reflection on the Pledge of Allegiance.

But ever since I started posting sermons, there is one that has dominated in popularity. In August of 2013, in my second month as a pastor, I preach a sermon on Jeremiah 1.4-10 and I titled it, “The Power of Words.” Over the last three years thousands of people have come to the blog for this one particular sermon and yet there were only 80 people in church the day that I preached it.

Here is what I said…

 

Jeremiah 1.4-10

“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

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The Power of Words

Words are powerful. The perfectly timed phrase or expression can carry more meaning and accomplish more than just about anything else. From the pulpit they carry even greater value because they are so connected with the Word of the Lord. At their best words can be used in a fruitful way, demonstrating the kind of building-up that the bible often refers to, in order than we can affirm one another in love. At their worst, words can be used in a destructive way, hurting those around us, and ignoring the truth of God’s role in the world.

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany. This was the beginning of the Third Reich. Germany, the land that had produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler was known for using his words in public propaganda for destructive purposes. Some of you here this morning can remember how the world shuddered when this began to take place.

Two days after Hitler was elected, a twenty-six year old theologian name Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address throughout the German nation. The speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Though the talk was itself highly philosophical, it constructively argued against the type of leadership that Hitler would use for the next twelve years, inevitably leading a nation and half the world into a nightmare of violence and misery.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer spent a significant portion of his speech discussing the differences between a true leader, and the Fuhrer. He used his words in a calm and collected way, appreciating the power they held: A true leader must know the limitations of his/her authority. The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity. He puts them above himself, as a good parent does with a child, wishing to lead that child to someday be a worthy parent. Another word for this type of leadership is discipleship. “Only when we see that leadership is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, has the real situation been reached. The individual is responsible before God.”

Before Bonhoeffer could finish, the speech was cut off. Only two days after Hitler’s election, the Nazis were suppressing this young man who spoke out against the type of leadership that would come to define Germany over the coming decade.

What we find in the first chapter of Jeremiah is an encounter between the human and the divine. We discover how powerful words can be through God’s call. As the divine Word, God is a genuine and invisible otherness when compared to Jeremiah. During this particular encounter the word of the Lordcame to Jeremiah and the prophet meets in faith the God who meets him through the Word.

“Jeremiah! Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you, and before you were born Iconsecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! You cannot expect me to speak! I am only a boy.” But the Lord responded, “Do not say ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”

In his Word, God does not deliver a course of lectures on dogmatic theology, He does not submit the content of a creed of a confession of faith, and he does not even produce a perfectly prepared three-point sermon. Instead He makes himself accessible to us. An exchange takes place here in scripture that is beyond any analogy in the sphere of rational thinking. Instead, we have here a simple encounter, just like one between any two people, where God makes Himself available and known through relationship.

Jeremiah’s experience guides him into boundary, toward his own finitude, being reminded of his humanity, as over and against God. Jeremiah’s encounter is a reminder for us that we are not God. God is wholly other when compared with his creation. When Jeremiah meets God, his personality sinks away into the background; he feels his words being replaced by the Word of God. When we truly encounter the depth and beauty of the triune God, everything about us begins to sink away as well.

It is no wonder therefore why Jeremiah evades the commission of God. “Surely you can’t use me God, for I am only a boy.” Jeremiah protests because he is overwhelmed and intimidated by the call to set aside priests, princes, and people to become a prophet to the nations. He was afraid to proclaim the Word of God, which would go beyond the comprehension of his time.

This isn’t in scripture, but I can imagine God’s full response to Jeremiah’s evasion: “have you not seen and have you not heard what I have done with mere people? Have you forgotten the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What about Moses and Joshua? David was but a boy when I had him defeat the Philistines. Solomon became the wisest king to rule the nation All of the prophets, the judges, the priests? This isn’t about you Jeremiah, this is about what I am going to do through you.”

Recoiling from a divine appointment is common throughout scripture. It only takes a moment to remember Moses standing in the heat of the burning bush and then turning his face away because he was afraid to look at God.

The theologian Paul Tillich once said: “we always desire to escape God… People of all kinds, prophets and reformers, saints and atheists, believers and unbelievers, have the same experience.” It is safe to say that a person who has never tried to flee God has never experienced the truth of who God is.

God dismisses Jeremiah’s excuse; Young or old, learned or uninformed, handsome or ugly, none of things matter to God because they all pertain to our own self-centeredness: my powers, my status, mydesire to have reality on my terms. Because of the power in God’s Word Jeremiah does not react in silence, nor does he step aside to let someone else take his place, instead he steps into the situation, which has in a way stepped into him. He responds to the encounter of God, feels the Word of the Lord placed on his lips, and is prepared to do God’s work.

From this point forward Jeremiah will not go forth on his own terms; God will send him, and he will move according to God’s will. It is because of God working in and through Jeremiah that he will be able to speak and act in the specific situations as they arise. The encounter has changed Jeremiah so that he will be able to narrate God’s plucking up and planting again. Jeremiah will speak the truth of the Word of God regardless of whether or not they are agreeable to his youth, ambitions, moods, or self-examination.

It is only when it is made plainly clear to Jeremiah that the point at issue has nothing to do with his own abilities or the extent of his talents that the truth of God’s reign is made abundant and it becomes possible for Jeremiah to become a messenger.

Like Jeremiah, the young German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt the call of God to proclaim the Word. Things became very difficult for Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As the German nation descended into Fuhrer worship with the German church emphasizing politics more than theology, he struggled with how to be authentic to the Word of God as a pastor and a theologian. He trained young pastors through an underground seminary at Finkenwalde and preached about remaining faithful and obedient to God before anything else. As it became harder and harder for him to proclaim the good news in Germany, Bonhoeffer learned that war imminent and was frightened about being conscripted into the army.

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Bonhoeffer was a committed pacifist and was adamantly opposed to the Nazi regime, therefore he would never swear an oath to Hitler nor fight in his army. However, to refuse this would be a capital offense. It was at this time that Bonhoeffer accepted a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While in the United States Bonhoeffer had somewhat of a Jeremiah experience, because even though he had the freedom to run away from his calling in Germany, Bonhoeffer realized that his responsibility was to God with the German people. Just as God would pluck up and replant the Israelites in Jeremiah’s time, Bonhoeffer knew that the German nation would have to be destroyed in order for it to be fruitful once again. And so Bonhoeffer returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic before the war.

Upon arriving back in Germany, Bonhoeffer’s desire to speak powerful words against the Third Reich resulted in him being forbidden to speak publically starting in 1940 and he had to regularly report his activities to the police. Within a year he was forbidden to print or publish. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after making his radio address, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks and involvement with the Abwehr’s plot to undermine Hitler’s regime.

He remained in prison for two years, able to write letters and theology that were smuggled out by sympathetic guards.

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Though he remained hopeful for the end of the war and his eventual release, he was condemned to death in April of 1945. He was killed by hanging just two weeks before the United States liberated the camp where he was being held. Before his execution, Bonhoeffer was led away as he was concluding his final Sunday service and said to one of his fellow prisoners: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”[1]

I fear that whenever we hear stories of people like Jeremiah or Bonhoeffer we regard them as a special kind of people, set apart for the work God ordained for them. And to be quite honest, it is very unlikely that anyone of us in this room will ever be imprisoned, or suffer, for our Christian identity. But we are all called to be Jeremiahs and Bonhoeffers in our commitment to following Jesus Christ. Just like those two prophets God has formed us, consecrated us, and placed the Word on our lips.

There is a power in words that we regularly underestimate. The way that we often talk about other behind their backs carries with it a great destructive energy. When we ignore the truth of our interconnected as the body of Christ in this place by speaking poorly of one another does a disservice to the God who formed you from the womb. Our words are powerful, use them wisely.

So too, there is a power in the words that we use to affirm and address one another in love; By caring for and reaching out to those around us we continue to live out the kind of fruitful lives that God has always envisioned for us. This church is called to be a place where we understand the power of our Words and use them appropriately.

Do not be afraid of this power that God has given to you. Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer did not go in their own strength and neither do you. They did not speak on their own authority and neither do you.God is our strength and our authority. “I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” The thoughts of our selfish lives can be cast away to the side so that we can assume the proper posture as messengers of God. As Paul wrote to the Galatians “Yet not I, but Christ working in me” (Gal. 2.20).

Throughout their lives both Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer saw the collision of powers in the world. What defined them was their ability to see God’s decisive acts in history, remembering that God is the true authority over all things in spite of the powers that dominated their cultures. Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer were ordinary people. They were just like us. They were living their lives, expecting everything to be fine when God put something on their lips to say. Hearing and responding to the Word of God is a difficult thing, but God is always speaking and our response to that Word will define us as a people of faith, hope, and love.

Do not be afraid to speak the truth, for the Lord is with you.

Amen.