How Odd Of God

Matthew 25.14-30

“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.

In the end, the master is the God we worship.

This is who God is. 

How odd. Amen.

Time After Time

Matthew 5.1-12

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. 

The Most Important Election In History

Matthew 23.1-12

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. 

We didn’t elect Jesus – he elected us. Amen. 

Not My Party

“’Trump says all the things we’ve always wanted to say.’ Really? Then what does it say about us as Americans if Trump’s outer monologue is our inner monologue?”

The Crackers & Grape Juice crew got together (online) last week and we were fortunate to have a conversation with Gretchen Purser about the changes that have happened to the Republican Party throughout her career and how it has reshaped the way she understands her faith.

Gretchen spent 20 years in politics, raised ~1 billion dollars for the Republican Party, worked for the Christian Coalition, and retired from politics in 2009.

If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Not My Party

Lord: A Political Prayer from Stanley Hauerwas

There are times when I don’t know what, or even how, to pray. I am therefore grateful for the saints of the past and present who make their prayers available as prayers we can pray. The following is one such prayer from Stanley Hauerwas…

Lord Jesus Christ, we live in a world without lords. We have presidents, but they rule with our consent – or at least this is the story we tell ourselves. We believe that just as we claim to govern, so we govern our own lives. We are not set up to use “Lord” language. So, do you mind if we call you “Mr. President,” Jesus? That, we confess, sounds strange. You did not and do not act like you are running for office. Driving money changers out of the temple seems a bit beyond the pale. What is worse, at the wedding at Cana you were a bit short with your mother, and it is even more troubling that you never married and spent most of your time with a bunch of guys. We worry a bit if you ever came to terms with your sexuality. When all is said and done, we do not think you are going to be elected for president.

So, what are we going to do with you, Lord Jesus Christ? We confess that we do not have the slightest idea. All we can do is pray that you will destroy our presumption that we are our own lords. We fear such destruction, sensing that it may have something to do with death, and as Yoder tells us, in the life and death of Jesus we find a reality and the possibility of all that your teachings say. It is possible to live that way if you are willing to die that way. Is that really part of what it means to call you Lord? I guess this means we have to get serious when we haven’t the slightest idea of what it might mean to get serious.

For God’s sake, dear Jesus, Lord Jesus, help us. 

-Stanley Hauerwas

(Hauerwas, Disrupting Time, 63). 

Making The Familiar Strange

Matthew 22.34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

He liked to mow his lawn early in the morning while it was still cool. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garage when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled off of the mower and onto the ground. 

The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway and grappled until they came to a stop, and that’s when the fighting really began.

Hours later the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs wondering what in the world had led to all of this.

The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the scuffle took place. In our heightened political atmosphere, with tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Ran Paul’s political proclivities who felt the only the only recourse for their disagreements was violence. 

It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if it could happen to them too.

Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tied of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.

While a great sum of people assumed that Rand Paul’s political leanings were to blame for the attack, while the media continued to postulate theories about a “national political scandal,” it was all about a neighbor squabble.

Love your neighbor as yourself. 

Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible. 

Whether it’s a church in Northern Virginia streaming its worship to the likes of Facebook and YouTube, or a house church meeting in a dingy basement, or the greatest of cathedrals with giant stained glass windows, we are all invited into the scriptures to learn more about who we are and whose we are.

And it is, indeed, a strange new world that Matthew describes for us today. Therefore, our task, the church’s task, is not the make the Gospel intelligible in the light of the world we live in – we don’t start with the world and then do what we can to accommodate God’s Word to it. Rather, we allow the strange new world of the Bible to reveal how the world we live in has already been transformed through the new creation wrought in Jesus Christ.

This is no easy task.

For, many of us are too familiar with certain scriptures such that we no longer consider them strange. After all, what could be strange about a church preaching love? 

And yet, when we read about this little moment containing Jesus pronouncement of love, we do not see how it is meant to turn the world, our world, upside down.

Throughout most of the church’s history, it has been all too easy to remake and reimagine Jesus in our own image. It’s why, today, any of us can drive through our neighborhoods and see what appears to be a presidential election sign in someone’s front yard but then upon closer inspection we discover it says “Jesus 2020,” and its not altogether clear whether a Republican or a Democrat lives in the house.

That this happens is indicative of the fact that all of us, at times, are guilty of picking and choosing our own verses from the strange new world of the Bible in order to project a version of Jesus that makes him into our image rather than the other way around.

And, most of the time, ideological divides notwithstanding, the Jesus we tend to choose is a harmless, gently suggestive, long-haired hippy; a Jesus we can imagine playing Kumbaya around the fire; a Jesus who just wants us to all get along. 

That Jesus is the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” (as Stanley Hauerwas puts it) that many of my fellows pastors and I have become. We’ve leaned so far into our inherent people pleasing sensibilities that we try so hard to be all things to all people and we neglect to offer the Words of Jesus to the people we serve.

But Matthew’s Gospel, particularly here in these string of passages leading up to the crucifixion, presents the Lord who knows that, sometimes, there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing over, things that call for a louder voice and a deeper conviction.

Listen – Having silenced the scribes and the Sadducees, the Pharisees picked a lawyer to trap Jesus in his words, again. “Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest?”

“Um” Jesus says, “Have you all not been reading the scriptures and going to synagogue? You know the answer: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s in Deuteronomy. Go look it up.” 

The lawyer nods his head in approval but Jesus keeps going, “But there’s another one just like it. This one’s from Leviticus: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

And after hearing that, no one dared to ask him another question.

“Love God and love neighbor – that’s it,” Jesus seems to say. And that line of thinking and proclamation easily leads to a Hallmark version of the church where all we ever do is meekly suggest that a little kindness every once in a while wouldn’t hurt anybody.

It’s why pastors, including myself, have used the story of Rand Paul and his driveway throw-down as a way to convince congregations to be nicer to their neighbors.

And yet, according to Matthew’s Gospel, all of the things leading up to this exchange, the flipping of the tables in the temple, and the belittling of the biblical literacy of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the mic-dropping at the end of a brief discourse on tax avoidance, are all part of how Jesus loves.

Jesus, our Lord, chooses this moment, after all the conflict and controversy, to patiently explain that the most important thing of all, the great of all the laws and commandments, is to love God and neighbor. 

Which begs the question, “Do we really know what that kind of love looks like?”

More often than not, the love we preach about in church is used as an excuse to do whatever is necessary to keep as many people happy as possible – the path of least resistance has become our way of loving God and neighbor.

When truth-telling would be far too uncomfortable, we practice silence and call it love.

When showing up to call into question the powers and principalities of this life requires too much of us, we remain content to stay home and we call it love.

When confronting our neighbors in their sinfulness feels too difficult, we build up higher fences and call it love.

Love, then, becomes the codeword for letting people get away with just about anything and everything. 

However, the earliest Christians, those who truly put their lives on the line for their faith, were not persecuted for what they believed (Jesus is Lord) but for what they refused to believe (Caesar is Lord). The church, today and always, is distinguished not only by what we stand for, but also by what we condemn. 

We can stand and call for love until we’re blue in the face, but what good is love if nothing ever changes?

A pastor named Carlyle Marney used to reject his fellow pastors for degenerating into a preaching style that came off as self-help therapy. He would say, “You preachers are always saying, ‘Bless, bless, bless’ when you ought to be saying, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn!’”

Consider: “God loves you just the way you are,” is an all too common refrain in the church these days and I am guilty of it as well. There are people who need to be told those words for a great number of reasons. But there are also an equal number of people who need to be reminded, myself included, that remaining as we are only makes a mockery of what God in Christ did for us.

Here’s an example: A beloved hymn of the church is Just As I Am (the hymn we used earlier in the service)

Just as I am without one plea” sounds an awful lot like God loves us just the way we are. Except, the very next words are, “But that thy blood was shed for me.”

Christ’s blood was shed for us precisely because of who we are! The rest of the hymn goes on to talk about the poor, the wretched, the blind and fighting and fears within and without. Those words aren’t describing other people – they’re describing us! The ones for whom Christ died!

The cross and resurrection rectify us, the make right what was wrong, they change us. That means we cannot remain as we were or as we are. We, all of us, the good and the bad, are being worked on by God in ways both seen and unseen. 

But that doesn’t sound like the kind of love we so often talk about in church. We’re content to hear the call to do a nice thing every once in a while, or the need to spread a little kindness, or a host of other lovely opportunities. 

And yet love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like what happens on Valentine’s Day, or even suggestions from a local civic organization. 

Instead, love looks like the cross.

And that kind of love is dangerous.

The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is demanding and risky.  

Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on in its backwards and broken ways.

And that kind of love got Jesus killed.

Of course, we are not the Lord, thanks be to God. In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point. 

We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.

To know what it means to love God and neighbor, as Jesus defines it, requires us to take seriously the way Jesus loved. His love is seen in his willingness to eat with the outcast, to reach out to the untouchable, to embrace the powerless, to confront the demonic, to outmaneuver the manipulative, and to correct the clueless.

And we can only know what it means to love God because of God’s love for us. This Godly love can be, at times, harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to know ourselves truthfully.

It is to know that we don’t deserve God’s love.

In this remarkably delicate situation we find ourselves in, days away from a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic that has wrought horrific economic and cultural unrest, we hear these enduring words from scripture about loving God and neighbor and it should give us pause. Not just a pause to consider whether or not we actually love God and neighbor, but also to consider how bewildering it is to be loved by God and neighbor when we don’t deserve it. 

Because when we begin to witness the condition of our condition, that we are loved in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that’s when things begin to change. 

And, God is love. 

Contrary to all of its complications, love is the heart of the life of the church and every single disciple of Jesus. And yet, the presumption that love is just something we do, or that its easy or natural, does a disservice to the One who died in the name of love. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.

Love, the kind of love that God has for us and that we are called to have for God and neighbor is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost. Amen. 

The Problem Of Not Having A Problem

Matthew 22.15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head it this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away. 

The Pharisees weren’t on board with Jesus. His fame had already spread through Galilee, rumor of a Transfiguration was weaving its way through the hoi polloi, and he entered Jerusalem, rather dramatically, on the back of a donkey.

Which is to say nothing of his table turning, religion rebuking, or demon demolishing.

And the Pharisees find themselves in a situation where they could no longer stand for the man who was upending all the powers and principalities which benefitted them the most. So they come up with some schemes to trap Jesus in his words and, hopefully, turn his would-be crowds of disciples against them. 

They begin with flattery, of all things: “Hey Jesus! We know that you’re kind and charming and sincere and faithful and loving and caring and, and, and…” It’s as true as a description as anyone could ever hope for. And, weirdly enough, the Pharisees speak a truth about the Lord without know exactly what they’re saying.

They build him up and butter him up in order to bring him down.

“And because, Teacher, you are all these wonderful things, we have a question: It is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

This is a remarkably clever question for the Pharisees to ask because there’s no good answer – Jesus is put into an impossible situation. 

If Jesus says that taxes shouldn’t be paid, it would make him a rebel against the empire and the target already on his back would only grow larger. 

If Jesus says that taxes should be paid, he will appear to be a collaborator with Rome and would quickly lose his credibility as a prophet.

But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. At least, not directly. Instead Jesus does what he has done so many times before – he answers the question with a question of his own.

“Why are you putting me to the test you hypocrites? Give me one of the coins for the tax…” 

Someone reaches into a pocket and presents the denarius which results in one of the best known sentences from the Gospels: Jesus says to them, “Whose head is this on the coin?” And they say, “The emperor’s.” So Jesus replies, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they hear this, they are amazed and they leave.

Unfortunately, through much of Christian history, we Christians have not been amazed by Jesus’ answer and we have misappropriated it in all sorts of ways. For, more often than not, we have tricked ourselves into believing we know exactly what Jesus meant with his rather inexplicable response.

For example: Many of us today, that is Christians, assume that we can, and have, two loyalties: to God and to Country. We are told, of course, to never let our loyalty to the state infringe upon our loyalty to God, but its never clear when or if such a conflict will ever happen. So we keep on doing the things we do and saying the things we say such that, today, many of us Christians are usually Pharisees but don’t recognize ourselves as such.

Which is just another way of saying that a whole lot of us American Christians are more American than we are Christian.

But, back to the passage at hand…

Notice: Jesus, himself, doesn’t carry the coin used for the tax and he has to ask someone else to provide it for his little teachable moment. 

He does so, in all likelihood, precisely because the coin carried the image of Caesar, and to carry it and use it was in violation of the 2nd of the 10 commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down and worship them” (Exodus 20.4-5). 

Jesus’ response, then, seems to be done to call into question the carriers of the coins for having them in the first place. And, to make matters even more contentious, the Pharisees in question were known for their stark and zealous observance of the Law!

But we, more often than not, treat this little moment as a way to ease our consciences when it comes to the relationship between church and state. Countless pastors have stood in places like this and used Jesus’ words to say some version of, “You have to pay your taxes to the government and you have to tithe to the church because Jesus says so.”

And yet, Jesus’ use of symbolic irony does not convey a recommendation to those with eyes to see and ears to hear that we should all learn to live with divided loyalties. Instead, he is saying to the religious elites that the idolatrous coins should be sent back to Caesar, where they belong

Just as Jesus knows and sees no distinction between politics and religion, between church and state, neither does he know any distinction between government, economics, and the worship of God.

The people who seek to trap Jesus with this question about whether or not to pay taxes are revealed by Jesus to be the emperor’s faithful servants by the money they possess. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says earlier in the gospel, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

And here Jesus reminds the Pharisees and the crowds that you cannot serve God and the emperor.

Sure, we think, that’s fine for Jesus to say to the people way back then, but we don’t have an emperor today so this doesn’t really apply to us anymore. We, after all, have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

And yet, it doesn’t take long to look through the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or evening news to be bombarded with the truth: The people, whoever they may be, often turn out to be hungrier for power and loyalty than emperors. Emperors can just get rid of the people who disagree with the them. People in democracies have to convince others to be on their side, by any means necessary.

Okay, sure, we think, even if the people who rule the land are indeed sinners and lust for power, this still doesn’t really apply to us because we have a separation of church and state. In fact, Jesus is the one who came up with it in the first place right here in this passage!

And yet, there really isn’t a separation here, that is to say, in the United States. Take a look at a dollar bill (In God We Trust), or go through the Pledge of Allegiance (One Nation, Under God), or consider that, since 1973, the majority of Presidential Speeches have ended with a religious phrase (God Bless America).

Here in this country the so-called separation of church and state often leads to a legitimization of what the state is doing while simultaneously sequestering the church in the mythical realm of the private.

It’s why so many pastors have stood up in pulpits telling their congregations how to vote (even though we’re not really allowed to) and have encouraged a political way of being that has far more to do with a Donkey or an Elephant than it does with the Lamb of God.

I don’t know if any of you have noticed this but, to me, it feels like a whole lot of us are currently living on the edge. Between the pandemic and economic insecurity and cultural unrest and a seemingly never-ending presidential election season, there’s just a whole lot of tension. And then, to ramp up the anxiety, we stick the signs in our yards or on our bumper stickers, we scroll through different social media platforms to like the political posts we agree with and to respond, rather negatively, to those that run counter to our political way of thinking.

We’ve drawn our lines in the sand about where we stand.

And yet, for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, we seem to care a whole lot more about the Kingdom of America than the Kingdom of God.

And that’s not to say we can’t care about what’s happening in country, or that we shouldn’t get involved in decisions and campaigns and votes. 

Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor.

Its just that we do all of that so easily without considering that our truest citizenship doesn’t come from an old document signed by some men in 1776, but from God Almighty; that we live not under the banner of Red, White, and Blue, but under the cross upon which Jesus died for me and you. 

And this isn’t unique to the US of A – for two thousand years, we Christians have tried our best to make sense of having a king who rules from that aforementioned cross. And so we have twisted his words and actions to make Jesus an acceptable king for the likes of us and others. We’ve even claimed that he is “on our side” all while accruing power in whatever ways we can.

Yet, whenever we try to make Jesus fit into our image of what the world should look like, or, more specifically, what this country should look like, we lose sight of his call to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Because, behind Jesus’ brief and immensely important sentence is the fact that, as Christians, we believe everything already belongs to God! 

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees creates a problem for them, and for all of us. We might not want our lives to be further problematized at a time like this, but Jesus loves creating problems – and to recognize that we have a problem is to begin to follow the Lord. 

We might believe that we’ve got this all sorted out in our lives and in our culture but, as Christians, we know we have a problem when we do not have a problem. 

One of the deepest problems with idolatry, and any sin for that matter, is our presumption that we will know it when we see it. We believe that we have the faculties and the power to know, on our own, what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, what is faithful and unfaithful.

But most of the time what we really need is a Savior who can stand in front of us, dangle the truth right in front of our eyes, and leave us amazed. Amen. 

Political Animals

Psalm 99.1

The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

What’s the most American thing about America? Is it eating a hot dog on the 4th of July? Is it being able to the watch the NBA Finals even in the midst of a pandemic? Is it the fact that you can’t really go anywhere in the country without encountering the flag reminding you exactly what country you’re in?

I would make a case that one of the most American things about the US of A is freedom. 

Freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to vote, and freedom from anyone trying to infringe upon freedom. 

At the end of the day, nothing is more important to (most) Americans on the political left AND the political right than maintaining the freedom of the individual.

As such, we’ve created and cultivated a culture in which privacy is sought more than community, we believe no one should be asked to suffer for anyone else, and we can say pretty much whatever we want and others can say whatever they want so long as the two speaking don’t call into question their ability to speak freely.

And, because freedom is the end all be all of our cultural consciousness we’ve, in a weird way, become slaves to our freedom.

Today, our culture is largely divided into two categories: Donkeys and Elephants. Just about every part of our lives can be whittled down to the two predominant political ideologies such that we can’t watch tv, or scroll through Twitter, or even drive down the road without being bombarded by the two representative animals.

Animals, by the way, that we are completely free to choose in terms of our own political proclivities.

The height (and tension) of our current political realities has result in an atmosphere where we are compelled, whether we want to be or not, to identify our own respective camps on a regular basis. And, because we worship our freedom, we can surround ourselves with people who look like us, and think like us, and even vote like us.

Our freedom allows us to choose our politicians, much like we choose our communities, but, as Christians, we don’t get to choose our King…

King Jesus, and his Kingdom, run counter to our prevailing obsession with freedom because Jesus binds us to one another rather than allowing us to run off to our own devices. We are compelled to break bread with people we would otherwise ignore. And when we pray those terrifyingly powerful words every week (let thy will be done) it is a confession that we are allegiant to God more than to our own freedom.

Even in these strange times the church, thanks be to God, is one of the last remaining places where we willingly gather with people who don’t think, look, act, or vote like us. This is true even when we cannot gather in-person because of the pandemic – our online and digital faith community is made of of people we wouldn’t choose to be with on our own!

Church, thanks be to God, is the place where we believe our baptismal identities are more important AND more determinative than the political sign in our yard, on our bumper, or the one we keep incessantly posting about on Facebook.

Church, thanks be to God, is where we are reminded over and over and over again that we worship a crucified God who died for the sins of the world. We worship a King whose kingdom is built not on law and order but on grace and mercy. We worship a Messiah who saves us from ourselves.

Salvation belongs to God alone.

Even though Revelation affirms that all nations, races, creeds, and languages will be present in the eschaton, salvation does not belong to any of them – each of them in some way, shape, or form are and forever will be guilty of promising something to a particular while while damning another.

The Donkey and the Elephant can’t and won’t save us. They exist to instill a sense of fear (and freedom) that isolates us from one another rather than binding us to each other. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities by telling us our political identities are more important. They promise a salvation that actually brings division.

But the Lamb of God is different. Jesus reigns for us and in spite of us. The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!

An Older Glory

“Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents… let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom, and never forget that, ‘where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,’ that means freedom always wins.”

So said Vice President Mike Pence during a live speech last night in the midst of the Republican National Convention.

And it’s nothing short of idolatry.

I’ve heard, time and again, to keep politics out of the church. And, frankly, I sympathize with those who don’t want to hear about political proclivities from the pulpit. I sympathize with those who believe the United States of America was founded on the separation of church and state.

And yet, when a politician like Mike Pence stands and speaks in such a way to insert the church into the midst of the state I, a member and leader of the church, can no longer remain silent.

He literally swapped out Jesus for “Old Glory” and “this land of heroes”. Which is just another way of saying: Mike Pence put forth a theology in which America is synonymous with the Kingdom of God.

Let the reader understand… Those things are truly mutually exclusive.

Back in July I put up a short, and to the point, tweet about how American Flags should not be present in church sanctuaries. I did so because America and the Church are not the same thing and when the Flag is present next to the Cross (or next to the altar) it synthesizes those things together.

I have, for a long time, felt the dissonance between the Flag and the Cross of Christ and I have written about it at length on a number of occasions. That I feel so strongly is a result of the Gospel’s insistence that our, that is Christians’, truest citizen can be found in heaven and that our truest freedom comes from Jesus, not the US of A.

As of writing this post, that tweet about the Flag in the sanctuary has been seen over 750,000 times and over 93,000 people have interacted with it.

The responses to the tweet, and to American Nationalism within the realm of the church, were fairly predictable.

On one side, people were deeply offended by the thought of the flag being removed from the sanctuary (or now calling into question Mike Pence using the Gospel as a political prop). I was implored to realize that the flag symbolizes sacrifice (a sacrifice akin to Christ’s?) and to take it away is unpatriotic (if not treasonous).

On the other side, people expressed their concern with the proximity of the Flag to the worship of God (or now to it being used as a political mechanism in a speech). They remarked that we, who call ourselves Christians, cannot serve two masters (America and God), that God doesn’t belong to any particular nation state (despite what politicians might tell us), and that to conflate these two thing together is a remarkable American phenomenon (we, that is Americans, are some of the only people for whom putting the Cross near the Flag is a regular occurrence).

In the last two weeks we, as a nation, have made it through both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. We’ve heard all about the importance of freedom and American exceptionalism but, for Christians, it’s vitally important to remember that our greatest freedom came long before George Washington, that our glory is far older than “Old Glory”, and that Jesus is not synonymous with the USA.

Our obsession with the Flag, and political ideologies, is what Jesus calls idolatry.

The United States of America, whether we like to admit it or not, has far more in common with Rome than it does with the Kingdom of God. We are the nation state that Jesus offers his words of condemnation. We’re just so drunk on our own self-righteousness to notice. 

You Can’t Handle The Truth

Exodus 24.12-18

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elder he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. 

Matthew 17.1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

Everything is politics.

Politics are everything.

I don’t know if it’s completely true, but I can remember a time when my family and I were able to watch the news at night and nothing about politics would come up. There were no brief shots of the Capitol building with soundbites of senators arguing with one another. There were no cutaway shots of political campaign rallies. And if there was a debate on television, it certainly wasn’t attended to in such a way as if people talked about it the next day like the Superbowl.

Whatever that time was, it’s long gone.

Now we can’t do anything, or watch anything, or read anything without the allure of politics taking center stage within the midst of our reality.

Politics are even seeping into the church!

So here I was in the middle of the week, racking my brain for something worth addressing in the sermon. I knew that it was Transfiguration Sunday, and that we’d be looking at Moses on the mountain in Exodus, and Jesus on the mountain in Matthew, and I was about to offer up a prayer to the Lord for a little bit of homiletical manna from heaven, when someone emailed me a YouTube clip in which two news reels had been edited together.

In the first, Rush Limbaugh, having just received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump, said that America isn’t ready for a man to be president who kisses his husband so willingly on stage. He continues with some other homophobic remarks before moving on to address the other Democratic presidential candidates.

In the second clip, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the person Limbaugh was talking about, responds to the controversial comments by saying, “The idea of the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump lecturing anybody on family values – I mean, sorry but, one thing about my marriage is it’s never involved me having to send hush money to a porn star after cheating on my spouse. Let’s debate family values – I’m ready.”

Moses goes up on the mountain to receive a word from the Lord, to get the Law, and politicians debating the intricacies of moral law falls into my inbox.

God surely has a sense of humor.

Now, I’m not going to make this into whose righter or whose wronger, as if to comparing systems of morality would be at all helpful or even faithful. And yet, in both cases there is a clear understanding on the part of the speaker about rightness and wrongness, as if all of us should know the rules we are meant to follow and then we must follow them.

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The only problem with that, is that none of us follow of the rules.

And that’s a truth far too inconvenient to handle.

Whenever we talk about right and wrong, which is just another way of talking about the Law, we do so at the expense of how Jesus and Paul actually talk about the Law. For, when we talk about the Law, we do so as if it is a bludgeon that we are privileged to use against those we deem unworthy. We hold over the heads of the transgressors and we tell them to get better or get out. The Law becomes our litmus test about who is good enough and who isn’t even close.

But according to Jesus and Paul, the most important part of the Law, in fact the purpose of the Law, isn’t to regulate our behavior… It’s to accuse us.

The Law shows us again and again and again that none of us, not even the best of us, have the kind of lives and moral histories that are enough to meet the righteousness of God. 

Moses goes up on the mountain, gets a sunburn from getting too close to the divine, and comes back down with the stones tablets of what to do and what not to do.

The rest of the Old Testament is a story of the people called Israel who struggle to adhere to those very laws and, more often than not, they do the things they know they shouldn’t, and they avoid doing the things they know they should.

And if that were the end of the story, then our politicking and our moralizing and our finger-pointing would be fine. We could parade out the ledger books whenever someone took a step too far and we could hang them out to dry. We could saunter over to Fox News or NPR and give testimonies about who has done what such that some are torn down while others are built up.

But then Jesus shows up and ruins all of our fun.

The story from Matthew is eerily similar to the one in Exodus. A man is called to a mountain, he brings only a few companions, and it’s clear that whatever happens on the mountain changes everything. 

For Moses it’s the giving of the Law, but for Jesus, it’s different.

Peter was there and Peter was like us. He loved the Lord, he volunteered for the Lord, he showed up when he was asked, and he found himself on the mountain path listening to the voice of the One who had called him out of whatever his life could’ve been. And as the light shines around and through and in Jesus, as Peter takes in the sight of Moses on his left and Elijah on his right, he must’ve been thinking about the Exodus story, he must’ve viewed his present through the past. 

It’s no wonder he offers to build dwelling places on the mountaintop – that’s what the people called Israel were supposed to do. 

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But the mountaintop miracle is different this time. There will be no stone tablets, there will be no Law by which the people will discern who is right and who is wrong. Instead, there is only a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

And how does Peter respond to this remarkable Transfiguration? He is afraid.

Today we use the Law as a set of principles by which people like us can live good and perfect lives. Do this and don’t do that and in the end you’ll be good enough.

But none of us are good enough.

Jesus says before all of this mountaintop madness, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees you will not enter heaven.” No one’s righteousness exceeds the Pharisees!

Contrary to how we’ve been talking about it for so long, the Law isn’t about living the right way. 

The purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.

The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.

The Law is the recognition that God is God and we are not.

The Law is what made Peter tremble on that mountain.

For, at its best, the Law compels us to see ourselves as we really are (no easy task); to see all of our wickedness and imperfection, and to wonder, “How could God love someone like me?”

That’s how Peter responded the first time he met the Lord on the boat, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinner.” Peter’s proximity to Jesus forced him to see things about himself he never would have seen otherwise, and it made him afraid.

He was afraid because he knew, just as some of us do, that the truth of who we are is no good. As St. Paul puts it in Romans, “None is righteous, no, not one.”

Jean Vanier was a Canadian Catholic theologian who founded what is called the L’Arche community in 1964. He was moved by the experiences of those with developmental disabilities who were often ostracized and sent away to live in institutions far away from everyone else. At first he invited two men with disabilities to come live with him in France. He believed that, as a Christian, he had a duty and responsibility to make these particular individuals feel loved and a part of a community. Their time together led to the establishment of a communal way of living where people with disabilities began living with the people who care for them, rather than being marginalized and put away.

Since then a network of over 150 intentional L’Arche communities have been founded in 38 different countries around the world. 

Vanier wrote numerous books on his experiences, about the theology beyond the practices, and calls to others to learn how to live as intentionally.

Throughout his life, Vanier was regarded over and over again as a living saint. His patience with those who had experienced no patience at all was heralded as the paragon of virtue. Without his work, there is a serious chance that our understanding of those with developmental disabilities would be horrendous and not at all faithful, let alone kind.

Jean Vanier, at the age of 90, died last year in May. 

Yesterday, the L’Arche organization published the results of an inquiry which investigated the claims about the early history of the community and Vanier’s role within it. The investigation was carried out by an independent agency and they determined that Vanier abused at least 6 non-disabled women during those early years under the auspices of spiritual guidance through which he manipulated them and they experienced long emotional and physical abuse.

Imagine your abuser being regarded by the rest of the world as a living saint.

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None is righteous, no, not one.

That’s the point of the Law – on our own we can’t even fulfill a fraction of it. All that stuff that Moses brought down from the mountain, it is good only insofar as it shows us that we, all of us, are bad.

We’re all bad no matter how good we think we are and no matter how good we think other people are.

Because behind closed doors, when we think we’re alone, or that no one will ever find out – in the secrets thoughts of our hearts and minds – each and every one of us are more like Donald Trump and Pete Buttigieg and Rush Limbaugh and Jean Vanier than we are like Jesus Christ.

The Law exists to drive us to Jesus not as a teacher or as an example, but as someone who did something for us that we could not and would not do for ourselves.

Jesus is the only one who is fully obedient to the Law, the only one who can fulfill its demands, the only one whose righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees. 

Jesus’s love and grace and mercy has overflown on to us so that we, not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, can stand before God justified by Jesus Christ. 

When we come close to that grace, to the Gospel we call Good News, it brings us to our knees like it did Peter because we can’t make sense of it. If we are strong enough to look into the mirror of our souls we know that we’re no better than anyone else. And yet the cloud surrounds us anyway, the voice speaks to us anyway, and we are changed forever anyway.

The truth is we should be afraid. If our moral laundry were to hang out to dry for everyone to see it wouldn’t be good. If we were compelled to share our inner thoughts and regrettable choices, none of the people here would ever look at us the same.

And for some strange reason Jesus looks upon all of that and comes to find us on our knees and says, “I’m going to do what you cannot. Get up and don’t be afraid.” Amen.