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.

img_mouseover3 (1)

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.

saints_5236c

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.

Advertisements

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.

635787512482303409305489483_29f1979c65db2aa1627169bad37391df-imgopt1000x70

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.

6fa0c8a00d809d23761dfaa71b6b542a

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.

 

dumb-things-christians-say-sermon-series-idea

Everything Happens For A Reason

Deuteronomy 30.19-20

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

 

Since Thanksgiving, I have been at a lot of tables with a lot of people and talked about a lot of things. That’s what the holidays are often about, and frankly what we remember the most; we might forget the first present we opened, or who was the first person to arrive, but we can almost always recall those table side discussions.

A lot of things happened in 2016 that warranted conversation at those particular tables. The deaths of celebrities, cultural icons, and transformative leaders; the rise in popularity of strange things like Pokemon Go, the Netflix hit Stranger Things, and Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic; the never-ending saga of suffering in Syria, the increase in terrorist related events throughout the world, and the ever thinning ice like situation in the middle east; the incredible Rogue One, the magical Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, and vibrant color palette of Trolls.

But do you know what was talked about more than anything else?

Politics.

Politics. Politics. Politics.

And then when you throw a pastor into the fray at the tables, you start mixing together the real forbidden topics of conversations.

So I have learned, over the years, to keep my mouth shut. Whether I agree with a political policy or not, I nod my head along with the speaker regardless of their position and then reign myself to sit in silence.

In the last few months I have been at tables where people bashed the political rhetoric of the Republican Party, I listened to people re-imagine a new Democratic platform with notes hastily written on cocktail napkins, I watched people force index fingers at others while berating the likes of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, I’ve heard people place bets over how long it will take Donald Trump to build a fence at the border with Mexico, and I’ve seen people cry with tears of pain, and people cry with tears of joy, while talking about the political future of the United States of America.

But I heard something the other day that I can’t get out of my head, one theologically politicized statement that has rattled through my brain ever since.

It went like this:

“Did you hear what Franklin Graham said?”

            “You mean the son of Billy Graham?”

            “Yes, him.”

            “No, what did he say?”

            “He said that it wasn’t the Russians who intervened in the presidential election, it was God.”

Now, before we really get into this, I want to be clear. Donald Trump is going to be the president of the United States. That’s a fact. Even though we now live in the so-called time of “post-truth,” the truth is that Donald Trump will be president.

But how Donald Trump became the president elect is something we should talk about. Particularly when one of the leading Christian evangelists in this country can say something like “God made Donald Trump president.”

dumb-things-christians-say-sermon-series-idea

Everything happens for a reason. This is true, of course, in the sense that actions have consequences. If I step down from this pulpit and walk to the back and flip the switch in the breaker box, all of the lights in the sanctuary will turn off. If plants do not receive enough moisture and sunlight they will not grow. If I give my wife a mop for Christmas, I’m going to get in trouble.

In our scripture from Deuteronomy, Moses offers the Israelites a similar reflection: if you choose life and love the Lord you may live in the land the Lord promised. Actions have consequences. However, the problem with “everything happens for a reason” is that we almost always imply that God is the reason that everything happens.

So, to take the recent election as our example, if it was God who intervened to make sure that Donald Trump became president, why wasn’t the victory more lopsided? Or, does it mean that everyone who voted for Clinton is a sinner for doing so because they went against God’s will? Did God choose not to “show up” for the Obama elections in 2008 or 2012? If everything happens for a reason, then why did God choose to have Donald Trump elected as president while all sorts of other things (like the situation in Syria, Police shootings, etc.) are still happening?

And this logic can also be applied to a number of things: If everything happens for a reason, then why did one of my best friends die in a car accident when she was a teenager? What is the reason for men who beat their wives, or women who abuse their children, or children who assault their parents?

When we throw out a trite and cliché sentence like “everything happens for a reason” it removes all responsibility from us and puts it all on God. And yet, we do believe that God is in control, that God is the author of our salvation, and that God continues to move and act in this world of ours.

everything-happens-for-a-reason

This is fundamentally at the heart of the strange mystery of what it means to be a disciple. On one side we affirm that God rules, and on the other side we affirm that God has given us perfect freedom to live and act in this place that God rules.

God has given us the freedom to make choices, for better or worse. From the Garden of Eden to the sanctuary of St. John’s on this first day of 2017 we are free. When we do something right or wrong, we can’t blame it on God. It is our freedom to choose who we are to be, that allows this world to be as strangely beautiful as it is, but it makes it strangely broken and flawed as well.

We are not marionettes being strung along by a divine puppeteer. God gives each of us, his creatures, a brain, a heart, a soul, to make choices and act in this world. We use things like prayer and the reading of scripture to help us determine how our choices can coincide with God’s will, but the choices are fundamentally ours to make.

All of us know that terrible things happen that cannot be explained. They are a part of life. But we also know that those terrible things do not have the final word. We know that God is working through us, helping us to see and to know who we are to be in order to transform this world into his kingdom. And we know that God is the one who has the final Word, thats what Jesus’s birth and resurrection changed. God came into the world in order to free us from the last vestige that had a hold on us, death. God broke the chains of death’s dark shadow in order to guide us into the light of resurrection. We know that even though terrible things happen, and will continue to happen, God’s love in Jesus Christ is the final Word.

Living in this tension of God’s perfect sovereignty and our perfect freedom is one of the things that makes being a Christian so challenging. For when we encounter those terrible things that happen in the world we often vacillate between “everything happens for a reason” or “life is meaningless.” Whereas Christians, people like us, are called to live somewhere in the middle.

In the early hours of April 15th 1912, more than a hundred years ago, the infamous ship named the Titanic sank in the Northern Atlantic Ocean. 1,500 people were lost at sea when the ship ran into an iceberg and it is still one of the worst maritime disasters to have ever happened.

Much like other events that grab the attention of the world, many pastors felt called to speak about the disaster the following Sunday in order to make sense of the tragedy. In a small sleepy Swiss village was a young pastor named Karl Barth who regularly bored his congregation with long theologically dense sermons, but the Sunday after the sinking of the Titanic called for something a little more meaningful.

He used the beginning part of the sermon to outline the power of the almighty from creating the cosmos to bringing life to all creatures. He referenced heavily from the book of Genesis and went on and on. But at the end he said something that grabbed their attention.

It went like this: God most certainly put the iceberg in the water, but God did not make the captain feel pressured to beat the record time across the Atlantic and thereby neglect to pass slowly and safely through a region filled with large icebergs.

1101620420_400

Barth’s simple reflection is by no means perfect, but it points toward a better way of thinking about, “Everything happens for a reason.” Sometimes there are reasons things happen, people feel tempted to go faster than they should and it means they run through red lights, they neglect to check their blind spots, or they run into icebergs. Sometimes people feel disaffected and forgotten by their government and they come out in droves and subvert the majority of polls and elect a political outsider to the most powerful position in our earthly world.

But that doesn’t mean that God made a car accident happen, or that God willed the sinking of the Titanic, or that God had a reason for making Donald Trump the next president of the United States.

And sometimes things happen for no reason at all. Fathers in perfect health and in the prime of their lives die of sudden heart attacks. Natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes come out of nowhere and devastate entire communities. Marriages fall apart for no particular reason other than the build up of tiny disagreements that never get settled.

And still there is hope. There is hope because God can work through people like you and me to bring about the kingdom on earth. God still speaks through the ancient scriptures to remind us of the importance of ministering to the last, the least, and the lost. God places opportunities in our lives that we can choose to respond to, and in so doing, we can become the reason good things happen.

God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses. We have the choice to choose life so that our families and friends may live to love the Lord and obey what he has taught. If we choose the good we may all live in the peace that God promised to God’s people from Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob, to David, to Isaiah, to Jesus, to Peter, to Paul.

So it is good and right for us to start this New Year in this place, where God makes all things new. At this table we receive the spiritual food necessary for the journey of life. We break bread knowing that strange things are afoot in this world, but that God moves in and through people like us to shine as a light in the darkness. We surround the cup together knowing that Jesus’ sacrifice opens up the glory of the resurrection and gives us the strength to do incredible things here and now.

Not everything happens for a reason. But sometimes God calls us to be the reason something good happens to someone else. Amen.

 

Not My President

 

Colossians 1.11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.

not-my-president-anti-trump-protesters-900

 

A year ago today I stood in this pulpit and preached about how God’s kingdom is not of this world. I used Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus (“Are you the King of the Jews?” “You say that I am…”) to juxtapose the world’s expectations against God’s expectations. The sermon ended with a staccato’d refrain that emphasized the kingship of Jesus and our allegiance to his kingdom.

I said:

The world tells us to gain all we can.

            Jesus tells us to give all we can.

            The world tells us to seek vengeance.

            Jesus tells us to seek forgiveness.

            The world tells us to destroy our enemies.

            Jesus tells us to love our enemies.

            The world tells us we are the center of the universe.

            Jesus tells us that God is the center of all things.

            The world tells us to ignore the weak.

            Jesus tells us that the meek shall inherit the earth.

            The world tells us that death is the end.

            Jesus tells us that death is the beginning.

I didn’t think it at the time, but it was a pretty political sermon. After all, making the claim that Christ is our King is a political statement. But what I didn’t anticipate was how the words from that sermon would play out over the next 365 days.

We’re told not to mix politics with religion. Political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere, 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 the Supreme Court, and I even get emails asking about what the church is going to do regarding local school board decisions.

We hear that the church is not supposed to be political. We shouldn’t endorse particular candidates or platforms. We shouldn’t tell people how to vote, or even to vote at all. The church can’t be political in the sense that it can’t be Republican or Democrat, but the church itself is a politic. To be part of the church, to be part of the body of Christ, implies that our worldview is changed and therefore everything else changes as well.

Like many Sundays throughout the liturgical year, this one has a special focus and significance. However, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the Christian calendar. Whereas Christians have celebrated the likes of Maundy Thursday and Pentecost for a long time, Christ the King was only established as official day in the church in 1925. It took the church 1900 years to need this day the same way that we need it now.

In 1925, Mussolini had been head of Italy for 3 years, a loud insurrectionist in Germany named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was rapidly growing in power, and the entire world was suffering under the weight of a Great Depression.

Yet, despite the rise of autocratic dictators, despite the lack of economic opportunities, despite the strange and uncomfortable silence between two World Wars, Christ the King asserted, and still does, that Jesus Christ is Lord and he shall reign forever and ever.

Throughout the last Christian year from Christ the King to Christ the King, we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God in the stories from Creation to Redemption, we’ve been transformed by the Word of the God becoming incarnate in the way we live our lives…. And all of this, all of the Sundays, all of the sermons, all of the scriptures, have pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.

That’s the thing about Christians, for us everything starts and ends with Jesus. In his letters Paul addresses this strange and beautiful quality of Jesus over and over again. And rather than trying to accommodate Jesus to the ways of the world, Paul calls for all Christians to put Christ first. Yet, Christ is the King of a Kingdom that is so different, and so far from what we’re comfortable with, that putting Jesus first is difficult.

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 deported to a strange new land where everyone else is speaking a strange language. It takes time to learn the lingo, and adapt to the habits of the people around us. It’s not a simple matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking, nor is it just giving an hour of our week to worship in a church. We don’t fit Jesus into our lives; Jesus fits us into his.

We are the ones transferred, moved, and deported from one kingdom to another. 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.

Everything about what we think we know and understand changes in the kingdom of God, because Christ is King.

USA ELECTION AFTERMATH

The last two weeks have been particularly tumultuous in our country: Economically disenfranchised people are fearful about the potential of losing their health care coverage, while some devastated Democrats are calling for the murder of Donald Trump. Muslims are being threatened with a registration much like the Jews were forced to register in Germany prior to World War II, while Trump voters are being physically assaulted across the national landscape. Immigrants are cowering in fear over whether or not they’re going to be deported, while countless protestors are flooding the streets of cities and the pages of social media with the declaration: Not My President.

Some are berating and demeaning the crowds for their rejection of Donald Trump as their president as if this is the first time people have rejected the president-elect in the United States. It was only sixteen years ago that tee-shirts and bumper stickers were mass produced with pictures of George W. Bush accompanied by the words: Not My President. It was only 8 years ago that Confederate flags were waved during protests after Barack Obama won the election and people were chanting: Not My President.

Thank God Jesus is not our president.

For if Jesus were our president we would have had to pick him to lead us, and we never would have picked him to lead us. We would never willingly elect someone who told us that the first will be last and the last will be first. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to sell all of our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to open up all the borders and let all the refugees in. We would never willingly elect someone who spent so much time with the riff-raff of society.

If Jesus were our president he would be a product of the world rather than a product of God’s incarnation. He would have to make promises to the rich in order to maintain economic stability. He would have to compromise with other world leaders who treat their citizens like dirt. He would have to second-guess the stories he told out of fear that he would not be re-elected in the future.

If Jesus were our president he would have to make us promises that he could never keep, instead of being the glue that keeps all of us together. He would have to take sides in political debates and ostracize entire communities. He would have to brag about the stability of the union rather than name the brokenness that is keeping us from becoming who God is actually calling us to be. He would have to order the extermination of particular individuals and communities in order to keep our country safe.

Thank God Jesus is not our president. Jesus is our King. And instead of electing him, he elected us.

The kingdom Jesus rules is not of this world and it forces us to confront how broken our world really is. Jesus, as our king, subverts the powers and principalities and shows us a new way.

In this broken and flawed 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.

When we encounter things that appear diametrically opposed, things like Republicans and Democrats, Christ is the glue that holds it all together. Through the blood of his death, the blood that was poured out for the world, we encounter the “other” as brother and the “stranger” as “sister.” All the worldly things that seek to divide us are broken down by the glory of the cross that seeks to bring peace and reconciliation rather than division and destruction.

807586_1

It is not an easy thing to be a Christian, to worship Christ as King. We need the strength of God to endure everything with patience while giving thanks to the Father, because we cannot do discipleship on our own. But when Christ becomes first in our lives, when every Sunday is like Christ the King Sunday, when we realize that we a part of a strange new kingdom, everything else starts to change.

Our King does not build walls to keep people out, nor does our king require the registration of different communities under the auspices of “safety.” Our King invites all to the table to discover the power and love of his grace.

Our King does not call for his followers to take up the sword to wipe out political opposition. Our King forgave the people who delivered him to the cross.

Our King does not pander to us with empty promises in order to procure our allegiance. Our King meets us where we are with a simple invitation saying, “follow me.”

Nearly 100 years ago, Christians all across the world needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a Sunday set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.

Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it helps to remind us that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality of our King being nailed to a cross for the people of his kingdom. It reminds us that peace comes through his sacrifice, a sacrifice that we remember at this table.

Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, but be transformed by the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Table. Instead of consuming the politics and priorities of the world, be consumed by the grace of God made manifest is Jesus Christ. Reject the powers and principalities that seek to undo God’s creation, and kneel before the true King: Jesus Christ. Amen.

A Drop In The Ocean – Election Reflection

Isaiah 12.1-6

You will say in that day; I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

imrs

The line was long when I arrived at my voting location. I sauntered along with the others who were shivering in the cold until we made it to the door and the warmth. We listened to three different people explain the process of voting, we were shifted like a herd of cattle from one side to the other, and then one by one we had to hand over our driver’s licenses to prove our identities.

The woman holding my license (with a picture of me at 20 years old) brought it right up to her face in order to examine every fine detail. Without looking at me she said, “state your name and address.” So I did. And only when handing the card back did she look up over her glasses to say, “you’ve changed.” Which actually sounded more like “you look older than the card says you are.”

Like a sheep, I was then shepherded over to a separate table where I filled in four bubbles, took the card over to the machine, waited for it to beep, and was given my sticker. All told, I was there for ten minutes. 18 months of anger and political outrage, 18 months and nearly 5 billion dollars spent on advertising and campaigns slogans, 18 months and national turmoil all came to fruition in a ten-minute dance in a church social hall for four votes.

If I’ve heard one thing as a pastor more than anything else about this election over the last year and a half, it was this: “God is punishing us.” “God is punishing us for our sinful ways and making us choose between the lesser of two evils.” “God is punishing us for electing a black president 8 years ago.” “God is punishing us for not getting faith back in schools.” “God is punishing us for our lack of faith.” “God is punishing us and the world is going to end with this election.”

Want to know a secret that shouldn’t be a secret? The world is not going to end tonight when all is said and done.

God has been God a whole lot longer than this world has had democratic elections. God has been God through every presidency. God has been God long before America existed. God has been God, and will be God, long after we’re gone.

We Christians believe that Jesus is Lord which means we believe that God is in control. We believe that God spoke the whole of creation into being and has called each of us by name. We believe that God is almighty regardless of who sits in the Oval Office. And perhaps most importantly, we believe that God calls us to love and pray for our enemies, which today means we are called to love and pray for the people who voted for the other candidate.

Can you imagine? Christians praying for people they disagree with? Sadly, that’s at the heart of what it means to follow Jesus and it has been so absent during this cycle. Instead, political offices have been bombed, churches have been burned, and voters have been intimidated at the polls.

And perhaps we want to blame Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton for this tumultuous season. But the problem goes far deeper than whoever will become the next president. The problem is us. We get the people we deserve running for office. Instead of seeing one another and brothers and sisters in Christ, we have adopted the world’s identification system and see one another as liberal or conservative. Instead of listening to those with different opinions, we just shout louder. Instead of believing that Jesus is Lord, we have fallen prey to the belief that the world hinges on this election.

But this election pales in comparison to God’s willingness to elect us. Not by a show of hands, not by absentee ballots, not by filling in a circle on a form, but electing us to salvation through his Son.

For it is Jesus Christ who humbles us to pray for those we hate. Jesus, though scorned and ridiculed by the people, does not call for votes to be cast, but says, “Follow me.” Jesus leads us on the path that leads to life, not prosperity and political prestige, but life eternal. Jesus places the uncomfortable yoke around our necks and says the burden is light. Jesus invites us to feast at the table and we do not deserve it. 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.”

If we’re honest, we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know what it means to be a Christian in America, we don’t know how to hold our political identities and Christian identities in tandem with one another, and we don’t know how to love the people we hate.

But we do know the truth: Jesus is Lord.

So we give thanks, for even though the Lord has been angry with us, he comforts us. Surely we know and believe that God is our salvation. We will trust, and not be afraid, for the Lord God is our strength and our might. Through the immeasurable gift of his Son we have been elected into a strange new way of life. With the knowledge of this joy we draw water from the wells of salvation. As we remember and contemplate our own baptisms we remember who we are and whose we are.

So we give thanks to the Lord, and call upon God’s name. We proclaim God’s mighty acts from the beginning of time until this moment. We sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously.

Though some will say that our faith is fruitless, that to gather here at this moment, while the party lines are being heavily fortified for future derision, is pointless; that to pray for, and love, the very people who drive us crazy is a waste of time. Some will even be so bold as to believe that gathering at the table while the country is in chaos is no more than a drop in a limitless ocean, that it can never transform the world. Yet, what is any ocean but a multitude of drops? Amen.

Devotional – 2 Thessalonians 3.13

Devotional:

2 Thessalonians 3.13

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Weekly Devotional Image

This election cycle has been exhausting. The endless torrent of sound bites blasted through the television, the revelatory number of click-bait articles on social media, and the overwhelming amount of animosity between neighbors with differing political signs in their front yards have left most of us feeling weary and worn. I don’t know if this is a common thing for pastors to experience during presidential election cycles, but I’ve had more people than I can keep track of show up at my office telling me which candidate God wants me to vote for.

Many have already cast their ballots, but the majority of Americans will gather at the polls tomorrow to make their choice. Churches, schools, and other local community buildings will be filled with all kinds of people; people who are exercising their right to vote for the first time, people who feel they are being forced to vote for the lesser of two evils, people who will vote according to the party line regardless of the names attached to the positions, and people who believe that this election is the most important in the history of the United States.

Sadly, there are some for whom the foretaste of power has given them the bravado to stand outside polling areas to intimidate other voters. Whether the shout at the top of their lungs, or physically approach particular individuals, they will do what they believe is right in order to secure what they believe is right. Sadly, this election cycle has led to the bombing of political offices and the burning of black churches. Violence and fear still reigns supreme in this country. Sadly, the anger and animosity percolating in the country will not come to a peaceful conclusion when all the votes have been tallied. Many will be just as angry, if not angrier, if their candidate loses.

screen-shot-2015-06-19-at-3-11-31-pm

Friends, in this time of great strife and division, do not be weary in doing what is right. Do not forget that the people who we disagree with politically are the very people that Jesus calls us to pray for and love. Do not forget that to be Christian is to believe that Jesus is Lord, and that God is really in control regardless of who wins the election. Do not forget that though we may not think alike, we may certainly love alike.

If you are in the Staunton area, I invite you to gather together at St. John’s UMC at 7pm tomorrow evening. As the polls close and the pundits proclaim early victories on the news, we will be in the Lord’s sanctuary feasting at the table. We will listen for the Spirit and ask for God’s will to be done. We will pray for our politicians, whether we voted for them or not.

Devotional – Luke 18.9

Devotional:

Luke 18.9

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt. Weekly Devotional Image

Jesus knew how to use his words. When he was surrounded by day laborers, he used parables about seeds and vineyards. When he encountered the wealthy and the elite, he used parables about banquets and wedding feasts. Even when he called the first disciples (fishermen) he knew to use imagery about fishing for people to drive the point home.

The stories and parables of Jesus are magnificent in their ability to convey a greater point about the kingdom of God in a way that is approachable and applicable. This is why some of the most memorable sermons we hear (even today) are those that confront and reimagine Jesus’ parables for our time.

However, the beauty and applicability of Jesus’ parables are also a fundamental challenge in that Jesus often used specific parables for specific people. The day laborers heard about seeds and fields because it would make sense to them in a way that it wouldn’t to someone so wealthy they ever had to enter the fields. Similarly, what Jesus says to the rich young man (sell your possessions and give the money to the poor) was meant for the rich young man. Yet, today, many of us preachers apply Jesus’ parables generally for all with ears to hear and not necessarily in the same specific manner that Jesus did.

The parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is one that receives a pertinent introduction: “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” This is to say that Jesus used this particular parable for a particular set of people because they needed to hear it. Yet, this Sunday, many preachers will take the time to preach these words to their congregations whether the people trust too much in their own righteousness or not.

1020

Jesus knew how to use his words, and sometimes we do not. In this particularly vitriolic political season we post Facebook statuses as if we hope someone who disagrees with us will read it and be transformed. We send snide emails to family members and friends with the belief that we are right, they are wrong, and our email will fix everything. We speak down to the people around us with mixed metaphors and problematic parables because we are so consumed by judgment that we forget what it means to “be” with others.

It is good and right for us to remember to listen when Jesus speaks whether Jesus’ words were meant for a particular group or not. For it is when we immediately assume that Jesus meant his words for someone we are bickering with, that Jesus is actually talking about us.