On War

Matthew 5.43-48

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

peace_war__wallpaper__by_jackth31-d55t58i

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

christianity-military-750x400

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

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

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

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

This is the controversy of War.

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

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

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

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

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

It is easy to be a pacifist in America.

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

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

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

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

soldier-peace-logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could take in more refugees.”

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

“We can pray about it.”

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

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

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

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

Controversy Original

Advertisements

On Suicide

Isaiah 43.1-2

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

Romans 8.35-39

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

suicide

 

It was 2003 and I was a freshman in High School. And like most High School freshman, I spent many an evening on my computer typing to my friends on Instant Messenger. This was long before Facebook’s wild popularity, Twitter’s terse communication style was far away from coming into reality, and none of us even had cameras on our cell phones. But night after night we would sit in front of our computer screens typing away about what we thought were the most important things in the entire world.

One night in the spring, I waited for my parents to go to bed and then I snuck downstairs to get back on the computer. Most of the conversations were frivolous and limited by the speed at which our fingers could move over the keyboard. I can’t remember what the topic was that evening, but I do remember a new box appearing on the screen that changed everything.

At the time, my best friend was dating a girl and things were less than perfect. They fought about all kinds of stupid things and were the epitome of every high school relationship cliché. She, the girlfriend, was the one who sent me a message that night. All it said was, “We got in a really bad fight, he told me he was going to kill himself, and I don’t know what to do.

Suicide is ugly. It leaves families and friends reeling in whiplash, it creates guilt and unanswered questions, and it produces feelings of morbidity and fear.

Suicide is controversial in the church for a number of reasons. Many churches and Christians believe that suicide is ultimately sinful and worthy of eternal damnation. To have suicidal thoughts is to not have enough faith. Some pastors will even refuse to preside over funerals for those who have committed suicide.

If you look through the entirety of scripture, both Old and New Testaments, you will not find a passage that condemns suicide. None of the prophets, or priests, or kings have anything to say about suicide or what happens to those who commit suicide. However, Augustine (an important theologian from the early church) read the commandment “thou shall not kill” as a prohibition against suicide. And from Augustine’s reflection on the topic, suicide became the black sheep of sins in the church.

For a thousand years, suicide was a mortal sin and an affront against God’s goodness. Those who committed suicide were treated as criminals and refused Christian burials. By the 1500s those who attempted suicide were excommunicated by the church and were punished by the civil authorities.

And still today, suicide carries an awful stigma in the realm of the church and is one that is either referred to with eternal damnation or complete silence.

            That silence, the utter and complete darkness of a topic that is remarkably relevant for our time and reflection, is a controversy worth confronting.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), on average, one person dies by suicide in the state of Virginia every 8 hours. It is the 11th leading cause of death in our state, and it is the 2nd leading cause of death for people ages 10-34.

Among high school students across the country, 17% seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months. And 8% attempted suicide one or more times in the last year.

If you’re like me, you tend to think about young people being the most susceptible to suicide attempts, but suicide rates are actually highest among people middle aged and older, by a lot. In fact, middle aged and older adults are nearly twice as likely to commit suicide as young people.

And right now, suicide has surged to its highest levels in thirty years.

yqecn1ygjymjb3igsiev

When I received that message on my computer back at the beginning of high school, I grabbed my things and was out the door before I even had a chance to really think about what I was doing. All I knew was that my friend would not just make an empty threat about suicide like that, and I had to do something about it. So I grabbed my bicycle out of the garage and I started riding as fast as I possibly could in the middle of the night. He lived a couple miles away and when I screeched into his driveway I was drenched in sweat.

I dumped the bike right there and I ran to the front door and started banging with my fist and I started yelling. Within a minute his parents were coming down the stairs in their pajamas with tired and angry looks on their faces. When they opened the door and saw me standing and sweating in the dark they were utterly bewildered and then I told them why I was there.

We immediately went to check on him in his bedroom, but he wasn’t there. We searched the house from top to bottom and we finally found him in the basement. He was sitting on the couch with tears in his eyes and he had just swallowed an entire bottle of ibuprofen.

They wound up taking him to the hospital and had his stomach pumped. They sat there and held their son while he cried and cried. And they saved his life.

Suicide is not the way any human life should end. The church, this church, has an obligation to see that all persons are grafted into a community of love and are cared for in the midst of isolation, depression, and despair.

Life is a gift, plain and simple. It is a gift from God and therefore we are called to be good stewards of this gift: our lives and the lives of others.

We cannot ignore this topic as if it has nothing to do with us. The statistics confront us with a stark reality about the prevalence of suicide in our culture. With the advent of the Internet and instant communication, young people are being bullied and attacked at a degree that few of us can even fathom. With an economy that moves up and down like a roller coaster, people in the middle of life are undergoing identity crises and are wondering how they can provide for their families. Older people who receive a grim diagnosis or the loss of a spouse struggle to justify living with such a horrible outlook for the days ahead.

We know that we are supposed to be present for and with one another, like being there for friends and family at a moment of tragedy. We rarely know what to say on such occasions, but we know we should be there. We, above all things, are called to be present for others in the midst of suffering and loneliness and depression that often lead to the contemplation of suicide. To be part of the faithful community requires us to be for one another.

i_m_fine_by_black_avenger-d60mqnl

We live because life is a gift. We are not our own creators. We Christians are the people who must learn to live by the fact that life is a gift. We therefore can live each and every day not as a survival technique, but through recognizing that each and every day is an opportunity to live and love in the service of our Lord.

When we talk about suicide, we say it is “the taking of one’s life.” But even the way we talk about suicide shows how much a problem we have with it. Our lives are not our own. As the Lord says through the Prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine.” We belong to the Lord and to one another. God tells us to not be afraid because God will be with us as we pass through the waters, and the rivers of life shall not overwhelm us, we shall not be burned by the fires of frustration. Not because they won’t hurt or be terrifying, but because we belong to the Lord and the Lord is with us.

If we’re here in the sanctuary this morning, we have some sense of this in our lives. We know that God is with us, we feel God’s presence in this place and we know that we are not alone. It is through encountering the divine love of God in worship that we are given the strength to be God’s presence for others who sink under the waters of life and who feel burned by the world. It is our charge to be shaped and called by God’s love and to reach out to those who contemplate ending their days. We have the challenge of showing all people, even those who see no value to their lives, how our lives are not defined by what we have done with them, but by what God will do with them.

Six months after my friend had his stomach pumped, he attempted to commit suicide again. This time he did it with a hose running from his exhaust pipe into his car. But his little brother heard the car door close and it woke him up, and then he woke up his parents. In the strange and quiet time of the darkness of night they pulled their son out of the car and they got him help. It took a long time for him to move on. It took counselors and therapists, it took friends and family, it took the power of God’s grace to show him that his life could get better, that there was hope for the future, that there was something worth living for. And because people in his life were brave enough to confront his suicide attempts, he still lives today.

But there will always be some that we cannot reach. There will be people who feel so suffocated by the weight of the world that they will make that dreadful decision to end the life that God’s has given to them. And for them, for those who will die by their own hand, what will happen to them? For centuries the church saw suicide as an unpardonable sin, something that eternally damns those who do it. Will God abandon them for making such a choice? Will God refuse to love the people who felt no love in their lives? Will the God of mercy punish them until the end of time?

           No. In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

 

Controversy Original

On The Death Penalty

Mark 10.26-27

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

Luke 23.44-47

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

Controversy Original

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image processed by CodeCarvings Piczard ### FREE Community Edition ### on 2016-05-12 18:53:36Z | http://piczard.com | http://codecarvings.comÿÿÿ–j¬+

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

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

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

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

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

Because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            With God nothing is impossible.

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

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

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

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

But people are being murdered for murder.

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

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

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

 

On The Separation of Church and State

Romans 13.1

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

John 15.12-19

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

rethinking

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

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

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

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

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

635716335783776523-1907621126_shutterstock_96065306.imgopt1000x70

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

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

But then things changed.

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

tumblr_static_chi_rho_arrows_small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Controversy Original