This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (1 Samuel 15.34-16.13, Psalm 20, 2 Corinthians 5.6-17, Mark 4.26-34). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including handsomeness, green thumbs, passages for pastors, election and rejection, enthusiasm for the future, idolatry, confidence, human points of view, parable prejudices, and impossible possibilities. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Know How The Story Ends
The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”
On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with Karl Barth. Later that night, Barth died in his sleep.
Thurneysen explained later that most of their conversation covered the world situation at the time and that Barth’s final words were these:
“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That’s why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!” (Barth In Conversation, Volume III.)
Karl Barth was never one to shrink away from speaking truth to power. He was removed from his teaching position in Germany for refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler before the second World War, he ridiculed the United States for his criminal justice system in the 1960’s, and wrote against the Vietnam War in his final years.
And today, oddly enough, it brings me great comfort that with some of his final breaths Barth remembered that, even in the darkest moments, the One who chose to come and dwell among us still reigns. His final words are an ever-ringing reminder that, as Christians, we know how the story ends which frees us to serve and obey the Lord.
The Gospel is something that comes to us from outside of us. We are saved by God in Christ not because we deserve it (just turn on the TV or scroll through Twitter for a few minutes – we’re clearly a people who have no idea what we’re doing), but because God chooses to do so in God’s infinite freedom. In the end, that’s exactly what the Gospel is – it is our salvation granted by the only One who could – The judged Judge has come to stand in our place.
God reigns not from a White House, or from a Parliament, or from a Situation Room, but from the hard wood of the cross.
God reigns not by merit and demerit, but by grace and mercy.
God reigns not through threats and accusations, but through forgiveness and reconciliation.
Which is all to say, Christians, in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, see the world differently. We rebel against the insidious power of despair and we seek out ways to be for and serve the last, least, lost, little, and dead. We know and believe that someone reigns. That someone is the One who came to take away the sins of the world.
Thanks be to God.
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.
We didn’t elect Jesus – he elected us. Amen.
I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.
For months (years) the cultural consciousness has been fixated on politics, and in particular on presidential politics. The build up to the 2016 Presidential election, the wake of that election, and now here on Super Tuesday in 2020 we are still talking about presidential politics ALL THE TIME.
Which, in a sense, is fine. We’re Christians after all, we can talk about whatever we want. And yet, the more we talk about the politics of a country the less we remember that our truest citizenship is in heaven.
Or, to put it another way, we keep treating our politicians as if they are in charge of our lives when, as Christians, we affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord.
In Jesus’ kingdom, the rules and the ruler are different. All assumptions about what is important, and who we are to be, and what we are to care about have been changed.
It’s like being dropped into a strange new world in which everyone else is speaking a different language. It takes time to learn the lingo, to adapt to the habits of the people around us, and to recognize that we are transformed in the process. It’s not a simple matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking, nor is it just giving an hour of our time to the church. We don’t fit Jesus into our lives – Jesus drags us into his.
We move from the kingdom of consumption to the kingdom of communion, from the kingdom of popularity to the kingdom of poverty, from the kingdom of destruction to the kingdom of deliverance, from the kingdom of competition to the kingdom of cooperation.
Today, people are taking selfies with their “I Voted” stickers to show their allegiance to the democratic processes of America. They are sending text messages and making phone calls to make sure that everyone gets out to make “the right choice.” And I keep hearing about how this is the most important election in history, which is what we say every single time there’s an election!
And all the while, I can’t help but think of how we would never elect Jesus to lead us.
We would never willingly elect someone who told us the first will be last and the last will be first.
We would never willingly elect someone who told us to sell of our our possessions and give all the proceeds to the poor.
We would never willingly elect someone who spent of all their time hanging out with the riff-raff of society.
In order to get elected by the likes of u,s Jesus would have to make promises to the rich in order to stabilize economic prosperity. He would have to compromise with leaders who treat their citizens like dirt. He would have to keep his mouth shut and stop telling parables out of fear that he wouldn’t get re-elected in the future.
Thank God we’re not voting on Jesus. And, more importantly, instead of electing him, he elected us.
In this broken and flawed and sinful world, we see and know God because we see and know Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible, the very beginning of everything in creation. Jesus is before all things and in him all things hold together.
He is the one from whom our help comes.
So, instead of being consumed by the politics and priorities of this world, remember that we are consumed by the grace of God made manifest in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.
Don’t mix politics with religion.
We’re told to keep these seemingly incompatible things as far away from each other as possible. Whatever political proclivities we hold and whatever we might believe are meant to remain in the private sphere and the world has no right to interfere with either.
And yet, the world interferes with both of them all the time! In the last twenty four hours I have been inundated with calls for a “Christian response to the inappropriateness of the Super Bowl Halftime show” as well as emails reminding me, as a clergy person, of my apparent responsibility to “get all of my congregants registered to vote locally and nationally.”
Whether we like it or not, the so-called “Separation of Church and State” actually looks more like a very complicated marriage within which neither partner is sure why they are still together.
It then becomes increasingly difficult for Christians to think and speak theologically about what it means to be Christian. Such that we often privatize whatever it is we do on Sundays at the expense of letting it shape how we behave Monday-Saturday.
This is a strange thing considering the language of faith articulated to, and by, Christians when they gather for worship.
Or, to put it another way, if we believe Jesus is Lord then all of our assumptions about who we are and whose we are cannot remain the same.
“Do not hold back,” Isaiah is told by the Lord, “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys being told they’re a sinner, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of us are sinners. We chose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should – we bicker among ourselves about Super Bowl commercials and halftime performances – we write people off because of the name of a political candidate they display on their bumper sticker.
This evening we will all begin to receive the results of the Iowa Caucus, further propelling the nation into another presidential election cycle (as if we ever get out of election cycles). The talking heads will wax lyrical about what it all means and they will all say, as they always do, “this is the most important election in our history.”
Well, here’s a controversial political and theological statement: This is not the most important election in history. The most important election in history was Jesus electing us.
Today, we throw all of our eggs into our respective political baskets with candidates, campaigns, and elections. And, even though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, we keep believing that so long as our candidate gets nominated/elected then everything will be fine and good for us. But politicians and political ideologies have come and gone with failed promises again and again.
The democratic practices we hold so dear are fine and good, but they will not bring us salvation.
Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “I think voting is overvalued. We forget that voting is inherently a coercive activity – its where 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do! People forget that voting is not an end in itself… Democracy, in its fundamental form, is patience; it requires us to listen, in the Pauline sense, to the lesser members among us.”
Perhaps the language from Isaiah is beckoning us to remember that our unending desire to win is but another way to refer to our rebellion against God and God’s kingdom.
So, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to be both faithful and political, let us pray that the Lord grants us the peace necessary to bear one another in love, knowing full and well that salvation isn’t something we have to hope for because it’s already been given to us by the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ, whom we did not elect.
Instead, he elected us.
On November 16th, 2016, Americans flocked to their assigned polling stations. The election cycle had been particularly brutal with the partisanship at its zenith. And while countless citizens waited for the election results to come in, a handful of people gathered for worship at Duke Divinity School to hear Stanley Hauerwas preach.
It’s a good sermon, you can read it in his recent book Minding The Web, but there’s one part that has really stuck with me over the last few years:
“I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas. Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, that is a deep mistake. It is often over-looked, but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election, 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”
Annual Conference is often experienced as the most determinative week in the life of United Methodism. Sure, we have a General Conference every four years that establishes the global budget and a handful of other truly important matters. But every year, every Annual Conference meets to discern the future of the local church as it pertains to missional strategies, ordination, and conference structures. And we worship occasionally, but that certainly feels like an afterthought most of the time.
And within the regular movements and machinations of Annual Conference there is an element of conferencing that is so engrained into who we are that we no longer question its’ subversiveness – Robert’s Rules of Order, and specifically voting in general.
I don’t know the exact date of when the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations sold their souls to the organization of Robert, but I do know for sure that it has nothing to do with the gospel.
Take Hauerwas’ point: The only democratic moment in the Gospels is when the people choose Barabbas instead of Jesus. They thought they knew what they were doing and they nailed the Lord to the cross. There are, of course, other moments of important decision in the New Testament, but they don’t happen through a pre-arranged structure, or through secret ballots, and certainly not through electronic devices.
There isn’t even campaigning for particular people or ideologies.
When the apostles needed to choose a new disciple to replace Judas they did so with the casting of lots.
When the apostles encounter the Spirit’s movement among the Gentiles they simply went along with the flow rather than creating subcommittees to study a new way forward for the Good News.
But that’s not how we handle things in the United Methodist Church.
For years I’ve entertained the thought of approaching one of the open microphones to make a motion (under the guidelines of Robert) to amend our general rules and practices so that EVERY vote would be done with the casting of lots. I’m sure that it would be debated, and ultimately struck down, but the craziest thing is it would have the potential of being more faithful than whatever it is we are already doing.
Instead of listening for and discerning the movement of the Spirit, we “take matters into our own hands” by exhibiting our democratic rights. Which means, to put it another way, that the UMC has adopted a secular means of deliberation that mirrors corporate America more than the living Word of the Lord.
Rev. Dr. Dennis Perry, who is retiring at this year’s Virginia Annual Conference says: “We have conflated effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process. If asked, most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”
During this Annual Conference cycle there has been a lot of behind the scenes politicking in order to establish slates of candidates to be voted upon for the 2020 General Conference. Different camps/tribes are hoping to either overturn or strengthen the Traditional Plan from GC 2019 that created stiffer penalties for clergy who preside over same-sex weddings and Bishops/Conferences that ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.
Those who lean to the right have their slate of candidates and those who lean to the left have their own slate of candidates. But on both sides, two of the primary factors for consideration have been electability and knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order.
So here’s my question: What does it say about the United Methodist Church that when discerning the future of God’s church we want to elect individuals who have name-recognition and who are aware of a parliamentary process that has nothing to do with the Bible?
Robert’s Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing and neither is sitting down for an election. They might keep us attentive to the matters at hand, but they also leave us more polarized than we were when we started.
So, here’s another way forward in light of GC 2019 and our continued Annual Conferencing –
Get rid of Robert’s Rules of Order. Throw it away and never look back. Will Annual Conference become chaotic and difficult to keep under control? Of course, but that’s what the Holy Spirit does best. Do you think the disciples waited for someone to make a motion to accept the Holy Spirit before it was poured out on Pentecost?
And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of voting altogether. We can either work through consensus building, or cast lots like they did during the time of Jesus. Will it be difficult, and will we feel like its’ unfair? Of course, but God’s grace is entirely unfair – it’s for everyone.
We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper organization is the key to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do or what we control – instead, it’s about what God did and does and whether or not we have the eyes, ears, and minds to perceive it.
Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that has more to do with Sears than it does to the kingdom of God.
Here on the other side of GC 2019, our conferencing is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To continually give ourselves over to Robert and his rules is to admit how drunk we are with manifesting our own destiny.
My fear is that we are so entrenched in our ways, that we are no longer listening to The Way.
If we’re honest, none of our committees would elect Jesus to do much of anything. He is far too radical, too perverse, and he associates himself with all the wrong people. He wouldn’t sit around for all of the parliamentary procedures before marching out to do his own thing.
I just hope that we would have the presence of mind to follow Him, rather than trying to show Him where to go.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
We’re often told to not mix politics with religion – political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere and therefore they are things we can think about on our own time but the world has no right to interfere with either.
Except the world interferes with both all the time! We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back their role in politics, and I even get letters in the mail from political parties asking me to endorse particular candidates from the pulpit!
Whether we like it or not, the so-called “separation of church and state” actually looks more like a very complicated marriage where neither partner is sure why they are still together.
It then becomes remarkably difficult for Christians to think theologically about what it means to be political, and we wind up privatizing whatever it is we do on Sundays at the expense of letting it influence how we behave Monday-Saturday.
However, as Christians, we believe that our truest citizenship does not lie in our geography, or our nationstate, or even our socio-economic bracket. Instead, we believe our citizenship is in heaven.
We follow and worship a Lord whose kingdom is very different from the one that surrounds us in the world. All of our assumptions about what it important, who we are to be, and what we are to care about are changed by Jesus Christ who is our Lord of lords.
But then a question naturally follows: If our truest citizenship is in heaven, should we still participate in the forms of citizenship made manifest in something like an election?
The answer, of course, is yes. By all means we can participate in the political process of our country and we can certainly vote in something like an election.
And yet, the Lord cautions us with a very particular and poignant word: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”
Today we tend to throw all of our eggs in our respective political baskets and we, foolishly, believe that so long as our candidate gets elected everything will be fine for us. But politicians and political ideologies have come and gone, people have rejoiced and people have wept, and many things have remained the same.
The democratic practices we hold so dear are very important, but they will not bring us salvation.
Or, to put it more succinctly, Stanley Hauerwas says:
“I think voting is way overvalued. We forget that voting is inherently a coercive activity – its where 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do! People forget that voting is not an end in itself… Democracy, in its fundamental form, is patience; it requires us to listen, in the Pauline sense, to the lesser member. And we have to wait, oftentimes, if the lesser member isn’t convinced.”
So this election day, as we wrestle with the call to be both faithful and political, let us pray that the Lord might grant us the patience necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that whomever is elected will not bring us salvation, but that we wait with hope and joy for the Lord of lords, Jesus the Christ, whom we did not elect.
Instead, he elected us.
1 Samuel 8.4-11, 16-20
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. Now then, listen to their voice; only – you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
I hadn’t even been a pastor for a week when I got my first visitor to my office. There were still boxes upon boxes of books stacked in the corner, and I could barely see over the mound of paperwork on my desk when the older gentleman gently knocked on the door. With only one Sunday under my belt everyone looked familiar and unknown at the same time.
So as he offered his hand and introduced himself I tried to remember if he was one of mine, if he had been in church for my first Sunday, but then he answered my question. He said, “I’m your local state representative, and as one of our community’s leaders I want to welcome you to this place we call home.”
I was flabbergasted. What a kind and thoughtful thing to do! He could have been doing a great number of other things, but he took the time to find me, in my office, and welcome me to the community.
We talked for a few minutes about where I went to school and where I was from, before he announced that he needed to get back to his office. I thanked him for the incredibly wonderful gesture, and just before he walked down the hall he said something I’ll never forget. With a casual grin he looked over his shoulder and said, “I always appreciate my pastors putting in a good word for me from their pulpits when needed.”
And with that he walked away.
Everything is political. We could say that everything has always been political, and though that’s probably true, it hasn’t always been this political.
I challenge any of you to get online, open a newspaper, or turn on the television without learning something about a vote (or lack of vote) in Congress, or a radical tweet from the president, or any number of other issues. Politics have become the totality of our news.
Since last Sunday one of our former Presidents, Bill Clinton, was interviewed about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and he publicly stated that he doesn’t believe he owes her an apology. The most powerful man in the world, who had a physically intimate relationship with one of his subordinates, who then lied about it to the American public, doesn’t think he owes her an apology. This revelation was all that the news outlets could talk about for hours.
Since last Sunday, our current president hosted a “patriotism” event at the white house, after publicly lambasting the Philadelphia Eagles, and the entire NFL, for not respecting our nation’s flag. And during the event, while the band and a choir of dozens performed God Bless America, our president clearly didn’t know the words to the song. This revelation was all that the news outlets could talk about for hours.
Since last Sunday, I’ve driven in my car all over Woodbridge and I have heard two different political pundits, representing both sides of the spectrum, say the exact same thing: “The 2018 midterms will be the most important election in history.” Which, for what it’s worth, is what they said about the 2016 election, the 2012 election, the 2008 election…
Everything is political. And because everything is political we continue to dig our political trenches deeper and deeper, and we’ve let it completely infect the church.
The Elephant (and Donkey) in the room is the fact that we’ve let the elephant and the donkey into the room, the church.
Now, you might be thinking, what’s so wrong with letting animals into the church? Aren’t they part of God’s good creation? Wasn’t our Lord born in a manger surrounded by farm animals?
The problem with having elephants and donkeys in the church is that at any moment they can go on a rampage through the circus tent of church life just like they used to do every election cycle, and they now do two to three times a week.
And, to make it all the worse, we knew exactly what would happen when we let them in.
“Give us a king to govern us so we can be like everyone else!” the people of Israel declared. And the Lord warns them, “I’ll give you a king if you want a king, but know this – the king will send your young sons and daughters off to war, the king will take a tenth of everything you own and keep some and share the rest with the wealthy and the powerful, you will become slaves to the political regimes of your own design. And when you begin to see what you have done, when you cry out to me because of your king, who you yourselves chose, I will not answer.”
Our desire to root ourselves in our politics and elections is no new phenomenon. The people of God, having finally placed roots in the Promised Land are no longer content with the guidance of would-be judges and they demand action from the Lord. Give us a king so we can be just like everybody else!
And since the days of Samuel there have been generally two responses to the infection of politics in faithful living. The people of God are either tempted to avoid politics altogether – there is talk of spirituality and prayer and personal relationship with Jesus; we proudly proclaim that pulpit proclamations and personal political proclivities have nothing to do with one another.
Or, we are tempted to shout out in resistance to whatever comes from the towers of power. During the Davidic kingdoms it came from the Temple and today it often come down from Capitol Hill. We forge ahead to wage battle against those with whom we disagree. We not only point out the elephants and donkeys in the room, but we also rage against them with every fiber of our being.
We complain about politics, whether our party, whichever one it might be, is in power or not. We hold our elected leaders to standards that we ourselves do not adhere to. And when they disappoint us we act as if no one could have predicted this.
But we get the politicians we deserve.
And it is all too tempting to blame those who represent us for all of our current problems – looking for scapegoats is part of our nature. But that blame game isn’t good enough, because the truth of the matter is that they, politicians, are not the problem – the problem is us.
We forget the intense emotions of all sides of the political spectrum are remarkably similar even though they are rooted in completely different value systems. Much of who we are politically is not based on what we want the world to look like, or deep-rooted convictions, it’s a reaction to what we fear.
The Israelites were afraid that without a king they would not be like all of the other nations, that they would not hold the might and power they so desperately craved, that they would fall back in the chains of slavery they had in Egypt. The deep fears about their present reality convicted them to demand a king from God. And God, as a loving God, listens and ultimately gives them what they want! But not before warning them of the result of their desire.
The Lord provides vivid and frightening details about what their future holds in store, and it not only affect them but their children and their children’s children, it will affect the land given to them, it will affect every part of their lives.
And how do they respond?
No! We are determined to have a king over us so we can be like everybody else!
Friends, we are not like everybody else. Contrary to what we might read in the papers, or see on the television, or scroll through on the internet, we are a counter-cultural movement. Our values rarely harmonize with those surrounding us in the world run and consumed by politics.
We are not a red church, and neither are we a blue church.
We are not a church of elephants, or a church of donkeys.
We are purple church, and we worship the Lamb.
We did not elect Jesus, we did not listen to him make speeches with empty promises before we decided he could be ours, we did not choose him.
Honestly, I doubt we would’ve picked him if we had a choice. He does not represent economic power, of militaristic might, or the promise of jobs. And yet Jesus is his own politics.
Politics, rightly understood, is not the fight for a more democratic world, or the protection of freedoms, or the implementation of strategies to make America work. Politics, in following Jesus, hinge on our willingness to create and cultivate a community where we can tell the truth.
We who follow Jesus are people of truth. We do not turn blind eyes to what happens outside of these walls, and neither do we ignore the elephant and donkey that all too often dominate our conversations within these walls.
And let me be clear, this is a tension. It is a difficult situation because the elephant and donkey have become too strong and loud and powerful to be easily removed from the church. We are, to a degree, stuck with them. And because they are here and not going anywhere, we will argue. The pettiness of the conversations online, on the radio, and on television will continue to infect what we do, and think, and say, and believe.
But, after all, we Christians are a people who love our enemies. Perhaps the invasion of the political animals in this place will give us the opportunity to actually follow Jesus and love the people we hate and who hate us.
The truth is we are not like everybody else.
We are Jesus people.
I’ve told the story before, but when the last presidential election cycle came around, I was feeling fairly apathetic. With more than a year of bickering, political trenches growing deeper and wider, I didn’t even want to vote. I thought perhaps the Christian thing to do would be to not vote. But when Election Day came, I found myself driving to my voting station at a local church.
I meandered through the line until they sent me to my machine were I pushed a few buttons and it was over. And as I looked up above the machine, at the room full of people fuming with frustrations, I saw hanging above us a picture of Jesus. And not just a normal picture of Jesus by the sea, or sitting at the table with his friends; it was a picture of Jesus laughing.
Jesus was laughing at our foolishness in thinking that we can govern ourselves, in thinking that our freedom to choose would result in a better world, in thinking that maybe we would get it right this time.
Now Jesus’ laughter at our political pandering is not to say that politics are inherently wrong or evil. Jesus is not calling us to dismantle our current system of government, nor is Jesus calling us to retreat from the world into caves of our own making. Our democratic system has certainly provided a number of blessings to those who call this nation home.
But when the bonds of the names on our bumper stickers and the color of our political parties become more determinative than the bonds that are forge in the waters of baptism, we have fallen prey to the elephant and donkey in the room.
We are Jesus people, we believe that telling the truth is more determinative than just about anything else. And to confess Jesus as Lord is a truth that will profoundly challenge the status quo of animals running loose in the sanctuary.
We believe that God resurrected a first century Jew from the dead in order to turn the world upside down in the beginning of a revolution of reality.
We believe that by following Jesus our lives will become more difficult because we will love our enemies as much as we love our friends.
We believe that Jesus is Lord, he is our king, and that we did not elect Him – He elected us. Amen.