Donkeys, Elephants, and The Lamb

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

What is the most important thing in America? As in, if you could take a step back from it all, what do you think has the greatest priority in this country?

Some might say, after a week like the one we just had, that the World Series is the most important thing in America. Baseball is, after all, the great American pastime. Or at least, drinking a beer while eating a hot dog at the World Series is what being an American is all about.

Or maybe the greatest thing in America is the willingness to fight against tyranny and terrorism. This week there was yet another attack against innocent civilians in New York City and the response in condemning the attack was universally accepted.

What’s the most important thing in America? I would make a case, that for Americans freedom is the most important thing in America. Think about it for just a moment: freedom to chose, freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to vote. Nothing is more important to Americans on the political left and right than maintaining the freedom of the individual. We hear about our freedom all the time.

As such, we’ve created a culture where privacy is sought more than community, where no one should be asked to suffer for anyone else, and where we get to say whatever we want, and others can say whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t offend us too much.

In a strange and weird way, our bondage to political realities and political choices has resulted in our bondage to freedom.

When we moved here a handful of months ago, after we finally unpacked most of the house, we set up our TV and signed up for cable. It took a long time to get used to watching commercials again after not seeing them for the majority of the last seven years while I was at my first appointment and while I was in seminary.

I liked watching a narrative from start to finish without interruption, and because the commercials were now interrupting my viewing I started paying more attention to them. During the first two months of cable television, just about every single advertisement had to do with bodies. If you take this pill your body will feel stronger, if you use this cream you will look ten years younger, if you use this shampoo you will get the man of your dreams, if you use this deodorant you will get the woman of your dreams.

And whenever I saw two middle age individuals holding hands while sitting in separate bathtubs, or just being overly affectionate with one another, I didn’t even need to listen to the voiceover to know what they were selling.

But then something changed.

Almost without warning, there was a not a single commercial break without an ad for the gubernatorial race that comes to its fruition this Tuesday. And the more I witnessed the ads the more I realized something bizarre: I never saw an ad describing what either candidate stood for. Instead every ad was dedicated to attacking the other.

At this point, I’m sad to say, I can tell you far more about what’s wrong with both candidates than I can tell you something constructive about what each of them are hoping to accomplish.

Freedom.

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Today we celebrate the saints of God. Since nearly the beginning, the church has set aside a day to remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us in the faith, stretching across the centuries and all around the world. We take time to read their names and pause for a moment of praise to the Lord for the many ways those saints shaped our faith even here and now.

And we don’t get to choose our saints, much like we don’t get to choose our politicians. I mean we do in the sense that we get to vote on them, but more often that not we just get the politicians we deserve.

Today, our culture has been separated into two divided categories: Donkeys and Elephants. Just about every fabric of our lives can be whittled down to one of the two dominant political ideologies such that we can’t watch TV, or read a newspaper, or get online, or even drive down the road without being bombarded by one of the two political animals. The suffocating political atmosphere of today is oppressive and often forces us to identify what camp we’re in.

And, sadly, because we have total and ultimate freedom, the thing we hold dear, we can surround ourselves with people who look like us, think like us, and perhaps most importantly, vote like us.

But saints are the people who gave their lives not to a donkey, and not to an elephant, but to the Lamb.

Revelation is one of the weirder books in the bible, and one not often read in church. In it you can find the kind of stuff that some people shout from the street corners of life. In it we can read about beasts and dragons and lambs. And, often times, it is used by those of a more fundamentalist leaning to detail the coming wrath and destruction of God in such a way that it scares faith into people.

But for as much as Revelation is about a time yet to come, it is also about what the faithful life is like here and now.

The vision contains a great multitude that no one could count, people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. And they’re singing!

This group that is beyond all groups is gathered around the one Lamb at the throne. They are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

            In God’s time, all people will be washed by the blood of the Lamb; through the death of Christ on the cross salvation has entered existence.

Here and now, we are washed through the waters of baptism, something that gives us more identity than any donkey or elephant ever can, something that frees us more than any declaration of independence ever can, and something that saves us better than any politician ever can.

Baptism is the beginning of the journey that leads to sainthood. Because in baptism we enter into the revolution of God where the Lamb at the throne determines our lives more than anything else. Where we can find a unity through the waters that is almost completely absent in every other part of existence.

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Church, thanks be to God, is one of the last remaining places where we willingly gather with people who don’t think, look, act, and vote like us. Church is the place where we believe our baptismal identities are more important and more determinative than the political sign in our front yard and the person whose name we choose in the voting booth.

Whenever we gather in this space, we are brought before the throne with the Lamb at the center. This thing we call worship is our best chance to be reminded that God is the One guiding us to springs of water, and that God is the One invested in the work of wiping every tear from our eyes. Church is where we come to meet the saints with hope that someone might call us saints when we’re gone.

We live between the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. We rest in the time between when we hear the beautiful tones of God’s final Word that stretches into eternity and reaches back into the farthest moments of time itself.

            And, like the saints of Revelation, we sing.

The music of the saints, the very music of salvation, gives a different sound and understanding to what we prioritize in this life. When we sing with the great cloud of witnesses from the past, present, and future, we boldly proclaim that it is always the Lord and not the empire that liberates. When we lift our voices to the sky we do so in declaration that the Lamb is more important than a donkey and an elephant.

It is through the music of God, the sounds of the saints, that we receive the endurance necessary to make it through whatever trouble springs up in our lives.

That heavenly choir of revelation, a choir that we harmonize with here on earth, invites the revolution of God that will not let division have the final word.

Almost a year ago I woke up and drove down the road from the parsonage to the local Seventh Day Adventist church, which was my polling station for the presidential election. For the better part of two years, with billions of dollars raised and spent by both campaigns, the time had come for the country to decide who would be our next president.

I pulled into the parking lot before the Sun had peaked over the horizon, and with a coffee mug in my hand and my clergy collar around my neck, I walked into the fellowship hall to cast my vote.

I remember the polling operators looking dreadful and depressed, as if the previous months had sucked the very life out of them, and I walked passed to my booth.

There before me on the table was a piece of paper that countless individuals have fought to protect. There, with big fonts and circles to fill in, was the very freedom our country was founded on. I filled in my circle and walked over to the machine, which ate my decision, and rang a little bell for completion.

And then I looked up. On the wall above the voting machine was a giant painting of Jesus. Not Jesus dying on the cross, nor was it Jesus praying in the garden, nor was it any of the miracles Jesus performed through his ministry. No, it was a giant painting of Jesus laughing his butt off.

            And it was perfect.

Salvation belongs to God alone. Even though all nations, and races, and creeds, and languages are pictured in the divine vision of revelation, salvation does not belong to any of them. All of them are guilty of promising something to a particular group while damning another.

The donkeys and the elephants can’t and won’t save us. They exist to instill a sense of freedom that isolates us from one another rather than binding us to one another. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise salvation that only brings division.

But the Lamb of God is at the center of the throne. The saints of God, those who came before, those who are with us now, and those who are yet to come sing with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Amen.

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Devotional – Psalm 25.5

Devotional:

Psalm 25.5

Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

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On Friday, at a campaign rally in Alabama, President Trump suggested that any “son of a b!@#$” who kneels during the national anthem should be fired. His comment was made in reference to the growing controversy initiated by the (former) NFL player Colin Kaepernick who last year knelt during the national anthem to protest police shootings of black people. And as more and more players began to join Kaepernick in demonstrating, responses from political figures have garnered a lot of attention including the recent comments from the president.

At both a wedding reception on Saturday evening and in church yesterday I overheard a number of conversations between people about the controversy and battle lines were quickly drawn. On one side there are people who believe those who kneel represent anti-patriotic sentiments and that they are ungrateful for the military. On another side there are people who believe that kneeling in protest is part of the 1st Amendment and therefore is absolutely an American thing to do and that it should be protected.

Witnessing conversations about the American Flag and the responses of professional football players to it reminded me of Stanley Hauerwas concern that most Christians today are moved more by the American Flag than by the cross of Jesus Christ. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the flag (though it is certainly a more complicated symbol than we often think it is), but the fact that the flag itself generates more response and appears to be more powerful than the cross is something that should give Christians pause.

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It’s one thing for talking heads to ramble about the pros and cons of kneeling during the anthem but it’s another thing entirely when it comes to the realm of the church. These days the church seems to revolve around tweets from the White House more than the revealed Word of God. These days the church appears to spend more of it’s time debating the values of our country’s democracy than our Savior’s teachings and ethics. These days the church seems to believe that our salvation will come from Congress more than from Jesus Christ.

The psalmist wrote, “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” As Christians, our God is the God of salvation, God is the first and the last, and God is the one for whom we wait all day long. Our creeds and our prayers, our hymns and our scriptures, all point to the definitive claim that God is the source of our being and that the cross of Christ is, and forever shall be, the most determinative symbol in our lives.

But sometimes, it doesn’t feel like it.

Instead, in the realm of the church we label one another as liberal or conservative when we’re supposed to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. When we have culture wars over things like NFL players kneeling during the national anthem we classify entire groups of people as pro or anti American, we neglect to remember that all of us are children of God. When we are more concerned about how someone responds to the flag than we are about how someone responds to the grace of God, we neglect to be a church that can faithfully say: “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation.”

Devotional – Philippians 1.27

Devotional:

Philippians 1.27

Only, live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.


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I’ve been writing weekly devotionals since shortly after entering the ministry. On Monday mornings I sit down with the lectionary texts for the week, I read through all of them, and then I usually pick one or two verses to write about. I try not to overthink the whole thing and instead I hope that God will speak through the words I use in such a way that they resonate with God’s Word.

Over the years a lot of the devotionals have ended with rhetorical questions; a lingering thought to stay with you, the reader, throughout the day/week. Examples: What would it look like to pray for one of your enemies this week? Or, When was the last time you prayed about the money you spend?

Most of the time I get the devotional done in a short amount of time and I send off the mass email and post it online for anyone and everyone to read, and rarely (I can count the number of times on two hands) do I ever receive a response. And frankly, that’s okay. The devotionals are not written so that I can get a response, instead they’re designed to bring forth a response from the reader in the way they (you) live out the rest of the day.

But this devotional is different. This time I actually want responses.

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Paul wrote to the church in Philippi about “living in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” What does it mean to live in a manner worthy of the gospel? When I’ve preached about this text, or taught it in a Bible Study, I’ve whittled it down to: “Live your life as if Jesus is in the room with you.” Surely we would behave and speak and think differently if we knew and believed that Jesus was physically close in the room. But living in a manner worthy of the gospel has to be about so much more than that, it has to be more complicated and strange and wonderful and beautiful. So, I end with these non-rhetorical questions in the hope that you (dear readers) will respond:

What does it mean to live in a manner worthy of the gospel?

What behaviors or habits or practices would signify that someone is living in a manner worthy of the gospel?

How are you trying to live in a manner worthy of the gospel?

Devotional – Matthew 16.13

Devotional:

Matthew 16.13

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

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We were walking along the beach on Monday morning in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina when a young teenage girl kept looking over at us. I had my son Elijah in my arms and my wife Lindsey was standing next to me and we were talking about nothing in particular when the girl shyly walked up to us. Before she opened her mouth I thought maybe she was going to ask us to take her picture, and then for a strange moment I thought she was going to ask to hold Elijah, but then she asked a question, “Excuse me, but do you know who Jesus is?”

In my mind I started to answer the question much like Peter answered: “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” I thought about scriptural situations to answer the question in as many ways as possible, I thought about famous images of Jesus that I could describe from memory, and I did all of this in my mind before I realized that she was trying to evangelize us.

So, all I said was: “Yeah, I know Jesus. I’m a United Methodist Pastor.” And at that moment I noticed the girl’s father standing off to the side as if to make sure she was doing it the right way. Upon hearing my answer, he walked up to introduce himself as a Nazarene preacher and we had a brief conversation about seminaries and church work.

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But as they walked away to find their next victim, all I could think about was what would have happened if I had answered the question differently; what would she have said if my answer was simply, “No”?

Beach evangelism, walking up to a stranger with a question about Jesus, is not a new thing. For decades Christians have used it and other forms as tools to get people “saved.” But simply asking about Jesus as a means to talk about Jesus often results in shallow connections whereas Jesus commanded the disciples to share the good news in such a way that it resulted in the formation of friendships and communities. Or to put it another way: asking about Jesus in order to make disciples is different than living like Jesus so that others will be formed into disciples.

Peter was only able to answer Jesus question after spending years with him ministering to the crowds. Sometimes sharing the good news with other people takes years of living alongside them without trying to insert our faith into their schedules. I know God can work miracles through Christians approaching strangers on the beach, I know that those questions can be the seed that changes someone’s life, but I know that intentionally spending time with others over the long term will do far more for the kingdom than approaching people on the beach that we will never see again.

Devotional – 1 Peter 4.13

Devotional:

1 Peter 4.13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Devotional – 1 Timothy 6.10

Devotional:

1 Timothy 6.10

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

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In the United Methodist Church we spend a lot of time every fall preparing for Charge Conference. Charge Conference is an annual meeting in the life of the church where we evaluate where we’ve been and where we’re going, we discuss challenges and new approaches, and we vote on things like the budget and pastoral compensation.

Paying pastors is one of those things in the life of the church that we like to handle quickly and then move on to a different subject. Frankly, whenever we talk about money we want to address it as fast as possible and then get back to “doing church.” Money makes us uncomfortable.

On some level this is a good thing. We know that Paul writes to Timothy about the love of money being a root of all kinds of evil. Or we can think about a time when the fear regarding finances sent the church in a frightening direction. Or we can reflect on how the love of money has reshaped a relationship with a friend or with someone in our family.

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However, money and wealth is one of the things that Jesus talks about more than anything else, and we have slowly removed it from our common experiences in the life of the church.

On the Virginia Conference website for the United Methodist Church there is a page dedicated to the bishop. On that particular page anyone can find narrative information about our bishop, but there is also a link to what is called the “Appointment Workbook.” If you click on the link you will have access to a list of all the pastors in the Virginia Conference, how long they served, how many new people are attending their churches, how much their churches are required to pay in apportionments, what percentage of the apportionments have they paid, AND their annual compensation. This is good and important information for the life of the church, but the fact that the entire list of pastors is not organized by name, or region, or new disciples, but by salary, shows how we have wandered away from the faith.

Paul warns us about the love of money in our individual lives and in the community of the church. When we become so consumed by the pursuit of money whether we are a teacher, or a doctor, or a denomination, we fall captive to the evil the sends us wandering away from the faith. As Christians, our ultimate call is to grow in our faith and Christlikeness, not in our annual salary.

The Problem with The Pledge of Allegiance

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

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It has been ten years since the last time I placed my hand over my heart and said the words to the pledge of allegiance. For the better part of eighteen years, I started every morning in school by standing up with my classmates, turning to the corner where the flag was standing, and saying those words that countless Americans have said throughout the decades. But then I stopped, and I haven’t since.

I was in 8th grade and living in Alexandria, VA when 9/11 happened. I can remember my father taking me out of school before it went on lockdown. I can remember sitting on the carpet in the living room watching the towers fall over and over and over again on television. I can remember my dad saying, “I bet Osama bin Laden had something to do with it” and I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was, or how my dad knew who he was. I can even remember realizing that nothing would ever be the same.

In the weeks that followed everything was a blur of red, white, and blue. The country had not experienced a wave of patriotism and nationalism to that degree since the end of World War II. My friends and I had conversations in the lunch hall about how we needed to go to war and kill the people who killed our people. We seriously wondered if the country would reinstitute the draft. And we proudly stood each and every morning to pledge our allegiance to the flag that was now flying in every front yard and on every car-bumper.

Over the next few years my dedication to the eradication of terrorism grew and grew. When members of Amnesty International painted our high school rock with words about peace and love, I got my friends together and we painted over it in black and red paint with things like “Pro-War” and “Bomb Saddam.” When we learned about how our country had played a major role in the chaos of the Middle East, I tuned out my teachers and ignored the textbooks. And when President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier to declare that we were victorious I beamed with pride.

But then a strange thing happened; I started really paying attention in church. I waited for our pastor to echo the same sentiment of celebration that President Bush declared. I waited to hear him give thanks to God for our victory over tyranny and oppression. I waited to learn about God’s saving hand over America from the pulpit. And those things never came. Instead we were asked to do something bizarre: pray for our enemies.

I heard the words of Jesus in a way I never had before, and it forced me to confront my own sinfulness. The more I read the bible the more I realized that my behavior was just like the crowds standing before the cross shouting, “crucify!” The more I read about Jesus’ way, the more I realized that I had fallen short of God’s glory and that I needed to repent. The more I experienced God’s grace the more I realized that my feelings were in conflict with my faith.

And then the words of the pledge of allegiance started sounding strange. I continued to stand with my peers throughout high school, I placed my hand on my heart and said the same words, but it made me uncomfortable. And then one day I stopped, and I haven’t since.

This has been particularly awkward at times; like when I was asked to speak before a local Kiwanis meeting and I felt the eyes of everyone in the room when I did not participate in the pledge of allegiance, or like when I gathered with a community band on the Fourth of July to play patriotic music and I was the only one who did not pledge allegiance to the giant flag waving gently in the breeze.

I am not against the American Flag, and I do not wish to be disrespectful toward it. I am not against our military nor am I a traitor. Instead, as a Christian, I have problems with the pledge of allegiance.

When we pledge our allegiance to a flag and whatever it stands for, it means we are pledging our allegiance to everything the flag represents; The flag that stood at the frontlines of Native American massacres; the flag that orchestrated coups in foreign countries for our own benefit; the flag that suppressed minority voices and segregated races; the flag that has benefited the rich at the expense of the poor; the flag that symbolizes “freedom” but really means “if you’re not with us, then you’re against us.” Our flag, and what it stands for, is something that puts me at dis-ease and is not something that I can blindly pledge allegiance to.

When we pledge allegiance to one nation under God it means that we believe that we are one nation, and that we believe in one God. We are not one nation. Just turn on the news for five minutes, or listen to the bickering of our politicians, or the activists from Black Lives Matter, or anything else and it is clear that we are not one nation. Day after day we are at odds with one another over some of the most important and some of the most frivolous things. And we are certainly not all Christian. Oddly enough, the words “under God” were not added to the pledge until the 1950’s when the Christian church in America started to decline. Though Christians are called to make disciples, we are not called to do so by conscription. To expect and force all citizens to pledge an allegiance to one nation under God fundamentally goes against the freedom of religion that we so dramatically praise on a regular basis. Moreover, to expect and force all citizens to pledge their allegiance to one nation under God fundamentally goes against Jesus’ command to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” If we would not stand to pledge our allegiance to one nation under Allah, or under Buddha, or under Krishna, then we should not expect others to do the same to God.

When we pledge allegiance to a nation that stands for liberty and justice for all we must wrestle with the fact that our country does not have liberty and justice for all. The rise of voter registration laws that unfairly affect those of a lower socio-economic status means we do not have liberty and justice for all. The frighteningly high incarceration rates of minorities mean we do not have liberty and justice for all. The unbelievably prevalent examples of gender discrimination and wage gaps mean we do not have liberty and justice for all. The seemingly endless episodes of violence against those who are different than the norm mean we do not have liberty and justice for all.

I am grateful for the freedoms that this country affords me. I believe in paying my taxes even if they are used for something I might not agree with. I am thankful for a military that defends the weak across the world. But my allegiance is not with America; it is with Jesus Christ. And that doesn’t make me un-American. It just makes me a Christian.