Favor Fades

Devotional:

Matthew 4.12

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

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Having the favor of the people can disappear in an instant. I have known too many beloved leaders in their respective communities who took one step too far and then lost the popularity or the respect they once held. Preachers, politicians, and professionals alike are often at the whim, and the opinions, of the people they serve. 

Jesus was widely praised by crowds of people when he first initiated his earthly ministry, but then he was run out of town (incidentally, his home town) as soon as he claimed that the scriptures were being fulfilled in him. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. was revered and praised for the kind of prophetic proclamations he made, but in the end those kind of declarations led to his assassination.

Years ago I was asked to speak at a community gathering in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and, to be honest, it was terrifying. How could I possibly do justice to the man who I had admired throughout most of my life? How could I find the right words to offer in memory of a preacher I still strive to emulate on a regular basis? How could I speak a word of hope and truth while so many people are still being persecuted for the color of their skin?

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But then, shortly before I was invited forward toward the microphone, I remembered a few words that Martin Luther King Jr. often said, words that Jesus similarly uttered in the garden of Gethsemane: “I just want to do God’s will.”

Whatever we do in our lives, it should have less to do with what we think people will think, and more to do with striving to live out God’s will for, and in, our lives. Rather than sugar-coating messages of false hope, we are called to seek justice for the many ways we have failed to love our brothers and sisters with every fiber of our beings.

Which is all to say, sometimes our faith will drive others crazy.

And now, in honor of Dr. King, I would like to end this devotional with a prayer from the man himself – a prayer that is worth our time and consideration particularly today…

“Thou eternal God, out of whose absolute power the infinite intelligence of the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls, and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives in the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

We Are (Not) Accepted

1 Corinthians 1.1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Do you ever feel like things couldn’t get worse?

Natural disasters across the globe keep ravaging particular communities.

Political discourse and partisan rhetoric are dividing families and friends and churches.

It’s becoming ever more expensive to live and yet wages continue to stagnate.

Things just feel so broken.

Here in the US we are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that the rich keep getting richer and the poor just get poorer. So much so that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion – it is what we worship. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

We are currently spending more money on national defense every year than we are on all of our programs of social uplift combined – when weapons become more important than people it is clearly a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

In ways big and small we are perpetuating a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives – the price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction. 

Now, before we go on, I want to be clear that most of what I just said is not original to me, I didn’t sit down this week and pull those thoughts out of thin air. Most of what I just said actually came from another preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.

Ever heard of him?

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Across the country, countless students will have the day off from school tomorrow in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and rightly so. He was a man committed to a vision of the kingdom that others refused to see, and it cost him his life. But one of the things that we forget, here in 2020, is that shortly before his assassination, he was one of the most hated men in the entire country. Though he is remembered as a bastion of freedom and equality, 2/3 of the country opposed his work and words the year before his death.

It’s hard to remember this, for those of us old enough to do so, because today everybody loves Dr. King. Partly because we’ve sanitized his message, and it’s a lot easier to love someone when they’re no longer challenging, and upsetting, the status quo.

It’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead. 

Dr. King was not only an activist for the Civil Rights movement, but was also a frustrating voice to the powers and principalities in regard to the Vietnam War, capitalism, and rampant poverty. 

But we’re far more content with simply remembering his speech about having a dream of a different future. However, that future (which we are still yearning for) is not possible without transformation. His life, and death, is an ever present reminder that things cannot merely remain as they are.

Grace is messy.

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Each of Paul’s letters begin with a blessing on the recipients of the epistles with “grace”. Even to the famously fractured Corinthians, Paul begins by saying, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Grace is one of those all too important words in the church and, frankly, it’s a word we throw around all the time without thinking or talking about what it actually means.

Sometimes when I hear about grace, and even when I talk about it, it comes off like some nebulous gas that’s floating around affecting various people as they breathe it in.

Which, to some degree, is true. But grace is about a whole lot more than that.

The arrival of Jesus Christ into the world, mediating a new reality with God and God’s creation is a gift. It is all part of this cosmic plan for unending communion and it frees us from our own slavery to sin and death. It comes in spite of of our earnings and deservings and is made available to all without cost. Grace is, in every sense of the word, a gift. 

We have been gifted with a rescue from something and regathered into something we call communion.

But this gift we call grace runs counter to how we so often think about gifts today. Namely, when we receive something for nothing we almost always respond by immediately planning how to repay the gift. We want to out-gift the gift-giver. We live under the tyrannic rule of reciprocity such that we must always make the scales even again, even if it is outside of our ability.

But in the early church, grace was not about repaying what could not be repaid – grace was a reality. 

It both named the concrete gift of Jesus for the world, along with the generosity of God who sent him. And yet, it was not confined to some idea about who Jesus was, it was a lived reality in and through the ways people lived. 

The early church community gifted among themselves things like food, and money, and clothing, and healing to those who needed it the most. And they did so without keeping some sort of ledger about who owed what – it was simply done and thats it.

So whatever the gathering of Christians looks like today, it is supposed to look like a community of grace.

The gathering of disciples we call church are called to lives of generosity that is so obvious and known that only a God generous enough to give his only Son for an evil and sinful humanity can explain it. 

Grace, understood as such, changes everything, including us.

Or, to put it another way, we can’t remain what we once were.

There’s a lot of talk in the church these days about how God loves you just the way you are. Which, though true, is a denial of the power of grace working in and through us. 

The letters of Paul and the stories of Jesus show us that there is more to grace than simply being accepted for who we are. And, no doubt, we are accepted – after all, grace abounds. But we are now in a kingdom bound by that grace which means we have been changed.

Can you imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. work would’ve have looked like without a call to change? What good is a dream of something new if only we stay committed to the past? 

Here’s where grace gets messy: Grace is a gift, given for free. We don’t have to change or do anything before receiving it. And, we don’t have to do anything or change after receiving it. Paul will remind the good Corinthians about this – grace is less about out need to change and more about how God is already in the business of changing us. 

Were it up to us alone to change, we wouldn’t do it. It is far easier to remain the same and hold on to the old visions of the past than it is to try embarking on a different journey. Our captivity to sin keeps us firmly planted instead of taking steps or leaps of faith. But, thankfully, God will not leave us to our own devices.

God is changing us.

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Now, if you’re anything like me, we don’t particularly like all this talk of personal development or change. All the “shoulds” and “musts” leave us exhausted. Which is why it’s of paramount importance to remember the the Kingdom of God isn’t conditional. It exists whether we participate in it or not, the empty tomb remains empty whether we change or not. And yet God is using all of the means at God’s disposal to show us that our lives are being reknit, even right now. 

The world, just like us, cannot remain as it is. God won’t allow it. God is faithful, even when we are not. God believes in us even when we can’t. God is working toward a vision of things not yet seen, and God is bringing us along for the ride.

We can resist it all we want, but God is on the move.

Which is all to say that, when properly considered, the kingdom is about more than acceptance. We are at war with the powers and principalities of this world that insist on making the last laster and the first firster. Our King of kings is fundamentally different – Jesus does not rule with an iron fist or with boots on the ground – our King rules from a cross.

What could be messier than that?

I started all of this today with talk of Martin Luther King Jr.’s forgotten quotes. He was radically committed to seeing a different world and, to some degree, knew it would cost him his life. In fact, the night before he was killed he delivered one of his most moving speeches. It was not about securing the right to vote for black individuals, nor was it on dismantling Jim Crow laws, but was actually about establishing a union for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

He stood before a packed crowd that night and after speaking at length on the subject at hand he ended it all by saying this:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day he was dead. 

God’s grace is about being part of a kingdom the world doesn’t want – it’s about how God makes a difference and that difference means we are now different.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have been transformed through the waters of baptism and the meal at the table – we are made new.

God does not accept the current realities of the world, nor does God accept the banalities of evil that run all too rampant. But God believes in us, God will remain faithful, and the kingdom of God is at hand. We will get to the Promised Land.

What a strange and wondrous thing grace really is – for by grace we have been saved, and are being saved, even now. Amen. 

War Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

Devotional:

Acts 10.36

You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all. 

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One of the great privileges, and challenges, of being a pastor is that people will often bring to me questions about how to respond to something as a Christian. They’ll have seen something on the news, or read an article online, and while wrestling with whatever the subject might be, they’ll bring it to me with hopes of coming out with an answer on the other side. I, like many pastors before me, will usually respond to their queries with a question of my own such as, “Well, how do you think we should respond as Christians?”

Most of the time responding to the question with a question gets us to some version of a faithful response and usually that’s enough. However, there are those time when, as we travel down the rabbit hole together, the answers move further and further away from what we might call orthodoxy.

War, without a doubt, is one of the questions that does this the most.

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The question of a Christian response to war brings forth thoughts about responsibility for those in need and our own need to assert control and dominance. The question of a Christian response to war often carries with it personal experiences of fighting in war, or family members fighting in war. The question of a Christian response to war forces those of us who follow Christ to wrestle with whether we are more captivated by the powers and principalities of this world or by the One who came to overthrow those powers and principalities.

Tensions between the United States and Iran are growing with each passing day, and the talking heads on the news and online are making it abundantly clear how they think, and how they think we should think, about war. And, though it is a rare thing, this is a time I am grateful for the Book of Discipline in the United Methodist Church, because it outlines how we think and feel about war.

Namely, that war in incompatible with Christianity.

You can read more about it here:

United Methodist Book of Discipline – Paragraph 165.C

“We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them. We advocate the extension and strengthening of international treaties and institutions that provide a framework within the rule of law for responding to aggression, terrorism, and genocide. We believe that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

So, as we continue to respond to escalating tensions, let us remember that Jesus came preaching peace, and not war. 

Mission Impossible

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

I have always been a “front row” kind of person. I wish it was because I am so dedicated to the things that I learn, but most of it is because I know that if I sit in the back, I’ll get distracted and stop paying attention. So when I was in college, I sat in the front row of all my Religious Studies classes, dutifully taking notes, and tucking it all away for the future.

In one such class titled “Hindu Traditions,” I was sitting in the front row listening to my practicing Hindu professor talk about how important his faith was to himself and to his family. And he was in the middle of a lecture when the girl sitting directly behind me raised her hand. When she coughed for our professors attention I turned over my shoulder and saw that she was proudly and prominently wearing a “Campus Crusade for Christ” teeshirt, and kept stretching her hand higher and higher as if that would get our professor’s attention. Reluctantly, he stopped lecturing and motioned for her to speak.

She said, “Dr. Mittal – If you know you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you believe in Jesus to save yourself?”

The room was silent.

Dr. Mittal, having been calm and collected all semester, began to clench his fists together and his nostrils flared before he blurted out, “How dare you speak to me that way! I am so tired of you foolish young Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”

The disciple Thomas, every worried about what Jesus was really saying, once questioned his Lord about the truth of where they were all going. Jesus’ response? “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” 

Jesus does not know the way, the truth, and life, rather, he is all of these things. And he is not merely a way, but THE way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God.

From the beginning of the church, this statement, this claim, has been axiomatic for Christianity. If you desire to know God, to find salvation, and to experience grace, you can only find it through Jesus Christ – hence the strong and persistent push for evangelism over the last 2,000 years. Which makes sense considering the fact that one of the last things Jesus ever said to his disciples was, “Go into the world baptizing all people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The tradition of the church is one that staunchly affirms that salvation can only come through Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, outside the church, there is no salvation. To experience the forgiving pardon of the Lord, to be taught the ways of the faith, to engage in acts of kindness and mercy, is entirely dependent of the existence and proclamation of the church. 

I can remember feeling so uncomfortable in the front row as my professor attempted to clam his demeanor. In the moment I thought she just wanted to frustrate him, or draw out the exact type of reaction that took place. But what if she was being genuine? What if she really was concerned about his salvation?

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Prayer

There are anecdotes about famous people that are just so good that sometimes it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not. Think of George Washington and the cherry tree. Did he really chop down the cherry tree as a child? Does that matter more than the lesson of telling the truth?

There are a lot of stories about Karl Barth, the dialectical theological of the 20th century who greatly upended, in the best ways, my theological understanding, many of which probably aren’t true. Like the time a student pridefully declared he had read everything Barth wrote to which Barth replied, “Son, not even I have read everything I’ve written.”

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So, whether its true or not, people used to push Barth about his universalist tendencies – the idea that, in the end, God saves all regardless. In his work he dances around the claim that all have been, and will be, saved through Christ’s work, death, and resurrection, but Barth never outright claims whether or not he believes it.

And, the story goes that a young student pushed and pushed Barth to respond to the claim of his universalism, to which Barth replied, “Let me put it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of universalism is remarkably relevant considering the great range of thought regarding faith and discipleship. This year alone has seen publications in the arena of theology both in support of universalism and against it. With the world becoming more diverse with every passing day, with different understanding of Christianity cropping up all over the world, the church is left with a question: “How big is the all of Christ died for all?”

We might think of the passage read today, and in particular Christ gathering up all things in him both in heaven and on earth. 

We might think of the fact that humankind was created in the image of God – every single individual having been molded from God’s divinity and given life through the Spirit regardless of later religious affiliations.

We might even think of the myriad examples from Christ’s ministry where he came for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. How he regularly shared meals with the sinners, the vagrants, and the marginalized. How Jesus cared not one bit about their own morality or motivations, but simply declared, “I have come to set you free.”

If we believe that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus then God’s mercy and love and grace truly knows no bounds. God’s power is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us gathered here, but to the entirety of creation!

The work of Christ then becomes the lens through which we see the beginning and end of all things, the One whose arms were still outstretched even on the cross, and how all are caught up in the cosmic victory over sin and death.

When Barth responded to the young man with his quip about a crowded heaven, he did so by avoiding the real question but still addressing the kind of hope made manifest in Christ – a hope that all Christians should have. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. All of us.

With all wisdom and insight Jesus has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Amen. 

In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

Prayer

During my final year of seminary I served as one of the on-call chaplains at Duke University hospital. We were required to stay at the hospital for 24 hour periods attending to the numerous pages, calls, and deaths that would inevitably occur during our shifts. 

One night, after sitting with yet another family reeling in the wake of a loved one’s death, after holding hands with a woman who was just handed her final diagnosis, after pacing outside a room working up the courage to say the right words in a prayer, I found myself in the chapel. 

It was a tiny room, barely labeled, off one of the main hallways. It contained numerous religious pamphlets, an assortments of hymns and sacred texts, and toward the back there was a makeshift altar with a lined notebook that anyone could write a prayer in. Whenever I had a free moment during my shift, I would head to that space, flip through the notebook, and lift up the prayers that I found. 

But I mostly went to the chapel to get away from the rest of the hospital.

Every once in a while I would enter the chapel, expecting to find it empty as it often was, but instead I would find a Muslim doctor praying on the ground in the corner. We would always politely nod to one another but then continue on in our respective religious duties. But that night, the night where I felt completely overwhelmed and exhausted, everything changed.

I was standing up at the altar, praying over the notebook, while he prayed in the corner. We both were speaking at a tone barely above a whisper so as to not disturb the other, when all the sudden he stopped, stood up, and walked to my side. 

I felt him wrap his arm around my shoulder and he said, “Lets do it together this time.”

Without discussing the details, without making a plan, without debating our theological differences, we both began to pray, arm in arm, for the people we were serving.

I don’t know how long we prayed, I don’t even remember what we said, but when it was all over we hugged and then we went our separate ways.

Without a doubt, the existence of, and interaction with, other religious groups is perhaps the most significant challenge and opportunity for the church today. Moreover, with the rise of so-called the New Atheists and the Nones (those with no religious affiliation), we have entered to a confounding mosaic in which we are challenged to address those who do not believe and those who do believe and those who believe differently than us.

So, what happens to people of other faiths when they die? How can we relate to people of different religious persuasions? I’m not sure.

We can pick up the Bible and finds all sorts of answers – answers that include all or close out some or leave us with something in between. One of the great paradoxes of the church is that we affirm how there is no salvation outside the church and that through Christ all have been saved. 

Only God knows what will happen in the end, but until we meet our end, perhaps it is best for us to live by some of Jesus’ most challenging words: Love one another. Not love other Christians or love the people in the pews, but love one another. 

In my own life, God has used a great number of people from outside the church to help teach me about what it means to follow Jesus. But at the same time, what we do in this place, what we do as a church, has saved me time and time again.

What has been revealed for us through Jesus, is that God desires us to be in relationship with others. This implies a willingness to be vulnerable with people different from us, people whose beliefs contradict our own, people with no beliefs at all, and the people who are sitting right next to us in church. 

We are called to love one another.

Though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree on the scope of salvation, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt we may. Amen. 

The Politics of Jesus

Matthew 2.13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” 

Questions. Questions. Questions.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that people don’t come to church for preachments, but to daydream about God – and I think he was right. Rare is the one who wakes up on a Sunday morning thinking, “You know what, I just can’t wait to hear what the preacher is going to say about the Bible today!” 

That’s not why we come to church. 

If you want to humor me and inflate my ego you can certainly tell me that’s why you’re here, but, if we’re honest, we’re here because something, or perhaps someone, has compelled us to be here. It’s a feeling, and when we do find ourselves in a place like this, we come with the hope that we will learn something more about ourselves and the world on the other side.

Or, in other words, we come looking for answers.

One of the great aspects of faith is that God is in the business of providing what we need. It’s just that sometimes we ask the wrong questions. 

Today, all of us are coming to the Lord with the simple question, “Is the church political?” 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.

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On Christmas Day, Pope Francis offered his annual address to Catholics across the globe. The message was one of hope and a call for kindness to those experiencing hardships. It was titled “To The City And To The World.”

Like a lot of sermons it was filled with the “Christianese” language that can float right over the heads of those who receive it, but some of it was far more pointed. 

For example: “May the Son of God, come down to earth from heaven, protect and sustain all those who, due to these and other injustices, are forced to emigrate in the hope of a secure life. It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries – It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference.”

This address came on the heels of Pope Francis placing a new cross inside the Vatican last week, a cross encircled by a life jacket, in memory of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they sought out a new hopeful existence in Europe.

He ended the address like this: “May he soften our stony and self-centered hearts, and make them channels of his love. May he bring his smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence. Through our frail hands, may he clothe those who have nothing to wear, give bread to the hungry and heal the sick. Through our friendship, such as it is, may he draw close to the elderly and the lonely, to migrants and the marginalized. On this joyful Christmas Day, may he bring his tenderness to all and brighten the darkness of this world.

And people lost their minds.

How dare the Pope make such a political statement on Christmas! He’s using Jesus to make his own political judgments! There’s no room for politics in the manger!

There’s a lot of criticism about the political nature of the church and many have raised concerns about the rise of political rhetoric inside of church buildings. There is, after all, the so-called Johnson Amendment that prohibits churches from supporting particular political candidates or suffer losing their tax-exempt status in the US (though it certainly hasn’t stopped certain pastors from endorsing particular individuals). And, when rightly considered, the table at which we gather to celebrate communion is one through which all divisions end, even those of red and blue, liberal and conservative.

But when we talk about the politics of the church, or the politics of Jesus, we are already in a losing battle because when we think about politics we almost always do so through the partisan politics of our country.

Or, to put it another way, the politics of Jesus are not the same thing as the politics of America.

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A politic, rightly understood, is the way in which individuals relate to each other via decisions. Which, of course, has to do with things like democracy, and representation, and voting. But when we view the politics of church through the lens of our current political situation, we blind ourselves from the ways in which Jesus, and his life, death, and resurrection, compels those who wish to follow him to live under a different kind of politic.

A few weeks ago I shared how I saw a bumper sticker that boggled my mind – It said, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive.” That is a political statement that carries more layers than we can look at in a worship service, but suffice it to say that the person with that on their car probably believes and lives according to a political understanding that, everyone should be entitled to having guns, and that in particular Christians should be the ones fighting for Gun Rights.

Now, it should come as no surprise to us that this creates a bit of a conundrum when conflated with the words from Jesus himself who said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” and “ love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

We live in a world in which everything is political, and therefore the church (whether she wants to or not) is inherently political as well. However, the politics of the church do not fit neatly into the binary of Republican and Democrat as is so often desired in our country (as if the two of those things are mutually exclusive in the first place). It is a far more complicated matter, and one that we shy away from all too often.

Pope Francis chose to speak forcefully about the role the church has to play in a world where refugees are fleeing from difficult and dangerous situations in hopes of a better life. And, people and institutions can claim that he was being political, or even overly political, but he wasn’t just making it up for the sake of an argument. The concern of the church for refugees is biblical.

In the Old Testament, God ordered the people Israel to “not oppress foreigners, [for] you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9) Similarly, they were told to treat the foreigners in their midst as if they were native-born and to love them as they love themselves. Care for the sojourners, for those without homes, was paramount in the community and it was central to what people had to do. 

For some of us, that might feel foreign (pun intended) but it is part of the story that has become our story. 

And, to make matters all the more prescient, the story we gathered to celebrate on Christmas Eve, the precious little baby in the manger, turns very quickly into a story of fear, infant murder, and migration.

King Herod, the de-facto political leader, is afraid about the one who has come to deliver Israel into a strange new world. And like all smart, powerful, and effective political leaders, Herod does what needs to be done to insure his tenure on the throne. He orders troops into Bethlehem to indiscriminately murder every child under the age of 2. 

Thankfully, Joseph receives word through a dream that he, Mary, and the newborn baby Jesus will need to flee the area and make a new home in Egypt as strangers living in a strange land. 

Or, in other words, they become refugees.

As Christians, therefore, we are a people whose story has been shaped by the story of One whose life was put into jeopardy by the ruling powers and principalities. We worship the One who regularly called into question the political practices of his day by flipping over the tables in the temple, and declaring that his followers needed to render the things back to God that belonged to God. We have been granted salvation by the One who, at the orders of the political powers, suffered under the death penalty and died on a cross.

The political group of people called church have come a long way through the centuries. You can tell how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle at the thought of politics mixing with church because that doesn’t harmonize with the ways we’ve been taught to think and speak. 

And, ultimately, that’s one of the reasons we still gather together for worship. Not to listen to a preacher wax lyrical about how scripture still speaks to us today, but to develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be. 

It is here in church that we are given the words to speak and think Christian. 

As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord, and therefore we do not need rights and freedoms granted to us from a document written in response to the rule of monarchy to be who we really are. 

We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of people regardless of whether or not our political parties do. 

We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by partisan policies geared at keeping up divisions. 

For, in the end, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One whose arms were still outstretched even while mounted to the hard wood of the cross.

Being a Christian is not about idolatrous freedom, denying responsibility, or ignoring the plight of the marginalized. 

Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that will often place us positions counter to partisan politics. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or being a Republican. Jesus helped those who couldn’t help themselves, and that includes people like us, and people who are fleeing for their lives.

When the politics of our country become the most determinative thing in our lives, it becomes way too easy to believe the problems of the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what Jesus says: the problem in the world is in all of us. We chose to do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should. 

When we worship our partisan politics, it becomes harder and harder to like our neighbors and it becomes impossible to love our enemies.

When we think the church isn’t supposed to be political we forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated isn’t a Kingdom that any political party could ever create.

But it is a Kingdom. 

And in Jesus’ kingdom trespasses are forgiven, grace is given, enemies are prayed for, peace is practiced, and all of our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this table together.

In the end, our personal politics might not line up with what Jesus had to say and what Jesus had to do, but Jesus was political, and the church always will be. Amen. 

To Whom It May Concern

Romans 1.1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I was exactly halfway through seminary when one of my professors decided to do something a little different with his lecture. Those of us in attendance had taken classes on Church History, The Old Testament, The New Testament, Theology, Greek, Practical Ministry, and an assortment of others, but this particular professor was responsible for teaching us about American Christianity. For months we had listened to him lecture about the budding growth of the church as the frontier spread west, we knew all about the Great Awakening that took hold of the new nation, and we even examined the manifold reasons for the explosions of denominations across the Union. 

But for the last class before the final exam, our professor didn’t pull out the powerpoint slides with the appropriate lecture notes. Instead he said, “I want to preach.” So preach he did.

I don’t remember the text. I don’t remember the points he was trying to make. Frankly I was studying the all the important details I had in my notebook for the impending final exam. But as he got toward the end of his sermon his disposition and his voice changed. He no longer looked down at the papers on the podium, and he rest his arms down and looked at all of us straight in the eyes. I remember the room being eerily silent as he took a longer than usual pause before saying something I will never forget:

“Part of what I’ve hoped to teach you and show you this semester is that if you can do anything else with your lives, you should drop out of seminary right now and go do those things. If you think God has called you to be a pastor you better be absolutely sure that God has in fact put that call on your life because it will be a difficult one. You will be expected to do things that you know you shouldn’t do. You will be surrounded by death at every turn. The pay isn’t any good. And with each passing year the church will beat you down until you know longer remember what it was to have the faith you had.”

But if you can’t do anything else – if the call is so real that you know there is nothing else for you then the work of ministry well then you must stay, you must study, and you must give yourselves to the Lord. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

It was a sobering moment, to say the least. Our professor politely smiled and walked out of the lecture hall while we sat there doing our best to absorb and make sense of what he said. Personally, I felt my call stronger in that moment than in almost any other because I felt, deep in my bones, that God had in fact called me to ministry, that there was nothing else I could do with my life, because all I wanted to do was share the Good News that has made all the difference in my life.

So I sat there, reasonably assured by and with the words my professor offered – but the experience wasn’t mutual for some of my friends. It was not mutual for some of my friends because in that profound moment they realized that ministry was not what they were called to do, that the stark reality my professor painted left them not assured but confused. And, on the other side of the final exam and the end of the semester, more than a few of my classmates did not return after Christmas break. 

I’ve thought a lot about that sermon, or at least the end of it, in the years that followed. I am thankful my professor spoke as candidly as he did and saved some of my classmates from entering into a life and vocation that would ultimately leave them feeling like something was missing. I’ve felt reinvigorated by my call again and again and again and have known, with assurance, that this is what I’m supposed to do.

But something else has percolated up over the years, something I couldn’t quite articulate in the beginning, but now understand to be important: My professor was wrong. 

To be clear, he wasn’t wrong about how bizarre and crazy the life of ministry is, all that he said is true. But he was still wrong. He was wrong because he made it out as if there are two types of Christians in the world: pastors and lay people. But that’s not how it works – all of us are disciples of Jesus Christ, all of us have been put on a different path than we would’ve chosen on our own, and all of us are called.

Or, to put it another way, what my professor warned all of us about a life of ministry isn’t meant for ministers alone – it’s for all of us.

We Christians are different. We are, as Paul puts it, set apart for the gospel of God. This language of “set apart-ness” has created problems over the millennia as we’ve assumed that perhaps only pastors are called to do special things that the rest of Christians don’t have to do. And, even worse, we’ve taken that language to mean that the church is better than the rest of the world. 

Think about how many times you’ve heard a sermon (even from me) about how the church is right and the world is wrong. It’s certainly true as times, but the more we hear about our rightness and their wrongness, the more we consider ourselves special, or elite, or the beloved. 

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But that’s not what Paul means when he writes about set apart for the gospel of God. Paul didn’t choose for himself that life that God called him into. Remember – he was confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus to begin again, to set his life anew. And everything about Paul was wrong for the role to which Christ called him – he was brash and arrogant and self-righteous and furiously committed to exterminating the new Christian faith that was budding up in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. 

Jesus calls that guy to speak the Good News across the world. 

Think on this for a moment – God took the enemy and sent him out to carry the Gospel to the very people Paul would have considered beneath him, namely the gentiles. And to make matters all the more confounding, without Paul there would be no worldwide Christian faith.

And yet Paul saw his entire mission not as his own, but instead Christ working in him.

Thats a far cry from “If you can do anything else with your life, go do that thing instead.”

Can you imagine Jesus knocking Paul down on the road to Damascus and saying, “Hey Pauly! I know you’ve been hating on the people following me, you’ve dragged them off to prison and probably even killed a few. No worries. But I want to talk about something else… What would you think about coming to work for me? The pay isn’t very good, my followers won’t want to accept you (for the time being), and you’re going to get killed in the end because of me. Now, if you can do anything else with your life, tent-making or Christian persecuting, go do that. But if you can’t do anything else, then I have a job for you.”?

Paul didn’t have a choice.

The Good News of God in Jesus Christ grabbed him by the collar and refused to let him go. Paul heard what all of us hear at some point – you’re not enough, or you’re doing the wrong thing, or you’ll never cut it. And instead of relenting to the nihilism of it, Paul heard a better Word from the Lord – come to me all of you with your heavy burdens and I will give you rest.

You see, that’s what the beginning of the letter to the Romans is all about. It’s not a list of all the things pastors have to do, or even what lay people have to do. It’s not a litany of complaints about how hard the life of faith is. Its not even really about the people receiving the letter! It’s all about Jesus and what Jesus did and does for us, his people.

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We are set apart for the gospel of God, the Good News he promised before the beginning of time and throughout all of his prophets, the Good News about his Son, who comes from the line of David and was declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all people for the sake of his name, including us, who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

The beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is one long sentence filled with theological nuggets about what it means to be part of the called. Being called means being set apart, not from the world or above the world, but set apart to know who we really and and what we’re really like! 

That was Paul’s burden and it is ours as well. 

Paul was called to a life of spreading the Good News about the one for whom he tried to punish others previously. Imagine a white supremacist being called by God to work for racial equity, or a sexist man being called by God to work in a battered woman’s shelter. 

Paul writes about the obedience of faith, and when we hear the word obedience it sets off all kinds of red flags. Obedience sounds like something that will infringe upon our rights to freedom. But the obedience of faith, strangely, is all about freedom – its the freedom to confess what we, on this side of the resurrection, know to be true. There is nothing good in us nor among us. Try as we might, we will do things we know we shouldn’t and we will avoid doing the things we know we should.

Part of what makes us different is that we know that we no longer belong to ourselves and we haven’t been left to our own devices. We belong to Jesus Christ who came into the world to take us and our burdens upon his shoulders. We belong to Jesus Christ who sees and knows our sins and nails them to the cross anyway. We belong to Jesus Christ whose birth we mark in the manger, and whose return we anticipate with joy and wonder.

Today is the end of Advent, it is the end of a season in which we stare straight into the darkness, the sinfulness, of our own lives and the world. Regardless of the lights on the tree or the carols on the radio, these weeks have been a time set a part for us in which we confront the reality for which God had to come into the world in the person of Jesus Christ.

If anything, Advent is a time for us to confess that being a Christian is hard, whether we’re pastors or not. But what makes it hard isn’t what we often think it is. It’s not about expectations and moral observances, God no longer delights in those things. It’s hard to be a Christian because while the world constantly tells us to be better on our own terms or by our own merits, God reminds us that all that work will be for nothing. Instead, God is the one who makes us better by sending his Son for us, to do for us that which we could not. 

It’s hard because we want to be in control but Advent reminds us that God is in control.

That’s what sets us a part. It’s also why we can call it good. Amen. 

Wake Up!

Romans 13.11-14

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

Oh the times they are a-changin’ 

Words immortalized by the great Bob Dylan, conveying a sentiment we all know all too well. Time, by definition, is always in a state of flux. And no matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve experienced, we seem to agree that we all want more of it. Time that is.

It can be said that those of us here today live under the oppressive tyranny of time. It hovers over us in every moment, reminding us how much more we still have to do as a nearly silent clicking in our minds forces us to realize that we are running out of time. Today the demands on our time are overwhelming – homes have to accommodate for multiple work schedules, children have to balance manifold school responsibilities, extra-curricular activities are scheduled with no end in sight, doctors appointments are made months in advance with the hope we’ll actually be able to be seen on time, on and on and on. 

In our family we tried to make it work with a physical and central calendar upon which we could keep in all together, but it quickly lost its ability to keep us in line and in time. Now, we rely heavily on a digital calendar on our phones that syncs up automatically so we know who is doing what when. 

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And then we add the Advent season on top of all of that. Advent, for many of us, is the break-neck race between Thanksgiving and Christmas in which we have to (re)decorate the house, find all the perfect presents (and find time to wrap them), get the kids to the Christmas concert practice, actually go to the Christmas concert, coordinate schedules with in-laws about who is coming and when, and then make it to the Advent services on Sunday morning all while making it appear that we are not overwhelmed by everything else in our lives.

And then we can even add how our rapid fire sense of communication has really ramped up over the last decade such that we can communicate with anyone, at anytime, instantaneously. It has left us feeling like we should be, or have to be, connected with one another 24-7 and we measure our successes based on the number of likes on a photo or the number of retweets on a quippy line we thought up while zoning out on Tryptophan at the Thanksgiving table.

This was made very apparent to me this last week when I checked in on a particular church member to ask how they were doing and they responded by saying, “Well, as you know, we’ve been really overwhelmed since returning from vacation.” To which I kindly remarked, “Oh, where did you go?” And instead of just telling me where they went, they said, “Didn’t you see the pictures we posted on Facebook?”

Oh the times they are a-changin’.

And it is here, while completely overwhelmed by our lack of time, that Paul shows up to say, “You know what time it is.”

Do we?

I’m not sure that I do. For, I too fall prey to the nagging sensation that life is just ticking by and I’m always behind. I grow frustrated behind the red lights of traffic lamenting the things I won’t be able to get done at home. I sigh as my son drags his feet while making his way, late, to bed. And I tap my toes behind families and individuals at the grocery store as they fumble around in the wallets to pay for their items so that the rest of us can do the same.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself resenting time and the lack of it.

And Paul thinks we know what time it is?

Of course, for Paul, the time he speaks of is not the tyrannical ruler so many of us experience today. Time, for Paul, is not the fear of getting everything done between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Time, for Paul, is nothing less that the transformation of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Did you notice the qualifier he puts into the sentence? You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep! 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not sure we like the tone Paul has for us. I mean, who does he think he is telling us to wake up? Doesn’t he know how hard we try, how much effort we put to this crazy thing called life? You would think that he’d maybe have a little more respect for us than to tell us to wake up.

But, we do need to wake up. All of us. 

opt-the-day-after-christmas from Life Magazine Jamie Wyeth

And not just to wake up out of the craziness the world has told us to experience this time of year, though we should wake up from that, but to wake up from the lie we’ve fed ourselves about who we are and what we are doing with our lives. 

Paul, here, hits us over the head, as is often the case, with the fact that the coming of Christ into the world, his crucifixion by the powers and principalities, his Resurrection from the dead, and his returning in the future, have overturned ALL previous perspectives placed on human life in the world.

He has this great line that we often gloss over far too quickly: For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. For many of us, that moment of becoming believers came with a catch – if we believe this, then God will do this. Or if we lay aside our sins, then God will give us eternal life as our everlasting reward. Or if we promise to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, then God will love us back.

But there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.

A few days ago I was speaking with an acquaintance about his experience of church. Years ago he had felt the call of God on his life to plant a new church and did so using the tools of the trade that were passed onto him – basically that people need to understand how bad they’ve been in order to change and to get God to love them.

And for awhile, it worked. This church planter was able to find people near the rock-bottom of their lives and convince them to turn around so that God could finally make something of their nothing. Years passed and the church plateaued with those early converts beginning to revert back to lifestyles of their prior selves.

Until one day when the church planter gathered down by the local river with a few new disciples. He was baptizing them one by one in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then the town drunk showed up.

It was a small enough town that everyone knew he was the town drunk, and there in front of God and a whole bunch of witnesses, the drunk walked knee-deep into the river and asked the pastor to baptize him.

The pastor said, “Bill, are you ready to give up the bottle and give your life to Jesus?”

He thought for a moment, and with whiskey on his breath he said, “I don’t think I can Pastor.”

And then the pastor turned him away. 

In the days that followed, the pastor received congratulatory affirmations from his congregation. His email inbox filled up with messages about how much his people respected him for standing up for holiness. People waited in line on Sunday morning to express their gratitude for the example he was setting in the community. 

Meanwhile the pastor felt ashamed. 

He denied the means of grace to a man who was seeking it on the basis of a moral absolute. He refused the gift of God to a man unless he was willing to prove how committed he was to the cause. He believed that only the man’s improvement would warrant the baptism made possible in the person of Jesus Christ.

And the pastor felt ashamed because he couldn’t get a line out of his head, a line from the lips of Jesus, “I’ve come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”

In many ways the world tells us over and over again that we have to do something to earn something. But grace is different. In fact, it could not be more different. God shows up and says, I’m giving this to precisely because you haven’t and you’re never going to deserve it!

It was that realization that led the church planter to leave the church and start over – he had grown weary with making people feel weary for not being enough. The moralisms and calls to perfection were resulting in even greater examples of self-righteousness, all while people like the town drunk were being turned away from the grace of God!

We know what time it is – time for us to wake up! It’s not going to be easy, but we all have to kick the addiction we’ve grown far too comfortable with – and not necessarily the addictions we might be thinking about. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to flush all of our religion and morality pills down the toilet, we’ve got to pour out our bottles of self-righteousness and judgment. Why? Because God’s grace is bigger than our finger-wagging and is never contingent on our ability to do much of anything. In fact, it is exactly our inability to do much of anything that makes grace necessary in the first place!

Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers. It is on this side of discovering God’s unending love and grace for us, in spite of our deservings and earnings, that we can start to live differently. Our desires to be better, even though they might ultimately fail, only ever come as a response to what God has done and never as a prerequisite. 

That’s why Paul can call upon us to live honorably, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. He can do so not because doing so warrants God’s love, but because God’s love is such that we can’t be what we once were.

All the while remembering that even if we are quarreling or jealous or drunk or licentious, it will never remove what God has already made possible, for us, in Jesus.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the life of Christians. Our time has been changed. And it might seem strange to start on such a strange note, but it might be the note we need the most. That we need it is indicated by the ways in which we are struggling to keep our necks above water under the tyranny of time, or the temptations to compare ourselves and our worth based on our perceived notions of other people and their worth. 

Instead, Paul points us to something different. We’ve trapped ourselves in a nightmare of our own making, and its time to wake up, to force ourselves to destroy the systems and expectations that drive us away from one another instead of toward each other. The time has come, as he puts it, to put on the Lord Jesus, to remember our baptisms, and ultimately to remember who we are and whose we are. 

There is no hope in us. If it were all up to us, we all would fail. Thanks be to God then that our hope doesn’t have to be put in us. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Amen.