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.

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On Listening For The Shepherd’s Voice

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The team from Crackers & Grape Juice recently spent an afternoon interviewing Brian Zahnd (founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a nondenominational congregation in St. Joseph, Missouri) for our lectionary podcast Strangely Warmed. During our time together we talked about the readings for the season of Easter during year A from the Revised Common Lectionary. For the fourth Sunday of Easter, Brian challenged us to make it all about joy (again) while the world struggles under the weight of the current political climate. If you want to hear the conversation and learn more about adding 3,000 people from just one sermon, the challenge of preaching the most well known passage in the bible, the exclusivity vs. inclusivity of the church, spirit animals, and what it means to pray the prayers, you can check out the podcast here: Easter 4A – Brian Zahnd

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In Defense Of The Revised Common Lectionary

Crackers & Grape Juice is an interview-driven theological podcast about faith without using stained glass language. My friends Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and Morgan Guyton started the podcast over a year ago in order to remain connected to one another while also continuing to explore theology. Near the beginning, I was asked to help with editing specific episodes and quickly became part of the team. Since the inception, Crackers & Grape Juice’s audience has grown tremendously thanks, in part, to interviewees such as David Bentley Hart, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, Rob Bell, and others. We are committed to producing and providing faithful content with faithful theologians, but we have also added a new podcast to the mix.

Strangely Warmed is a new lectionary-based podcast designed to address the weekly church reading without using stained glass language. The Revised Common Lectionary is a wonderful resource for churches and one that has come to shape the Christian experience over the last few decades. The RCL is a three-year cycle of four readings for each Sunday and special days throughout the liturgical year. There is always a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel (with a few exceptions). At the heart of the RCL is a desire to bring churches through the great narrative of scripture without being limited by the subjectivity of the preacher.

However, the Lectionary is something unknown in many churches even if the preacher follows it weekly. Therefore, I have created the following Top Ten List in defense of the Revised Common lectionary for pastors and lay people who are interested in following and subscribing to Strangely Warmed. (You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spreaker)

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  1. Our Time is NOT God’s Time
    1. Christians, whether they know it or not, follow a different year than the calendar year. We might write February 28th on our checks and important documents, but for us the day is actually defined by being part of the season of Epiphany (until Ash Wednesday when we enter the season of Lent). To follow Jesus Christ implies a willingness to have our expectations (taught to us by the world) uprooted and flipped by the living God. The RCL helps guide us through the Christian year in such a way that our identity first rests with our discipleship, and then everything else secondarily. Moreover, following something like the RCL is a reminder that our time is not the same thing as God’s time. We might feel wearied by the weight of the most recent political development or social event, but the stories of God’s interaction with God’s people transcend time; they are in fact timeless. There is a great comfort that comes when diving into the strange new world of the bible through the RCL because it provides a sense of perspective that Christians regularly need.
  2. Habits/Discipline
    1. As Stanley Hauerwas has said on a number of occasions: What we believe shapes how we behave. Following the RCL informs our beliefs and necessarily shapes our behaviors, choices, and actions. The lectionary is a habit and requires discipline for both pastors and lay people. I will be the first to admit that there are plenlty of stories in the Bible that I would rather not preach, and when a particular event occurs I often know which story from the Bible would be effective to use from the pulpit in which to address the event. However, only picking and choosing the stories that we are familiar with, or the stories we are comfortable with, furthers the sinful idea that we can fit God into a box. Psalm 23 is a beautiful text and brings comfort to many people, but it cannot be the only thing that we Christians proclaim on a weekly basis. We need the Psalm 22s just as much as the Psalm 23s and the RCL provides that disciplined exposure to the canonical narrative of God’s grace.
  3. Limited Imagination
    1. Similarly, following the RCL, whether in preaching or in a bible study, forces us to proclaim scripture we would otherwise ignore. God can, and does, speak through scripture, even if we can’t imagine how upon first glance. And when we limit the passages on Sunday mornings to, say, the Gospels, we are limiting God’s Word being proclaimed in worship. There are definitely weird and strange passages in both the Old and New Testaments, but committing to them (rather than ignoring them) challenges us to have scripturally shaped imaginations. At the heart of the RCL is a commitment to be under the obligation of the text to say what God wants said for God’s church rather than what the preacher want to say about God to God’s church.
  4. Biblical Literacy
    1. We don’t know our bibles like we once did. Period. I could go on and on about the many times I’ve encountered someone who has gone to church for most of his/her life only to not know about the story of the bible. For instance: I was recently asked if Moses was in the New Testament, another person had no idea who Isaiah was, and another shared her utter shock that when we have communion we are living into the last time Jesus gathered with the disciples. All of those interactions came from people who have been going to church longer than I’ve been alive! Now I’m not say that we need to memorize the entirety of scripture, or get lost in the weeds, but the RCL is a tool to help us reclaim our biblical literacy.
  5. The catholic (universal) church
    1. Preaching and reading from the RCL connects us with the church universal. There is something profoundly beautiful about the fact that two churches, from completely different denominations, can read the same scripture on the same Sunday morning. Personally, this connection with the catholic church has been made manifest in a Lectionary Bible Study I participate in at the church I serve where more than half of the people in attendance attend other churches on Sunday morning. Yet, the same scriptures we read during the week are the ones they encounter on Sunday morning. In a time when there seem to be almost more denomination than there are Christians, the RCL connects us to the united church that Christ prayed for in John 17.
  6. Scripture Interprets Scripture
    1. The bible is cyclical, and you can miss this if you read it in isolation or with the strange collaboration of something like the RCL. For instance, the story of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountaintop is a powerful one in and of itself, but it takes on a whole new meaning when we read it in light of the similarities between Jesus and Moses. Both were born into situations where their lives were in peril, both heard the voice of the Lord in pivotal moments before their ministries began, both proclaimed the law from a mountain, and both had their faces shine in the light of God’s presence. Scripture helps interpret scripture, and the RCL does a pretty good job at pairing readings from throughout the bible that connect with one another.
  7. Christological Focus
    1. Jesus Christ is the lens by which we read scripture. We Christians have the benefit of knowing the “end of the story” when we are reading passages from the Old Testament and we should remember Christ’s role throughout the canon. However, we don’t simply read the New Testament into the Old; we also need to read the Old into the New. The New Testament is filled with scriptural references to the Old Testament that fall flat when we, as preachers and readers, do not draw the connections between the two. And Christ is the glue that holds both Testaments together. The RCL implores those who adhere to it to see the connections between all four readings and how Christ is the means by which they relate to one another.
  8. Inexhaustibility of Scripture
    1. God always has something to say. Now that I’m in my fourth year of ministry, I am making my way through Year A of the RCL for the second time and I am blown away by how much the same scripture I preached on just a few years ago still have so much to say. The way I read John 1 my first year in ministry has changed dramatically and has therefore transformed the way I preach that passage. Similarly, I have been in bible studies and read enough theology over the last few years that I will never look at certain passages the same way again. The RCL allows we preachers to reflect on how we looked at, and preached, a text in the recent past and how we can use in again in the present.
  9. Room for the Spirit
    1. As previously mentioned, there are some difficult passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Passages about the wrath of God or the judgment of God are not easily preached or taught in church. However, using the RCL compels the preacher to rely on the Spirit’s guidance when handling a difficult passage which is something that should be done for every sermon regardless of difficulty. When I was first appointed to St. John’s and was planning worship for the coming months, I made a habit of reading all for lectionary texts for each Sunday and the one I wanted to preach on the least was the one that I picked for the particular Sunday. This simple practice forced me to rely on praying for the Spirit to guide me and for God’s will to be done in a way that made my preaching better, more faithful, and more fruitful.
  10. Being Shaped by the Word
    1. In our current cultural clime (the Reign of Trump), the lectionary helps us negotiate the world in which we find ourselves. Rather than reading into scripture what we want to say, the RCL allows us to proclaim what God wants to say. If we are willing to stand under the text (rather than above it) then we can let the text narrate our lives and we can be faithful. For example: On election day, the gospel lection was about Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple in three days. Stanley Hauerwas was tasked with preaching that week at Duke Divinity School, and he preached about how Jesus just didn’t get it; you don’t tell the Jews the Temple is going to be destroyed in three days if you’re running for office. He then went on to address how the assumption that elections are the means by which just societies are established is an illusion; in the New Testament we learn about how democracies work in the one moment where there is an example of a democratic election… the crowd chose Barabbas. Hauerwas easily could have picked any number of passages from the Bible to preach during Election Day, but he was held accountable to the lectionary, which told him what to preach rather than the other way around. Following the RCL, whether in preaching or in teaching, grants us the freedom to be shaped by the Word.

 

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Devotional – Exodus 24.15

Devotional:

Exodus 24.15

Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.

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I like having a plan. Whether Lindsey and I are preparing to travel with Elijah, or the church is hosting an event, or even just putting together the order of worship for Sunday mornings, I like having a plan. This need for structure and planning probably began during my time in scouting (“Be Prepared”) and it has continued to manifest itself throughout my life over and over again.

When I felt God calling me to a life of ministry as a teenager, I started planning with my home church pastors about where to go to school and how to follow the guidelines of the United Methodist Church to be ordained one day.

When I experienced God calling me to spend the rest of my life with Lindsey, I started planning the perfect way to propose to her while we were dating.

When I received the call to serve St. John’s UMC, I started planning all the ways I could help move and nurture the church even before I set foot on the property.

I like knowing where the road of life is leading me. Yet, for most of the people in scripture, the way forward is more like walking into a dense cloud covering the mountain.

Abraham was told to go to a strange new land and he did not have the advantage of Googling it before he arrived. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it will animals without really knowing what life would be like on the other side of the flood. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and let him float down the Nile River without knowing what would happen to her precious baby boy. And Moses went up on the mountain to encounter the Lord while a cloud covered everything he could see.

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When I read these stories in scripture, they make me anxious. I think they make me anxious because in the characters I encounter a faithfulness that I rarely experience in my own life. Again and again, God’s chosen people are ready and willing to walk into the cloud of the unknown, while I insist on patiently preparing for any and every contingency.

Part of the strange and beautiful mystery of following Jesus Christ is that we do not know where He is leading us. We might have an idea based on stories from scripture and the experiences of the disciples, but the road that leads to life eternal is one that is often covered with a thick and dense cloud.

Or to put it another way, a biblical way: Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rejoice in cloud of the unknown and the comfort of the living God who surrounds you with hope and grace and peace. Celebrate the mystery of not know what is about to come, but that God is with you in the midst of it. Enjoy the strange and beautiful thing we call life; a life that is strange and beautiful precisely because it is not under our control.

God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It

Deuteronomy 23.12-14

You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.

1 Corinthians 14.32-35

And the spirits of prophets are subject to the prophets, for God is a God not of disorder but of peace. As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

 

 

We have a problem. I’m sorry that I have to use the pulpit to bring it up, but this is the best way to reach the highest number of people. We, as a church, have fundamentally broken one of God’s laws and we need to do something about it. We need to pray for forgiveness. We need to seek God’s mercy. And, we should get moving on this issue quickly in order to establish our faithfulness before the Lord.

We need to stop using the church bathrooms.

Now, some of you might be thinking: What in the world? Stop using the bathrooms? We’ve heard him say some strange stuff from the pulpit, but this has to be the strangest!

But scripture is pretty clear. We are supposed to have a designated area, outside the church, where we shall go when nature calls. We are supposed to keep a trowel with us at all times so that when we relieve ourselves outside, we can dig a hole and then cover up our excrement. We need to do this because the Lord is with us when we are in church, therefore this church must be holy and we can’t let the Lord see anything indecent among us.

So, after prayerful consideration, the trustees have voted to permanently close all the bathrooms in the church building, and we will construct some outhouses on the edge of the property for excrement disposal.

Just kidding.

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Have you ever heard someone preach on Deuteronomy 23.12-14? I haven’t, nor have I even encountered it during a bible study. But in the 1880’s, churches and bathrooms were quite the topic of sermonic conversation. The advent of indoor plumbing had arrived and the question about whether or not to have bathrooms in churches started to pop up.

By the logic of the Old Testament, churches were seen just like the Israelite encampments and because of this the same rules about where people could relieve themselves were applied. Many preachers used this argument from their pulpit more than a century ago to fight the growing trend to build bathrooms in churches!

Today, when designing a new church, one of the first questions isn’t what the sanctuary should look like, or what kind of design will enhance the altar, or even how many people can fit in it, but how many bathrooms should there be, and where should they be put.

How do we understand the Word of God? Do we believe that all scriptures have been inspired by God and are useful for teaching? What does it even mean that God inspired the writing of scripture?

Years ago I was invited to participate in a bible study that met once a week. At the time we were going through the gospel of Matthew when one of the women in attendance interrupted with a dilemma for the group. Her son told her that he was thinking about getting a tattoo and she knew that God forbids this kind of behavior in the Old Testament. It was clear that she was looking for approval from the rest of us, but I opened my big mouth and said something like, “Well, I don’t think its that big of a deal” To which she replied, “If God says it in the bible, then the issue has been settled!”

I should have stopped right there, but I couldn’t help myself. “So, you don’t eat pork or shrimp? And you are going to rally the community together to stone your son to death for rebelling against you? And you didn’t mean to wear earrings today because you know the bible forbids them as well?”

This sort of extreme biblical literalism is problematic, and basically impossible. If we try to live by the Word with extreme rigidity, we would not be allowed to wear clothing with blended fabrics, we’d have to completely rethink our diets, working on the Sabbath would get us killed, and men would not be allowed to trim their beards. Ever.

            God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

This is another one of the trite and cliché Christianisms that float around in conversation. When Christians get into an argument about a particular biblical precept, like prohibitions against tattoos or homosexuality, they will take a verse and use it like a weapon against the person they disagree with. God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

But, whether we admit it or not, rarely do we read the bible and think, “Okay, that settles it then.”

Today, no one worries about whether to build a church without a bathroom, we don’t hear preachers belabor biblical dietary restrictions, and we neglect a great number of scriptures while at the same time we use scripture to attack others.

There are all sorts of rules and regulations in scripture that, if we’re honest, we pick and choose to emphasize.

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As we read earlier, Paul is clear in more than one letter that women should not speak in church. And yet, this church had a female pastor for a number of years, and our liturgist this morning just read out loud from the bible! Heaven forbid! A woman speaking in church! Can you believe it?

Of course, some churches still believe that the words about the subordination of women are the gospel truth. In those church, women are not allowed to serve in leadership positions, they are not allowed to teach Bible Studies where men are present, and they are not allowed to serve in any capacity that would require them to speak in front of the congregation.

I’ll tell you right now, this church would not be here if women kept their mouths shut. We are as faithful as we are because the women in our midst have been brave enough to speak what God has placed on their hearts, and because we have listened.

So what are we to do? We can’t just throw out the bible, but at the same time we can’t live by every single word within it.

Like the apostles and disciples before us, we read scripture and we hear God speaking through it. But we also ask questions of it. We consider context. We wonder if God really intended women to remain silent in church. We recognize that things like slavery are counter to God’s will, despite more than 200 verses that support it in the Bible. We don’t preach and teach that having bathrooms inside churches are offensive to God.

We follow Jesus’ example.

Jesus, Son of Man and Son of God, did not adhere to strict biblical literalism. He had different interpretations of the Sabbath restrictions, he had stronger opinions about divorce and adultery, and he regularly disobeyed the Law by eating with those deemed unclean.

Living as a Christian, reading the bible, it’s all about interpretation. And, to be clear, interpretation does not mean to change the text, or to ignore it, but to proclaim it for this time and for this place.

Even the Bibles in our pews are themselves a work of interpretation. Someone, and more often than not some people, made particular choices about how to translate particular words from Hebrew and Greek into English. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you take something like one of the most beloved of all scriptures: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believe in him may not perish but have everlasting life. The word for “perish” in Greek is apollumi which can mean perish, but it can also mean to die, to be destroyed, to be lost, killed, or ruined. Each of these translations can change the meaning of the text slightly, and are therefore a product of interpretation.

So whenever we take up a bible, whenever we flip to a specific passage, the work of interpretation started long before our eyes flow over the English translation. But nevertheless, even the best translations leave us to continue the task of interpretation.

How do we do it? Well, we don’t do it in isolation. We don’t read our bibles in our living rooms never to speak about the words again, we don’t listen to a sermon only to have that be the only time we encounter the words.

We interpret God’s Word in community. We go to bible studies, we send emails to our friends and to our pastor, and we do what we need to do in order to comprehend that which is often incomprehensible.

And we let Jesus help us interpret. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. As the definitive Word, Jesus helps us to understand the words of scripture. We read from the Old and New Testament alike through the lens of Jesus and we begin to wrestle with how these words continue to live and breathe in our lives today.

But that requires a lot more work than “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” It compels us to actually take up our bibles, read them, and talk about them. It challenges us to ask hard questions and produce new ideas. It requires us to believe that this book is in fact the living Word of God and that it continues to speak truth in new and exciting ways, perhaps in ways we cannot even imagine.

This last week has been filled with controversy from the Oval Office. In their first week, the new administration put forth a number of executive orders including a call to begin construction on a wall at our southern border, a gag order for the EPA, and the halting of refugee migration from a number of countries.

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On the same day we celebrate the liberation of the concentration camps in Europe, our country said, “we don’t want them” to people fleeing persecution and destruction.

Now, no one has said that this has been done because of scripture, but the bible should have played a role in the decision if our politicians are going to keep claiming their Christian allegiance.

Moses was a refugee after fleeing from Egypt.

            Ruth was a refugee after her husband died and she followed her mother-in-law to a strange new land.

            The entire Israelite people were refugees in Babylon.

            Jesus, the one we worship here in church, was a refugee. Jesus, like people in the Middle East today, had to flee his home out of fear of violence, persecution, and even death.

And yet, we tout these certain stories from scripture and hold them over people’s heads about behavior and identity. But when we start actively preventing the oppressed from entering the country, we forget all about the story of our Lord and Savior.

People have used this book, with understandings like “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” to attack and belittle people for far too long. It has been used to justify the horrific practice of slavery. It has been used to subjugate and relegate women’s rights. It has been used to rationalize physical violence and aggression toward people of different religions. It has been used to incite fear and terror in those who do not believe. It has been used as a weapon again and again and again.

And now we, the people of God, join together to say “no more!”

“No more!” to the use of scripture like a weapon to oppress the weak and the marginalized. “No more!” to the complacent Christianity that stands idly by as people are attacked for whom they are. “No more!” to the backwards ways of the past that lose sight of God’s grace here and now.

“No more!” to God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Devotional – James 5.8

Devotional:

James 5.8

You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.

Weekly Devotional Image

Christmas pageants require patience. Christmas pageants for preschoolers require particularly profound patience. Every year the students of St. John’s Preschool spend time each day during the season of Advent practicing and rehearsing their lines for their annual Christmas pageant. We always have a Mary and a Joseph who carefully hold a baby doll in their hands as they sit patiently toward the front. We always have a couple Wisemen who are forever beating each other with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And we have an assorted collection of barnyard animals including mice, sheep, cows, and at least one donkey.

Today I gathered with the children in the sanctuary and, as the defacto narrator, I led them through the pageant from beginning to end. When our shyer students walked up to the microphone I was ready to feed them their line and when our gregarious students walked up to the microphone I covered my ears in anticipation of them belting out their one line proclamation.

Meanwhile, a father of one of our students was in the preschool preparing Christmas trees for each of the classrooms. The hope was that after practicing, the children would return to their rooms with the surprise of cheer waiting for them in the form of a tree and then they could decorate each tree as they saw fit.

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When we finished the pageant, I walked with the children to their rooms and as soon as they saw the Christmas trees they went berserk. Our pretend shepherds were jumping up and down while our animals were spinning around in circles and even Mary and Joseph were screaming with joy. I did my best to calm them and then we sat on the floor to talk about the trees and how the relate to the Christmas story. I began with what I thought was a rather innocuous question: “Why do we celebrate Christmas?” To which one of our three year olds shouted out, “TO GET PRESENTS!!!”

Advent is a season of patience. While others want to jump straight to Christmas morning, while our preschoolers salivate over wrapped boxes under the tree, we strive to patiently wait for the coming of the Lord. This is the season of strengthening our hearts so that we might be prepared to receive the gift of the Christ-child with unadulterated joy (like the preschoolers) while also remembering the real present is God’s presence with us.

Devotional – 2 Timothy 2.8-9

Devotional:

2 Timothy 2.8-9

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David – that is my gospel, for which I suffer hardship, even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained.

Weekly Devotional Image

A few of my friends recently embarked on a new venture into the world of podcasting. They call themselves “Crackers and Grape Juice” and they regularly interview people about their faith in order to share the conversations with others through the Internet. One of their regular interviewees is Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal priest, who truly has the gift of preaching. In a recent interview they asked Fleming about her love of scripture and her response was powerful: “If I love scripture, it is because my grandmother read me those stories when I was a child. The role of someone we love, loving us enough to read us scripture, makes all the difference.”

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What do we think of the bible? Is it a text that we are called to master like a subject from school? Should we memorize the facts and dates like a work of history? Should we analyze the literary techniques like a famous work from Shakespeare?

Today, in the lives of Christians, the Word of the Lord is often chained to the realm of the church. If we want our children to learn about the bible, we send them to a Sunday School classroom. If we have a friend grieving the loss of a spouse, we recommend that they go speak with a pastor. If we are unsure about how to encounter a troubling topic, we ask to hear a sermon about it in worship.

But, as Paul reminds us, the word of God is not chained! The bible demands our attention and our affection. It yearns to be read and savored. It should not be relegated to the confines of a church building and should instead sit at the heart of what it means to be a family and what it means to be a community.

Can you imagine how all children would feel about scripture if someone they loved took the time to read them the stories? Can you imagine how differently you would feel about the bible if someone took the time to read it to you when you were younger?

The call of Christians, all Christians, is to remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. We remember the great stories of the bible when we gather together in worship on Sundays, but that is not enough. We remember the greatness of the risen Lord whenever we share his gospel with the people we love: our families, friends, and neighbors. We remember the acts and grace of God whenever we sit down with one of our children and grandchildren to tell them about how Jesus changed our lives. We remember the resurrection when we believe the Word of God is unchained and worthy of our time.