In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old mens shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
When I first started in ministry I received my first office visitor before I preached my first sermon. There were still boxes upon boxes of books scattered across the floor when a well dressed gentleman gently knocked on the door. I remember being lost in thought about what to say from the pulpit on my introductory Sunday when the man offered his hand and said, “I’m your local state representative, and as one of our community’s leads I want to welcome you to this place we call home.”
I was flabbergasted. What a remarkably kind and thoughtful thing to do! Here I was, a 25 year old freshly graduated seminarian and he took the time to find me and welcome me.
We talked for a few minutes about the town before he announced that he needed to return to his own office. I thanked him profusely for the visit and just before he walked down the hall he said something I’ll never forget. With a casual grin he looked over his shoulder and said, “I always appreciate my pastors putting in a good word from the pulpit if you know what I mean.”
And with that he walked away.
Here in the United States we operate under the auspices of the (so-called) separation of church and state. It is certainly a worthy goal, but it is not necessarily present in reality; the church and the state are forever getting intertwined.
In most communities church fellowship halls are voting locations, political candidates are often quick to share their religious affiliations, and we put all sorts of theological language on political items like currency, legislature, and judicial proceedings (to name a few).
Even though the country was founded on a separation of church and state, Christians in the US have played the political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between the country and the Lord, something that scripture (and Jesus) calls idolatry.
We might not like to think about the church as a political entity, and we might even lament those moments when the church hedges a little too close to the supposed line, but the church is a politic. And it’s Jesus’ fault.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus begins his ministry by reading from the scroll of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he has the gall to say, “This scripture is being fulfilled in me.”
This first century wandering rabbi starts it all off with promises about prison reform, political liberation, and economic redistribution!
Later, Jesus enters the holiest of cities on the back of a donkey like a revolutionary. The crowds welcome the King of kings with songs and shouts of resistance to the powers that be, expecting him to lead an armed rebellion against the empire.
The following day Jesus strolls through the temple courts and drives out the merchants for their economic chicanery. Next he condemns the tax system, ridicules the abuses of the religious authorities, and predicts the destruction of the indestructible temple.
For this, and more, he is arrested, condemned, and executed by the religious authorities and the political authorities together. Moreover, the sign adorned on the cross, Jesus’ instrument of capital punishment, reads: “This is the King of the Jews.”
And then, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh filling the people of God with a bold and wondrous hope for things not yet seen: a strange new world. A strange new world in which slaves are set free, outcasts are summoned home, and everything is turned upside down.
It might seem banal to confess Jesus as Lord, but it is not just a personal opinion. Confessing the lordship of Christ is quite possibly the most political statement a Christian can ever make. For, if Jesus is lord then no one else is.
Every year we mark the occasion of Pentecost in worship because the political ramifications are still echoing across the centuries. The same Spirit poured out on Pentecost fills us today with the strength and the wisdom and the grace to be God’s people in the world. Without the church, the world cannot know how beautiful things could be.
On Pentecost we are reminded that before we are anything else, we are Jesus people. No matter how much we think we are bonded by the names on our bumper stickers or by the animals (elephants and donkeys) of our political persuasions, nothing can hold a flame to the bonds formed in the waters of baptism and by the most political animal of all: the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.
Which is all just another way of saying: On Pentecost things get political, and it’s all Jesus’ fault.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me.
In the 1990’s Jerry Falwell, bastion of theological conservatism, pleaded for funds for his “Save A Baby Homes.” The organization was designed to establish homes, all over the country, where a young woman who decides to continue in a difficult pregnancy could go and receive free, caring support all the way through pregnancy and birth.
And, rather notably, Falwell ended his plea by saying something to effect of, “If we do not give our resources, our money, to this venture, if Bible-believing Christians do not demonstrate through our gifts that we are willing to give to, and sacrifice for, and to support these women, then we have no right to tell them what they should, or shouldn’t, do with their bodies.”
It isn’t easy for ordinary people like us to do some of the extraordinary acts as Jesus commands. “Turning the other cheek” is a lot easier to preach than it is to practice. The same holds true for loving our neighbors as ourselves, particularly when it comes into contact with our theological understanding of reproductive rights.
On Monday evening a draft was leaked of a revision to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that focuses on reproductive rights in the United States. In response, those in favor and those opposed to the draft have been celebrating/protesting in various parts of the country.
Reproductive rights are often painted as a faith-based matter for a variety of reasons and there are a great myriad of theological positions with regard to the understanding of being bodily creatures. The United Methodist Church, in our Book of Resolutions, both affirms the sanctity of life for all persons born and unborn and, at the same time, we support those who choose the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers. We are committed to ministering with those who have had an abortion, providing support and encouragement. (You can read more here: Social Principles)
The only time I can remember hearing about abortion in church, prior to becoming a pastor, was in a small group setting as a teenager when one of my peers asked the pastor how we should think theologically about abortion. His response has stayed with me ever since.
He said something to the effect of: “If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses to carry the baby to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc. But the same holds true for the other side of the spectrum. If a woman in our church becomes pregnant and chooses not to carry to term, then we have a responsibility to support her in any way that we can – meals, rides, prayers, etc.”
I remember thinking his answer was both deeply theological and faithful. I only realized, much later, that not every church feels and thinks that same way.
We do not talk of such things in the church today for a variety of reasons: we prioritize the privacy of the individual, we treat the church as a place to talk about churchy things and not worldly things, we are afraid of upsetting sensibilities, we don’t want to appear too political, etc.
And yet, we, in large part, have fallen into a fallacy of believing that the most important things in the world are political and can only be handled in a political manner. We therefore worry and lose more sleep over who sits behind the desk in the oval office (or behind the rail in the Supreme Court) than we do over who sits at the throne of the universe (and who comes to be the Judged Judge in our place).
The church is, and always will be, political but it is political on terms that run counter to the world. Put simply, the church does not exist to proclaim a list of do’s and dont’s, but rather to follow and point to the One who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Therefore, the most interesting, creative, and faithful solutions we (that is: Christians) have to offer our weary world are not new laws, new politicians, or new social programs (though we certainly can support such efforts). The most important thing we have to offer the world is the church. We best serve the world by showing the world what it is not: a place where God is forming a family out of strangers.
We, the church, exist to be present for others not to judge them or to damn them, but to love them and support them to the end.
It isn’t easy – but nothing really important ever is.
Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
Don’t mix politics with religion.
We’re told to keep these seemingly incompatible things as far away from one another as possible. Whatever political proclivities we hold and whatever we might believe are meant to remain in the private sphere and the world has no right to interfere with either.
And yet, we confuse them all the time! We put up American Flags in our sanctuaries and frighteningly blur the line between church and state, we view one another through the names on our bumper stickers rather than through “the name that is above all names,” we believe that what happens on a Tuesday in November is more important than what happens each and every Sunday.
Whether we like it or not, the so-called “Separation of Church and State” actually looks more like an extremely complicated marriage in which neither partner knows why they are still together.
It then becomes increasingly difficult for Christians to think and speak theologically about what it means to be Christian! Such that our faith has become so privatized that it is relegated to Sunday mornings and only Sunday mornings.
This is a rather strange proposition considering the language of faith articulated to and by Christians who confess Jesus as Lord.
Or, to put it another way, if we believe that Jesus is Lord then all of our assumptions about who we are and whose we are cannot remain the same.
The psalmist writes, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” What a wonderful word for a people who are running amok drunk on democratic idealism! I have heard, more times than I can count on more election days than I can count, that this is the most important election in history. Well, here’s a controversial and theological statement: This is not the most important election in history – the most important election in history was Jesus electing us.
The psalmist’s words echo through time and they indict us. We worship our politicians in a way that Jesus would call idolatry and we keep believing that so long as our candidate gets elected then everything will be fine and good for us. But politicians (princes) and political ideologies have come and gone with failed promises again and again.
The democratic practices we hold so dear are fine and good, but they will not bring us salvation.
Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, this is a deep mistake. It is often overlooked but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”
Perhaps the proclamation from the psalmist is beckoning us to remember that our unending desire to win is but another way of falling prey to the practice of idolatry. If we take our Christian convictions seriously, then we are bound to love our neighbors just as we love God, regardless of their political affiliation. Which is just another way of saying, the Lamb is more important than the Donkey or the Elephant.
Therefore, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to be faithful, let us pray that the Lord will grant us the grace and peace necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that there is no hope in us, but that the hope of the world has come to dwell among us. That hope is named Jesus Christ whom we did not elect.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 18.5-9, 15, 31-33, Psalm 130, Ephesians 4.25-5.2, John 6.35, 41-51). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including manscaping, movie theaters, lectionary lamentations, character identification, Robin Hood, examples of inequity, divine patience, temporal politics, ecclesial commands, heavenly bread, and comics. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Restless Contentment
The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes. Your people will offer themselves willingly on the day you lead your forces on the holy mountain. From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth. He will drink from the stream by the path; therefore he will lift up his head.
Then he said to them, “How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son? For David himself says in the book of Psalms, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
A political movement turned radically violent.
The mob stormed gates, climbed walls, destroyed doors, and they shattered any assumptions of safety and sanctity.
Anyone who stood in their way was attacked, beaten to the ground, and left behind. The insurrectionists used whatever they could to turn their feelings into signs of force, from flags to banners to fists.
Once inside, they searched methodically for those who represented what they came to destroy. They obliterated images and symbols that for centuries stood the test of time.
And outside, while the crowds chanted with frightening vigor, a sign was held high above for all to see:
Sadly, what took place in and around the Capitol at the beginning of January was not as unprecedented as some have claimed. Throughout history there have been countless examples of those who took matters into their own hands and did whatever they thought necessary to bring about a change.
And, even sadder, has been the use of Christian images/words/symbols to encourage such destruction.
Before they started throwing objects through windows, members of the far-right group, the Proud Boys, kneeled in the streets to pray in the name of Jesus.
Contemporary Christian music was played and performed in order to give a righteous feeling to a wholly unrighteous display of aggression.
Among the signs and shirts and slogans from the likes of QAnon, and the Confederate Flag, and Anti-Semitic fervor, there were an equal number of “Jesus 2020” and “The Armor of God” among the rioters.
Even pastors were present in the crowd, yelling into bullhorns about the mission to “save the republic for Christ” all while the throngs screamed in response: “Jesus is Lord!”
The great cacophony of Christianity contains multitudes. There’s a reason there are more Christian denominations than we can keep track of because we cannot agree on what it means to keep the main thing, the main thing.
Part of this challenge stems from the fact that the Bible, what we take as an authority over what it means to follow Jesus, is so wild.
Not only are there different books within The Book, but they come from all sorts of different places: from Galilee to Galatia, Antioch to Rome, from tiny towns and massive metropolises, rural farms and seaside ports, prisons and palaces, and all from a wide range of times – 1,500 years!
The Bible contains just about every literary genre from law codes to genealogies to parables to poems, and it was put together by people we don’t know anything about!
And yet, despite all of that, we lift up this bewildering book and confess it to be God’s word for us.
So we take it up and read. We open it right to the middle and come across a Psalm, and we find these words: “The Lord says my lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ The Lord sent out from Zion your mighty scepter… The Lord is at your right hand; he will scatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations.”
Now, some Christians will respond to these words by taking up matters into their own hands to make their enemies their footstool. They will claim that God is on their side, and they are the righteous messengers of God’s judgment and justice.
Others, of course, will dismiss such a Psalm as being connected to the so-called “violent God of the Old Testament.” They will insist that their God just wants everybody to get along, and to let love rule.
But here’s the thing: The strange new world of the Bible tells the story of the God who is always the one who bends and breaks the bonds of creation in order to get what God wants.
And it’s not always pretty:
The God of scripture sends a flood to wipe out every living being (except for a few who fortunately catch a ride in a very large boat). God breaks down a tower in order to confuse the our speech and scatters humanity across the earth. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart only to then cast him and his riders into the sea.
I could go on.
Thus, for centuries, people have embraced the violence of God for their own purposes, or they have rejected “that God” in order to embrace something they believe they can find in the hippy dippy lovely dovey God of the New Testament.
But thats not actually how scripture works.
For as righteously angry as God gets in the Old Testament, God is equally ridiculous in loving a people undeserving – God rains down manna from heaven to feed those who complain about God, God brings back a idolatrous nation after years in captivity, God remains faithful to the covenant that God’s people fail, again and again, to hold up.
And, for as much as God is love (revealed in Jesus) in the New Testament, God is equally filled with bitterness.
“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“You have turned my Father’s house into a den of robbers,” Jesus says after going off the deep end with his Temple tantrum.
“If any of you cause someone else to stumble,” Jesus says, “it would be better if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were dumped you into the ocean.”
Are we sure we want to worship this Jesus?
Truthfully, though we confess Jesus as Lord with our lips, most of us live as if we are the lords of our lives. We do this because, whether we could articulate it or not, we generally believe that history is developing in an ongoing process of progress. That is, the world is better now than it once was and that we are all responsible for making it better for future generations.
We believe in the power of humanity! With all of our enlightened sensibilities, we assume, sooner or later, we will finally get the chaos of the cosmos under control and we will set everything as it should be.
Which is why so many sermons end with a “lettuce” statement – let us now go forth to make the world a better place, or, frighteningly, let us go and save the republic for Christ.
But here’s the thing: if we could’ve made the world a better place, or even the best place, we would’ve done it long ago.
The challenge for those who wish to follow Jesus is the confession that even though certain things might appear to be better (whatever that might mean) we are still very much who we are: sinners in need of grace.
The question/answer period of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem ends after a whole bunch of controversy regarding authority with Jesus asking his own question. There is disagreement among the religious leaders about this would-be carpenter-Messiah who claims to be from the line of David. At the time, David-like dimensions of Messianic expectation were a dime a dozen – every time a new political leader garnered some power, it was assumed that, like David, he (because it was always a he) would take back the throne in Jerusalem.
The Messiah, to the religious authorities, would be the one to save the people Israel through a new military regime that put the people of God back on top.
And for Jesus, this was not acceptable.
Therefore, being a good teacher, Jesus uses scripture to interpret the present circumstances. “How can it be,” Jesus asks, “for the Messiah to be David’s son? Don’t you all remember what David wrote in the psalms? ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ If David called him Lord, than how can he be David’s son?”
This might seem a trivial point of order, but for Jesus, on the basis of the Psalm, the Messiah is not merely from the line of David. In fact, the Messiah is the Lord of David.
Jesus is then not just another revolutionary come to set the people free from tyrannical oppression, Jesus is God in the flesh come to dwell among the very people who will, in the end, betray him.
“Jesus is Lord” has been a confession of faith since the very beginning. Today, we Christian types often take that confession to mean something to the effect of Jesus being the Lord of my life. And, even though that’s true, it’s also so much more. For, to confess Jesus as Lord is also to confess that Jesus is God.
And Jesus, as God, is going to get what Jesus wants. Jesus will make his enemies his footstool, whether we like it or not.
Again and again in the New Testament, Jesus announces the imminent implementation of a new regime, but it’s not one the people of God were prepared for.
They assumed a military victory, parades of power, and a new throne.
Instead, the were told about a kingdom in which the rich would give to the poor, the captives would be free, the blind would see, and the lame would walk.
Which, all things considered, wasn’t anything new! Those words come from the prophet Isaiah!
Do you see? God doesn’t change from the Old Testament to the New. There’s not some God of the Old Testament and a different God in the New. They are one and the same. They are Trinity.
God, in Christ, puts the enemies of sin and death, the powers and the principles, squarely under the heel of the divine.
But, of course, it happens not in the way anyone could’ve imagined.
A suffering Messiah who is enthroned at the right hand of God? The incarnate Lord dies on the cross only to be raised again? No one expected such a thing to happen.
A Lord who calls his followers to pray for their enemies, to sell their possessions in order to help the poor, to lose their lives in order to save them? Who wants to worship such a reckless God?
The Messiah, the Anointed One, God in the flesh, is always more than we think. In our limited and finite (and frankly foolish) notions of how things work, we assume that power is demonstrated in strength. But Jesus comes to show us how real power comes in weakness.
We assume that our job is to make the world look more like us. But Jesus comes to conquer and overcome the world.
We assume that if we just work hard enough, we can set everything the way it is supposed to be. But then Jesus shows up to remind us that we are sinners, all of us.
Jesus is not just some ethical teacher who wants us to behave ourselves.
Jesus is not some political revolutionary whose words we can cherry pick to suit our needs.
Jesus is not a new David come to elevate us to the places of power and prestige.
Jesus is God!
In himself he is the new creation.
When we open up the strange new world of the Bible, when we read about the Lord in the Psalms, the Lord who brings victory, we are reading about Jesus. But his victory comes not how we or anyone could’ve predicted. Jesus takes our sins and our misery upon himself and away from us. He is able to do this because he is not only the Messiah, but also God, the almighty Creator and Lord who knows me and you better than we know ourselves.
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 plant 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 whom 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 garland, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels. For as the earth brings forth 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.
Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of Advent, my family and I loaded ourselves into the car to drive around and check out the early Christmas Lights. We figured that there would either be only a handful of houses with any indication of the Holiday spirit, or because this has been the craziest year in recent memory that we would luck out with some incredible displays.
So we drove and we drove, and we saw all the staples: The LED projection of green snowflakes frantically circling around on the siding of a house, the dangling and frenetically flashing bulbs adorning the lowest limbs of trees, and we even saw a giant inflatable rainbow unicorn.
But the best house, the Clark Griswold house, was only a block away. I passed it on a run earlier in the week and knew we had to see it in all its electric, and eclectic glory. For, unlike houses with similar color schemes or even thematic connections throughout the lawn, this house had a little bit of everything.
None of the light strands matched any of the others.
There were six different Santa Clauses of every shape, size, and variety.
An inflatable Snoopy was, apparently, keeping watch over the pre-lit reindeer.
And, to cap it all off, there was a blimp floating in mid-air with penguins parachuting to the ground like they were in the middle of a holiday invasion.
And yet, even with all its glory, I couldn’t help but wonder what Isaiah, or Luke, or even John the Baptist would make of all our holiday pageantry. Because, chances are they would be horrified to see the ways we’ve trivialized the turning of the cosmos.
I don’t mean to sound too harsh, I too have lights up on the house, with a Christmas tree standing in the front window with far too many presents already wrapped and under the tree.
But we need to know, all of us, that these things, with all of their safe and sanitized renderings, may actually prevent us from seeing, hearing, knowing, and believing what the Lord has come to do.
The audience for this Advent text from Isaiah are those forced to the margins of life, the last, least, lost, little, and dead. They are, strangely enough, words of hope for people who feel no hope. They are words meant to comfort a people who feel no comfort in the world.
Even all these centuries later, this proclamation is aimed toward the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captives, the mourners.
From those locked up in physical prisons, to those who feel imprisoned by their situations, Isaiah speaks to those who know not what tomorrow will bring.
It might feel or even seem bizarre, but this passage is also meant for people like us, those who are willing to wake up and live-stream a worship service on their phones, iPads, and computers on a Sunday morning.
Most of us move through life without giving too much thought to whatever it is we are wading through. Worship, blessedly, offers us opportunities to reflect on the here and the now, and we are challenged to imagine the not yet, the more of God’s design.
And we do this because who among us is truly content with our current circumstances?
Right now we are seeing more and more people kicked out of their homes and apartments because they simply can’t put together the money necessary because the bottom third of our economy is crumbling.
Right now parents are preparing to wake up with their children on Christmas morning without a single present under the non-existent tree.
Right now we are being warned that gatherings of more than ten people will most likely result in the most devastating of Januarys in which we will be burying more people than any of us are used to – 5 of the top 10 most deadly days in American history have all happened within the last week.
And, in the midst of all of this, most of us flock to the sentimentalities that hopefully distract us from the truth.
But when has that ever worked?
Whether we like it or not, our lives are bombarded with calls of such frightening frequency to make the best with what we’ve got that we no longer know what it is to hope.
And thus speaks Isaiah: The spirit of God is with me and I’ve been commanded to bring good news to a people drowning in bad news, to announce freedom to those who are trapped, and to break down the walls of prisons, it’s time for jubilee. We shall comfort those who mourn and give them garlands instead of ashes. They will be like tall trees for the Lord, steadfast and glorious. All the ruins shall be remade and the devastations of previous generations will be rectified. For I the Lord love justice!
God, through Isaiah, speaks to those who live in the world wondering if it has anything more to offer. It is received by those in worship who don’t know whether or not to hope for more. And, it is also spoken to those (though we know not how they will hear) who stopped coming to church long ago because they’ve given up hoping for anything else.
Listen – God has arrived; God shows up. God has taken action in the world to bring about a reality that we could scarcely come up with in our wildest dreams. And God’s work in the world is downright political – prisoners are getting released, reparations are being made to those who have been wronged, justice is for all.
It’s the time for jubilee in which debts are forgiven, punishments are lifted, and rectification reigns supreme.
God has, and is, turning the world upside down such that all of the empty streets of our too-comfortable neighborhoods are being transfigured into festivals of joy.
We were slaves in Egypt but God showed up and intervened – delivered us from bondage into the Promised land. Sure, we were content with what we had back there, at least in slavery we got three meals a day and clean water to drink and it only cost us our first born children! But God said there was more for us than Egypt-land.
We were slaves to sin and death but God showed up and intervened – delivered us from our miserable estate into salvation. Sure, we were fine with the way things were, so much so that when Jesus started talking about the first being last and the last being first we nailed him to the cross. But God said there was more for us than all of this.
God is in the business of intervention – an intrusion that will bring forth new life and halt our relentless march toward dust.
There have been many divine interventions – Exodus, Calvary, The Upper Room, The Empty Tomb.
And without those interventions of the Lord there is no hope and there is no “more.”
But God is the God of impossible possibility, who makes a way where there is no way, who delights in bringing something out of nothing.
God says through the prophet Isaiah, “Even in circumstances of the worst imaginings, captivity and imprisonment and mourning, this is not the end; there will always be more.”
Do we deserve it?
Can we earn it?
In the end, the gospel isn’t about being good – it’s about being rescued. It’s not about being safe – it’s about being saved.
For, there is nothing safe about the Lord. Isaiah speaks a word beyond the present, beyond the status quo, where there is actual Good News, where there is true liberty, where we wear garlands instead of ashes.
And it’s downright dangerous.
Consider the vision the Isaiah proclaims: It truly is an inversion of the ways things are for the way things should be. A world without prisons or borders or hunger or suffering.
To many that sounds more like chaos than paradise.
But, in the church we call this apocalyptic – Bible talk about the more beyond the now.
Isaiah’s apocalyptic proclamation is what taught Mary, the mother of God, how to sing:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy.”
When we come to church (even online) and are exposed to the words of Isaiah and Mary and so many others we are beckoned out beyond the world of predictability and into another world, a world of more, or risk, of gift.
In short, we’re given hope for things not yet seen.
And that hope, as noted, is a dangerous one, for good reason – just look at what happened to Jesus. Advent is the time between time in which we wait not only for the baby born in the manger, but also for the return of that baby-born-King who is the great I AM.
God is not done with this world and God is not done with us.
After all, these words of eschatological rendering don’t just describe the world – they re-create the world. It is a world made open in which the old foundations are destroyed in order for something new and something more to take their place.
Imagine – the lowliest of the low raised to the highest heights, the brokenhearted bound up in love, the captives set free, the prisoners released, no more debts, no more pain, no more suffering, no more death.
This is what God desires for us and for the world.
And, make no mistake, this is God’s work – the history of humanity has shown over and over again that we are incapable of rescuing ourselves from the forces that weigh us down. The great Good News of Isaiah’s declaration is that God will set everything right once and for all. God will end war forever.
God will bring down the mighty and raise up the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
God will overthrow the pride of the smug and the arrogant.
God will engulf the cosmos in a blaze of righteousness that will consume everything in us that needs to be burned away.
God has more in store for us than all of this.
And yet, we go forth from church (or from our couches as the case may be) and there are the same arguments around the dinner table, the same anxieties about our ever-shrinking bank accounts, the same blue Mondays will break in the morning.
We are not the world of God’s more.
At least, not yet.
For we all still sit in the shadow of sin, of our choices that result in the world looking more like our kingdom and less like God’s kingdom. We are so captivated by the ways things have been that we can scarcely imagine what they could be. We assume the world runs by debt and punishment all while God exists to show grace and mercy.
In spite of the condition of our condition, Isaiah has given us the possibility to be aware of a new world with new hope and new possibilities and new dreams and new hunger for something else, something more.
The church gives us the vision to see how watered down our versions of the Kingdom have been and it gives us the thirst for the new wine that intoxicates us with grace.
The church opens us up to the strange new world of the Bible where God exists not only with us but for us.
The church envelops us into the body of Christ where we are bound to and with one another for the sake of the already but not yet.
In short: The church gives us the Gospel, the Good News.
The very best worship services are those from which we go forth not to more of the same, but to more of the name that is above all names: Jesus the Christ. For, in him, we begin to see that the Good News really is good
A number of years ago, a rather famous theologian was in the middle of a lecture about the early church when a bright eyed and bushy tailed student raised his hand and said, “Professor, I don’t understand. If the early Christians were suffering daily, why did they stay committed to the cause?”
The professor did not hesitate before answering, “They kept the faith because the Gospel is an adventure; the Gospel is fun.”
Advent is actually an adventure – it reminds us that we are caught up in God’s great story and we have the good fortune of being characters in the epic-tale. It is an adventure because it is still unfolding, it is not over, greater things are just on the horizon.
In the Kingdom of God that is the adventure without end, there is always more to come. Amen.
The Justice Department executed Brandon Bernard by lethal injection on Thursday for his part in a 1999 double murder-robbery when he was 18 years old.
Bernard was the ninth man killed by the federal government since July and he spent more than half of his life waiting on death row.
While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.
Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.
Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.
The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though it has only recently come back into practice by the Federal Government. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence others away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered.
There are roughly 2,620 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.
And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.
The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur, it is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the long term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death.
And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell.
And even among these statistics and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.
Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.
Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.
The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.
And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.
We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.
We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with and rape his wife.
We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.
One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.
The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?
The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.
That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system.
For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when Brandon Bernard was killed yesterday, it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.
But we are murdering people for murder.
Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”
Violence only begets violence.
An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.
God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.
And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.
So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible.
“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I do not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the one talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
A businessman decides it’s high time for a vacation so goes down to the bank, takes out all his assets and calls three of his employees to a meeting.
“Look,” he says, “I’m getting out of town for a bit. Hawaii should be nice this time of year. And while I’m gone, I’m entrusting all that I have to the three of you.”
He drops a overstuffed duffel bag in the lap of employee number one and says, “There should be roughly five million dollars in there.” He tosses a briefcase to employee number two while saying, “two million.” And to employee number three, he slides a manilla envelope across the table and says, “one million.”
Before walking out the door with his Hawaiian shirt tucked under his arm and thoughts of strawberry daiquiris dancing in his head he says, “Now remember, that’s all that I have. See you when I get back.”
Immediately employees one and two start wheeling and dealing. They’re sending email after email, scanning through the Wall Street Journal, and can barely keep track of who they’re on the phone with.
Employee number three, however, does the prudent thing, the smart thing. He gets into his car, checks his rearview mirror constantly, and heads for the woods. He pulls off on the side of the road, noting a particularly funky looking tree that will help him find the spot in the future, trudges off into the woods, digs a big hole, and buries the envelope.
Eventually the businessman returns home with a nice tan and a few extra pounds around his waistline. He calls the employees to a meeting.
Employee number one arrives with a few extra duffle bags, employee number two has upgraded from a briefcase to a duffel bag, and employee number three shows up covered in mud, with a shovel over his shoulder, and the same (albeit dirty) manilla envelope.
The boss kicks his flip flopped covered feet up onto the conference table and opens his hands as if to say, “So how’d it go?”
Employee number one steps forward and says, “Boss, I took the five million you gave me, I invested some of it in highly volatile markets, purchased some real estate, started a few local business, and today I am proud to say that I was able to double what you gave me into ten million dollars.”
“Hot tamales!” the boss exclaims. “Well done! Well done! You’ve been very faithful, so I’m giving you a promotion and the fancy office at the end of the hallway! And tonight, we’re going out to celebrate!”
Employee number two steps forward. “Boss, I took the two million you gave me and I called up my bookie and made some bets. At first, things didn’t look so good, I had a great feeling about this one horse race and nearly lost it all. But then I wisened up, made some smaller bets on some different races and sure enough I was able to double what you gave me, so here’s four million dollars.”
“Yahtzee!” the boss bellows. “Awesome sauce! You’ve been faithful like you’re co-worker, so I’m giving you a promotion as well. You’re now the head of your department, and you can take my old office. Oh, and you can join us tonight for some celebratory drinks. And, if we’re having a particularly good time, maybe you can call up your bookie and we can make some bets together.”
And then employee number three steps up. “Hey boss,” he says sheepishly, “Here you go. I kept your one million safe – so safe that I buried it in a field and it never saw the light of day. To be clear – I did this because I know you. I’ve been working here for twenty years and I know that you can be one tough cookie. I know that you take over departments that are underperforming and you box out other local businesses. So I thought it would be wise to play it safe. Because if you’re the kind of boss that I know you to be, then I knew you would go one quite a tare if I lost what belongs to you. And so, dear boss, I am returning what you gave to me just as you gave it to me.”
And he drops the dirty envelope on the table.
“No,” the boss begins, “No, no, no, no, no. You just ruined the buzz of my vacation! If you knew I was supposedly so though, that I take what doesn’t belong to me, that I expect a lot from those who have received a lot, why didn’t you at least put the money in a Savings Account? A measly 4% interest is still better than 0%! Now you’ve got me all fired up. But do you know what really grinds my gears? I invited you into a relationship with me, a relationship you didn’t deserve one bit. A million dollars is a lot of money! But I trusted you with it. It was one remarkable gift. But what did you do with my gift? You decided to be more afraid of me than the risks. You played it safe because of some imaginary fear. And now, instead of being entrusted with more responsibilities around here, you’re stuck with what you started with.”
The boss stands up and starts pacing around the room.
It’s silent for the briefest of moments as the employees’ eyes follow their boss back and forth.
Then he says, “Because I am crazy with grace, with trust, I’m taking the one million away from you and giving it to the guy you made ten million. I’m doing this to remind you, and everyone else who works here, that it was never about the results. Don’t you see? It was all about the gift. All that matters was that you use it, not that you use it well or poorly. You could’ve made another million with what I gave you, or even two cents. Hell, you could’ve blown all of it on one stupid bet for all I care; at least that way you would’ve been a gambler after my own heart. But you just came in here, telling me that I couldn’t be trusted with whatever you came up with, and now you have to deal with the consequences. If you can’t live with my generosity then you can get out of here. Pack up your office, because you’re fired.”
This is a story for the end of the Christian year.
We rebel against the trends of the world and the supposed signs of the times, because God has remade time in his Son, Jesus Christ. We’re not quite to Advent, but the scripture readings from All Saints until Christ the King start to really hit home a message that, if we’re honest, we’re not quite sure how to feel about. There is a sense of urgency with the 5 bridesmaids stuck outside the wedding feast (last week) to the one talented man kicked out into the outer darkness (today).
It takes a certain amount of Christian fortitude to face the revealed Word in the Strange New World of the Bible, because we’re all ready to sing about the most wonderful time of the year, but what’s so wonderful about the parable of the talents?
We don’t like this parable. That we don’t like it is indicative of the fact that we, mostly, identify with the third servant (or employee in my version).
He’s the little guy. He’s practical and prudent. He’s smart to take care of the enormity of what was handed to him.
And for all of that, he gets thrown into the outer darkness.
This, then, is not a beloved parable.
In other places, Jesus told much nicer stories.
You know, like the one about the father who rushes out into the street to welcome home his wayward son, of the one where a poor little widow is praise more than all the rich people in worship, or even the one where, in order to pay some taxes, Jesus tells the disciples that they can find a coin in a fish’s mouth.
We like those stories because the last, least, and lost become first, best, and found.
But we certainly don’t like this one with the man trembling in fear with his one talent in his hand only to have the master take it from him and kick him out the door.
So, what do we think of this master?
After all, that’s the question that lingers upon completing the story. Sure, we might wonder about what happens to the servant stuck in the outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth, but it certainly isn’t going to be Good News. But what about the master? Who is he to make such crazy decisions?
Is the master a hard-hearted miserable old miser who truly reaps where he doesn’t sow?
Or, is he an extravagant, albeit reckless, boss whose faith in his servants is exceeded only by his ridiculous generosity?
He gave them all he had.
Is it really so strange that he expected them to be just as reckless with his money as he was?
Notably, the master of the servants/slaves/employees praises the first two precisely for their faith and the doubling of their talents seems to have more to do with the talents themselves than with the efforts of the two who put them to use.
I embellished in my own retelling of the story, but in the strange new world of the Bible all we learn is that they “went off and traded.”
Without having received all that money in the first place, they wouldn’t have been able to do much of anything.
And then the master has the gall to say it would’ve been better for the talent in the ground to have been put in a savings account to make a fraction of a percent.
Which, taking the parable seriously, implies that the master, our Lord, isn’t some bookkeeper looking for the most productive results, but rather he rejoices in the giving of the gifts.
As has been said many times, the parables are less about us and more about the one telling the parables in the first place.
And this parable tells us that, in Jesus Christ, grace will always do its job so long as we trust it.
But the one with the talent in the ground doesn’t trust himself, and he certainly doesn’t trust the master.
He, to put it pointedly, has no faith at all.
On the other side, the master is foolishly full with faith – giving all his money away for nothing just for the sheer joy of giving it away.
And, in the end, that’s what all the parables are all about – the reckless and wondrous gift of God in Christ Jesus.
It’s the party that’s always waiting to pop off, the one to which we’ve been invited for no good reason.
It’s the fatted calf out on the grill waiting to be consumed by the prodigal who did nothing but come home in faith.
It’s the champagne and the caviar for wedding guests who did nothing but put on the robes handed to them by their host.
It’s the full pay for next to no work at all to tomato pickers who just said yes to a ridiculous promise.
It’s the lost sheep found at the edge of a cliff who was found in its lastness, leastness, lostness, and nearly deadness.
But this is a parable of judgment. However, the only reason that judgment comes at all is the sad fact that there will always be fools who refuse to trust a good thing even when it is handed to them on a silver platter.
The final servant, covered in dirt from digging up the buried talent is afraid of his master. But we need’t fear God – In Christ Jesus we discover that there are no lengths to which God won’t go to prove to us that there are no restrictions on the joy he wants to share with us.
There’s no reason to fear God, unless we’re afraid of having a good time.
Jesus had some strange ideas about how to run things. He delighted in stories of employers who gave unfair wages, farmers who scattered seeds indiscriminately and all over the place, and parents who forgave their undeserving children.
And in this parable, the master delights in giving it all away just to see what the servants come up with through a ridiculous gift.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kings of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
The day after the 2016 presidential election:
Thousands of angry citizens in California gather to protest against the election of Donald Trump. Though initially peaceful, the protest eventually turns violent as the crowds begin attacking the police and lighting dumpsters on fire. As tear gas is fired into the crowd, a chant starts to rise, “Kill Trump, Kill Trump, Kill Trump!”
Meanwhile, a woman walks into a Wal-mart in the Midwest while wearing her religious hijab. She goes up and down the aisles picking out her items when another woman walks up, grabs her by the shoulder while pointing at her hijab and says, “That would look a lot better around your neck! This is our country now!”
Meanwhile, a man is driving through a suburb of Chicago when a crowd of young men surrounds his car, pulls him from the vehicle, and drags him through the streets. They attack him because he has a Trump sticker on his bumper, and in the videos taken by on-lookers you can hear the young men shouting, “You voted for Trump, and now you’re going to pay for it!”
Meanwhile, white students at a Junior High School in Michigan form a human wall to block minority students from entering the building. There are shouts of “go back to your country” and “we’re going to make America great again.”
Presidential elections tend to bring out the worst in us.
Or, to use Paul’s language, it’s times like these that we are reminded “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God. All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”
Time after time, it seems this is our fate. We, that is Christians, are content to gather, whether online or in-person, with people of differing political persuasions so long as we never address those differences and then, after an election, we hope things will tone down and we can get back to living life.
And yet, as Christians, we are already living in the time after time. God in Christ made, and still makes, time for us and has quite literally changed time forever.
It’s just that sometimes we don’t act like its true.
Today Christians across the globe are gathering for All Saints. All Saints is a day set apart, a different time, in remembrance of the dead – it is an opportunity for the church to offer witness to the ways in which God moved through the saints of our lives.
It is a radical moment in terms of the liturgical calendar, rivaled only by the radical words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel.
The so-called beatitudes have always been a source of comfort and hope for the people called church. Though, at times, we have inverted them to be descriptions of how we’re supposed to behave. We lift them up over the heads of dozing Christians and explain that if they want to join the community of saints, this is how you have to live.
But what Jesus describes in his Sermon on the Mount, both in the beatitudes and in the descriptions of behavior following, like turning the other cheek and praying for one’s enemies, they don’t describe what “works.”
Seeking righteousness in a world full of self-righteousness, and praying for the person persecuting you, tends to lead to more self-righteousness and more harm.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount isn’t a to-do list to make the world a better place. Instead, it is a description of who God is.
The poor, the mourners, the meek, the merciful, they are blessed not because they’ve earned it or deserve it, but simply because it is God’s good pleasure to do so.
To put it simply, the idea behind this crazy thing called church is that we might worship the Lord as well as learn what it means to exist as a beatific community in exile where the mourning, the meek, and the merciful are blessed.
The people called church are in the world, but not of the world.
The people called church are constituted and bound not by political documents, but by the Lord of heaven and earth.
The people called church are a community that has learned that to live in a manner described by the Sermon on the Mount requires learning to trust others to help us live accordingly.
To put it even simpler terms: the object of Jesus’ words to the crowds that day, and to us today, is to create dependence – it is to force us to need one another.
But, most of us don’t want to need anyone else. We’ve been spoon fed a narrative of self-determination since birth and we can’t stand the idea of having to rely on others.
And this is why the beatitudes will never make sense to those outside the people called church. Jesus’ words are only intelligible, and therefore advisable, in light of the cross and the empty tomb.
Otherwise, they are garbage.
But in the church, we are reminded over and over again that we are dependent on one another and the Lord, and that we are kidding ourselves if we think we can make it through this thing called life on our own.
The church is at her best when we can speak and hear the truth about the condition of our condition, that we are sinners in need of grace, that we are all in need of help and mercy, and that we all need one another far more than we think we do.
But that is not how we are used to hearing about Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If we hear about it at all, it is usually a brief reflection about how there are merely suggestions for how we should live or they are only meant for the super faithful among us, the Mother Teresas and the Mister Rogerses.
In short, we’re told the Beatitudes describe the saints.
The challenge for us, unlike most sermons proclaimed and received today, is that we cannot divorce this message from the messenger. Because, unlike preachers today (myself included), Jesus did not just say these words about some group of people sometime in the future; he, in himself, is the inauguration of the new time.
Jesus is the Messiah of the beginning and the end. Through his death and resurrection he has made it possible for us to live according to these confounding words not by our own effort, but by the Spirit moving through us.
And, saints (that is: all disciples) are not those who are the super best Christians of all. Saints are simply those who have already died in baptism to be raised into a new life where the impossibility of Jesus’ words not only become possible, but become real.
Which is just another way of saying, we’re all in this crazy thing called church together.
Presidential elections may bring out the worst in us, but they also remind us of who we are: sinners in need of grace. Contrary to how the talking heads might want us to think, the world does not hinge on our elections. God has been God a whole lot longer than we’ve been picking and choosing leaders, and God will be God long after we cast our final votes.
As Christians, we believe that Jesus is Lord – that means we believe that God is God regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. And, pertinently, it means we believe God is calling us to live according the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which includes praying for our enemies.
Can you imagine? Christians praying for the people they disagree with?
Sadly, that’s at the heart of what it means to follow the Lord and it has been so absent during this election cycle, and the one before it, and the one before that one, and so on. Instead of praying for and loving our enemies, voters have been intimidated, people have been attacked, and families and churches have been divided.
And, perhaps we’d like to blame our politicians for this tumultuous season. But the problem goes far deeper than those running, and selected, for office.
The problem is us.
Rather than seeing one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve viewed each other through the names on our bumper stickers.
Rather than listening to and praying for those of different opinions, we’ve just shouted louder into the fray.
Rather than confessing Jesus as Lord and living accordingly, we’ve fallen prey to believing that what happens on Tuesday is more important than what happens on Sunday.
Our election of leaders will always pale in comparison to God’s election of us, precisely because we do not deserve it. We’ve been elected to salvation through Christ in spite of copious amounts of evidence to the contrary.
And Jesus calls us to a life of humility in which we pray for those whom we hate.
Jesus constitutes a people who are his body on earth to be for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.
Jesus, high in the air with the nails in his hands and feet, says, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”
And, if we’re honest, we have no idea what we’re doing.
We don’t know how to be Christian in America, we don’t know how to hold our Christian identities and political identities in tandem, and we do not know how to love the people we hate.
But we do know this: Jesus is Lord – and he won’t give up on us.
So today, in spite of the world spinning as it does with fightings and fears within and without, we give thanks to the Lord our God who makes a way where there is no way, who has created a new community of love in his only begotten Son, and who elected us to salvation. Amen.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Jesus wasn’t a very good politician.
At least, he did not seem to understand that there are some things you don’t do or say if you want to create more followers and supporters.
Perhaps things would’ve been better for the Lord had he been a little more careful with his words, or if he had hired the right campaign manager, or, at the very least, if he had a better social media presence.
But speaking directly, without equivocation, seemed to be Jesus’ favorite thing to do.
At times he told the crowds that they would have to hate their mothers and brothers and fathers and sisters if they wanted to follow him. He waxed lyrical about how his way of running things included going the extra mile, turning the other cheek, and even praying for one’s enemies.
But now he sets his sights on the opposition.
Listen – You see all these people in positions of power? The religious elites and the judges and the leaders? The sit in place of authority so you can listen to them all you want, but don’t you dare do what they do. Look at how they place undue burdens on the last, least, lost, little, and dead all while they refuse to lift a finger for anyone. All they care about is being seen by others, that’s why they dress the way they do and smile the way they do. Have you ever noticed how they pick the places of honor for themselves while in public? Don’t be like those fools! You already have one teacher. Don’t bow down to worship those who desire your allegiance. You already have a Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. And all who seek to exalt themselves will be brought low, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
That Jesus could speak so radically and truthfully to power is a profound indication that he was not hoping to win over the so-called undecideds.
Jesus, our Lord, held offices of power from the people called Israel – Prophet, Priest, King.
The notable things about prophets, priests, and kings is that no one become those thing by winning an election, or by getting enough people on their side, or by convincing folk that they’re the lesser of two evils.
The authority from which Jesus speaks in this passage (an authority that those around him were constantly questioning) comes from simply being who he is, and not from climbing up all the different rungs on all the political ladders.
If Jesus sounds like anything here, he sounds like a revolutionary – calling out those in the places of power for abusing their power.
However, rather than taking the traditional route of revolutionary revolts by equipping the masses to overthrow their overlords, he puts everyone in their place – form the top to the bottom and from the bottom to the top.
And this is who Jesus is – he is truth and he speaks truth.
The uncomfortable truth from truth is this: in the end, no one will be more humbled than Jesus and no one will be more exalted than Jesus.
So we can take the Lord’s words and we can string them around however we want to knock people down for being too high, or bring people up who have been to low. But ultimately these words are not about us, they’re about Jesus.
Jesus is the greatest among us having been humbled by our rejection, only to be exalted in the resurrection.
And this is how the Lord rules – not from the politics of parliament, not from overtures in the Oval Office, but from the Cross.
Jesus, unlike us, never had the benefit of reading How To Win Friends And Influence People, he didn’t take classes at the local junior college on proper public speaking, he didn’t submit an op-ed to the Jerusalem Times about the need for new leadership.
Jesus is different.
He doesn’t work in the art of persuasive discourse, nor does he roll out all the relevant statistics about policy initiatives, he doesn’t even rely on simple and easily explainable stories to demonstrate why he should be the Messiah.
Instead, Jesus is who he is and he trusts that those in the know will see and hear him because he is truth incarnate.
Oddly enough, compared with how we so often assume power is supposed to work these days, Jesus never really tells the crowds what they, or we, want to hear.
Instead of promising to defeat all of our enemies, Jesus tells us to pray for them,
Instead of offering us health and wealth, Jesus tells us that if we lose our lives we will gain them.
Instead of pointing to a day in the future when things will finally be fixed, Jesus tells us the Kingdom of God is already here in him.
This weeks sees yet another presidential election in the United States. When all is said and done we, as a country, will have spent more than 10 billion dollars during this particular election cycle.
That’s billion with a b.
Which is a 50% increase over the election in 2016 and there’s no sign that our political spending will be slowing down any time soon.
And with all of that money, we’ve been told again and again and again that this is the more important election in history. It’s all we can see and read on Twitter and Facebook, it’s all the talking heads will talk about on TV, and we’ve even been told to use those words to insure that as many people as people head to the polls this week because, after all, this is apparently the most important election in history.
Its notable that, strangely enough, every election becomes the most important election in history – it is an absolute truth in the US, and one we repeat to ourselves every election cycle.
And when scores of people gather at their voting locations this week, and all the early votes are tallied, we will be told that this is America at its best – elections remind us that we are in charge of our own destinies.
And yet, for Christians, we cannot forget that the only democratic moment in the Gospels is when the people choose Barabbas instead of Jesus.
But, of course, we’re taught from infancy that voting is at the heart of what it means to be who we are in this country. I mean, at my last church we had a preschool in which voting was part of the educational curriculum!
Picking and choosing leaders is what makes our democracy democratic.
And for as much as that’s true, it overlooks how frighteningly coercive our voting can be. Lest we forget, democratic voting makes it possible for 50.1% of people to tell the other 49.9% of people what to do.
That’s not to say that democracy is inherently evil, or bad, or that we should get rid of it. I, for one, am grateful to be a Christian in this country where my Christian identity is not persecuted simply for me being me. But, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on how willing we are, as Christians, to worship our democracy when it results in what we’ve seen the last few months and, more likely than not, we will continue to see over the next few months.
Now, lest we walk away from this service today thinking it has more to do with politics than with faith – let me be clear: It is all too easy to blame politicians for the coercive nature of politics, for the increasingly vitriolic behavior we feel toward those of different political persuasions. But the problem is far deeper and widespread.
The problem, quite simply, is us.
Or, to put it another way, we get the politicians we deserve.
They are us and we are them.
Which brings us back to Jesus.
We did not elect Jesus to be our leader.
We did not elect Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity.
We did not elect Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
There was never a time when the church got together to take a majority vote about whether or not there should be a group of people called church who gather together to worship Jesus. Notably, in the beginning, we decided the best way to choose our leaders was by casting lots!
And, sure, the church today votes on all sorts of stuff but, when we do make decisions, we tend to use the methodology for deciding the future based of a governmental system more than from the revealed Word of God in the strange new world of the Bible.
Jesus’ authority, the power from which he was able to speak to truth to power, comes not from the people, but from God. Elections will always be with us, but they are no substitute for the hard work of the church – we are a people constituted and bound by the Lord who is and speaks the truth.
At her very best, the church is the place for Truth.
And part of the truth we affirm, much to the chagrin of just about everyone, is that Jesus will still be Lord no matter who is elected this week. Jesus still reigns from the right hand of God regardless of who sits behind the desk in the Oval Office. Jesus is still Lord of the living and dead which includes people who identify as red, blue, or purple.
Another part of the truth we affirm, much to the chagrin of just about everyone, is that the greatest among us will be our servant – those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exhausted. We can confess all of that as Good News because it means the ways of the world are not the ways of God.
In a world drunk on meritocracy, the Lord offers an alternative politic.
The Kingdom of God is run not on earning and deserving, but on grace and mercy.
That’s what Jesus’ election is all about – it’s not us choosing him, but him choosing us.
Jesus is Lord and we are not.
Lord, importantly, is not a democratic title. We confess Jesus as Lord because he is the One to whom we owe our fullest and truest allegiance.
And this, the lordship of Christ, is a fundamental challenge to the status-quo.
It means that our assumptions about power and prestige are all messed up.
It forces us to reckon with a world of our own design rather than the Kingdom wrought on earth in the incarnation.
It compels us to open our eyes and ears to the people we would otherwise ignore.
But it really is Good News, because the most important election in history isn’t happening this week. It already happened a long time ago.