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.

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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.