On The Perils Of Going With The Flow

Ephesians 6.10-20

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and have done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrow of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly as I must speak. 

A few weeks ago a young pastor got on the radio to address the nation. He offered a speech entitled, “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Though most of the talk was highly philosophical and kind of dense, it also constructively argued against the type of leadership all too common these days. It boldly claimed that unless something changes, and changes soon, our nation will be lead in a nightmare of violence and misery.

The pastor said a true leader must know the limits of his or her authority. The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity. The leader puts the values of other first, like a good parent does with a child, wishing that child to someday be a worthy parent. 

The young preacher then said this type of leadership is better known as discipleship. Only when we see that leadership is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, then real leadership has been reached.

The pastor said, “All leaders are responsible before God.”

And right then, at that exact moment, the speech was cut off and the line held dead.

Authorities representing those in leadership found the words to be too controversial, and too critical, to allow it to continue. And so, the young pastor’s message on leadership was suppressed all under the auspices of control. 

Can you believe it? Someone was so afraid of that pastor’s words they yanked the power to the radio station just so the words would not hit more ears than they already did. Can you imagine the fear required to stop an address like that? Can you fathom the trouble the preacher got in for saying what was said?

Perhaps you can’t believe it. Maybe you’re thinking, “Surely in today’s world, no one would be so foolish to speak out against the governing authorities and the powers and principalities!” 

Or maybe you’re thinking that the freedom of speech we hold so dear in this country would prevent anyone from being cut off even if he or she was being hyper-critical of those in power.

If you’re thinking any of those things, you’re right. It didn’t happen. At least, in didn’t happen the way I described it…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

On January 30th, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, and thus began what we call the Third Reich. Germany, the land that produced the likes of Bach, Goethe, and Durer was now being led by a man who consorted with criminals and was often seen carrying around a dog whip in public. Hitler was known for his ruthless uses of power for destructive purposes, his love of overwhelming propaganda, and his fear-mongering through scape-goating.

Not many of us today can remember what it was like when he ascended to power simply because we weren’t alive, but the world shuddered when his reign began.

Two days after he was elected by the people of Germany, a young pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address to the entire nation spelling out the dangers of worshipping a leader the way Christians were meant to worship the living God in Jesus Christ. He critiqued a people who were blind to the injustices around them already, and those surely to be committed, and called for Christians to stand firm against an idolatrous nation that would be marched to its doom.

And they pulled him off the radio before he could even finish.

Paul is quite clear in his letter to the church in Ephesus the the role of the Christian is the opposite of going with the flow. He calls for the church to stand, in faith, with all of the armor of God against the evils and injustices of the world made manifest in the powers and principalities. Stand your ground against enemies, rules, authorities, cosmic powers, and all spiritual forces of evil.

This is a call, here at the end of the letter, to be courageous with every fiber of our being regardless of the circumstances. Because standing up in our faith, not necessary for our faith but in our faith, for the vision of the kingdom of God made possible in Jesus Christ will make us unpopular, at least according to the terms and values of the world and culture around us. 

Going against the flow runs the risk of ridicule, if not worse, as we strive to be faithful people living in the community of faith.

Paul’s vision of a church that stands firm in its convictions about the first being last and last being first implies a willingness to debate, a willingness to listen, and a willingness to call into question the powers that be when their values stand in opposition to God’s. In this proclamation, God’s kingdom is the goal, while maintaining the basic principles of discipled living offered to us throughout the centuries.

Sadly, Christians like us are told all too often to just go with the flow, or to chill out, or to relax about everything under the sun. But Paul’s words beg us to reconsider our posture of passivity. 

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We are not merely sitting along for the ride while the world falls apart around us. 

We are bound to the created world around us even if we are no longer able to harmonize with it. 

We have a responsibility of standing up for those who can no longer stand, speaking up for those who no longer have a voice, and empowering those who have been disenfranchised.

And friends, this is not a popular thing to do! We would rather hear from St. Paul about how much easier our lives would be if we could just go with the flow, we’d like to read a passage about how much our lives are going to get better if we stick together, we want God to tell us that every little thing’s gonna be alright. 

Being a Christian isn’t popular, and it certainly isn’t easy.

Paul calls for us to put on the armor of God because we’re going to need it!

Some Christians, since the time of Jesus, have been willing to name the powers and principalities for what they were. They’ve stood firm, without fear, bearing the repercussions of their actions knowing full and well that God was with them regardless of the outcome. They knew the kingdom of God was more important than whatever their lives might be.

Things became quite difficult for young Dietrich Bonhoeffer after he made that first radio address. As Germany descended into Fuhrer-worship with the German church emphasizing politics more than theology, Bonhoeffer struggled with what it meant to be authentic to the Word of God as a pastor. 

With each passing day he saw the injustices and evil being perpetrated in the name of his beloved country to such a frightening degree that when he was once asked about his prayer life, he responded by saying, “If you want to know the truth, I pray for the defeat of my nation, for I believe that is the only way to pay for all the suffering which my country has caused in the world.”

By 1940, Bonhoeffer was forbidden to speak in any public forum and he was required to regularly report his whereabouts and activities to the police. The next year he was forbidden to print or publish any of his thoughts. And on April 5th, 1943, ten years after making his speech on the radio, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo for his continual Anti-Nazi remarks. 

He went to prison for two years and was thankfully able to smuggle out letters filled with theological reflections to friends and family. And though he remained hopeful that the second World War would come to an end, and that he would be released, he was condemned to death just weeks before the camp where he was held was liberated.

Right before his execution, Bonhoeffer was allowed to preside over one final worship service and his last words to his fellow prisoners were: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”

Now, there is a strong temptation for any of us here to hear a story like the one about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and regard him as an exceptional example of what it means to be a disciple. We encounter the story of his firm standing with his faith and because it is such an extreme example we can appreciate it, but we cannot resonate with it.

And this makes sense considering the fact that it is extremely unlikely that any of us here will ever be silenced, or imprisoned, or murdered for our Christian commitment to going against the flow. And yet, Paul is bold enough to conclude this letter with a call to be strong in the Lord in the strength of his power.

We might not encounter a sweeping governmental and idolatrous disaster like the one in Nazi Germany, but we all know the slippery slope that begins when we worship those in power the way we are meant to worship God.

We might not have the opportunity, nor the desire, to speak to the entire nation about the evil in our midst, but we all know of particular ways that our voices can draw attention to injustices that are happening here in our community.

We might not be punished with jail time or threatened with death for calling the powers and principalities into question, but we can all imagine the stress and anxiety that would begin if we did so in small and tangible ways here and now.

Pain and suffering will always come when one prepares to engage with the things that really matter. That’s why we need the church community surrounding us, we need the armor of the Lord protecting us, and we need the voice of the Lord empowering us.

It can be a hard word to any of us who believe that we are a Christian nation, or that Christian values are normative here, but following Jesus actually implies a willingness to be counter-cultural. It means that what we stand firm in and for are not necessarily the same things that the culture around us stands in or for. 

I often joke that Jesus could use some better PR because the stuff the church has to offer doesn’t sell very well. We don’t have simple fixes and salves that make your life go back to normal, we don’t shuffle everyone in here just to pat ourselves on the back and go on our merry way. It should come as no surprise (the more we hear what Jesus had to say) that the once large crowds all but disappeared by the time Jesus was hanging on the cross.

All of this going against the flow isn’t something we’re naturally disposed to. It is so dissonant with much of what we’ve been taught about the ways the world works.

But the kingdom is not the same thing as the world. 

We do this difficult and challenging work not because it is easy or fun but simply because it is what God did for us! If God went with the flow, or just chilled out, we would still be left to our own devices, twiddling away the good gift of creation, still suffering under the reign of sin and death.

But God, in Christ, stood firm for something different. Wearing the armor of God Jesus mounted the hard wood of the cross with the divine declaration that the power of sin, and the empire of the powers and principalities, had come to an end. With a sure and firm foundation the Lord of lords inaugurated the beginning of a new time, one in which real power would be felt in weakness, where standing firm is worth the pain, and where life could be found in death. Amen.

The Advent of Abram – Sermon on Genesis 12.1-9

Genesis 12.1-9

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abrams took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord apprised to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

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Today we begin our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” Advent comes from the latin adventus which means “coming.” These few weeks are integral to the life of our church in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls, for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. This season lends itself to new beginnings, not just in our church, but in each of our lives. This morning we begin with the Advent of Abram.

Wow,” he exclaimed a little too loudly as he began gripping deeply into my shoulder. I found myself staring at one of the groomsmen from the bridal party. We had spent the better part of an hour attempting to line everything up for the wedding during the rehearsal and were now at the Mill Street Grill for the rehearsal dinner.

Wedding rehearsals are crazy; a conflation of friends and family gather together in a church they have never seen, and listen to a pastor they have never met, telling them where to stand and what to do. In no other aspect of ministry is the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep more appropriate than when I plead with the groomsmen to pay attention and start acting appropriately. Things would go so smoothly if the groomsmen would act like the bridesmaids.

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Anyway, I was staring at the groomsmen when he began to lay on the compliments about how well the rehearsal went and how impressed he was with my disposition. “I can’t believe you’re a pastor! I mean, dude, you’re younger than me! And the way you pray, it sounds like you’re actually talking to God, and for real that was awesome.” I will admit that people are rather honest with me, particularly when the rehearsal dinner has an open bar.

A little later another young person from the bridal party came forward to introduce herself and began opening up about her faith. “It has been a long time since I was in a church, but hearing you speak and seeing how serious you are about all this has reignited my faith; If I lived around here, I would want to worship at St. John’s.”

Still later another young man from the wedding walked over and began speaking to me through jovial chuckles and slaps on my back. “Now man I have got to ask, that good looking girl with the blue eyes, are you two together? Cause if not I would love to get her number.” To which I replied, “Till death do us part” and I walked away.

Conversations as a pastor are often one sided: people bring their own sets of questions and baggage about the church and they are looking for me to confirm their suspicions. “Are you really allowed to be married?” “I never knew pastors could be so young” “What do you think about the Catholic church?” are all frequent elements of dialogue.

However, toward the end of the night, after the last call had been made from the bar, yet another groomsmen came forward. At this point I was getting tired of the same trivial conversations about how I knew the bride, what it takes to become a pastor, and how long had I felt called to the ministry. I am sure that I sighed as he came forward, but his question was unlike any of the others…

“How long have you been serving here?” “It’s been about a year and a half” “Is it still everything you thought it would be?” 

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To follow a call from God may be a costly matter, particularly when it leads to a lonely road. Abram was tasked with following the call of God to leave everything based on God’s Word.

One day, an ordinary day, the Lord told Abram to go from his country and his family to the land that God had prepared with the promise that God would make of him a great nation, he would be blessed, and his name would become so great that he would be a blessing. So Abram went.

The simplicity of “so Abram went” is one of the most deceptive phrases in all of scripture. The extraordinary nature of those three words are lost in Genesis 12 if we gloss over it too quickly. Abram was free from indecision, self-doubt, or stubbornness. His willingness to go is the opposite of what took place in the garden of Eden, and demonstrates a radical dependence on the providence of God.

Abram must turn his back on what had been the familiar and the friendly to go out toward the unwelcome and the unknown. His life would be forever changed in his decision to respond to God’s simple push, something that changed the history of humankind.

The call of Abram is not unlike the many callings that God places in each of our lives. It might not come in the definitive and spoken Word as if from the wind, but there are subtle moves and pushes that God does in order to bring about his will on earth. Many people prefer to stay where they are and as they are rather than to try hard to arrive at something different. Once they reach a level of comfort in their lives, they become content with keeping their eyes trained on the dirt instead of gazing up into the stars.

People of apathy appear throughout the bible, people who might have made their lives significant but never wanted to put their effort in to change. The likes of Esau, Jonah, and Solomon grew complacent with their blessings, and stopped dreaming about the future. Their failure was not generally aiming at anything bad as it was in the fact that they did not aim strongly enough at anything!

Abram could have been apathetic, but instead he responded enthusiastically. He took his wife, his brother’s son, and all his possessions and set forth toward the land of Canaan. When he arrived, God made it clear that this would be the place of his offspring, and Abram made an altar to praise the Lord.

Abram might have accepted the divine message with the momentary enthusiasm of a man who is proud to feel that he has been singled out for something special, but quickly cools when he finds where he must go.

Is is still everything you thought it would be?” As soon as I was asked images from the past year and a half floated through my mind – the baptisms, the deaths, the weddings. The tears spilt in my office, the dreaded phone calls from the hospitals, the shaking hands gripped in prayer. The kids laughing in the Preschool, the palms outstretched for communion, the knocks on the door that carried the weight of the world.

Has my enthusiasm cooled? Is this call to ministry everything I thought it would be? I always dreamed about the sermons that would get people to shout AMEN! from the pews. I dreamt about the people who I would help bring to the light of Christ, people whose lives would be radically transformed through God’s Word from this church. I dreamt about all the positive affirmations I would receive from people at the back of the sanctuary following worship.

The more time I have spent following this call from God, the more that I have realized how similar it is to Abram’s journey. Responding to God is not about the results, packed pews, lots of money in the offering plate, and people lining up to commit their lives to Christ. Responding to the call is about walking the lonely path, standing up for what is right, and calling all of us, including myself, to live better and holier lives. 

Moreover, the call is not just for pastors, but for all of us as Christians. God is not looking for people to say all the right things at the right times, people who will proudly place money in the offering plates, people who have perfect posture in prayer. God is looking for disciples who are willing to say “yes” when the world says “no”, people who fight against injustice, and go into the unknown like Abram.

God tells Abram that he will be blessed in responding to the call. The bible makes it very clear that a person can know and recognize their blessedness not when they have managed to get rid of all the dangers and risks and burdens, but when they have been given great and gallant strength to bear them.

The collective group can only move forward when an individual breaks the path ahead. On every level of life there must be a pioneer. Joseph had to dream dreams that went beyond what his brothers wanted, Moses had to stand before the Lord and plead for the forgiveness of God’s people, and Jesus had to push his friends further and farther than they ever wanted to go.

Only when people are brave enough to rise above the crowd, only when they set out on new beginnings, do they follow the roads of freedom for their souls.

The past week has been filled with frightening examples of our need to start standing up against the crowd mentality of our culture:

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We need a new beginning when it comes to the foolishness of sitting around a family table to give thanks, to then punch one another in the face while wrestling for Black Friday deals. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to a nation flocking to Facebook to express their opinions about what is going on in Ferguson, when they neglect to create real and meaningful relationships with those around them. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to our denomination meeting for a day of “holy conferencing” about homosexuality when we keep talking about it as an “issue” instead of it being about people. 

We need new beginnings all around us, and its up to people like you and me to listen like Abram and start walking down the strange new road.

Wherever Abram went he built an altar to the Lord. While responding to the call of God he recognized the importance of worshipping the Maker in whom we live for the true blessings of life. Having a new beginning implies understanding that worship is important for the cultivation of one’s soul. We gather here in this place week after week to hear the Word of God and respond to it in our lives, we gather to feast on the Word so that we can encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to take radical steps of faith into new beginnings just like Abram.

Abram left it all for a new beginning in a new place. He traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in the hill country on the east of Bethel. Many years later a young virgin named Mary and a man named Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for a new beginning in a new place. They traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in a village without space at the inn, but brought a child into the world who changed everything.

Is it still everything you thought it would be?” the man asked. I thought for a long time before I responded, reflecting on all that has happened to our precious church over the last year and a half. “No, its not everything I thought it would be. It is so much harder. But thats why its worth it.”

Amen.