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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head it this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
The Pharisees weren’t on board with Jesus. His fame had already spread through Galilee, rumor of a Transfiguration was weaving its way through the hoi polloi, and he entered Jerusalem, rather dramatically, on the back of a donkey.
Which is to say nothing of his table turning, religion rebuking, or demon demolishing.
And the Pharisees find themselves in a situation where they could no longer stand for the man who was upending all the powers and principalities which benefitted them the most. So they come up with some schemes to trap Jesus in his words and, hopefully, turn his would-be crowds of disciples against them.
They begin with flattery, of all things: “Hey Jesus! We know that you’re kind and charming and sincere and faithful and loving and caring and, and, and…” It’s as true as a description as anyone could ever hope for. And, weirdly enough, the Pharisees speak a truth about the Lord without know exactly what they’re saying.
They build him up and butter him up in order to bring him down.
“And because, Teacher, you are all these wonderful things, we have a question: It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
This is a remarkably clever question for the Pharisees to ask because there’s no good answer – Jesus is put into an impossible situation.
If Jesus says that taxes shouldn’t be paid, it would make him a rebel against the empire and the target already on his back would only grow larger.
If Jesus says that taxes should be paid, he will appear to be a collaborator with Rome and would quickly lose his credibility as a prophet.
But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. At least, not directly. Instead Jesus does what he has done so many times before – he answers the question with a question of his own.
“Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites? Give me one of the coins for the tax…”
Someone reaches into a pocket and presents the denarius which results in one of the best known sentences from the Gospels: Jesus says to them, “Whose head is this on the coin?” And they say, “The emperor’s.” So Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they hear this, they are amazed and they leave.
Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, we Christians have not been amazed by Jesus’ answer and we have misappropriated it in all sorts of ways. For, more often than not, we have tricked ourselves into believing we know exactly what Jesus meant with his rather inexplicable response.
For example: Many of us today, that is Christians, assume that we can, and have, two loyalties: to God and to Country. We are told, of course, to never let our loyalty to the state infringe upon our loyalty to God, but its never clear when or if such a conflict will ever happen. So we keep on doing the things we do and saying the things we say such that, today, many of us Christians are usually Pharisees but don’t recognize ourselves as such.
Which is just another way of saying that a whole lot of us American Christians are more American than we are Christian.
But, back to the passage at hand…
Notice: Jesus, himself, doesn’t carry the coin used for the tax and he has to ask someone else to provide it for his little teachable moment.
He does so, in all likelihood, precisely because the coin carried the image of Caesar, and to carry it and use it was in violation of the 2nd of the 10 commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down and worship them” (Exodus 20.4-5).
Jesus’ response, then, seems to be done to call into question the carriers of the coins for having them in the first place. And, to make matters even more contentious, the Pharisees in question were known for their stark and zealous observance of the Law!
But we, more often than not, treat this little moment as a way to ease our consciences when it comes to the relationship between church and state. Countless pastors have stood in places like this and used Jesus’ words to say some version of, “You have to pay your taxes to the government and you have to tithe to the church because Jesus says so.”
And yet, Jesus’ use of symbolic irony does not convey a recommendation to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that we should all learn to live with divided loyalties. Instead, he is saying to the religious elites that the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong.
Just as Jesus knows and sees no distinction between politics and religion, between church and state, neither does he know any distinction between government, economics, and the worship of God.
The people who seek to trap Jesus with this question about whether or not to pay taxes are revealed by Jesus to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says earlier in the gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
And here Jesus reminds the Pharisees and the crowds that you cannot serve God and the emperor.
Sure, we think, that’s fine for Jesus to say to the people way back then, but we don’t have an emperor today so this doesn’t really apply to us anymore. We, after all, have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
And yet, it doesn’t take long to look through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or evening news to be bombarded with the truth: The people, whoever they may be, often turn out to be hungrier for power and loyalty than emperors. Emperors can just get rid of the people who disagree with the them. People in democracies have to convince others to be on their side, by any means necessary.
Okay, sure, we think, even if the people who rule the land are indeed sinners and lust for power, this still doesn’t really apply to us because we have a separation of church and state. In fact, Jesus is the one who came up with it in the first place right here in this passage!
And yet, there really isn’t a separation here, that is to say, in the United States. Take a look at a dollar bill (In God We Trust), or go through the Pledge of Allegiance (One Nation, Under God), or consider that, since 1973, the majority of Presidential Speeches have ended with a religious phrase (God Bless America).
Here in this country the so-called separation of church and state often leads to a legitimization of what the state is doing while simultaneously sequestering the church in the mythical realm of the private.
It’s why so many pastors have stood up in pulpits telling their congregations how to vote (even though we’re not really allowed to) and have encouraged a political way of being that has far more to do with a Donkey or an Elephant than it does with the Lamb of God.
I don’t know if any of you have noticed this but, to me, it feels like a whole lot of us are currently living on the edge. Between the pandemic and economic insecurity and cultural unrest and a seemingly never-ending presidential election season, there’s just a whole lot of tension. And then, to ramp up the anxiety, we stick the signs in our yards or on our bumper stickers, we scroll through different social media platforms to like the political posts we agree with and to respond, rather negatively, to those that run counter to our political way of thinking.
We’ve drawn our lines in the sand about where we stand.
And yet, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we seem to care a whole lot more about the Kingdom of America than the Kingdom of God.
And that’s not to say we can’t care about what’s happening in country, or that we shouldn’t get involved in decisions and campaigns and votes.
Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor.
Its just that we do all of that so easily without considering that our truest citizenship doesn’t come from an old document signed by some men in 1776, but from God Almighty; that we live not under the banner of Red, White, and Blue, but under the cross upon which Jesus died for me and you.
And this isn’t unique to the US of A – for two thousand years, we Christians have tried our best to make sense of having a king who rules from that aforementioned cross. And so we have twisted his words and actions to make Jesus an acceptable king for the likes of us and others. We’ve even claimed that he is “on our side” all while accruing power in whatever ways we can.
Yet, whenever we try to make Jesus fit into our image of what the world should look like, or, more specifically, what this country should look like, we lose sight of his call to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Because, behind Jesus’ brief and immensely important sentence is the fact that, as Christians, we believe everything already belongs to God!
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees creates a problem for them, and for all of us. We might not want our lives to be further problematized at a time like this, but Jesus loves creating problems – and to recognize that we have a problem is to begin to follow the Lord.
We might believe that we’ve got this all sorted out in our lives and in our culture but, as Christians, we know we have a problem when we do not have a problem.
One of the deepest problems with idolatry, and any sin for that matter, is our presumption that we will know it when we see it. We believe that we have the faculties and the power to know, on our own, what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is faithful and unfaithful.
But most of the time what we really need is a Savior who can stand in front of us, dangle the truth right in front of our eyes, and leave us amazed. Amen.
When the pandemic struck, many churches quickly made the leap to online worship in order to keep their respective communities safe. As a pastor, it has been a joy to see so many other churches adapt to the situation, and to witness their worship as I was usually relegated to my own services on Sunday mornings.
And yet, while churches navigate what it means to be the church in the midst of such uncertain waters, many of them are in need of help.
Here are five ways you can help your church:
Support You Church With Your Financial Gifts
Consider making an extra financial donation to your local church if you are able. Many churches have had to cut programs and ministries throughout the pandemic because their typical Sunday offerings have diminished while not worshipping in-person. Making an offering to God through a financial gift is akin to Jeremiah’s willingness to purchase a vineyard in spite of not knowing what was coming next – it is believing in a world we cannot yet see because we know God remains steadfast even when we don’t. And, to make matters easier in our present moment, most churches have now enabled online giving through their websites so you can give without have to leave the house.
Share Information About Your Church
You can tell neighbors/friends/family members about your local church and how they’ve been able to provide a sense of God’s grace and mercy in a time when the world feels like its teetering on the edge. And, because so many churches have moved online, its never been easier to “share” what a church is up to because all you have to do is share the information on your respective social media pages. The more people who gather for online worship/devotionals, the more churches can create partnerships with new, and even familiar, faces.
Contact Someone From Your Church
Our ability to be in touch with one another has never been easier. Whether its sending a text, writing an email, or making a phone call (do people still make phone calls?), making a connection with someone else right now can be the difference that makes all the difference. If you don’t know how to get in touch with someone from your local church, contact your pastor – I am sure they will be delighted to connect you with someone. The tie that binds us together is Jesus, and we need to live into that tie now more than ever.
Share Your Ideas With Your Pastor
The pandemic has isolated us from one another in ways previously unimagined. And, because of our respective separations, pastors are not having the normal interactions that help them discern how the Spirit is moving in terms of sermon and Bible Study preparation. If you have ideas for a new sermon series, or a topic to be covered in a devotional, or anything else that might pertain to your church, send it to your pastors. The church was never meant to be a solo endeavor, and sharing ideas with the pastor, along with the power of the Holy Spirit, can bring about some incredible opportunities in the Kingdom.
Pray. Pray. Pray.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, once said, “God does nothing but by prayer, and everything with it.” If there was ever a time to pray – it’s now. Prayers for your church, for your community, for your country, for the world. As the old hymn goes, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer.” And, if you are unable to bring yourself to pray, reach out to your pastors and ask them to pray for you. Chances are, praying for others happens to be their cup of tea!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 45.1-15, Psalm 133, Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15.10-28). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Augustine’s Confessions, the cost of reconciliation, Last Week Tonight, the oddity of unity, oily abundance, the irrevocability of the Gospel, cancel culture in the church, preaching in prison, and identifying with the right characters. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Is Our Why?