The Christian Problem With (Nuclear) War

Following Jesus, being 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 far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. Or at least it was until world leaders started threatening each other with Thermonuclear War this week…

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Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, 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 Emperor 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 North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

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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.

This week President Trump’s declared that if North Korea continues to provoke the Unites States we will respond with a power the likes of which the world has never seen. And in response to President Trump’s words, Christians on the left and the right have responded with bombastic language (pun intended).

On the right there have been pastors coming out to announce that God has given President Trump the right and the authority to wipe North Korea off the map. And on the left there have been Christian pacifists who have declared that the President is out of his mind and that we are on the brink of annihilation because of his crass words. However, we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if war-hungry Christians use scripture to defend nuclear aggression or if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled. Otherwise the world will become a heap of ashes or 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?

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.

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.

Devotional – 1 Peter 4.13

Devotional:

1 Peter 4.13

But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

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“Who are you?” That is without a doubt one of my favorite questions to ask, because the way someone responds to that simple question says a lot about how the individual understands who he/she is. If I asked you the question right now, how would you respond? Recently, I’ve discovered that when I ask the question, the first response is almost always “I’m an American.”

This is, of course, true for many people in the context I serve, and it speaks volumes about priorities and identities. If someone’s immediate response was “I’m a mother” or “I’m a father” we could assume that they understand their parental role as their most important and therefore the identity they identify with most. Similarly, if someone’s response was “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat” we could assume their political identity is their most important identity.

And answering with “I’m an American” can be a good and right thing, but if that is our first thought or response, it often shapes our understanding of Christianity rather than the other way around.

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Over the last few months I’ve heard a lot of people talk about their fears regarding change in the cultural ethos and most of it has to do with feeling safe. For instance, “We need to have that wall on the southern border to keep us safe” or, “We should’ve elected Clinton because she would’ve kept us safe.” But as Christians, being consumed by a desire to remain safe is strange and almost unintelligible; we worship a crucified God!

Peter calls the church to “rejoice insofar as you are sharing in Christ’s sufferings.” In America, as Americans, we fell so safe in our Christian identities that we assume being a Christian and being an American are synonymous. Therefore we are more captivated by a national narrative (Freedom, Capitalism, Democracy) than by the Christian narrative (Suffering, Patience, Penitence). But to call ourselves disciples implies an acknowledgement that, if we want to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, we might find ourselves on top of a hill with a criminal on our left and on our right.

Taking our faith seriously is a difficult thing to do when it appears normative in the surrounding culture. Instead we fall captive to the other narratives that we believe dictate our lives. But the truth is that God is the author of our salvation, that the Holy Spirit determines our lives far more than any country, and that Jesus is our Lord.

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Devotional – Jeremiah 23.1

Devotional:

Jeremiah 23.1

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.

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The last week has been crazy. People on both sides of the political aisle are filled with anger, fear, and resentment. Those who voted for Donald Trump are being attacked for the political opinions and those who voted for Hillary Clinton are protesting the results of the election across the country. Many Republicans and Democrats are being led astray by false shepherds who seek to destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture through calls for violence and manipulation.

However, there are some who are seeking to lead God’s sheep in ways that lead to life. One of those shepherds is a former youth, and now college student, from St. John’s named Danielle Hammer. While others were flocking to Facebook in order to shout their political joy or disappointment into the fray of social media, Danielle wrote a post that makes me proud to call her my friend and my sister in Christ. This is what she said:

“This election has caused so much uproar among our American communities. We have heard of the hate crimes and violence that has occurred. It is genuinely terrifying, and I think we need to take a moment and sit down with God and pray. Lend God your anxieties and concerns, because God is listening to your cries and God holds the future. How comforting it is to know that no matter what happens here on earth, our Lord God knows our destiny. And yet, we need to make peace in this world. Compliment someone, pay for someone’s meal, help someone carry their groceries, or any other act of kindness that will show someone that there is still kindness and love in this world. Volunteer in your community. Stand up for your beliefs. Be a listening ear for those who need it. These small but significant acts add up, and they brighten the day of people who might be upset. Showing God’s love is timeless, and no matter who is in office, we need to radiate God’s love to others. So keep on radiating kindness in your life, and pray for those who are living in hatred or fear.”

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Oh that we could reject the false shepherds who lead us astray, and instead remain steadfast in our willingness to follow the Good Shepherd! For the Good Shepherd is the one who goes before us on the way that leads to life. In our discipleship, in our following, we radiate God’s kindness toward all people. We look for the ways that we can speak up for the disenfranchised, the poor, and the marginalized. We seek the peace that allows all of us to dwell together in unity. We pray for the Lord to give us the courage to show God’s love toward all people.

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.”

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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.

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.

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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 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

God, Stanley Hauerwas, and the Fourth of July

Today our nation celebrates the Fourth of July. Untold sums of people will adorn themselves in red, white, and blue to celebrate the freedoms we hold so dear. It is one of those rare days that entire communities, though regularly separated over things like race and socioeconomic status, will join together to remember how our country got started.

As a Christian, and particularly as a pastor, I often wonder about the celebration of the Fourth of July and what it says about the church. Stanley Hauerwas, the Christian ethicist, has wrestled with it as well. This is what he has to say about this holiday in his sermon titled, “God and the Fourth of July” from his book Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries.

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“For Christians, the Fourth of July is not our day. It is not “not our day” because Christians must oppose nationalism, though we should. It is not “not our day” because America is an imperial power whose use of the military is increasingly indiscriminate and disproportionate, though as Christians committed to peace that is a development we must oppose. The fourth is not a problem for us because of what we are against; it is a problem because our desires have been formed by our Lord. We are simply so consumed by the consummation of Christ with his bride, the church, that we find celebrations like the Fourth of July distracting.

“But, the bands and the fireworks are so undeniably entertaining. I am not suggesting we should avoid such entertainment. No, I will not tell you that. However, I will point out that if such entertainment seems more compelling that the celebration of this meal we are about to share together then we have a problem. For in this Eucharist God gives to us the very body and blood of his Son so that our desires will become part of God’s desire of his world. This is the end of all sacrifice, particularly the sacrifices made in the name of nations, so that we can rest in the presence of one another without fear, envy, and violence. In this meal, the beauty of our Lord blazes across the sky, rendering pale all other celebrations. So, come and taste the goodness and the beauty of our God, and, in so consuming, may we be a people who may even be able to enjoy the Fourth without being consumed by it.” – Stanley Hauerwas

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As Christians, what are we celebrating when we celebrate our freedom? Is it our freedom from the monarchic rule of England almost 250 years ago? Or are we be celebrating our freedom from the destructive powers of sin? Are we celebrating our freedom to drink beer, have a BBQ, and blow stuff up? Or are we celebrating our freedom from the shadow of death?

Make the Church Great Again

Psalm 146

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!

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In the beginning, we met in people’s homes. The church wasn’t even called the church; it was called “ecclesia” which means a gathering. The earliest disciples of Jesus gathered together in homes to retell the story, break bread together, and engage in prayer.

As the centuries passed and the Good News spread across the world, gathering spaces called churches were erected in certain communities. Through this period, we met for worship in whatever church was closest. In didn’t matter if we didn’t agree with what the person at the front said, or even if we hated the people in the pews next to us, we only really had one option for church and it was good enough.

Today, in the American context, we have every possible flavor of church you could ever want. In our town alone there are at least 87 different churches within the city limits. We are no longer bound to attend church based on proximity; instead we attend church based on denominational affiliation, pastoral performance, and opportunities for youth. Whereas we once gathered as a truly diverse community of faith, we now tend to gather with people who make us comfortable and appear just like us. Whereas we used to be stuck with the church in our neighborhood, now there are websites dedicated to church reviews and helping people find the church that fits them best.

This week, I got online and I started reading church reviews from all over the country. After all, it could only help to see what people think of other churches to get an idea about what many of you might think about St. John’s. And, I’ve got to be honest; most of them are awful…

“Absolutely doumbfounded. Checked this church out for the first time today, and really wish I had read some of the other reviews first. It was creepy how strangers kept smiling and maintaining eye contact even after the service started. I lost track after 15 people introduced themselves. And the sermon was about nothing more than tithing. The ushers passed around cards talking about a “90 day challenge” … giving 10% of your income to that church for three months, but that’s not all folks, it said, “if you don’t feel blessed after those 90 days, there is a money back guarantee!!!” It felt more like an infomercial than a worship service. But they did share how they are giving away a free cruise on Father’s day weekend… The thing I regret most is not walking out of there in the middle of the service.

“Young people ruined the church. God used to be the foundation of our community and members got to know each other until they came and everything went downhill. The new young families came in wearing blue jeans and tee shirts; they were disrespectful of what it means to be holy. My heart is heavy that my church has become just another soulless generic space in hipsterland.”

“This was the worst restaurant ever. First of all, their bread was terribly sweet, and they make you literally stand in line for it. Then, you wait in line to dip your bread into a cup of what tastes like decades old grape juice. There was no main course. I sat in a stiff wooden bench for an hour before I was able to eat and there was a man wearing a dress who shouted the whole time. It was free however, though they asked for donations near the end and passed around a plate. I give it 1 star, and do not recommend it to anyone.”

However, I found one review that was so positive that I had to share it:

“In my life, I have never been with a group of people who were so fired up to make positive changes in the world. The entire experience was surreal, in the best way possible. There was a lady near me who came up at the beginning and wanted to know all about me. I honestly didn’t know it could be this exciting. I loved that the speaker didn’t need to use notes while he was talking. It felt genuine and meaningful and he even encouraged us to shout back when we felt the need to do so. Other people might make comments about how the parking lot was crowded but I think that’s a good thing! I’ve gone to gatherings like this my whole life, and for the first time I feel like we’re moving in the right direction and I left feeling charged up for action. It’s time to make America great again!”

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That last review was a mash-up of descriptions from two recent political rallies centered on presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. After reading negative church reviews for an hour, it shocked me that gatherings in support of the next president of the United States were garnering better reviews than households of God. And even more than their positive language, what they described appears like a perfect worship service; except for the fact that they are worshipping politicians rather than almighty God.

From the beginning we have looked for other people to take care of our needs. Whether it was in the Garden, or just the other day in Staunton, it is part of our human condition to rely on the “other” to help us. This is even more prevalent when it comes to our modern days “princes” otherwise known as politicians.

Now there isn’t anything inherently wrong with politicians: they stand before us and tell us what they will do for us. We vote for them and they represent our interests. Our failure is in our tendency to look for politicians to be our saviors.

The psalmist knew this basic fact of the human condition. The Hebrew people wanted kings just like all the other gatherings of people and so they got what they wanted. But in raising political leaders to be saviors they committed the ultimate sin that we still commit today: believing that we can save ourselves.

Praise the Lord! Do not put your trust in politicians, in feeble and broken individuals. When their breath departs, when their days come to an end, their plans perish. However, the Lord endures forever. Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord, who keeps faith forever, who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.

God is the one from whom our help will come. God is a nurse who opens the eyes of those who refuse to see. God is a social worker who lifts up those who are bowed down under the weight of the world. God is a political activist who sets the prisoners free and watches over all foreigners. God is the one who reigns and remains steadfast forever.

The question for us, the question the psalm begs us to ask is this: Who do we really worship?

A few weeks ago the General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in Portland, Oregon, and among other things, they voted on a global annual budget. From now until 2020 the global United Methodist church projects needing and spending $604 million dollars. This money will be used in a variety of ways to support the denomination’s mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

The number, I’ll admit, is staggering. However, it pales in comparison to the 1 billion dollars that has been raised and spent in the 2016 presidential race. Add that to the countless hours we have spent glued to the television during debates, or the infinite number of Internet articles that support the candidate of our choosing, or just the mind-boggling number of bumper stickers and yard signs in Staunton alone and you will start to realize who we really worship.

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It’s time to make the church great again. Not by going back to the days of old to be what we once were, but to look boldly to the future and believe that God can save us, not politicians, not public leaders, not even pastors. Can you imagine how much good the church could do if it was supported like a presidential campaign? Can you picture how many lives could be changed for the better if we worshipped the Lord the way we worship our politics?

God can use politicians to bring about God’s will on earth, but there is a limit to what they can accomplish. Moreover, the longer we wait for our politicians to save us, the longer we pass the buck on to someone else, the longer we will prevent God from using people like us to make the kingdom come here on earth. Believe it or not, God uses people like us to work for justice, feed to the hungry, love the outcasts; watch over strangers, orphans, and widows. As disciples of Jesus Christ our work is to act like Jesus.

If you get online and search for reviews of St. John’s, you won’t find any. Trust me, I looked. Either we haven’t offended people enough, or we haven’t inspired people enough to write a review of a “worship experience.” But maybe, just maybe, there are no reviews of St. John’s because we know the church is not something to be done and reviewed. We know the church isn’t like a restaurant or business that we can experience at our leisure. We know the church isn’t like a political party that makes promises that cannot be kept. We, after worshipping in these pews – offering these prayers – eating this bread and drinking from this cup, we understand that church isn’t about what we get out of it, but instead it’s about what God gets out of us.

If we really want to make the Church great again, then we need not look further than this table and the meal that has been prepared for us. For it is here, where heaven and earth meet for a brief moment, where we confess and are reconciled, that we remember how the Lord is the one who lifts us up when we’re down; how the Lord opens our eyes when we are blinded by the world; how the Lord reigns forever. Praise the Lord! Amen.