On Voting For Jesus

Devotional:

Psalm 121.1-2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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Devotional:

Isaiah 58.1

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. 

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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. 

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“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. 

Another Way Forward or: Why “Holy Conferencing” Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

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.

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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. 

The (Christian) Problem With Elections

Devotional:

Psalm 146.3

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

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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?

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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. 

The Elephant (and Donkey) in the Room

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.

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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.

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“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.

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.

God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle

Mark 2.1-5

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

 

 

On the day of the funeral, everything felt too familiar. The pews were filling up with the same people who were here the week before, the same family was waiting in the narthex, and our organist was even playing some of the same music as people were walking in.

I stood right here in front of the gathered congregation and asked everyone to stand for the family. Leading the profession were two daughters who were about to bury their father after burying their mother the week before. Their grief and pain and anger were palpable as they slowly walking down the center aisle, and everyone watched them as they passed.

And we did what we do for a service of death and resurrection. We prayed. We opened up the hymnals and proclaimed God’s faithfulness through song. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

As we finished, I watched the pallbearers stand up and surround the coffin. With hands shaking in nervousness and fear they carried their friend’s body out of the church and put him in the hearse.

And we did what we do when travel to a cemetery. We got in our cars and turned on our hazard lights. We followed one another through the streets of Staunton. We watched cars slow down and pull over out of respect for what we were doing. We drove. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After arriving at the cemetery, I watched the same pallbearers carry the coffin to the grave over uncertain soil. With sweat perspiring on their foreheads they lowered their friend to the ground and stood beside the family.

And we did what we do by the graveside. We prayed. We listened. We placed dirt on the coffin. We said what we needed to say. We listened. We grieved. We cried.

After the final “Amen” I waited by the grave with a few others, making sure the family was comforted. I overheard familiar and charming anecdotes about the man we just gathered to bury. I witnessed family members reach out to one another for the first time in many years. I saw a lot of tissues filled with tears wadded up in clenched fists.

And then I saw something I’ll never forget. A man, unknown to me, walked right over to one of the daughters devastated by the loss of both her parents. He placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.” And with that he turned around and walked away.

God won’t give you more than you can handle.

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I’m sure that all of us here have heard this statement, or some form of it, in our lives. It is part of that trite and cliché Christian-lingo that we use to fill uncomfortable silences when we don’t know what else to say. And it’s not true.

Let’s start with the beginning: God won’t give you… We’ve talked about it with every sermon of this series so far; God doesn’t give us our sufferings. God is not some sadist who delights in our trials and tribulations. God is not some architect of divine destruction. God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what terrible things to send for us to handle.

Can you imagine going to a devastated neighborhood in Chicago to families whose sons have been killed by gunfire and saying, “Don’t worry God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to a young mother recently diagnosed with breast cancer and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle”?

Can you imagine going to the millions of people in this country who are terrified of losing their healthcare coverage in the next few months and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle?”

God did not kill those families’ sons, God did not give that woman breast cancer, and God is not responsible for the arguments about whether or not to eradicate the Affordable Care Act.

Sometimes, we say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because we don’t know what else to say. We encounter the shadow of suffering that is so suffocating we don’t know how to respond. So instead, we will that awful void with awful words. And we make God into a monster.

The problem is that when we use trite and cliché words like the ones we are confronting this morning, we imply that God chooses to make people suffer.

Jesus, God incarnate, had been on the road for a while, going from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, proclaiming the Good News, teaching about the kingdom of God, and healing those on the margins of society. Word about his ministry spread pretty vast, and he returned to Capernaum for a few days, perhaps to rest. But so many people knew where he was that they surrounded his house and Jesus spoke the Word to them.

Some friends heard about what was happening, so they went to their paralyzed friend and carried him on a mat to Jesus. When they could not bring him to the Messiah because of the crowd, they carried him to the roof, dug through the ceiling, and lowered their friend to Jesus. And when Jesus saw the faith of the friends, he looked at the paralytic and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

What a strange and beautiful story. Friends with such profound faith were willing to carry their friend, and dig through a roof, just so he could encounter the living God.

I often wonder about the tradition of pallbearers at funerals. Did it start of out a practical necessity? Is there strong theological purpose behind it? Is it a unique Christian behavior?

But on the day I buried a husband after burying his wife the week before, the day I saw a man dismissively respond to the daughter’s suffering, I saw the connection between pallbearers, and the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus.

When we cannot handle what’s happening in our lives, we need people who can carry us, and the ones we love, to Jesus.

We will face adversity in our lives. We will experience hardships. We, or someone we love, may struggle with debilitating depression or suicidal thoughts or grief so heavy it feels like someone is sitting on our chest. We might give in to the temptation of an addiction and lose contact with the people we need most. We may fall into a pit of financial debt that feels impossible to climb out of.

If we are like most human beings, at some point we will absolutely face things that are more than we can handle.

So here’s a corrective. It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.

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This acknowledges that trials and tribulation will occur in our lives, and it promises that when we go through the muck and grime of life, God will be present.

When we’re walking through hard times, whether they were given to us by the random chance of life, or they’re a result of our own brokenness, or they’re signs of our captivity to the powers and principalities, it’s okay and good to admit, “I can’t handle this by myself, and I need help.” There are times when we need a doctor, or a therapist to carry us. More often, we need family, friends, pastors, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in our church family to come alongside us to carry us through.

God does not give us more than we can handle. God gives us Jesus Christ so that we can handle what life gives us.

For a lot of people, what happened on Friday in Washington DC was more than they could handle. Whether it was the pent up frustration with the political rhetoric that overflowed over the last 18 months, or witnessing a billionaire place his hands on Abraham Lincoln’s bible, or experiencing the great swing of the pendulum from one political ideology to another, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with violent protests and destroyed shop windows and attacked the police. Others responded with peaceful demonstrations making sure their voices were not stomped out among all the shouting debauchery. There were the political talking heads offering their opinions about who was right and who was wrong. There were smug smiles and there were frightening frowns. The inauguration, for some, was more than they could handle.

For others, the last eight years has been more than they could handle. Whether it was the constant feeling like the country was slipping out of their fingers, or the realization that the American dream is not what it once was, or the rise of oppositional and divisive voices, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with protests and boycotts of particular institutions, others responded by focusing inwardly and praying for change, and still yet others waited patiently for a new direction. For eight years there were plenty of talking heads offering their unsolicited opinions about who was right and who was wrong. The last eight years, for some, was more than they could handle.

Some say the time has come for all of us to just get along. A couple weeks ago I even told you that we, as a church, should have a collective New Year’s resolution to be more kind.

Kindness and getting along are good and nice. But there are people around us, people in our lives, who need more than kindness and getting along. There are people desperately clinging to the hope of their healthcare coverage completely unsure of what it about to happen. There are people who are hopeless when confronting their joblessness and economic futures. There are people shaking and quaking about their faith and whether or not they are going to be forced to register themselves because they wear a particular piece of cloth on their heads. There are people who see police officers as enemies and not community protectors.

There are people in our community; there are people in our church, who have more than they can handle right now.

We need people, like the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus, to carry others who have more than they can handle. We need people who can look us in the eye and tell us we have a problem. We need people who will call their friends every night just to get them through a profound period of loss. We need people like all the women who marched in solidarity all across the world yesterday. We need people with eyes wide open to the horrible suffering of the people around us so that it does not go on unnoticed. We need people who are unafraid of the consequences for questioning the status quo. Right now, we need people who are brave enough to carry us to Jesus. Amen.

 

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