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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Donkeys, Elephants, and The Lamb

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

What is the most important thing in America? As in, if you could take a step back from it all, what do you think has the greatest priority in this country?

Some might say, after a week like the one we just had, that the World Series is the most important thing in America. Baseball is, after all, the great American pastime. Or at least, drinking a beer while eating a hot dog at the World Series is what being an American is all about.

Or maybe the greatest thing in America is the willingness to fight against tyranny and terrorism. This week there was yet another attack against innocent civilians in New York City and the response in condemning the attack was universally accepted.

What’s the most important thing in America? I would make a case, that for Americans freedom is the most important thing in America. Think about it for just a moment: freedom to chose, freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to vote. Nothing is more important to Americans on the political left and right than maintaining the freedom of the individual. We hear about our freedom all the time.

As such, we’ve created a culture where privacy is sought more than community, where no one should be asked to suffer for anyone else, and where we get to say whatever we want, and others can say whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t offend us too much.

In a strange and weird way, our bondage to political realities and political choices has resulted in our bondage to freedom.

When we moved here a handful of months ago, after we finally unpacked most of the house, we set up our TV and signed up for cable. It took a long time to get used to watching commercials again after not seeing them for the majority of the last seven years while I was at my first appointment and while I was in seminary.

I liked watching a narrative from start to finish without interruption, and because the commercials were now interrupting my viewing I started paying more attention to them. During the first two months of cable television, just about every single advertisement had to do with bodies. If you take this pill your body will feel stronger, if you use this cream you will look ten years younger, if you use this shampoo you will get the man of your dreams, if you use this deodorant you will get the woman of your dreams.

And whenever I saw two middle age individuals holding hands while sitting in separate bathtubs, or just being overly affectionate with one another, I didn’t even need to listen to the voiceover to know what they were selling.

But then something changed.

Almost without warning, there was a not a single commercial break without an ad for the gubernatorial race that comes to its fruition this Tuesday. And the more I witnessed the ads the more I realized something bizarre: I never saw an ad describing what either candidate stood for. Instead every ad was dedicated to attacking the other.

At this point, I’m sad to say, I can tell you far more about what’s wrong with both candidates than I can tell you something constructive about what each of them are hoping to accomplish.

Freedom.

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Today we celebrate the saints of God. Since nearly the beginning, the church has set aside a day to remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us in the faith, stretching across the centuries and all around the world. We take time to read their names and pause for a moment of praise to the Lord for the many ways those saints shaped our faith even here and now.

And we don’t get to choose our saints, much like we don’t get to choose our politicians. I mean we do in the sense that we get to vote on them, but more often that not we just get the politicians we deserve.

Today, our culture has been separated into two divided categories: Donkeys and Elephants. Just about every fabric of our lives can be whittled down to one of the two dominant political ideologies such that we can’t watch TV, or read a newspaper, or get online, or even drive down the road without being bombarded by one of the two political animals. The suffocating political atmosphere of today is oppressive and often forces us to identify what camp we’re in.

And, sadly, because we have total and ultimate freedom, the thing we hold dear, we can surround ourselves with people who look like us, think like us, and perhaps most importantly, vote like us.

But saints are the people who gave their lives not to a donkey, and not to an elephant, but to the Lamb.

Revelation is one of the weirder books in the bible, and one not often read in church. In it you can find the kind of stuff that some people shout from the street corners of life. In it we can read about beasts and dragons and lambs. And, often times, it is used by those of a more fundamentalist leaning to detail the coming wrath and destruction of God in such a way that it scares faith into people.

But for as much as Revelation is about a time yet to come, it is also about what the faithful life is like here and now.

The vision contains a great multitude that no one could count, people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. And they’re singing!

This group that is beyond all groups is gathered around the one Lamb at the throne. They are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

            In God’s time, all people will be washed by the blood of the Lamb; through the death of Christ on the cross salvation has entered existence.

Here and now, we are washed through the waters of baptism, something that gives us more identity than any donkey or elephant ever can, something that frees us more than any declaration of independence ever can, and something that saves us better than any politician ever can.

Baptism is the beginning of the journey that leads to sainthood. Because in baptism we enter into the revolution of God where the Lamb at the throne determines our lives more than anything else. Where we can find a unity through the waters that is almost completely absent in every other part of existence.

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Church, thanks be to God, is one of the last remaining places where we willingly gather with people who don’t think, look, act, and vote like us. Church is the place where we believe our baptismal identities are more important and more determinative than the political sign in our front yard and the person whose name we choose in the voting booth.

Whenever we gather in this space, we are brought before the throne with the Lamb at the center. This thing we call worship is our best chance to be reminded that God is the One guiding us to springs of water, and that God is the One invested in the work of wiping every tear from our eyes. Church is where we come to meet the saints with hope that someone might call us saints when we’re gone.

We live between the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. We rest in the time between when we hear the beautiful tones of God’s final Word that stretches into eternity and reaches back into the farthest moments of time itself.

            And, like the saints of Revelation, we sing.

The music of the saints, the very music of salvation, gives a different sound and understanding to what we prioritize in this life. When we sing with the great cloud of witnesses from the past, present, and future, we boldly proclaim that it is always the Lord and not the empire that liberates. When we lift our voices to the sky we do so in declaration that the Lamb is more important than a donkey and an elephant.

It is through the music of God, the sounds of the saints, that we receive the endurance necessary to make it through whatever trouble springs up in our lives.

That heavenly choir of revelation, a choir that we harmonize with here on earth, invites the revolution of God that will not let division have the final word.

Almost a year ago I woke up and drove down the road from the parsonage to the local Seventh Day Adventist church, which was my polling station for the presidential election. For the better part of two years, with billions of dollars raised and spent by both campaigns, the time had come for the country to decide who would be our next president.

I pulled into the parking lot before the Sun had peaked over the horizon, and with a coffee mug in my hand and my clergy collar around my neck, I walked into the fellowship hall to cast my vote.

I remember the polling operators looking dreadful and depressed, as if the previous months had sucked the very life out of them, and I walked passed to my booth.

There before me on the table was a piece of paper that countless individuals have fought to protect. There, with big fonts and circles to fill in, was the very freedom our country was founded on. I filled in my circle and walked over to the machine, which ate my decision, and rang a little bell for completion.

And then I looked up. On the wall above the voting machine was a giant painting of Jesus. Not Jesus dying on the cross, nor was it Jesus praying in the garden, nor was it any of the miracles Jesus performed through his ministry. No, it was a giant painting of Jesus laughing his butt off.

            And it was perfect.

Salvation belongs to God alone. Even though all nations, and races, and creeds, and languages are pictured in the divine vision of revelation, salvation does not belong to any of them. All of them are guilty of promising something to a particular group while damning another.

The donkeys and the elephants can’t and won’t save us. They exist to instill a sense of freedom that isolates us from one another rather than binding us to one another. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise salvation that only brings division.

But the Lamb of God is at the center of the throne. The saints of God, those who came before, those who are with us now, and those who are yet to come sing with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Amen.

The Politics Of The Church

Acts 2.42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

On Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” This brought to fruition one of his many campaign promises that he would give “our churches their voices back.”

The order was designed to dismantle the Johnson Amendment that bans tax-exempt organizations, like churches, from endorsing political candidates and activities or they run the risk of losing their tax-exempt status. To be clear: fully repealing the Johnson Amendment would require congressional action, but the order certainly takes a step in that direction.

Basically, churches and other tax-exempt organizations are now on a path that will potentially lead to a time where preachers like me can stand in pulpits like this and tell you how we think you should vote according to the Lord. It means we, as a church, can give money from our tithes and offerings to specific political individuals or campaigns if we believe they match our religious convictions. And we can do all this without fear or retribution from the federal government.

Freedom.

On Thursday, the same day the executive order regarding religious liberty was signed into action, the House voted to approve legislation to repeal and replace major parts of the Affordable Care Act, another one of President Trump’s campaign promises. It still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, but the people who represent us in the House approved it.

In the wake of the vote, people on either side of the issue have been going ballistic. Some are thrilled that the bill would eliminate tax penalties for people who go without health insurance. Some are terrified that it would roll back state by state expansions of Medicaid, which covers millions of low-income Americans (40% of which are children).

Freedom.

So here we are, days after the executive order and the House vote, and I can’t help but imagine how many pastors are standing up in places like this one this morning, with a new found sense of freedom to speak either for or against what our government is doing. I can already imagine what a lot of the posts on Facebook and Twitter are going to look like this afternoon from either side of the political spectrum.

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In the early days of the church the disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers. And during this time awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles’, perhaps most spectacular was the fact that the Lord was adding to their number those who were being saved. And what makes that spectacular? All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Who signs up for something like that? Come join our group, we’d love to have you! And once you start participating all you have to do is sell everything you have so that we can take care of everyone. We believe in recognizing the inherent blessings of God in our lives and we don’t really believe in personal property. So join us on Sundays at 11am and don’t forget to sell your stuff!

That sounds a whole lot more like Communism than Capitalism.

            Where’s the freedom in that?

And here’s the point: Religious figures on the right and left have come out in droves about what the government has done as of recent, as is their right, but inherent in their declarations is a grave sin: idolatry.

Today we worship our government the way we once worshipped the Lord. We follow the never-ending political news-cycle like we once checked in on our brothers and sisters in faith. We read and repost articles about votes in the house and senate and executive orders like we once shared the story of Jesus Christ.

And I am guilty of this sin too; hence the great number of sermons as of recent that have revolved around the current political climate.

This story about the budding church sounds so weird and bizarre because we are so far removed from it. Instead of looking like this idyllic church community we’ve been co-opted by the assumption that our government is supposed to be the church, or at least it’s supposed to act like the church. Therefore we support political candidates who agree with our personal beliefs regarding issues like abortion rather than attempt to be present for women who wrestle with the fear of having an unplanned child. We spend more time talking about how our government should vet political refugees than pooling our resources together to bring them out of their war torn areas. We verbally attack people on the Internet for being politically opposed to our position instead of realizing that we often sit shoulder to shoulder with them in our church pews and that we have far more in common than we think we do.

Christians in America have played this political game for so long that we can almost no longer differentiate between America and God, something that scripture and Jesus call idolatry.

The church does not exist to serve our political aspirations, nor does the government exist to serve the needs of the church. The church does not represent a particular partisan agenda to be made manifest on Capitol Hill.

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The church itself is a politic. We do well to remember that we are a politic and that there are many ways for the church to be political. But the way to be the church is not synonymous with pursuing democratically elected representatives who can therefore represent our personal political opinions. As one of my former professors recently noted, “There’s only one instance of democratic voting in the gospels, and the people chose Barabbas.”

Gathering with others around the body and the blood of Christ is one way for Christians to be political, and it is the original way. For it is in gathering around a table such as this one, particularly with people who do not necessarily agree with us politically, we live and lean into the strange mystery that we call the kingdom of God. For us, this table is an ever-present reminder that we are not the authors of our salvation and neither is our government.

Here in America we greatly celebrate our freedom, and in particular our freedom of speech. But honestly, we are mostly only concerned with our freedom to say what we want. And the moment we hear someone speak from the other perspective we either cover our ears in anger, or we rush against them with vitriol.

For far too long we’ve limited our imagination of the church to being the mechanism by which we can develop strategies that can, to put it in political terms, Make America Great Again. But that is not the task nor is it the mission of the church. The task of the church is to be a community of character that can survive as a witness to the truth.

All of this is not meant to be a critique of the policies of the political right or the political left. Nor is in meant to be an endorsement of policies representing either side of the political spectrum. No, this is about our captivity to the presumption that our politics determine our lives more than the living God.

And that is why we worship, it is why we gather together to tell the stories of scripture and break bread and say the prayers. This is why we still do what they started doing back during the time of Acts. We gather together in witness to what the risen Christ is doing in and through our community. And in so doing we respond to the risen Christ by doing strange things like freely giving of our income to bless others who are in need, like giving of our time to work down at the Trinity Kitchen so provide food to those who are in need, like showing up in a different community every summer to help with modest home repairs for those who are in need, like breaking bread with people we disagree with to create meaningful relationships for those who are in need.

We’ve come a long way throughout the centuries as the strange community we call the church. You can tell how far we’ve come, or to put it another way how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle when we read about selling our possessions and distributing the needs to all as any have need. That doesn’t match with what the world has told us life is all about.

Instead we’re captivated by a narrative that tells us to earn all we can and save all we can, that freedom is more important than faithfulness, and that the world is ruled by politics.

No. God rules the word. Faithfulness is more important than freedom. It is better to give all that we can rather than to gain all that we can.

And so we worship. We listen to the stories of scriptures, we enter the strange new world of the bible, and we learn to speak the truth. Worship id where we begin. In worship we develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be, a people who can live into the difficult reality of Acts 2, who can be political, even more political than our government, by recognizing who we are and whose we are.

As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we do not need executive orders to grant us freedom to speak truth. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of our brothers and sisters regardless of whether or not our government does. We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by political policies geared toward keeping us “safe.” After all, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One who mounted the hard wood of the cross.

Being a Christian is not about freedom, denying responsibility, or being safe. Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that often puts us in a place of danger. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or a Republican. We believe in serving the needs of those on the margins, which means helping those who cannot help themselves.

We believe the greatest freedom we’ve ever received did not come with the Declaration of Independence but through a poor Jewish rabbi who was murdered by the state.

And as Christians, we know that we can act politically: we can vote, we can march, we can lobby all we want. But we also believe that gathering together to do this thing we call church is the most political thing we could ever do. Amen.

On Working The Crowd

Matthew 21.8-9

A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Romans 8.31-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Working a crowd can be an art form. Comedians walk back and forth casually across a stage making the crowds feel relaxed and ready to laugh. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly punctuated and staccato’d his refrains like the rhythm of a song to get the people connected to the message. Even our President, Donald Trump, knew how to work the crowds at his rallies leading up to the election. You don’t win elections by laying out the step-by-step plans to make economic, ethical, political, and militaristic changes. You don’t win elections by calmly reflecting on the days of the past and a desire for simpler times. You don’t win elections with PowerPoint projections of pie-graphs and political policies.

We all know you win elections by firing up the people with a litany of complaints about what has gone wrong. You win elections by throwing gasoline onto the fire. You win elections by working the crowd.

And Jesus, like Donald Trump, knew how to work a crowd.

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You spread the word and get thousands of people outside to hear the message, you keep them on the edge of their, you know, ground area, and then wait for them to salivate with under the sun and then transform a loaf of bread and a couple of fish into a buffet the likes of which had never been seen.

You get the crowds riled up about working on the Sabbath, even quote some of the prophets from the past, and then heal a cripple man and leave everyone with a rhetorical question: Is it better to heal someone on the Sabbath or let them continue to suffer?

Walk into the middle of an angry mob about to stone a woman to death and quietly write a couple choice words in the sand to let them peer deeply into their own sinful souls and then empower the woman to live a new life.

Jesus knew how to work the crowd.

And Palm Sunday, this strange occasion where we pass out palm branches at the beginning of the service, is perhaps the best example of Jesus’ perfect political ability to work the crowd. We read that many people spread their cloaks; they literally take the clothes off their backs, and placed them on the road. And still yet others even cut down palm branches to prepare the way for the king who entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey.

We know the story. We can imagine ourselves there on the side of the road with the dust hanging in the air. We can feel the buzz of expectation around the one who will come to change it all. We can feel within ourselves that same desire to scream out “Hosanna!” “Save us!”

Christ's Entry into Jerusalem by Hippolyte Flandrin c. 1842

But, unlike the crowd, we know how the story ends.

We know what awaits us this so-called Holy Week. We know what will happen in the temple when Jesus flips the tables. We know what kind of strange sermon Jesus will offer from the mountain. We know that Jesus will get down on the floor and wash the feet of his disciples. We know that Jesus will gather his friends around a table to share bread and wine. We know that Jesus will be betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked, and nailed to a cross. We know that before the end of the week, Jesus will die.

And because we know how the story ends, it becomes clear to us that may not have known what we were doing by joining the crowds along the road, or by joining the crowds in a place like this one that we call church.

The crowds who gathered to sing their “hosannas” wanted a king, but the only people who continue to admire him as a king at the end of the week are the sadistic soldiers who made him a crown of thorns and drove it into his skin.

Jesus, it seems, was not the right kind of king. He was not the one they, or even we, were hoping for.

Maybe Jesus wasn’t all that gifted at working the crowd. After all, it took less than a week for the shouts to go from “Hosanna” to “crucify.”

Jesus is a King unlike any other king. Other kings, who are also at times called presidents, know they have to work and manipulate the crowd to bend them according to the desires of the powerful. Kings and Presidents may even rely on the power of the sword to control and handle the crowd to bring forth their hopes and dreams.

Such is the reality of worldly power.

But Jesus, our King, does not take advantage of the crowd’s enthusiasm. Rather than a call to arms to storm the city gates or to murder the ruling elite, Jesus suffers humiliation, abandonment, and death.

Do you still want to be part of the crowd by the side of the road? Do you want a place in Jesus’ kingdom? Do you want to follow the suffering King?

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Don’t be mistaken; Jesus is as political as they come. But he rules not at the head of an army, but from an old wooden cross. He rules not by filibustering particular Supreme Court nominees or demanding democratic political policies, but by laying it all down for the ungodly. He rules not by ordering his troops to use chemical weapons against innocent civilians or even sending tomahawk missiles to destroy a military base, but mounting the cross and saying, “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing.”

In America, we pride ourselves on being the ones who can defy the whims of the crowds. Freedom! We think for ourselves! Or at least, we think we can think for ourselves. But here’s the irony: The moment we are so sure that we have thought something up for ourselves, the moment we believe we are most free, is really when we’ve been co-opted by the powerful.

I know that we like to think that if we had been there, we would’ve been good disciples and that we would’ve stayed with Jesus to the very end. I know we like to think that if we had been there in Germany all those years ago, that we would’ve protected the Jews and rallied against Hitler. I know we like to think that if we had been involved in politics at the time, we would’ve voted against going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the truth is a whole lot harder to swallow: We are easily manipulated.

Which is precisely why we sing awful songs like “Ah Holy Jesus.” God will not allow us to get away with perennial self-deception and arrogance. We killed Jesus.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; I crucified thee.

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We know who we want Jesus to be. We want Jesus on our side in our petty arguments with friends and neighbors. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to disagreements in the community. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to the trajectory of our country. We want Jesus on our side when it comes to politics, and Syria, and Healthcare, and Immigration. We see ourselves as Jesus in the story of his entry into Jerusalem, when in reality we are far more like the fickle crowds on the side of the road than anyone else.

And that brings us to Romans 8.

Romans 8 is an unsettling text. Sure, we’ve heard it and used it at funerals; it offers us comfort and hope in the midst of sorrow and loss. It is important for us to declare over and over again that death will not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

We know this passage. We know it just like we know the story of Palm Sunday. In fact, if you can remember, months ago I asked the congregation to imagine what scripture you would use to comfort someone on death row, and this was the overwhelming favorite.

But these words from Paul can tempt us to forget that it is not just death that threatens to separate us from the love of God. Instead, we imagine the other things in the list to be good: life, angels, rulers, powers, things present, things to come. But all of them can threaten to come between Christ and his church; between God and us.

When we are comfortable, when we can’t imagine our faith requiring us to suffer, the list remains easily ignorable. However, we become true disciples of Jesus when we are willing to take risks, when we are prepared to go against the flow, when we resist the manipulation of those in power. And risks are called risks for a reason: following Jesus is a risky thing to do because it always involves the possibility of rejection.

Many of us know that this week marked the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firm while the waves of the status quo crashed around him. Dr. King called out the principalities and powers for being wrong. Dr. King worked the crowds to a belief in non-violent resistance. And it got him killed.

Here in Staunton, like I said last week, we don’t feel very revolutionary, we don’t equate our faith with taking risks, and we can’t even imagine having to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel. We can’t imagine ourselves being like Dr. King or questioning what our country is doing in Syria. But if we are serious about following Jesus, we will suffer; it’s just a less glamorous and more mundane form of suffering.

You know, like being mindful of other people; not getting stuck in our own unending bubble; asking hard questions that other people would rather ignore; acting like Jesus; sacrificing our wants and needs; calling someone in the midst of grief; showing up for a funeral when we might have other things to do.

Following Jesus in this place these days might not get us killed. But it might mean reaching out to someone who is totally unlike us. It might mean having a conversation with someone who voted for the other candidate. It might mean asking our spouses to forgive us for what we did. It might mean repenting for the way we spoke to our children or our parents. It might mean confronting our friends about their addictions. It might mean asking for help regarding our addictions.

And in so doing, we will suffer.

But nevertheless (!) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ! Not a bitter parent who refuses our apology; not an angry child who resents us for a past decision; not a nation who indiscriminately persecutes the poor and the marginalized; not a king or a president or a politician; not standing against the powers that be; not going against the current for a strange and more loving way of life; not anything now; not anything in the future.

We will surely suffer for the sake of the kingdom, but we will never be divided from the Lord. Amen

Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin

Matthew 7.1-5

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to you neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.

 

We announced this sermon series a couple months back, and ever since then a number of you have expressed your excitement about the possibility of confronting these Christianisms. Whether you were in the middle of suffering and someone said, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or a friend tried to explain how your struggles were given to you by the Lord because “everything happens for a reason” or any number of situations, these dumb things that Christians say are things all of us have heard.

However, some of you have also expressed your concern about today’s statement, the last one in the series, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

It sounds so right doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with it?

We can all agree that Christians say a lot of dumb things, but this is a good thing to say, right?

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In my experience, when people say “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are usually referring to homosexuality. For many, it is a kind and Christian way to say, “I love my gay friends, but I hate that they’re gay.” In this post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, it is a way for some of us to cover our true feelings while appearing congenial toward those whom we disagree with about sexuality.

Though recently, when I’ve heard people say it they are now using it with regard to the realm of politics. It is amazing how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about homosexuality has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country. “Well, I know she voted for that traitor Hillary Clinton, but I love her anyway.” Or “Donald Trump is ruining our country, but I love him anyway.” “I love my brother, but he can be a bleeding liberal.” “I love my sister, but she’s so conservative she’s off the political spectrum.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but it’s pretty hard to hate another’s sin, without harming the sinner.

What is sin? We don’t talk about it anymore. Pastors like me would rather talk about God’s loving nature, than God’s judgment. We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors, than to tell you to tell your neighbor they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard and strange passages about condemnation than truly proclaim that God’s scripture is still speaking to us today.

But for a long time, and I mean a LONG time, sin was THE thing that pastors talked about; sinners in the hands of an angry God, fire and brim stone, and repent or burn forever.

We’re afraid of sin. And not sin as a behavior; we’re afraid to talk about it because it makes us, and our congregations, uncomfortable. I hear again and again that people don’t want to leave church feeling miserable about their lives and their behavior, so preachers like me water down the gospel and we avoid even mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin. We preachers, and you Christians, can’t handle the topic of sin like we once could.

But what is it?

In both Hebrew and Greek the words for sin basically means “to wander from the path” or “to miss the mark.” Sin is any action, thought, or behavior that divides us from God. Sin can be any choice, or lack of choice, that results in failing to do something we know we should.

And here’s the thing: We all do it. All of us sin. From the guy standing before you in a white robe, to the decades long Sunday School teacher, to the child drawing on his bulletin, to the person in the pew across the aisle, to you. We are all sinners.

We think, say, and do things we should not. And we fail to think, say, and do things we should.

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Love the sinner. Of course we are supposed to love the sinner. Jesus did it all the time. Most of his ministry was about loving sinners. The problem is that Jesus does not call his disciples to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

This is an important difference. The difference being the starting point. If we say we are going to love sinners, we will view other people more like sinners and less like neighbors. It automatically puts us into a place of judgment where we are the righteous, and they are not.

Loving sinners also furthers the problematic identity problem where by we understand and identify others by their mistakes. We label people by their sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, and even regardless of frequency, we still call people things like cheaters, adulterers, and liars.

Or, to put it another way: Instead of seeing our neighbors as our neighbors, we judge them and identify them by which political candidate’s name was on a sign in their front yard.

A while back one of my friends was starting a new job fresh out of college. He was understandably nervous when he entered the office building for the first time and made his way to a cubicle near the corner of the room. He quietly unloaded his boxes of pertinent materials onto his desk and set up pictures of his family and friends while other employees walked idly by.

There were signs that someone had used the cubicle before him: an accidental scratch across the desk, a piece of discarded paper in the trashcan, and finger smudges on the computer monitor. But other than that, the cubicle was empty.

He worked his first full day under the weight of focus, though a few people came by to introduce themselves. And when it was time to go home he packed his bag and opened the top drawer to grab his pen when he noticed a post-it note near the back. Without thinking much about it, he grabbed it and read three big words: DO NOT TRUST. And underneath those words were the names of five people from the office.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard he tried to forget the note, no matter how hard he tried to trust the people in spite of what he read, his entire perspective had been reshaped by those three words.

The same happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. We should always try to love them, but we can love them even more if we see them first as our brothers and sisters and less as sinners in our midst.

Jesus says, “Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We’re good at seeing the sin in others. That’s what Facebook is for! So we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

Jesus used this expression because he knew that the disciples would struggle with the tendency to judge others. So instead of loving the sinner, perhaps it’s better to say “I am a sinner, and I ‘m trying love my neighbor.”

But we still have to face the end, “hate the sin.”

Jesus spent a lot of time with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. Jesus routinely gathered with them to do what we will do in a few minutes, he broke bread with them. Jesus gave him the most precious gift he had to offer, his time. And then he told them to follow him.

But Jesus never, not even once, said to any of them, “I love you, but I hate your sin.”

Jesus, instead, offered forgiveness.

He encountered all kinds of people who were defined by their choices, and he saw them for who they were in spite of their sins. His love was such that it knew no bounds. It was enough.

            But we are not like Jesus. We fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We have logs in our eyes and say things like, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

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There was a man who died, and upon his death he arrived at the pearly gates in heaven. He looked all around and soaked up the sights of the fluffy clouds and he was so excited to see people just on the other side of the gate that he had missed for so long. He wanted to run straight to them but there was a line leading up to St. Peter. So the man got in line and waited patiently for his turn.

He knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but as he got closer he couldn’t help eavesdropping on the conversations between St. Peter and the soon to be residents of heaven. “Oh you did so much for that soup kitchen!” “You’re the one who read scripture out loud in church every week, very good, very good.” And so on. But when the man’s turn came, St. Peter looked down in the Book of Life and then said, “Yeah you were a believer, but you skipped the ‘not being a jerk about it’ part.”

Saying, and living by, “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us jerks. It means the log in our eye is so large that we are unable from seeing others as brothers and sisters. It means that our own sinfulness blinds us from truly loving.

There is sin in this world. People will make the wrong choice, they will choose evil. We will make sinful decisions; we will avoid doing the things we know we should do. But instead of rallying together and focusing on all the sins and problems of other people, instead of flocking to the Internet and like-minded dinner parties to declare the sins of the other, we all need to take a good hard look in the mirror. We need to recognize the log in our own eyes before we dare point out the speck in another.

Because Jesus, looks right into our hearts and says “I love you, log and all.”

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of, God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees our self-righteousness and indignation and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God sees the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God knows the ways we lie to our spouses and our children, God witnesses the depth of our depravity and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God was there with us in the voting booth, God hears the sighs we utter in response to someone on the other side of the political aisle, God knows how we really feel and says, “I love you, log and all.”

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” We say it. We read it. We might even live by it. But we should just stop with the word “love.”

Love.

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Not Hallmark love. Not Valentine’s Day love. But love like Jesus. That might be good enough. Because loving like Jesus does not mean turning away from the sinners in our midst. It means walking up to a crowd of people who are about to do something terrible and saying, “Who among you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone!”

It means encountering the beauty of the Lord and responding with the truest words we can ever say: “Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner.”

It means being humble enough to seek out those whom we have wronged and asking for their forgiveness.

It means caring for those on the margins regardless of the decisions they’ve made or the sins they’ve committed.

It means reaching out to the people who we disagree with most not to change their mind, but to offer them the same thing Jesus offer us, time.

So the next time we say “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Let’s just stop with love. Amen.

Devotional – Jeremiah 23.1

Devotional:

Jeremiah 23.1

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord.

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The last week has been crazy. People on both sides of the political aisle are filled with anger, fear, and resentment. Those who voted for Donald Trump are being attacked for the political opinions and those who voted for Hillary Clinton are protesting the results of the election across the country. Many Republicans and Democrats are being led astray by false shepherds who seek to destroy and scatter the sheep of God’s pasture through calls for violence and manipulation.

However, there are some who are seeking to lead God’s sheep in ways that lead to life. One of those shepherds is a former youth, and now college student, from St. John’s named Danielle Hammer. While others were flocking to Facebook in order to shout their political joy or disappointment into the fray of social media, Danielle wrote a post that makes me proud to call her my friend and my sister in Christ. This is what she said:

“This election has caused so much uproar among our American communities. We have heard of the hate crimes and violence that has occurred. It is genuinely terrifying, and I think we need to take a moment and sit down with God and pray. Lend God your anxieties and concerns, because God is listening to your cries and God holds the future. How comforting it is to know that no matter what happens here on earth, our Lord God knows our destiny. And yet, we need to make peace in this world. Compliment someone, pay for someone’s meal, help someone carry their groceries, or any other act of kindness that will show someone that there is still kindness and love in this world. Volunteer in your community. Stand up for your beliefs. Be a listening ear for those who need it. These small but significant acts add up, and they brighten the day of people who might be upset. Showing God’s love is timeless, and no matter who is in office, we need to radiate God’s love to others. So keep on radiating kindness in your life, and pray for those who are living in hatred or fear.”

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Oh that we could reject the false shepherds who lead us astray, and instead remain steadfast in our willingness to follow the Good Shepherd! For the Good Shepherd is the one who goes before us on the way that leads to life. In our discipleship, in our following, we radiate God’s kindness toward all people. We look for the ways that we can speak up for the disenfranchised, the poor, and the marginalized. We seek the peace that allows all of us to dwell together in unity. We pray for the Lord to give us the courage to show God’s love toward all people.

Devotional – 2 Thessalonians 3.13

Devotional:

2 Thessalonians 3.13

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

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This election cycle has been exhausting. The endless torrent of sound bites blasted through the television, the revelatory number of click-bait articles on social media, and the overwhelming amount of animosity between neighbors with differing political signs in their front yards have left most of us feeling weary and worn. I don’t know if this is a common thing for pastors to experience during presidential election cycles, but I’ve had more people than I can keep track of show up at my office telling me which candidate God wants me to vote for.

Many have already cast their ballots, but the majority of Americans will gather at the polls tomorrow to make their choice. Churches, schools, and other local community buildings will be filled with all kinds of people; people who are exercising their right to vote for the first time, people who feel they are being forced to vote for the lesser of two evils, people who will vote according to the party line regardless of the names attached to the positions, and people who believe that this election is the most important in the history of the United States.

Sadly, there are some for whom the foretaste of power has given them the bravado to stand outside polling areas to intimidate other voters. Whether the shout at the top of their lungs, or physically approach particular individuals, they will do what they believe is right in order to secure what they believe is right. Sadly, this election cycle has led to the bombing of political offices and the burning of black churches. Violence and fear still reigns supreme in this country. Sadly, the anger and animosity percolating in the country will not come to a peaceful conclusion when all the votes have been tallied. Many will be just as angry, if not angrier, if their candidate loses.

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Friends, in this time of great strife and division, do not be weary in doing what is right. Do not forget that the people who we disagree with politically are the very people that Jesus calls us to pray for and love. Do not forget that to be Christian is to believe that Jesus is Lord, and that God is really in control regardless of who wins the election. Do not forget that though we may not think alike, we may certainly love alike.

If you are in the Staunton area, I invite you to gather together at St. John’s UMC at 7pm tomorrow evening. As the polls close and the pundits proclaim early victories on the news, we will be in the Lord’s sanctuary feasting at the table. We will listen for the Spirit and ask for God’s will to be done. We will pray for our politicians, whether we voted for them or not.