We Definitely Need To Talk

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The midterm elections are coming up.

Do you all know what those are?

I’m sure you haven’t heard of them. I’m sure that you’ve been able to watch your favorites shows on television, and listen to your favorite radio station, and even get on the computer without hearing about who is running and where.

All of us here don’t care about politics. And we certainly never talk about politics. Not here at church when we’re milling around before the worship service. Not at work when we’re sitting around at a common table with fellow employees. Not at home when we’re catching up with a neighbor over the fence.

No. Politics are a rather boring endeavor these days. It’s just too bad that we don’t care about our politics enough!

So, for the vast majority of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about (read: sarcasm), the midterms elections will be taking place on November 6th. They happen every four years, and they always fall during the mid-point of a president’s four-year term in office. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, and there are 33 being voted on in the Senate. 

In certain places there will also be state governors on the ballots in addition to ordinances that pertain to the local community.

All in all, it is just another voting day.

Yet, in all of its regularity and perfunctory nature, all the research and data made available points to the conclusion that more than 4 billion dollars will be spent on the elections by election day, with at least 1 billion of that being spent on television ads alone.

4 billion dollars for an election.

Now, don’t get me wrong – elections are important, they are part of the fabric of our country, and they represent a freedom many people in other parts of the world will never know. And, of course, not all politicians are bad or evil or corrupt. Some of them feel called to run for office because they want to make things better.

But, at the same time, I want to just say again… 4 billion dollars!

That’s more than what it cost to make every single Marvel movie, combined!

What does it say about those running, and those of us financially supporting those who are running, that we are willing to spend 4 billion dollars on an election?

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James and John were two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and he referred to the sons of Zebedee as the sons of thunder. Why? We don’t really know, but if it was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for us.

The thunder brothers were pretty self-absorbed.

Jesus has just predicted his passion for a third, and final, time. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and I will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn me to death; then they will hand me over to the Gentiles; they will mock me, and spit upon me, and flog me, and kill me; and after three days I will rise again.”

And what happens next? The thunder brothers approach Jesus, immediately after he told them for the third time what was to happen. Like the children they were, they said, “Hey Jesus, will you do whatever we ask you?”

“What do you want?!”

“Allow us to sit at your right and left in your glory!”

They wanted all the power. They wanted to be Jesus’ Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense. They wanted to be the junior and senior State Senators. They wanted to be the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate of whatever Jesus’ kingdom would be.

And yet, their question comes on the heels of Jesus laying it all out for the disciples. So either they were not listening to what their Messiah said, or they were just plain dumb.

Which makes me wonder how people reacted to this story the first time they heard it. Did they laugh? Because it is laughable.

Did the other 10 point their fingers and ridicule the thunder brothers for their idiot question? Well, apparently not. Because, lest we bash the thunder brothers alone, the rest of the disciples fared no better. Hearing Jesus’ utter rebuke of their request, the rest of the disciples got angry. 

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture these would be rag-tag followers of the holy one bickering with each other about who was the best, and who would get the authority, and who held all the power.

It was such a squabble that Jesus had to respond with his teaching about true greatness and true power: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The whole story reads like a comedy. We have the benefit of knowing the end of the story, we know that the tomb is empty, but did any of us feel like laughing when the text was read today?

We, for some reason, feel either defensive about their behavior, or we’re apathetic. 

We might not like to admit it, but we can feel for the thunder brothers; maybe they just want to make sure they’re protected should anything serious happen to Jesus, or perhaps they’re just seizing their moment and shoring up future opportunities…

It’s far too easy to bash the thunder brothers across the sands of time, because all of us here have a little bit of that same thunder in us, and maybe our thirst for power and security has us asking for things that we do not really understand.

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Surely, we know better than to make outlandish and insensitive requests like the thunder brothers did, but most of us still want to be first in line at the grocery store, we want our children to go to the very best schools, we want to pay the lowest amount of taxes possible. 

We want, we want, we want…

We actually want a whole lot of things that we’d never actually admit out loud.

But maybe the thunder brothers were just desperate. And then, could we really blame them? Here they are, getting close to the end of the gospel, Jesus has thrice told them about his impending death… Maybe the thunder brothers just wanted to make sure their pension was going to be okay. 

So, perhaps it was just pure desperation that propelled them to ask for such a crazy thing – and therefore their desperate clutch for power blinded them from the truth of the Messiah they were following.

But desperation, particularly in the face of the cross, is a strange thing to experience in the kingdom.

And we really are no better. Each of us, in different ways, are desperate for our own power. From the frightening ways that we are so gripped by the politics of our time (4 billion dollars!) to the strange ways we isolate ourselves from experiencing anything other than what we might deem as normative. 

We are a people hell bent on securing our futures, rather than risking the way of the cross.

Even the church itself is guilty of the thunder brothers temptation. We water down the gospel and present it in bite-size pieces in order to appeal to as many people as possible. We want all the grace without all the transformation. We want Jesus to fix our problems, but when someone else is in need, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye.

We, sinners and saints, are all filled with insecurities and fears that drive us toward greed and covetousness. As individuals, and families, and communities, and political parties, and even as the church, we do it all the time. 

Overcoming these deep seated insecurities is no easy thing, and it certainly can’t change overnight. But it does start to transform into something else through service, whatever that might mean. Because it is in serving those we might otherwise deem unworthy, that we are confronted with the profound truth – we are unworthy.

In the other we see the sin of our desire for power.

But serving others, putting others’ needs first, doesn’t “fix” us. It’s not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. All serving does is reorient our perspective, while transforming the world for someone else. Serving the other helps us see how often our thirst for power is what drives us away from the cross instead of toward it. 

Jesus’ rebuke of the thunder brothers, and the rest of the disciples, might sound harsh to our modern and prejudiced ears, but it’s actually a promise. Jesus promises that we need not live in fear, we need not wake up every morning worrying about our security, we need not scheme to accrue as much power as possible. But Jesus doesn’t promise our protection, or our safety, or even our power – Jesus promises us the cross!

The way of prosperity and power, though decisively tempting in a time like ours, is but a shadow and shallow promise of what the empty tomb ironically contains. Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, is a way of resistance to the dominating systems that are all around us, and are within us. 

Those domination systems are those that do whatever it takes to maintain and exert power dynamics that keep the weak weak. From politics, to families, to churches, the thirst and hunger for power lives and breathes by controlling people, subordinating the marginalized, and further dividing the weak from the strong, the powerful from the powerless, and the rich from the poor.

But the way of the cross is the ultimate alternative to the domination systems that plague our existence. Jesus lived and breathed not by amassing power and prestige, but by bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus regularly resisted the kind of power that is still all too present in the world. From being tempted with ultimate power in the wilderness, to the temptations of the crowds jeering while he hung on the cross – Jesus always believed in something that we often forget.

True power comes through weakness, true power comes through service, true power comes through sacrifice.

We know that among others those whom they recognize as their rulers, the politicians and the powerful, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it not so among us; whoever wishes to become great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all. 

For Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

For us.

And that changes everything. Amen.

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The Problem With American Christianity

Psalm 9.19

Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you.

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Inside of an old warehouse in South Texas, hundreds of children are being held in a series of cages created by metal fencing. One cage has 20 children inside. Scattered about are bottles of water, bags of chips, and large foil sheets that are supped to be used as blankets.

This is how the scene was described yesterday when the U.S. Border patrol allowed reporters into the warehouse where they are currently holding people arrested at the southern US border. All across the country churches and civil rights activists have been responding to the news of the government’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the resulting separation of families.

As a Christian leader there is much that I can say about this kind of policy, but it is limited by the fact that we chose these particular politicians to lead us; further complicating the issue is how often people make it known to me that they don’t want to hear about politics in church. However, our Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently responded to criticisms about the nearly 2,000 children that have been taken from their parents by saying, “I would cite the apostle Paul who clearly and wisely said in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.”

And when politicians start citing bible verses, when they bring the church into politics, then it becomes something else entirely.

Romans 13, and in particular the verse crudely quoted by our Attorney General, is often used to justify all kinds of acts committed by the government. And, as Stanley Hauerwas often points out, we never think about how Romans 13 was exactly the text the German Christians used to serve Hitler. And, to make matters even worse, it is a text taken out of context and we fail to read in in light of the verses that lead up to it!

Romans 12 is all about the marks of Christianity predicated on blessing those who are marginalized. It is fundamentally a list about what it means to exist in a world full of evil by not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good. Then, and only then, shall we be subject to the governing authorities.

However, instead of reading Romans 12 into Romans 13 so many people separate these thoughts from one another in order to justify political rules that don’t expect Caesar (leaders) to be repentant. Separating these theological convictions from one another is exactly the kind of move that produces Christians who blindly submit to the will of the nation-state instead of calling the nation-state into question.

If we read Romans 13 like Jeff Sessions then we will fail to see that that verse also applies to Caesar! Far too many Christians today no longer know how to read scripture, and how to read it well. Again, to quote Hauerwas, “American Christians don’t know how to read the bible well. They don’t know how to read the bible well because they’re Americans before they’re Christians.”

Caesar, in whatever form of leadership, is only divinely instituted when he/she is also held accountable to a world made possible by a 1st century Jew who was murdered on a cross. We are only bound by Caesar when Caesar is bound by an ethic that believes in extending hospitality to strangers, feeding the hungry, and hating what is evil. Romans 13 is nothing without Romans 12.

We don’t like to talk about divine judgment in the church these days. Most of us are far more comfortable with a God of peace and mercy and justice if it doesn’t require anything on our part. But the psalmist is frighteningly wise to call for the Lord to judge the nations and to not let mortals prevail. Whether we like to think about it, or even admit it, the Lord will judge us for how we treat the least of these.

We Get The Politicians We Deserve

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Adam Baker about the readings for the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost (1 Samuel 8.4-20, Psalm 138, 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1, Mark 3.20-35). Adam serves as the associate pastor at Wesley Memorial UMC in Wilmington, North Carolina. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the band Against Me!, insecurities, bowing down to the Lord, imperatives for grace, quotes from Galaxy Quest, daily renewal, and the necessity of imagination. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Get The Politicians We Deserve

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Advent Longing [Live]

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The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. In the second part of the evening, we invited Diana to join us at the front and she explored the the ramifications of announcing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the importance of the second Advent, human agency vs. divine agency, and how to teach children about the already but not yet of God’s Advent in Christ. Diana is an author, speaker, and scholar specializing in American religion and culture. If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Advent Longing

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Keep The Cross In Christmas

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rubén Rosario Rodríguez about the readings for Christmas Eve [Year B] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Ruben is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. He is passionate about Liberation Theology and keeping others honest about Karl Barth. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the temptation (and need) to preach political sermons on Christmas Eve, the themes of light and darkness, singing new songs on one of the highest attended worship services of the year, the fragility of victory, trembling in church, and keeping the cross in Christmas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keep The Cross In Christmas
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When The Good News Sounds Like Bad News

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people who the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings fort its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

My very first sermon, while a teenager, was on Paul’s description of the body of Christ from 1 Corinthians. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

I don’t remember a lot about the sermon save for the fact that it wasn’t a very good one. To begin, I had never preached before, nor had I given a lot of thought to what preaching was supposed to sound like. Second, the text itself was plenty confusing on its own without some teenager trying to wax lyrical about it. And finally, it wasn’t very good because I ended with an overly long description of the human body that bled into a call for each person in the congregation to figure out what body part they were for Jesus, and get to work.

In my head this sounded like a good charge to propel the congregation forward to do the work of Jesus in the world. But what really happened was a bunch of people left church that morning trying really hard to not think about being Jesus’ thigh, or clavicle, or pinky toe.

Jesus’ first sermon was on the text from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Though upon reading from the scroll to the gathered congregation, he rolled it back up, sat down, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And, as scripture tells us, when the people heard what he said, they were filled with rage, drove him out of the synagogue, and forced him to the brow of a cliff so that they could hurl him over the edge.

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I get the frustration people can feel with regard to preaching. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was sitting on the other side of the altar during worship. But what kind of sermon is worth killing over?

Isaiah, like Jesus, was tasked with speaking to a people divided, where leaders played to the powerful and privileged, justice was available for the highest bidder, and inequality reigned supreme. The prophet attempted to bring good news to a people where isolation was more important than community, and where word of God’s extensive work was met with frustration, disapproval, and even violence.

How can good news sound so bad?

It’s all well and fine when we hear about what God is going to do for us, but when the scope of God’s salvation stretches to those other people, it’s a little harder to swallow.

Isaiah paints a picture of God’s work: The oppressed will hear good news, the brokenhearted will be healed, the captives will be set free, the jubilee year will begin.

In other words: the poor and the weak will be given power and strength, the people who mourn for better days will be rewarded, people in jail will be released, and all debts shall be forgiven instantaneously.

Now, if we were in prison, or heavily in debt, or ostracized to the outskirts of society, this would sound like really good news.

But if we made money off of those in prison, or grew powerful by lending money, or sat in the places of respect and comfort, this would sound like really bad news.

The people of God during the time of Isaiah needed hope. They were oppressed, imprisoned, and brokenhearted. And through their ruins God was going to spring forth new life, their offspring would be known among the nations, and they would be blessed.

As Bob Dylan put it, the times they were a changin’.

But it’s hard for us to side with those who are oppressed, because we’ve got it pretty good. We were able to make it here for worship on a Sunday morning, we don’t have to worry about being persecuted for our faith, and should something terrible happen we know that we have a church that will help to see us through.

It’s difficult reading Isaiah’s words because we’ve grown so comfortable with God’s love that we forget God has the capacity to hate. God is love such that all things that go against love are against God.

Isaiah boldly proclaims that God hates robbery and wrongdoing, God hates when the people take advantage of others, and God hates injustice. Which is really problematic when we live in a society that rewards those who make the most with the least effort, who prey on the weak to grow strong, and who define their own understanding of justice.

Here is where Isaiah hits home for us. Because on the surface, it might look like we’ve got it all together, but even the best among us have hidden struggles under the surface. There are things going on in our lives that we don’t want anybody else to know about and we try so hard to keep these secrets and shames bottled up. Christmas, however, has the power to reveal even the deepest secrets we keep locked away. There are the broken relationships, the ignored addictions, the denied depression, the raging affair, the greed, the hatred, the fear.

So, with all of this bad news tucked away from prying eyes, where is the Good News? Why read these words from Isaiah on the third Sunday of Advent, a day dedicated entirely to joy?

When Jesus sat down to preach for the first time, he declared that he was the one who would bring God’s transformation to a broken world. In him all would be made new. He looked out at that congregation with all their expectations about what God would do, and he exceeded them exponentially.

One of the challenges with scripture, and in particular preaching, is wrestling with what and who the Word is for. Is this text from the prophet Isaiah meant for the people of his time, and his time alone? Are the proclamations from the pulpit limited to the Advent of God in Christ and the changes that began in Bethlehem? Are Isaiah’s word meant for us today in this place at this time?

But there is yet another angle by which we can approach God’s Word today… What if its less about the past, the days of Isaiah? What if its about more than the arrival of Jesus, what if this text is describing the already, but not yet, of the future?

God most certainly sent Jesus to inaugurate a new time, a new beginning for God’s people. In Christ the Good News entered the world, but the vision of Isaiah hasn’t come to complete fruition; at least not yet.

The people receiving Jesus’ first sermon were uncomfortable with his proclamation, enough that the wanted to end his life. They couldn’t imagine a God who would so subvert and change the priorities of existence. They were far away from encountering a God who would resurrect his Son from beyond the grave.

They, in some ways, were a lot like us.

They had families to take care of, debts to manage, and secrets to keep hidden. And to hear this Jesus say that God was going to bless everyone, and in particular the people not in the synagogue, is hard to swallow when you consider all the problems you have.

So, it would seem that we have to ask ourselves a question, one we might not want to consider… If this word angered and frightened the people so much that they wanted to harm the messenger, what does it say about our church today? If we were to take stock of who we are and what we’re doing, is this church in line with God’s vision from Isaiah, are we helping to turn the world upside down?

            If not, what more can we do?

God has a vision for us here, and for Christians everywhere. God dreams about the coming future, and with God’s help it can become a reality for us.

God desires a community of faith where all are welcomed. And all means all. This implies a day when those who mourn and those who rejoice can sit next to one another in the pews, where the wealthy and poor can befriend one another, where gay and straight can feast at the table at the same time, where even republicans and democrats can find common ground.

God dreams of the day when the ancient ruins of the past will become the foundation for a new way, when the old can teach the young and the young can teach the old. This coming reality is founded upon the belief that all will know the story that reshapes all stories and that story, God’s story, will have more power than anything else.

God hopes for a day where our allegiances are not divided amongst a sea of desperation, but instead directed totally toward the Lord.

God yearns for the arrival of a new day where we cast away the idols that dominate our lives, where we replace the ashes of destruction with garlands of beauty, where justice rains down like waters.

And when that day comes, when the future breaks into the present, we shall dance and greatly rejoice in the Lord. Every fiber of our beings will exult in the Lord. When we look around we will see one another clothed in garments of salvation, with robes of righteousness, and jewels of grace. The world will cease to be what it is now, and will be like the new heaven and the new earth where tears and shame and weeping will be no more.

That day will come, though we know not when nor how. But we know that is coming. We know that it is coming because God is, was, and always will be be the Lord of all things. We know that it is coming because God always makes a way where there is no way. We know that it is coming because even when the good news sounds like bad news, it propels us into a frame of existence we never could have imagine.

We know all of this because the Good News started when Jesus was born into that tiny manger, and all of creation was changed forever. In that one divine moment the Lord caused righteousness and praise to spring up in new ways and in new places. Such that even today, people like you and me, are hearing the Good News, and it’s changing us forever. Amen.

Faith and Politics From The West Wing

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A few months ago my friend Jason Micheli recorded a conversation for our podcast Crackers & Grape Juice with the former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry about what it was (and is) like to balance faith and politics while working in the West Wing. McCurry served as the Press Secretary during the Clinton years and enrolled at Wesley Theological Seminary following his time working in the administration. The conversation offers a lens into the inner workings of the most powerful office in the land while also addressing the deep challenge of being a political Christian. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: From West Wing To Wesley 

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