The Greatest Thing In History

I wrote about the Christian problem with Nuclear War back in August and in my naiveté I thought I wouldn’t have to bring it up again any time soon. I was wrong…

Following Jesus, being disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War; it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. Or at least it was until world leaders started threatening each other with Thermonuclear War comparing nuclear button sizes this week…

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Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated.

70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

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This week President Trump’s declared that if North Korea continues to provoke the Unites States we will respond with a power the likes of which the world has never seen his nuclear button is far larger and more powerful than Kim Jong-un’s. And in response to President Trump’s words tweet, Christians on the left and the right have responded with bombastic language (pun intended).

A Tweet from the Twitter account of U.S. President Donald Trump

On the right there have been pastors coming out to announce that God has given President Trump the right and the authority to wipe North Korea off the map. And on the left there have been Christian pacifists who have declared that the President is out of his mind and that we are on the brink of annihilation because of his crass words. However, we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if war-hungry Christians use scripture to defend nuclear aggression or if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled. Otherwise the world will become a heap of ashes or people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

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Last Things (Part 1)

2 Corinthians 13.11-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Put things in order, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the saints greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Today is Trinity Sunday. It falls on the first day of a new liturgical season we call ordinary time (terrible name) and it is always the first Sunday after Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is often used as an opportunity for preachers to explain away the complicated math of a three-in-one God with metaphors that often leave congregations more confused than when they arrived. On Trinity Sunday we usually read a passage contains examples of the three parts of the Godhead working together in such a way that it can help the preacher out. However, sermons on Trinity Sunday run the risk of sounding more like a lecture, or a dogmatic defense, than sounding like the proclamation of God’s living Word.

And for us today, the scripture for Trinity Sunday has taken on another ironic twist. This bit from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth contains some interesting language for what will be my second to last sermon in this church: Finally, farewell. Put things in order, listen to what I’ve said, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you.

After serving God in this place for four years, this would not be a bad scripture to end with (Though I still have one Sunday left). It contains all the things I would want to leave you with much like what Paul wanted to leave with the Corinthians. If you live in peace with one another the God of love will be with you.

But Paul goes on to implore the gathered community to greet one another with a holy kiss, which sounds like doing a lot more than just living in peace with one another.

Holy kisses require an intimacy that many of us might find uncomfortable. To be clear: it doesn’t mean the pews turn into the back seats of parked cars at “make out point”, but it does imply a willingness to know and encounter the stranger as sister and the other as brother.

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I spent last week on the Easter Shore of Virginia with 40 United Methodists from the Staunton-Waynesboro Area for a mission trip. We represented a handful of churches and our youth were tasked with a number of work projects from reorganizing a Thrift Store to painting a dining hall to building a Habitat for Humanity House.

On our first night it was clear that this mission trip was going to be like a lot of others in that when we finally arrived and unpacked the vans, the youth broke off into their comfortable cliques from their respective churches. So we did what we always do: ice breakers and group activities. We quickly learned the names of everyone on the trip and random factoids that gave us glimpses of one another’s personalities and preferences.

But unlike other mission trips, by the first morning the home church groups started to fade and dissolve which left new friendships to determine the gatherings of our youth. I don’t know to what I can attribute the quick change and adaptation short of the fact that the youth greeted one another with “holy kisses” that first evening through questions and jokes and laughter such that they were in a new communion with one another by the next day.

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This was made abundantly evident through a number of situations, such as when we went kayaking and canoeing and the pairs did not know each other prior to arriving at camp, but it also showed up in more intimate and beautiful ways…

One of our youth, Grace, was the only girl from our church on the trip. The boys from St. John’s all love the same things: video games, Star Wars, and the internet, (they’re like younger versions of me) but Grace is not of the same persuasion. And it could have been easy for Grace to sulk in a corner and remain isolated, she could have retreated to the false sense of communion on her phone with friends back home, but instead Grace actively sought out new friends in this new place. She quickly bonded with a girl from another church and they discovered that they shared more in common than their similar sense of humor and quick wit: both of their mothers had breast cancer at the same time and were being treated at the same facility and had the same surgery.

Their bond over a shared experience was the holy kiss that filled them with the same type communion that connects the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Trinity.

There was a boy on the trip from a different church who, years ago, had an accident that resulted in severe burns over 40% of his body. I knew him before hand well enough to know that he is remarkably self-conscious about what his skin looks like and was afraid to get ready for bed in front of the other boys in my cabin. And on that first night, after all the games designed to bring us closer together, he tentatively lifted off his shirt to which one of the boys pointed and shouted for the rest of the cabin to hear. I immediately winced and prepared myself to intervene in order to protect the boy’s dignity but then I heard what the other boy had shouted: “Dude, that’s so cool!” The majority of the cabin immediately gathered around the young boy and he beamed with pride about his scars.

And the thing that had so often brought him shame and ridicule became a beautiful example of how the holy kiss of friendship filled our cabin with the same type of communion between the Trinity.

I don’t like to make comparisons like this, but our trip to the Eastern Shore was one of the best mission trips I’ve ever been on precisely because we connected with one another in a faithful and intimate way. Rather than scattered pockets of groups and cliques we got to know each other and therefore our work became that much more faithful and fruitful.

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When we are bold and brave enough to reach out in intimacy toward the church around us we connect with all the saints and we enter into the same friendship within the Trinity.

There is bravery and boldness and confidence in Paul’s willingness to say farewell to the church in Corinth. After doing the work to unite a community and sharing with them the Good News he could have held control over what they were doing from afar, he could have micromanaged every situation, but instead he knew that God’s church is far bigger than anything he could ever do. He was able to look at that collection of Christians and know that he could say farewell because they would thrive with or without him; after all the church didn’t belong to Paul, nor was it successful because of Paul. The church in Corinth thrived and was fruitful because it belonged to the Lord.

In addition to it being Trinity Sunday, we’ve also used part of our worship service today to thank the staff of St. John’s. They have all done tremendous work for and in this place whether it’s playing music on Sunday mornings, educating the preschoolers during the week, keeping everything safe and clean, or (in the case of our secretary) being the real boss around here. But their work has been productive and faithful because they are intimately connected with one another. They do not see their jobs as jobs. Instead they see what they do here as an extension of their community such that all of them will arrive early not just to get their tasks completed but to check in on one another and do whatever they can to help each other whether it connects to their work here or not.

But even beyond this church, beyond the wonderful people sitting in the pews this morning, God is the one who makes their work, and the work of the church possible. God has blessed them with unique gifts suited for making the kingdom come here on earth through their work at St. John’s. God is the one who has filled them with grace, love, and a sense of communion that makes possible the fruitfulness this church has embodied.

And that is what rests at the heart of Trinity Sunday. Not metaphors and dogmatic dissertations, but the communion and fellowship between the Godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That very communion, the friendship of the Trinity, is made manifest here every week, and whenever we gather together, as the church. It was there with us on the mission trip last week. It’s here between the staff members and all of their work. It rests in between us in these pews and is most certainly present at this table and in this meal.

We become God’s people, a people of holy kisses, when the pews of the sanctuary become avenues of connection instead of walls of division. We could easily remain isolated in our own comfortable boxes of experience, or we can do the good and bold and challenging work of Trinitarian communion – like the youth on our mission trip and the staff of this church, we can open our eyes to the fundamental reality of what God is calling our lives to look like, we can believe that we have been made one in Christ Jesus, and we can know that God is the one working in our lives binding us together for the work of the kingdom.

And so, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of us. Amen.

On Why We Need The Passion On Palm Sunday

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing the one and only Dr. Eric Hall (Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen Professor of Peace and Justice at Carroll College) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for Palm Sunday during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary and Eric gave us a lot to think about particularly regarding Jesus’ triumphal entry in Jerusalem. If you want to hear the conversation, and learn more about Jesus Christ Superstar, the parody of the passion, and the average lifespan of a donkey, you can check out the podcast here: Palm Sunday – Year A

 

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Kidnapping Santa Claus

 

Isaiah 11.1-10

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

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One Christmas, many years ago, there was one thing I wanted more than anything else: I wanted to kidnap Santa Claus.

I must’ve been 7 years old when I decided it was time to enter the world of criminal activity and I began plotting my plan. At the time, my bedroom was in the basement just down the hall from the living room and the fireplace where Santa usually entered the house. For months I eagerly anticipated that hallowed night when we would leave out the cookies and the milk, when we would deck ourselves out in matching pajamas, when we would struggle to sleep with the excitement of the morning presents so close at hand, but this time I was going to be ready.

In the days that led up to Christmas, the time we call Advent, I went through every drawer and found items that could be used for my trap. I took every tie and belt that I owned and tied them together in one long rope. It wasn’t quite enough so I started collecting random bits of string I found around the house and added them to my dress clothes accessories. I carefully laid out the entirety of it from my bed, through my room, down the hall, around the corner, and right up to the front of the fireplace.

The key to the whole operation was the last piece attached to the last tie, my plastic Fisher-Price stethoscope. You see, with the stethoscope at the very end, it would functionally wrap around Santa’s ankle so that I could pull from my end in my bedroom and bring ole Saint Nick down to the ground.

And so I practiced. I set up the elaborate trap and forced my little sister to stand by the fireplace while I ran back to my bedroom, got under the covers and pulled as hard as I could. Over and over again I yanked on the line perfecting the angles and the force necessary to bring my prey into captivity. It was perfect. Now of course, my mother was very concerned when she discovered that all of my nice belts and ties were wrapped together and when she asked what I was up to, I replied, “Don’t worry about it.”

On Christmas Eve, we went to church with everyone else and I didn’t listen to a word. All I wanted was to get back to the house and catch the red-dressed man.

Why? Well I’m not entirely sure, but why not? After all, this guy shows up in homes every year and brings overwhelming cheer to so many. I guess I just couldn’t stand all the mystery, I wanted to know what compelled him to do what he did, and I wanted to know what he would say.

And so, after setting out the milk and cookies, after being tucked into bed, I waited until my parents went back upstairs and I set the trap. For minutes, which seemed like hours, I laid in bed with my hand tightly gripping the last belt. My focus was pure and unwavering. I listened for any sound that would indicate the moment to pull, I sniffed the air for the delicious smells of peppermint that accompany those from the North Pole, I held on for the slightest vibrations in response to Santa’s boot falling perfectly into the stethoscope.

            And then I woke up.

Anticipation, expectation, patience, waiting: These are the words we can’t stand during this season we call Advent. Instead, we’d rather know what’s wrapped under the Christmas tree, we have lights hung up on the gutters before Thanksgiving, and we plan our holiday meals weeks in advance. We want to skip right to Christmas morning, and we can’t imagine it any other way.

And who can blame us? Christmas is all about the presents, and the songs, and the lights. The word “Christmas” conjures images of trees, and children ripping through wrapping paper, and squeals of delight. At least, that what Christmas means to the world.

Christmas is actually about Jesus. But with the advent of consumer driven commodities and the need for economic growth, Christmas has become the competition of corporations. Black Friday doesn’t even start on Friday anymore, but at 5pm on Thanksgiving Day. Americans will spend almost as much money on material goods from Thanksgiving to Christmas as we do the rest of the year combined. And we do all this to celebrate a homeless baby born in a stench-filled manger. Or, just take a drive around Staunton at night sometime this week, there used to be mangers and magi in yards, now you’re lucky it you can find a plastic baby Jesus behind Frosty the Snowman, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and giant inflatable renditions of Santa Claus.

Advent, this strange and beautiful season in the life of the church, is all about our re-participation in the season of anticipation, expectation, patience, and waiting.

It’s like planning to kidnap Santa Claus for weeks and dreaming about what might happen. Advent is a time where we are forced to wait, like the Israelites did so long ago, for so long, to find out what would happen. While the world fast-forwards to the next consumer driven holiday, while retailers are already putting out decorations for Valentine’s Day, while the world rushes on and on and on, we wait.

We wait and remember how long God’s people waited for what we have: Jesus the Christ.

A shoot shall come out of the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. Peace comes from a stump. Out of something that appears completely and utterly finished, an object that others would gloss over comes the sign of new life – a green sprig.

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This is how hope and peace begin – they emerge like a tiny tendril in unexpected places through the least likely of people. Like a child foregoing their Christmas presents so that other might rejoice in the celebration this year; hope and peace appear in this world in strange and beautiful ways.

From the line of David will come a child, and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and fear, will be his. He will not judge by what his eyes see or by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he will transform the world.

For centuries the Israelites waited for a child such as this. While new powers and principalities dominated their very existence, they prayed in anticipation of the Messiah who would come to turn the world upside-down, they proclaimed the faithfulness of the Lord in sending the shoot from the stump, and they dreamed about how reality would change.

In that day, the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.

This is not what the world looks like today. There are no predators and prey lying sweetly together in the fields. Republicans and Democrats are not skipping hand in hand down the main streets of our communities. Children are not content with Christmas trees without presents bursting from the bottom. The protestors at Standing Rock are not dancing around the fires with the leaders of the Dakota Access Pipeline while snow falls from the sky.

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Isaiah’s vision of a child leading the way to peace is strange because it is so different from what the Israelites experienced, and it is so different compared to the terror and brutality and greed that we experience.

We don’t know peace.

            We know fear and violence and pain.

We see the images of fires raging through communities and leveling places like Gatlinburg to the ground. We hear the screams of children in Aleppo on the news as they run from bombs falling out of the sky. We experience the terror of ever-shrinking bank accounts when we feel pressured to fill this particular season with as many material goods as possible.

We are a fearful people. Even today, we are just like the Israelites waiting for a better day, a day of hope, a day of peace.

I failed in my attempt to enter the criminal world by kidnapping Santa Claus because I fell asleep. I was exhausted by the insatiable desire to get precisely what I wanted. Instead of patiently waiting for the mystery, instead of living into the reality of things unseen, I fell asleep on Christmas Eve with a belt tied around my hand.

Peace and hope come from unexpected places. But when we are so consumed by our desires, when we want to skip right to Christmas morning, when our sin stands in the way of God making all things new, we become the ax resting by the roots of the stump. We become the stumbling blocks that prevent God’s peace and hope from reining in this world.

Our desire for an answer to every question propels us into a place where we no longer consider the consequences of our actions.

            Our desire for economic prosperity fuels our inability to remember those who suffer at the hand of our greed.

            Our desire for material fulfillment prevents us from ever being the people God is calling us to be.

In my attempted Christmas Eve kidnapping, I wanted to have control over the one bearing gifts. But God calls us to relinquish our control and seek the will of the Lord.

In life we want answers to all our questions, but God calls us to be the answers to our questions. If we want peace, then we have to become part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

Advent is the time for us to wait and remember. We wait for the Lord and remember our brokenness. We wait for the Lord to do a new thing, and we remember that we are called to be people of peace. We wait and remember that through God’s help, we can destroy the ax that is our sinfulness, and instead we can bear fruit in the kingdom of God.

Isaiah promises the people a future of peace, a time we cannot yet imagine, though it will be so new and strange and wonderful that it will be like predators and prey lying contently with one another. This is a vision of God’s infinite future of reconciliation when we are brought into unity with one another, with creation, and with the Lord.

But’s Isaiah’s vision of a future of peace is also a promise of peace here and now. Peace from a stump. Peace from a baby. Peace from something like a loaf of bread.

            For it is at this table, where bullies and the bullied sit together, where the weak and meek eat with the healthy and wealthy, that we catch a glimpse of the future of peace. This meal, the bread and the cup, are a foretaste of God’s heavenly banquet, this is the place where all divisions end.

God is doing a new thing whenever we feast together. It’s not just that we march up to the front and catch a glimpse of heaven only to return to our pews with thoughts of sugarplums dancing in our heads. No, we come to this table, we are consumed by that which we consume, and we are changed. The meal follows us when we leave, God works in us through the power of the Spirit and we necessarily become the people of peace that God promised so long ago.

Isaiah saw, with eyes wide open, a vision of the kingdom of God that we wait for every Advent. He had a vision of a baby being born into the world in order to transform the world. He saw the glorious dwelling of the Lord made manifest in the least likely of places.

And through this, he had hope. Hope for things yet unseen. Hope for old and backwards assumptions being lost to the sands of time. Hope for new vision and hearing to perceive the world through the power of the Spirit. Hope for peace. Amen.

In or Out? – Karl Barth and the Doctrine of Election

Election is a dirty word in the United Methodist Church. In this particularly problematic political season we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and elections. We want people to think for themselves and pray for the Spirit to guide them in such matters. Otherwise we leave the topic at arms length. However, even more divisive than American Politics has been the church’s response to the Doctrine of Election.

The topic of God’s divine election is one that we often get hung up on in our weekly Bible studies at church. We can be talking about any number of things from scripture when all of the sudden the conversation moves to whether or not God ordained a specific tragedy to occur, or why would a loving God elect some for salvation and some for damnation. Then we tend to travel down the deep rabbit hole in arguments about free will and God’s sovereignty.

To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions, we like things to be neat and orderly, and God often gives us the opposite. Only God, in God’s infinite knowledge and power, could elect certain individuals and only humanity, in our sinfulness and selfishness, could spend centuries arguing about what it means to be part of the elect.

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Even on the UMC’s denominational website there is a long essay about whether or not United Methodists believe “once saved, always saved” or can we “lose our salvation.” And in the essay, a good amount of space is spent address Calvin’s so called “TULIP” theological principles (Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints). For Calvin, God has chosen, based on God’s own criteria, whom to save and whom not to save, long before anyone was born. Moreover, Jesus’ act of “atonement” from the cross is efficacious only for those whom God has elected for salvation.

John Wesley however, influenced by Jacobus Arminius, believed that only God can save and God does so unconditionally for all. There is no pre-selected list in the mind of God about who will be rewarded with salvation and who will be punished with damnation. Instead God’s grace is offered preveniently to all, and humanity has the capacity to respond to this grace. We have the ability (through free will) to reject God’s grace and in so doing we remove ourselves from the equation of salvation.

These types of distinctions about divine election or rejection have been debated throughout the history of the church and have played a primary role in the propagation of the seemingly endless amount of Christian denominations. We disagree about what we believe God is up to with election and therefore we create schisms in the church that result in the mosaic of churches rather than dwelling together in unity.

Karl Barth saw the Doctrine of Election differently.

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In Church Dogmatics II.2 Barth sets out to confront what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer that those who are elect are elect without reference to their person or in recognition of any special attributes or achievements. There is nothing that one can do to earn their elect status. To be elect is to enter into a way of being that corresponds with election; those who are elect are what they are.

Barth then, in a profound and wonderful excursus, compares the elect and the rejected throughout the Old Testament as a means by which to point at what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ. He begins with the dualism of Cain and Abel from Genesis 4. The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision of God’s concerning them. However, even though one is clearly favored and the other is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain in the way we so commonly assume. It is true that God does not accept Cain and his family for the murder of his brother, but he is not abandoned by God because of this. Instead he receives the promise that God will protect his life.

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Thus begins a great trajectory throughout the Old Testament of mutually intersecting differences between people. Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the younger brother) who receives the birthright and the true blessing. Yet, God does not abandon him. Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. And yet Rachel does not remain barren and eventually gives birth to Joseph. And Joseph, though rejected by his older brothers and sold into slavery is intimately connected with the future of God’s people and the brothers (though treacherous) are not abandoned to the famine but are instead forgiven and brought into the land of Egypt.

The same holds true for the dynamic between Saul and David (Saul is actually blessed far more than David even through the Lord moves the blessing from the former to the latter), and other figures from the Old Testament scriptures. Barth demonstrates again and again that though they appear rejected by the Lord, they are in fact blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus Christ.

And it is here where Barth shines a light on the darkness of our understanding of election. For it is precisely in the person of Jesus Christ that we discover not only the elect but also the reject. “According to His divine nature, Jesus Christ is the (elect) eternal Son who reposed in the bosom of the eternal Father, and who coming thence took our flesh upon Him to be and to offer this sacrifice, for the glory of God and for our salvation, and by taking our place to accomplish our reconciliation to God. But as such and in the accomplishment of this reconciliation He is, necessarily, the Rejected. Like the (scapegoat) He must suffer the sin of many to be laid upon Him, in order that He may bear it away… out into the darkness, the nothingness from which it came to which it alone belongs.”[1] In the humiliation of the cross, Christ was also exalted. In the rejection of the Son on the cross (who cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Christ was also the elect who shares the beauty of reconciliation.

In Christ we discover one who is reject and elect. In the incarnation of God in the flesh we encounter the mystery of what it means to be chosen by God and what it means to respond to that call.

In the one man on the one cross (as reject and elect) we see all of the dualisms of the Old Testament, all of the people who were either elected or rejected. But through the resurrection, all who are either elect or rejected remain in Him, and in Him the Word of God conquered death which shall be proclaimed through eternity.

For Barth, it is not so much that God began the mysterious work of creation with a list of all who will be elected for salvation and all who will be rejected for damnation. Instead, God remains steadfast even with those who move away (by their choice or the Lords – only God knows), God offers the grace forever even if it is rejected over and over again, and God provides the means by which all can be saved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

 

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics II.2 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 365.

Devotional – Matthew 6.1-4

Devotional:

Matthew 6.1-4

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let you left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that you alms may be done in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.”

 

While I was in seminary Lenten disciplines became an incredible competition. Lent used to be a time of preparation for believers, a time of prayer, penance, repentance, self-denial, and catechesis. Today, in many churches, Lenten observance has been compartmentalized into giving up some of our temptations during the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. At Duke Divinity it was not uncommon to hear subtle braggings throughout the halls; “This year I’m giving up sweets (and because we were in seminary there was always a theological reason) and every time I want to eat a cupcake I will pray instead.” Or “Im going to give up eating meat in order to honor the glory of God’s creation.” Or “I’m giving up television so that my focus can remain on the Word of God.”

I love my friends and peers from divinity school, but two years ago I outdid all of them. I gave up four Fs: Facebook, Fast-food, Fermented Drinks, and Facial Hair (which meant that I shaved every morning for forty days).

No Beard

No Beard

What I didn’t realize, at the time, was how often I shared and bragged about what I was giving up. As people would compare their sacrifices and temptations during that liturgical season I was there waiting for the right moment to outshine them with the ultimate sacrifices of a social network, McDonalds, Beer, and my Beard.

I am ashamed at how often I can easily turn the gospel around to be more about my own selfishness than the Good News of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus addressed the crowds and warned them about their piety regarding alms-giving it was all about intentionality. Whenever you drop your offering in the plate, whenever you bring your donations to the local mission, whenever you bring food to the local soup kitchen to not brag about it and share the news with everyone else. If that is your motive, than you are serving yourself and not others.

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As we prepare to enter the coming weeks of Lent I encourage each of you to remain committed to doing God’s good work in the world not for yourself, but for the glory of God. If you choose to give up a temptation during Lent do not brag about it to your friends and peers but focus instead on spending more time with God. May God grant each of us the strength to be better and love deeper.

 

To Fear, Or Not To Fear – Sermon on Psalm 112 and Mark 6.45-51

Psalm 112

Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments. Their descendants will be mighty in the land; the generation for the upright will be blessed. Wealth and riches are in their houses, and their righteousness endures forever. They rise in darkness as a light for the upright; they are gracious, merciful, and righteous. It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever. They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid; in the end they will look in triumph on their foes. They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever; their horn is exalted in honor. The wicked see it and are angry; they gnash their teeth and melt away; the desire of the wicked comes to nothing.

Mark 6.45-51

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray. When evening came, the boat was out on the sea and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intend to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astonished.

 

Happy are those who fear the Lord. “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

It happened in a small town in a small United Methodist Church. A single mother was struggling to raise her two boys who were the talk of the town. At 10 and 12 years of age, the two brothers were often responsible for any of the “accidents” in town. They regularly vandalized certain buildings, were known for shoplifting candy from the local 7-11, and would ding-dong-ditch any house they could find.

Yet, on Sunday morning, there they were sitting on either side of their mother in church. The boys would politely greet the minister when they walked in, sat quietly, but during the sermon they loved to make farting sounds while the preacher paused in a sermon.

They were trouble.

Now because the mother was raising the boys all alone, many of the people in the community that wanted to do something about the two boys, felt that it wasn’t their place; that mother had enough on her plate.

This type of behavior went on for some time. The boys would continue their antics, driving people crazy, until one day when the mother had had enough.

The pastor at the local United Methodist Church was a young man fresh from seminary; he thought he had it all figured out. For weeks he had wanted to call out those two boys from the pulpit in the middle of a sermon, but he thought better of it, he would look down on that poor mother and let it go.

So it came to pass that the mother called the young minister. “Preacher,” she barked into the telephone, “I want you to strike the fear of God into my boys. This has got to stop.”

“It will be my absolute pleasure,” The preacher replied.

The following Sunday, after worship, the minister invited the two young boys toward his office, leaving one to sit outside while the other sat on the hot seat in the office.

In order to achieve some sort of repentance from the boys, the preacher thought about teaching them that God is always present, and therefore sees everything. This, he hoped, would teach them to behave better.

With the first brother sitting across the office table, the preacher began his lesson. “Where is God?”

No response.

“Where is God?!”

The boy began to fidget.

“Where is God!?!”

The lack of response was beginning to irritate the pastor.

“I want you to answer me right now, where is God?!?!”

And with that the boy jumped from his seat and hightailed it out of the office, grabbed his brother, and bolted for the parking lot.

“Whats going on?” The one brother asked the other.

“We’re in real trouble this time. God’s gone missing, and they think we had something to do with it!”

 

The psalmist writes, “Praise the Lord! Happy are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.” I have always found this verse a little strange considering the fact that whenever God shows up in the Bible, whenever God humbles himself to speak with one of his creatures, the first thing he usually says is, “Do not be afraid.”

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In Mark’s gospel we learn about a time when the disciples got into a boat to go to Bethsaida. After dismissing the crowd, Jesus went up on the mountain to pray, leaving his disciples alone on the boat. When Jesus came down he saw how the disciples were straining against the wind so he did what the Son of God would do, he walked on the water out toward the boat. He intended to pass them by, but when they saw him walking on the water they were utterly terrified, they thought it was a ghost and cried out. But immediately Jesus spoke to them across the water, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased.

Yet, in Psalm 112, we hear about the blessedness of those who fear the Lord. To fear the Lord means that your heart is steady. If our hearts are fixed on evil, we shall become evil. If our hearts are fixed inwardly, we shall become ridiculously selfish. If our hearts are fixed upon things and possessions, we will become overwhelming materialist. All around us, perhaps even some of us, are failing because our minds and hearts are no longer steady, because our hearts are no longer fixed on the right thing.

So the psalmist calls out, blessed are those who fear the Lord. Fear comes to all of us, to the bravest as well as the cowardly. Fear comes to the faithful and to the faithless. Fear can be a good thing, it warns us to keep our eyes peeled for the danger that might lurk just around the corner. Fear teaches us to respect our elders, teachers, and bosses. Fear reminds us of our finitude. However, to be mindful of fear is one thing, to be constantly panic stricken is another.

A good friend of mine, raised in the church and pursuing a call to ministry, was once invited to a spiritual retreat at the cusp of high-school. For a long weekend, hundreds of young Christians would gather together in small groups to talk about the temptations of the world, how to keep the faith, and what it meant to walk with Jesus throughout their teenage years. They would also spend time as a large group worshiping, they would sing along to the contemporary Christian rock band, they would walk forward to receive communion together, and they would all reverently bow their heads to pray.

On the last night of the conference, at the final worship service, at the height of the concluding sermon, the fire alarm went off. The ushers and facilitators rushed everyone out of the building, yelling at the kids to hurry up as they struggled to find their peers. My friend was rushed through one of the hallways, forced around dark corners, until he found himself standing outside in the parking lot.

Spread throughout the area were life boats, and throngs of the young Christians were climbing aboard. My friend, unsure of what was going on, ran forward to the closest boat, grabbed hold of a rope and tried to swing himself on when the fire alarm stopped and a voice cried out over the megaphone: “Take a look around you, there are not enough spaces in the life boats for everyone. Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

Fear can be a tool, but it can also warp and manipulate us. My friend refused to enter a church for years after that incident because of the way the people at his retreat attempted to manipulate his faith through fear. That is not the kind of fear that the psalmist calls blessed.

The disciples were on the boat, the wind was against them and they were having problems crossing on to the over side. They were doing their best to follow Jesus’ commands, yet the world was not matching their expectations. They must’ve felt tired and abandoned out there all alone; why had Jesus asked them to do this? Where was he when they really needed him? Somehow, though stricken with overwhelming fear, the disciples saw Jesus walking on the water while calling out, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

When fear was the most appropriate response to the present circumstances, Jesus triumphantly declared, “Do not be afraid.” In the many chaotic moments of our lives, when bashed by the waves of the world, Jesus continues to call out to us, “Do not be afraid.” Christ is there with us on the rocky boats of life’s circumstances, God listens to our prayers, and the Holy Spirit moves through everyone of us to help transform this world into God’s kingdom.

The disciples, the Israelites who sang Psalm 112, and all of us are not called to be motivated by fear, but instead motivated by love. The disciples did not leave everything to follow their God because he had promised them hard days and suffering, though that often comes if we take faith seriously, but instead they were offered a new way of living. Those who do not want to be afraid are those who have decided to see the world through the lens of faith, to be free from the tyranny of the world. People without fear are those who are fully open to the troubles and the needs of their fellow human beings. They, as the psalmist writes, rise in the darkness as a light for the upright, they are gracious, merciful and righteous. Their hearts are secure and firm in the Lord, they will not be afraid because they know the Lord is with them.

Fearing the Lord, as the psalmist writes, means loving the Lord. Loving God enough to realize that God wants to us to love one another, to strive for justice, to celebrate peace, to take faith seriously, but not take ourselves too seriously. Those who cannot sigh with others in the midst of suffering, and laugh a little bit about themselves are the ones who will be controlled by their fear.

There has been plenty of fear used throughout the history of the church, perhaps today more than ever. Churches have become professionals with motivation by fear. If you don’t tithe, if you don’t believe, if you don’t commit to prayer, etc. Right now, what we need more than fear is a little bit of laughter, we need some joy, we need to rediscover the happiness that the church contains for those who want to follow Jesus Christ.

I like to imagine that later in Jesus’ ministry, or perhaps after the resurrection, the disciples would be together joking about the old times. “Do you remember that time Jesus went into the temple and over turned all the tables!? How crazy was that?” “Or when he asked us to go find him a donkey to ride on into Jerusalem? What a character!” “Or what about that time we were all shaking with fear on the boat and Jesus calmed the wind like that *snap* what a night that was.”

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Laughter, joy, and excitement must have been a part of the disciples journey through faith.

Thats why I started the sermon with a funny story about two young boys running out of a church. Until we can laugh together about the excitement of faith, then the fear of God will remain what many people get out of church.

Happy are those who fear the Lord, because they realize that God’s love is incredible. We fear God’s love because we recognize that we do not deserve it. We fear God for welcoming us into this journey when we have so little to contribute. We fear God for inviting us into a place to be loved, when we feel unlovable.

We have too often settled for the motivation of fear in church. Can you imagine what the church could look like if instead of gathering to hear about what we must do to change in our lives, we gathered out of joy and excitement and laughter?

Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who greatly delight in his commandments.

Let us all recover that sense of happiness and delight in our faith journeys. Let us be motivated by the good God who calls us by name to laugh, live, and love. Let us rekindle the flame of faith in our lives to be utterly astonished by the God who came to die, and live, for us.

Fear not, for God is with you.

Amen.

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