The Insanity of the Gospel

Mark 3.20-35

And the crowds came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes you came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” 

This is a difficult passage.

We’re still relatively early in the gospel story: Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan. Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights. Jesus sets out in the place of Galilee proclaiming the Good News of God, calls disciples, cures the sick, makes some pronouncements about the Law, and word starts spreading. Fast.

So much so that the crowds kept coming together to see, and hear, and experience more of this Jesus to the degree that people couldn’t even eat because there wasn’t enough room. And when Jesus’ family found out, they were less than enthusiastic.

Scripture puts it this way, “They went out to restrain him because they thought he had gone out of his mind.”

Immediately, the scribes come busting in from Jerusalem taking Jesus to task for all of his actions and words and Jesus responds to all their accusations with parables.

“You think I’m wild? You think I have Beelzebul? How can I cast out demons if I am a demon? Kingdoms divided cannot stand, nor can divided houses. You can go on and on all you want but let me tell you, sins are being forgiven, and the only thing you have to do is accept it. If you don’t want any part of forgiveness, no worries, you can blaspheme the Spirit all you want.”

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers came in order to get him in order when Jesus delivers the sting: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

I know I’ve preached on this text at least four times and I’ve never really been satisfied with whatever I attempted to say. This is all just so foreign to our ears. Beelzebul? Satan? Demons? We’re respectable Methodists! We don’t talk about such strange things here!

And that’s not even getting into the tricky and rather confounding nature of Jesus’ rejection of the family unit, upon which everything seems to be founded in our society.

This little brief anecdote toward the beginning of the Gospel, the early stages of Jesus’ ministry, is filled to the brim with both conflict and confusion. It forces us, whether we like it or not, to confront the difficulties involved with following Jesus.

And yet, it is still hilariously Good News.

Clashing with religious authorities seems to be Jesus’ cup of tea. Whether it’s eating with the wrong people, or working on the wrong day, or simply saying the wrong things to the wrong people on the wrong day, controversy abounds.

Basically, the people with power didn’t like him.

Whenever they heard Jesus preach about the Kingdom of God, whenever he went about from town to town, the authorities didn’t say, “Oh, he’s so sophisticated. Have you ever heard such an articulate son of a carpenter in all your life?”

No. They said he was out of his mind. 

But Jesus wasn’t out of his mind. He wasn’t a stark raving lune. It’s just that the stuff he said sounds incompatible with reality whenever he is heard from the stand point of what the world teaches us to regard as good, right, and proper.

Everywhere he went, Jesus proclaimed and enacted and embodied a very different sort of reality than the one we’ve convinced ourselves we have. Jesus points to a different world that runs completely counter to all of our expectations for life. 

That reality is called The Kingdom of God, in which the first are last and the last are first – the weak are strong and the strong are weak – the lowly are lifted up and the mighty are brought down.

Jesus is all about reversal. The psalms talk about it as the hills being made low and the valleys being raised up. And it’s for talk of such things that everyone thought Jesus was out of his mind, his family included.

And perhaps they had a point. 

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and I am willing to die for my sheep.”

That’s not a plan for a strong business model, but instead its a recipe for disaster. 

Jesus says, “I am the fatted calf slaughtered for the celebration of the prodigal’s forgiveness.”

That doesn’t sound like a program for do-goodery, but instead its an undeserved celebration.

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life, and whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.”

Um, Jesus, cannibalism is inadvisable and even if it’s spiritual, you can’t just give yourself away for free…

Consider this Jesus – No seminary education. He never published a book. He lived with his parents until he was thirty years old. He never held a steady job, never owned a home, never saved away for retirement. He was known for going to a lot of parties with twelve unattached men and was regularly accused of disturbing the peace.

No wonder everyone thought he was out of his mind. 

And it doesn’t stop there! 

Listen to the Lord: You can only grow up by turning and becoming like a child.

You can only win by losing.

You can only receive by giving.

You can only live by dying.

Um… Thanks Jesus, but have you got anything else to offer us?

Blessed are you who are poor. Happy are you who are hungry. Congratulations are in order for those at the very bottom of life.

And this is the Lord to whom we pledge our allegiance!

Do you remember what St. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi? Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

Paul doesn’t write to the early church about the need to have the best mind, or going off to study all the important subject under the sun. No, he said, “Think like Jesus!”

And what happened to Jesus for thinking like Jesus?

His family tried to restrain him and the religious elites called him into question. Eventually, his disciples abandoned him. And, in the end, we killed him for it.

The crowds were fine with most of what Jesus said and did. Who wouldn’t want to see the hungry filled with good food, or the naked clothed with the finest wares? Who wouldn’t want to see the sick healed and the outcast welcomed back?

But when Jesus started to push into the territory we call the Kingdom of God, people got all sorts of upset. 

It’s one thing to talk about raising the lowly, but it’s another thing entirely to talk about bringing down the mighty. It’s one thing to talk about the inauguration of a new reality, but it’s another thing entirely when you start publicly entrusting that kingdom to a bunch of would-be fishermen and tax collectors. It’s one thing to talk about the virtues of forgiveness, it’s another thing entirely when you’re actually asked to forgive the very people who have wronged you. 

But “out of mindedness” is rather contagious. At least, it has been in the realm of the church. Get one taste of that body and blood, receive a foretaste of the grace that knows no end, and you can’t really ever go back.

If you think about it, one of the great joys of the Christian faith is that it’s actually quite fun to have our minds messed up by Jesus. We have the great fortune of being freed from the expectations of reality in order to live into a kingdom in which we are no longer defined by what we failed to do and instead are defined by what has been done for us.

The church really is a new understanding of the way things can be. 

It might not be easy for us to receive, but the proclamation that those who do the will of God are the family of Jesus is great Good News. It means that water is thicker than blood. That is – we have a solidarity with people beyond our biological connections. Baptism incorporates us into something we would never otherwise have.

It implies a desire to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It means that no matter what you’ve done or left undone, the church is a community of people who will always be there for you.

Could there be any better news than that?

But wait, there’s more!

Because the real hilarity behind the Good News in our text is this: we often say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. And for us humans, that’s probably true. How many of us have endeavored to initiate a diet only to sneak that extra piece of cake when no one was looking? How many of us have set out to live by a strict budget only to go further into debt? How many of us have made internal promises to make the world a better place only to wake up to a world that is seemingly worse than it was the day before?

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting something to change might be definitionally living outside of our minds. 

But what about for God?

God, unlike us, delights in impossible possibilities. The insanity of the Gospel is that, over time, God actually changes us. We are not what we once were because God will not let us stay that way. God, through bread and wine, through water and Spirit, is making all things new.

Including us!

The liturgy, the practice of week in and week out, using the same words and saying the same prayers, isn’t an act of craziness. It is, instead, a fundamental belief in possibility. It is the habituation and embodiment of things not yet seen. It is, literally, Good News.

Jesus responds to the accusations and the attacks from the crowds, from the religious elites, and even his family by saying that whoever does the will of God is his family. The will of God, the claim that incorporates and institutes the church, is a reign of forgiveness.

And forgiveness might be the craziest thing of all.

Everything about the way we live is a denial of the power of forgiveness. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of an eye for an eye. But the only thing that an eye for an eye accomplishes is an entire society of people who cannot see. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of believing that we should, and must, view one another through our mistakes, our failures, and our shortcomings. But doing so only leads to walls of division rather than avenues of connection. We’ve got our minds stuck in the rut of assuming that things will largely stay the same. But living as such is what makes things stay the same!

Forgiveness is an entirely different reality constituted by the behavior of the Lord. For, though we deserve it not one bit, God delights in forgiving us. God took each and every one of our sins past, present, and future, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.

Living in the light of forgiveness, that is: doing the will of God, is the recognition that our identities are not based on the ways in which we fail. 

That’s the joy of Christianity – it is an ever present and unconditional starting afresh and anew in the light of God’s grace rather than the shadow of our mistakes. 

So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven! Let us rejoice in the knowledge that Christ has messed up our minds! Amen. 

The Scandal of Particularity

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Mikang serves at Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including biblical names, rare words, faithful mentoring, real fear, holy moments, being surprised by the church, the scandal of particularity, and the confounding nature of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Scandal of Particularity

Start Acting Like A Child!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [B] (Isaiah 61.10-62.3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4.4-7, Luke 2.22-40). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Gift-giving, church complaints, Christmastide, loud voices, cowbell, praying for the land, the Gospel in 4 verses, public displays of piety, intergenerational ministry, outrageous grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Start Acting Like A Child!

The Complimented Community

1 Thessalonians 5.11 

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 

“What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?”

It might seem like a rather innocuous question, but it’s one I ask people all the time. Before the pandemic it was one that I would drop on a crowded table at a dinner party, and now it is one that I offer up during Zoom sessions. And people have a hard time answering the question. That people struggle to answer the question points to two things: 1) We are (often) uncomfortable with speaking positively about ourselves and; 2) We live in a world filled with criticism which leaves little room for encouragement.

Right now, in the midst of a pandemic, on the other side of a vitriolic presidential election, it is essential to make more time to be present with others even though it is complicated by our current situation. Moreover, supporting others with our presence and our encouragement  is crucial at a moment like this because so many of us derive our meaning and value through what we do and we no longer know who we are outside of what we do. 

For me, personally, it’s been a joy (and somewhat overwhelming) to get on my computer every Sunday morning because so many of my closest friends are pastors. Therefore, when I scroll through Facebook and Twitter I am bombarded with all sorts of different churches and all sorts of different preachers. The joy comes in knowing that I get to experience other churches in a way that would otherwise be impossible.

And so, while preparing for my own online worship, I will take time each Sunday to scroll around on social media and listen for a few minutes to a number of different preachers and then I will send each of them a few sentences about what I enjoyed or appreciated or valued from their particular proclamation.

This has become an important habit of mine throughout the pandemic and it has been extremely disheartening to hear back from people who have received my encouragement with words like, “You’re the only person who has sent me anything positive about what I’ve been doing.”

I recognize that this is a particularly pastoral experience, but I can’t help but imagine how much this kind of environment is also present in those who live and work outside the church.

And it’s led me to wonder about what would happen if the countless laypeople and the countless pastors across the land gave time every day to the good work of building one another up particularly during a time such as this. 

When St. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica he encouraged the people called church to encourage one another and build up each other. This was not simply a good community building exercise – it rests at the heart of what it means to be the body of Christ for one another and for the world. We, the church, are at our best when we are doing the work of complimenting one another so that we can begin to see ourselves the way God sees us!

So, this week, I encourage you to encourage someone else (or multiple people) – offer unsolicited compliments simply for the sake of the Gospel. 

After all, one quick note of encouragement or compliment could be the difference that makes all the difference. 

Like A Thief In The Night

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Lindsey Baynham about the readings for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Judges 4.1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11, Matthew 25.14-30). Lindsey serves as the Director of the Center for Clergy Excellence in the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our conversation covers a range of topics including talented theology, judging Judges, transformed leadership, reoriented posture, Advent all the time, problematic language, ecclesial encouragement, paradoxical parables, and justice in the Kingdom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Like A Thief In The Night

Election Playlist

The crew from Crackers & Grape Juice has started putting together a bi-monthly newsletter with exclusive essays and sermons from some of our favorite theologians. My humble contribution is a playlist. You can sign up for the newsletter here: CGJ+ and you can check out my playlist for Election Day below…

Sufjan Stevens – America

The Strokes – Bad Decisions

Kevin Morby & Waxahatchee – Farewell Transmission

“America” is the lead single from Sufjan Stevens’ most recent album The Ascension. It is a 12.5 minute protest song against the sickness of American culture and it crescendos into a rather cathartic reflection on disillusionment and the loss of faith in the nation. It contains all of the classic Sufjan-esque elements that have made his career what it is from pulsing synths to layered recorders to an ear worm of a chorus.

On the morning of the presidential election in 2016, I drove to my local polling station (a Seventh Day Adventist Church) and after depositing my vote into the machine I looked up to see a mural of Jesus laughing his ass off; it was perfect. Stanley Hauerwas reminds us that we get the politicians we deserve and that, in spite of our best and even worst attempts, democracy is a highly coercive way to do things – particularly when 50.1% of people get to tell 49.9% of people what to do. “Bad Decisions” from The Strokes reminds me of this problem. 

Kevin Morby and Katie Crutchfield’s (Waxahatchee) cover of Jason Molina’s “Farewell Transmission” is a haunting and holy tribute to a great songwriter who died at the age of 39 from alcohol abuse-related organ failure. My favorite lyric comes about midway through the song, and I think the words are particularly fitting for the time we find ourselves in: “The real truth about it is no one get it right / The real truth about it is we’re all supposed to try.”

Time After Time

Matthew 5.1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kings of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

The day after the 2016 presidential election:

Thousands of angry citizens in California gather to protest against the election of Donald Trump. Though initially peaceful, the protest eventually turns violent as the crowds begin attacking the police and lighting dumpsters on fire. As tear gas is fired into the crowd, a chant starts to rise, “Kill Trump, Kill Trump, Kill Trump!”

Meanwhile, a woman walks into a Wal-mart in the Midwest while wearing her religious hijab. She goes up and down the aisles picking out her items when another woman walks up, grabs her by the shoulder while pointing at her hijab and says, “That would look a lot better around your neck! This is our country now!”

Meanwhile, a man is driving through a suburb of Chicago when a crowd of young men surrounds his car, pulls him from the vehicle, and drags him through the streets. They attack him because he has a Trump sticker on his bumper, and in the videos taken by on-lookers you can hear the young men shouting, “You voted for Trump, and now you’re going to pay for it!”

Meanwhile, white students at a Junior High School in Michigan form a human wall to block minority students from entering the building. There are shouts of “go back to your country” and “we’re going to make America great again.”

Presidential elections tend to bring out the worst in us. 

Or, to use Paul’s language, it’s times like these that we are reminded “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”

Time after time, it seems this is our fate. We, that is Christians, are content to gather, whether online or in-person, with people of differing political persuasions so long as we never address those differences and then, after an election, we hope things will tone down and we can get back to living life.

And yet, as Christians, we are already living in the time after time. God in Christ made, and still makes, time for us and has quite literally changed time forever.

It’s just that sometimes we don’t act like its true.

Today Christians across the globe are gathering for All Saints. All Saints is a day set apart, a different time, in remembrance of the dead – it is an opportunity for the church to offer witness to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives. 

It is a radical moment in terms of the liturgical calendar, rivaled only by the radical words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel.

The so-called beatitudes have always been a source of comfort and hope for the people called church. Though, at times, we have inverted them to be descriptions of how we’re supposed to behave. We lift them up over the heads of dozing Christians and explain that if they want to join the community of saints, this is how you have to live.

But what Jesus describes in his Sermon on the Mount, both in the beatitudes and in the descriptions of behavior following, like turning the other cheek and praying for one’s enemies, they don’t describe what “works.”

Seeking righteousness in a world full of self-righteousness, and praying for the person persecuting you, tends to lead to more self-righteousness and more harm.

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount isn’t a to-do list to make the world a better place. Instead, it is a description of who God is. 

The poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, they are blessed not because they’ve earned it or deserve it, but simply because it is God’s good pleasure to do so. 

To put it simply, the idea behind this crazy thing called church is that we might worship the Lord as well as learn what it means to exist as a beatific community in exile where the mourning, the meek, and the merciful are blessed.  

The people called church are in the world, but not of the world.

The people called church are constituted and bound not by political documents, but by the Lord of heaven and earth.

The people called church are a community that has learned that to live in a manner described by the Sermon on the Mount requires learning to trust others to help us live accordingly.

To put it even simpler terms: the object of Jesus’ words to the crowds that day, and to us today, is to create dependence – it is to force us to need one another.

But, most of us don’t want to need anyone else. We’ve been spoon fed a narrative of self-determination since birth and we can’t stand the idea of having to rely on others.

And this is why the beatitudes will never make sense to those outside the people called church. Jesus’ words are only intelligible, and therefore advisable, in light of the cross and the empty tomb.

Otherwise, they are garbage.

But in the church, we are reminded over and over again that we are dependent on one another and the Lord, and that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can make it through this thing called life on our own.

The church is at her best when we can speak and hear the truth about the condition of our condition, that we are sinners in need of grace, that we are all in need of help and mercy, and that we all need one another far more than we think we do.

But that is not how we are used to hearing about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If we hear about it at all, it is usually a brief reflection about how there are merely suggestions for how we should live or they are only meant for the super faithful among us, the Mother Teresas and the Mister Rogerses.

In short, we’re told the Beatitudes describe the saints.

The challenge for us, unlike most sermons proclaimed and received today, is that we cannot divorce this message from the messenger. Because, unlike preachers today (myself included), Jesus did not just say these words about some group of people sometime in the future; he, in himself, is the inauguration of the new time.

Jesus is the Messiah of the beginning and the end. Through his death and resurrection he has made it possible for us to live according to these confounding words not by our own effort, but by the Spirit moving through us.

And, saints (that is: all disciples) are not those who are the super best Christians of all. Saints are simply those who have already died in baptism to be raised into a new life where the impossibility of Jesus’ words not only become possible, but become real. 

Which is just another way of saying, we’re all in this crazy thing called church together.

Presidential elections may bring out the worst in us, but they also remind us of who we are: sinners in need of grace. Contrary to how the talking heads might want us to think, the world does not hinge on our elections. God has been God a whole lot longer than we’ve been picking and choosing leaders, and God will be God long after we cast our final votes.

As Christians, we believe that Jesus is Lord – that means we believe that God is God regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. And, pertinently, it means we believe God is calling us to live according the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which includes praying for our enemies.

Can you imagine? Christians praying for the people they disagree with?

Sadly, that’s at the heart of what it means to follow the Lord and it has been so absent during this election cycle, and the one before it, and the one before that one, and so on. Instead of praying for and loving our enemies, voters have been intimidated, people have been attacked, and families and churches have been divided.

And, perhaps we’d like to blame our politicians for this tumultuous season. But the problem goes far deeper than those running, and selected, for office. 

The problem is us.

Rather than seeing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve viewed each other through the names on our bumper stickers.

Rather than listening to and praying for those of different opinions, we’ve just shouted louder into the fray.

Rather than confessing Jesus as Lord and living accordingly, we’ve fallen prey to believing that what happens on Tuesday is more important than what happens on Sunday.

Our election of leaders will always pale in comparison to God’s election of us, precisely because we do not deserve it. We’ve been elected to salvation through Christ in spite of copious amounts of evidence to the contrary.

And Jesus calls us to a life of humility in which we pray for those whom we hate.

Jesus constitutes a people who are his body on earth to be for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Jesus, high in the air with the nails in his hands and feet, says, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

And, if we’re honest, we have no idea what we’re doing. 

We don’t know how to be Christian in America, we don’t know how to hold our Christian identities and political identities in tandem, and we do not know how to love the people we hate.

But we do know this: Jesus is Lord – and he won’t give up on us.

So today, in spite of the world spinning as it does with fightings and fears within and without, we give thanks to the Lord our God who makes a way where there is no way, who has created a new community of love in his only begotten Son, and who elected us to salvation. Amen. 

The Most Important Election In History

Matthew 23.1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Jesus wasn’t a very good politician. 

At least, he did not seem to understand that there are some things you don’t do or say if you want to create more followers and supporters.

Perhaps things would’ve been better for the Lord had he been a little more careful with his words, or if he had hired the right campaign manager, or, at the very least, if he had a better social media presence.

But speaking directly, without equivocation, seemed to be Jesus’ favorite thing to do.

At times he told the crowds that they would have to hate their mothers and brothers and fathers and sisters if they wanted to follow him. He waxed lyrical about how his way of running things included going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and even praying for one’s enemies.

But now he sets his sights on the opposition.

Listen – You see all these people in positions of power? The religious elites and the judges and the leaders? The sit in place of authority so you can listen to them all you want, but don’t you dare do what they do. Look at how they place undue burdens on the last, least, lost, little, and dead all while they refuse to lift a finger for anyone. All they care about is being seen by others, that’s why they dress the way they do and smile the way they do. Have you ever noticed how they pick the places of honor for themselves while in public? Don’t be like those fools! You already have one teacher. Don’t bow down to worship those who desire your allegiance. You already have a Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. And all who seek to exalt themselves will be brought low, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

That Jesus could speak so radically and truthfully to power is a profound indication that he was not hoping to win over the so-called undecideds. 

Jesus, our Lord, held offices of power from the people called Israel – Prophet, Priest, King.

The notable things about prophets, priests, and kings is that no one become those thing by winning an election, or by getting enough people on their side, or by convincing folk that they’re the lesser of two evils. 

The authority from which Jesus speaks in this passage (an authority that those around him were constantly questioning) comes from simply being who he is, and not from climbing up all the different rungs on all the political ladders.

If Jesus sounds like anything here, he sounds like a revolutionary – calling out those in the places of power for abusing their power.

However, rather than taking the traditional route of revolutionary revolts by equipping the masses to overthrow their overlords, he puts everyone in their place – form the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top. 

And this is who Jesus is – he is truth and he speaks truth. 

The uncomfortable truth from truth is this: in the end, no one will be more humbled than Jesus and no one will be more exalted than Jesus.

So we can take the Lord’s words and we can string them around however we want to knock people down for being too high, or bring people up who have been to low. But ultimately these words are not about us, they’re about Jesus. 

Jesus is the greatest among us having been humbled by our rejection, only to be exalted in the resurrection.

And this is how the Lord rules – not from the politics of parliament, not from overtures in the Oval Office, but from the Cross.

Jesus, unlike us, never had the benefit of reading How To Win Friends And Influence People, he didn’t take classes at the local junior college on proper public speaking, he didn’t submit an op-ed to the Jerusalem Times about the need for new leadership.

Jesus is different.

He doesn’t work in the art of persuasive discourse, nor does he roll out all the relevant statistics about policy initiatives, he doesn’t even rely on simple and easily explainable stories to demonstrate why he should be the Messiah.

Instead, Jesus is who he is and he trusts that those in the know will see and hear him because he is truth incarnate.

Oddly enough, compared with how we so often assume power is supposed to work these days, Jesus never really tells the crowds what they, or we, want to hear.

Instead of promising to defeat all of our enemies, Jesus tells us to pray for them,

Instead of offering us health and wealth, Jesus tells us that if we lose our lives we will gain them.

Instead of pointing to a day in the future when things will finally be fixed, Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is already here in him.

This weeks sees yet another presidential election in the United States. When all is said and done we, as a country, will have spent more than 10 billion dollars during this particular election cycle.

That’s billion with a b.

Which is a 50% increase over the election in 2016 and there’s no sign that our political spending will be slowing down any time soon.

And with all of that money, we’ve been told again and again and again that this is the more important election in history. It’s all we can see and read on Twitter and Facebook, it’s all the talking heads will talk about on TV, and we’ve even been told to use those words to insure that as many people as people head to the polls this week because, after all, this is apparently the most important election in history.

Its notable that, strangely enough, every election becomes the most important election in history – it is an absolute truth in the US, and one we repeat to ourselves every election cycle.

And when scores of people gather at their voting locations this week, and all the early votes are tallied, we will be told that this is America at its best – elections remind us that we are in charge of our own destinies.

And yet, for Christians, we cannot forget that the only democratic moment in the Gospels is when the people choose Barabbas instead of Jesus.

But, of course, we’re taught from infancy that voting is at the heart of what it means to be who we are in this country. I mean, at my last church we had a preschool in which voting was part of the educational curriculum! 

Picking and choosing leaders is what makes our democracy democratic.

And for as much as that’s true, it overlooks how frighteningly coercive our voting can be. Lest we forget, democratic voting makes it possible for 50.1% of people to tell the other 49.9% of people what to do.

That’s not to say that democracy is inherently evil, or bad, or that we should get rid of it. I, for one, am grateful to be a Christian in this country where my Christian identity is not persecuted simply for me being me. But, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on how willing we are, as Christians, to worship our democracy when it results in what we’ve seen the last few months and, more likely than not, we will continue to see over the next few months.

Now, lest we walk away from this service today thinking it has more to do with politics than with faith – let me be clear: It is all too easy to blame politicians for the coercive nature of politics, for the increasingly vitriolic behavior we feel toward those of different political persuasions. But the problem is far deeper and widespread.

The problem, quite simply, is us.

Or, to put it another way, we get the politicians we deserve. 

They are us and we are them.

Which brings us back to Jesus. 

We did not elect Jesus to be our leader.

We did not elect Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity.

We did not elect Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

There was never a time when the church got together to take a majority vote about whether or not there should be a group of people called church who gather together to worship Jesus. Notably, in the beginning, we decided the best way to choose our leaders was by casting lots!

And, sure, the church today votes on all sorts of stuff but, when we do make decisions, we tend to use the methodology for deciding the future based of a governmental system more than from the revealed Word of God in the strange new world of the Bible.

Jesus’ authority, the power from which he was able to speak to truth to power, comes not from the people, but from God. Elections will always be with us, but they are no substitute for the hard work of the church – we are a people constituted and bound by the Lord who is and speaks the truth.

At her very best, the church is the place for Truth.

And part of the truth we affirm, much to the chagrin of just about everyone, is that Jesus will still be Lord no matter who is elected this week. Jesus still reigns from the right hand of God regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. Jesus is still Lord of the living and dead which includes people who identify as red, blue, or purple.

Another part of the truth we affirm, much to the chagrin of just about everyone, is that the greatest among us will be our servant – those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exhausted. We can confess all of that as Good News because it means the ways of the world are not the ways of God. 

In a world drunk on meritocracy, the Lord offers an alternative politic. 

The Kingdom of God is run not on earning and deserving, but on grace and mercy. 

That’s what Jesus’ election is all about – it’s not us choosing him, but him choosing us.

Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Lord, importantly, is not a democratic title. We confess Jesus as Lord because he is the One to whom we owe our fullest and truest allegiance. 

And this, the lordship of Christ, is a fundamental challenge to the status-quo. 

It means that our assumptions about power and prestige are all messed up. 

It forces us to reckon with a world of our own design rather than the Kingdom wrought on earth in the incarnation. 

It compels us to open our eyes and ears to the people we would otherwise ignore.

But it really is Good News, because the most important election in history isn’t happening this week. It already happened a long time ago. 

We didn’t elect Jesus – he elected us. Amen. 

Lord: A Political Prayer from Stanley Hauerwas

There are times when I don’t know what, or even how, to pray. I am therefore grateful for the saints of the past and present who make their prayers available as prayers we can pray. The following is one such prayer from Stanley Hauerwas…

Lord Jesus Christ, we live in a world without lords. We have presidents, but they rule with our consent – or at least this is the story we tell ourselves. We believe that just as we claim to govern, so we govern our own lives. We are not set up to use “Lord” language. So, do you mind if we call you “Mr. President,” Jesus? That, we confess, sounds strange. You did not and do not act like you are running for office. Driving money changers out of the temple seems a bit beyond the pale. What is worse, at the wedding at Cana you were a bit short with your mother, and it is even more troubling that you never married and spent most of your time with a bunch of guys. We worry a bit if you ever came to terms with your sexuality. When all is said and done, we do not think you are going to be elected for president.

So, what are we going to do with you, Lord Jesus Christ? We confess that we do not have the slightest idea. All we can do is pray that you will destroy our presumption that we are our own lords. We fear such destruction, sensing that it may have something to do with death, and as Yoder tells us, in the life and death of Jesus we find a reality and the possibility of all that your teachings say. It is possible to live that way if you are willing to die that way. Is that really part of what it means to call you Lord? I guess this means we have to get serious when we haven’t the slightest idea of what it might mean to get serious.

For God’s sake, dear Jesus, Lord Jesus, help us. 

-Stanley Hauerwas

(Hauerwas, Disrupting Time, 63). 

Preaching To Strangers

Matthew 22.36

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

“It must be so weird preaching in a pandemic,” he began. Unsure as to what kind of response would be appropriate I resigned myself to silence. So he continued, “I mean… how can you stand up and preach into a camera week after week without knowing who’s watching or even if people are watching at all?”

And, he had a point. It is strange standing up week after week not knowing who’s watching or even if anyone is (though the metrics indicate that more than a few people are watching. In fact, more people are watching worship online than were coming to church in-person before the pandemic…)

However, the preaching to strangers is nothing new.

Since I began standing up on Sunday mornings with hopes of speaking words about God’s Word, I’ve encountered the strange conundrum of preaching to strangers. That is, I quickly learned to take nothing for granted in terms of lived experiences, or biblical literacy, or even knowledge of the liturgy. I therefore try to make Sunday worship as approachable as possible assuming that someone, whether it was in person before or online now, could know nothing of Christianity and still wind up worshiping the Lord.

But the pandemic has exacerbated it to the nth degree.

Because we have the advent of metrics through our technology, I not only can discover how many people streamed the worship service, I can also see from where they worshiped. Which means that the church I serve in Woodbridge, VA is now regularly reaching people in Alabama, Washington, Texas, Ghana, Nigeria, Germany, and even more places across the globe. 

This is something worth celebrating, but it also makes the task of preaching all the harder.

Back in 1992 (when I was 4 years old!) Stanley Hauerwas wrote, “Most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers. For the church finds itself in a time when people have accepted the odd idea that Christianity is largely what they do with their own subjectivities. Politically we live in social orders that assume the primary task is how to achieve cooperation between strangers. Indeed we believe our freedom depends on remaining fundamentally strangers to one another. We bring those habits to church, and as a result we do not share fundamentally the story of being God’s creatures, but rather, if we share any story at all, it is that we are our own creators. Christians once understood that they were pilgrims. Now, we are just tourists who happen to find ourselves on the same bus.” (Preaching To Strangers, 6)

The bus that is Christianity is full of people who have, sadly, remained strangers to one another. This was true when we could actually sit next to each other on Sunday mornings, and its even more true now that most of us are worshipping through our computers and phones. And nothing about Christianity was meant to remain privatized or removed from communal knowledge and experience. “Church” comes from the Greek word EKKLESIA which literally means “gathering.” And yet, such much of our gathering has entailed a uniting of people without the people having to be bound by or to one another.

Hauerwas also notes, “It is almost impossible for the preacher to challenge the subtle accommodationist mode of most Christian preaching. We accommodate the hearers by trying to make the sermon fit their established habits of understanding, which only underwrites the further political accommodation of the church to the status quo. Any suggestion that in order to even begin understanding the sermon would require a transformation of our lives, particularly our economic and political habits, is simply considered unthinkable.” (Preaching To Strangers, 9).

This coming Sunday Christians across the globe (thanks to our widely used Revised Common Lectionary) will encounter Jesus’ encounter regarding the greatest of the commandments. Those of us versed in the verses will know that his response is: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

That the church chooses so often to preach love while the world (and we Christians in it) continues to revolve on, and around, hate is indicative that we have not seriously considered the seriousness of Jesus’ words. For, loving God and neighbor implies that we are no longer strangers to one another because we have all shared the same baptism together. And yet, churches are still filled (whether in-person or online) with strangers.

This will continue so long as preachers and laity alike refuse to push the church to a place where we recognize how the story of Jesus Christ has rid us of our otherness to one another. Love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like Valentine’s Day or the latest Rom-Com to drop into our Netflix feeds. 

Instead, love looks like the cross – The cross upon which Jesus died for the sins of the world. 

There’s no easy way to move the church away from the overwhelming context of preaching to strangers, but we can, at the very least, take Jesus’ words seriously and start actually loving our neighbors.

As the old hymn goes: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends.