Not My President

 

Colossians 1.11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.

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A year ago today I stood in this pulpit and preached about how God’s kingdom is not of this world. I used Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus (“Are you the King of the Jews?” “You say that I am…”) to juxtapose the world’s expectations against God’s expectations. The sermon ended with a staccato’d refrain that emphasized the kingship of Jesus and our allegiance to his kingdom.

I said:

The world tells us to gain all we can.

            Jesus tells us to give all we can.

            The world tells us to seek vengeance.

            Jesus tells us to seek forgiveness.

            The world tells us to destroy our enemies.

            Jesus tells us to love our enemies.

            The world tells us we are the center of the universe.

            Jesus tells us that God is the center of all things.

            The world tells us to ignore the weak.

            Jesus tells us that the meek shall inherit the earth.

            The world tells us that death is the end.

            Jesus tells us that death is the beginning.

I didn’t think it at the time, but it was a pretty political sermon. After all, making the claim that Christ is our King is a political statement. But what I didn’t anticipate was how the words from that sermon would play out over the next 365 days.

We’re told not to mix politics with religion. Political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere, they are things we can think about on our own time but the world has no right to interfere with either.

Except the world interferes with both all the time. We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back the Supreme Court, and I even get emails asking about what the church is going to do regarding local school board decisions.

We hear that the church is not supposed to be political. We shouldn’t endorse particular candidates or platforms. We shouldn’t tell people how to vote, or even to vote at all. The church can’t be political in the sense that it can’t be Republican or Democrat, but the church itself is a politic. To be part of the church, to be part of the body of Christ, implies that our worldview is changed and therefore everything else changes as well.

Like many Sundays throughout the liturgical year, this one has a special focus and significance. However, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the Christian calendar. Whereas Christians have celebrated the likes of Maundy Thursday and Pentecost for a long time, Christ the King was only established as official day in the church in 1925. It took the church 1900 years to need this day the same way that we need it now.

In 1925, Mussolini had been head of Italy for 3 years, a loud insurrectionist in Germany named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was rapidly growing in power, and the entire world was suffering under the weight of a Great Depression.

Yet, despite the rise of autocratic dictators, despite the lack of economic opportunities, despite the strange and uncomfortable silence between two World Wars, Christ the King asserted, and still does, that Jesus Christ is Lord and he shall reign forever and ever.

Throughout the last Christian year from Christ the King to Christ the King, we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God in the stories from Creation to Redemption, we’ve been transformed by the Word of the God becoming incarnate in the way we live our lives…. And all of this, all of the Sundays, all of the sermons, all of the scriptures, have pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.

That’s the thing about Christians, for us everything starts and ends with Jesus. In his letters Paul addresses this strange and beautiful quality of Jesus over and over again. And rather than trying to accommodate Jesus to the ways of the world, Paul calls for all Christians to put Christ first. Yet, Christ is the King of a Kingdom that is so different, and so far from what we’re comfortable with, that putting Jesus first is difficult.

In Jesus’ kingdom the rules and the ruler are different. All assumptions about what is important, and who we are to be, and what we are to care about, have been changed.

It’s like being deported to a strange new land where everyone else is speaking a strange language. It takes time to learn the lingo, and adapt to the habits of the people around us. It’s not a simple matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking, nor is it just giving an hour of our week to worship in a church. We don’t fit Jesus into our lives; Jesus fits us into his.

We are the ones transferred, moved, and deported from one kingdom to another. We move from the kingdom of consumption to the kingdom of communion; from the kingdom of popularity to the kingdom of poverty; from the kingdom of destruction to the kingdom of deliverance; from the kingdom of competition to the kingdom of cooperation.

Everything about what we think we know and understand changes in the kingdom of God, because Christ is King.

USA ELECTION AFTERMATH

The last two weeks have been particularly tumultuous in our country: Economically disenfranchised people are fearful about the potential of losing their health care coverage, while some devastated Democrats are calling for the murder of Donald Trump. Muslims are being threatened with a registration much like the Jews were forced to register in Germany prior to World War II, while Trump voters are being physically assaulted across the national landscape. Immigrants are cowering in fear over whether or not they’re going to be deported, while countless protestors are flooding the streets of cities and the pages of social media with the declaration: Not My President.

Some are berating and demeaning the crowds for their rejection of Donald Trump as their president as if this is the first time people have rejected the president-elect in the United States. It was only sixteen years ago that tee-shirts and bumper stickers were mass produced with pictures of George W. Bush accompanied by the words: Not My President. It was only 8 years ago that Confederate flags were waved during protests after Barack Obama won the election and people were chanting: Not My President.

Thank God Jesus is not our president.

For if Jesus were our president we would have had to pick him to lead us, and we never would have picked him to lead us. We would never willingly elect someone who told us that the first will be last and the last will be first. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to sell all of our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to open up all the borders and let all the refugees in. We would never willingly elect someone who spent so much time with the riff-raff of society.

If Jesus were our president he would be a product of the world rather than a product of God’s incarnation. He would have to make promises to the rich in order to maintain economic stability. He would have to compromise with other world leaders who treat their citizens like dirt. He would have to second-guess the stories he told out of fear that he would not be re-elected in the future.

If Jesus were our president he would have to make us promises that he could never keep, instead of being the glue that keeps all of us together. He would have to take sides in political debates and ostracize entire communities. He would have to brag about the stability of the union rather than name the brokenness that is keeping us from becoming who God is actually calling us to be. He would have to order the extermination of particular individuals and communities in order to keep our country safe.

Thank God Jesus is not our president. Jesus is our King. And instead of electing him, he elected us.

The kingdom Jesus rules is not of this world and it forces us to confront how broken our world really is. Jesus, as our king, subverts the powers and principalities and shows us a new way.

In this broken and flawed world, we see and know God because we see and know Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible, the very beginning of everything in creation. Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

When we encounter things that appear diametrically opposed, things like Republicans and Democrats, Christ is the glue that holds it all together. Through the blood of his death, the blood that was poured out for the world, we encounter the “other” as brother and the “stranger” as “sister.” All the worldly things that seek to divide us are broken down by the glory of the cross that seeks to bring peace and reconciliation rather than division and destruction.

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It is not an easy thing to be a Christian, to worship Christ as King. We need the strength of God to endure everything with patience while giving thanks to the Father, because we cannot do discipleship on our own. But when Christ becomes first in our lives, when every Sunday is like Christ the King Sunday, when we realize that we a part of a strange new kingdom, everything else starts to change.

Our King does not build walls to keep people out, nor does our king require the registration of different communities under the auspices of “safety.” Our King invites all to the table to discover the power and love of his grace.

Our King does not call for his followers to take up the sword to wipe out political opposition. Our King forgave the people who delivered him to the cross.

Our King does not pander to us with empty promises in order to procure our allegiance. Our King meets us where we are with a simple invitation saying, “follow me.”

Nearly 100 years ago, Christians all across the world needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a Sunday set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.

Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it helps to remind us that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality of our King being nailed to a cross for the people of his kingdom. It reminds us that peace comes through his sacrifice, a sacrifice that we remember at this table.

Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, but be transformed by the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Table. Instead of consuming the politics and priorities of the world, be consumed by the grace of God made manifest is Jesus Christ. Reject the powers and principalities that seek to undo God’s creation, and kneel before the true King: Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Problem with The Pledge of Allegiance

“I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

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It has been ten years since the last time I placed my hand over my heart and said the words to the pledge of allegiance. For the better part of eighteen years, I started every morning in school by standing up with my classmates, turning to the corner where the flag was standing, and saying those words that countless Americans have said throughout the decades. But then I stopped, and I haven’t since.

I was in 8th grade and living in Alexandria, VA when 9/11 happened. I can remember my father taking me out of school before it went on lockdown. I can remember sitting on the carpet in the living room watching the towers fall over and over and over again on television. I can remember my dad saying, “I bet Osama bin Laden had something to do with it” and I had no idea who Osama bin Laden was, or how my dad knew who he was. I can even remember realizing that nothing would ever be the same.

In the weeks that followed everything was a blur of red, white, and blue. The country had not experienced a wave of patriotism and nationalism to that degree since the end of World War II. My friends and I had conversations in the lunch hall about how we needed to go to war and kill the people who killed our people. We seriously wondered if the country would reinstitute the draft. And we proudly stood each and every morning to pledge our allegiance to the flag that was now flying in every front yard and on every car-bumper.

Over the next few years my dedication to the eradication of terrorism grew and grew. When members of Amnesty International painted our high school rock with words about peace and love, I got my friends together and we painted over it in black and red paint with things like “Pro-War” and “Bomb Saddam.” When we learned about how our country had played a major role in the chaos of the Middle East, I tuned out my teachers and ignored the textbooks. And when President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier to declare that we were victorious I beamed with pride.

But then a strange thing happened; I started really paying attention in church. I waited for our pastor to echo the same sentiment of celebration that President Bush declared. I waited to hear him give thanks to God for our victory over tyranny and oppression. I waited to learn about God’s saving hand over America from the pulpit. And those things never came. Instead we were asked to do something bizarre: pray for our enemies.

I heard the words of Jesus in a way I never had before, and it forced me to confront my own sinfulness. The more I read the bible the more I realized that my behavior was just like the crowds standing before the cross shouting, “crucify!” The more I read about Jesus’ way, the more I realized that I had fallen short of God’s glory and that I needed to repent. The more I experienced God’s grace the more I realized that my feelings were in conflict with my faith.

And then the words of the pledge of allegiance started sounding strange. I continued to stand with my peers throughout high school, I placed my hand on my heart and said the same words, but it made me uncomfortable. And then one day I stopped, and I haven’t since.

This has been particularly awkward at times; like when I was asked to speak before a local Kiwanis meeting and I felt the eyes of everyone in the room when I did not participate in the pledge of allegiance, or like when I gathered with a community band on the Fourth of July to play patriotic music and I was the only one who did not pledge allegiance to the giant flag waving gently in the breeze.

I am not against the American Flag, and I do not wish to be disrespectful toward it. I am not against our military nor am I a traitor. Instead, as a Christian, I have problems with the pledge of allegiance.

When we pledge our allegiance to a flag and whatever it stands for, it means we are pledging our allegiance to everything the flag represents; The flag that stood at the frontlines of Native American massacres; the flag that orchestrated coups in foreign countries for our own benefit; the flag that suppressed minority voices and segregated races; the flag that has benefited the rich at the expense of the poor; the flag that symbolizes “freedom” but really means “if you’re not with us, then you’re against us.” Our flag, and what it stands for, is something that puts me at dis-ease and is not something that I can blindly pledge allegiance to.

When we pledge allegiance to one nation under God it means that we believe that we are one nation, and that we believe in one God. We are not one nation. Just turn on the news for five minutes, or listen to the bickering of our politicians, or the activists from Black Lives Matter, or anything else and it is clear that we are not one nation. Day after day we are at odds with one another over some of the most important and some of the most frivolous things. And we are certainly not all Christian. Oddly enough, the words “under God” were not added to the pledge until the 1950’s when the Christian church in America started to decline. Though Christians are called to make disciples, we are not called to do so by conscription. To expect and force all citizens to pledge an allegiance to one nation under God fundamentally goes against the freedom of religion that we so dramatically praise on a regular basis. Moreover, to expect and force all citizens to pledge their allegiance to one nation under God fundamentally goes against Jesus’ command to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” If we would not stand to pledge our allegiance to one nation under Allah, or under Buddha, or under Krishna, then we should not expect others to do the same to God.

When we pledge allegiance to a nation that stands for liberty and justice for all we must wrestle with the fact that our country does not have liberty and justice for all. The rise of voter registration laws that unfairly affect those of a lower socio-economic status means we do not have liberty and justice for all. The frighteningly high incarceration rates of minorities mean we do not have liberty and justice for all. The unbelievably prevalent examples of gender discrimination and wage gaps mean we do not have liberty and justice for all. The seemingly endless episodes of violence against those who are different than the norm mean we do not have liberty and justice for all.

I am grateful for the freedoms that this country affords me. I believe in paying my taxes even if they are used for something I might not agree with. I am thankful for a military that defends the weak across the world. But my allegiance is not with America; it is with Jesus Christ. And that doesn’t make me un-American. It just makes me a Christian.

On The Separation of Church and State

Romans 13.1

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

John 15.12-19

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.

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Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series is something different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of church, we are confronting some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I will say something from this pulpit over the next two months that you won’t agree with, and if that happens I encourage you to stay after worship, join us for lunch, and continue the conversation. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we begin with The Separation of Church and State.

The Church and the State have a long and complicated relationship. Like a number of romantic couples from popular TV shows, think Ross and Rachel, Sam and Diane, Jim and Pam, Luke and Lorelai, and even Kermit and Miss Piggy, the “will they/won’t they” question of their relationships has happened over and over and over again.

It began during the days of Jesus. A wandering and poor Jew developed a following that threatened the power dynamics of the Jewish leadership and the Roman Empire. His actions might have appeared innocuous, feeding the multitudes by the sea, healing the blind, walking on water, but what he said terrified those in power: “The last shall be first and the first shall be last,” sounds the beginning of a call to revolution.

And for living and healing and preaching the way he did, Jesus was nailed to a cross. But three days later he rose from the dead. The Christian church began in the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, the power of the Good News of God’s triumph over death spread throughout the region and small groups gathered together to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. The book of Acts, and Paul’s letters, help us to see how the story traveled and took hold of the communities where it was received. Lives were transformed; the gospel spread, and the kingdom began to become incarnate.

But whatever the church stood for, and whatever the state stood for, was very different.

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Most of what we know about the early church comes from scripture. Which is to say, we know what the church thought about the church. However, we do have some idea of what the state thought about the church. Pliny the Younger was the governor of Pontus (Asia Minor) from 111 to 113 CE. During his rule he wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan about the Christians in his community in response to their unwillingness to worship the Emperor: “They [the Christians] asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault of error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, not to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food – but ordinary and innocent food.”

The first Christians were strange, with their singing songs to a man who died on a cross, and sharing bread and wine, and promising to be good and trustworthy. How bizarre. And for nearly 300 years they were persecuted, abused, and killed for following Jesus. The state, Rome, resented the Christians and their weirdness. They refused to bow down to worship the Emperor like everyone else. Instead they believed some guy named Jesus was Lord. And for that, they were punished.

But then things changed.

In the year 312 CE something happened that forever affected the relationship between the church and the state. I cannot overemphasize this point enough; it changed everything. The story goes that emperor Constantine was preparing his troops for a battle against a rebellion from within the empire, and on the night before the battle he had a vision of the Greek letters Chi (X) and a Rho (P) in the sky and the words, “in this sign you will conquer.” From this vision Constantine ordered all of his troops to be marked with the Chi-Rho, which looks like the symbol on the right hand page of your bulletin. Chi and Rho are the first two letters of Christos (the Greek version of “Messiah”). After doing so, Constantine’s army won a decisive victory and he entered Rome shortly thereafter as the undisputed Emperor. The battle gave him complete control of the Western Roman Empire and it paved the way for Christianity to become the dominant faith.

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The very next year Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which made Christianity an officially recognized and tolerated religion in the Roman Empire. Within a dozen years, he called for the Council of Nicaea, which was the first attempt to attain a consensus in the church through an assembly representing all of Christendom.

From a vision of two Greek letters in the sky, Christians went from being persecuted and murdered, to being part of the state religion.

And now we fast-forward to today, to the United States, to a country founded on the principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and the Separation of Church and State. After centuries of the church and state co-mingling to a frightening degree, the founders decided to move in a different direction. After being persecuted for their different religious convictions they envisioned a new way forward. Recognizing that this place was, and could continue to be, a melting pot of differing ideologies, the forefathers articulated a political system whereby the state could not control religion, nor could religion control the state, and that those two things would find their fullest potential while being completely separated.

Constantine’s vision of conquering under the sign of Christ was over, and the time of secularism began.

Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, said, “Be subject to the governing authorities.” This is to say, follow the laws of the land, pay your taxes, be good citizens. Paul’s words echo through the centuries and reverberate here in this sanctuary: Do as the country tells you to do. If you’re called to serve in the military, go to war. If its time for a presidential election, vote with your conscience. If the government says there’s a separation of church and state, keep it that way.

And Jesus, speaking to his disciples said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you… If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.” Jesus’ words echo through the centuries and reverberate here in this sanctuary: Following me means acting like me.   If people are being persecuted, you are to love them with every fiber of your being. If the government starts belittling people for what they believe, you need to stand up for the oppressed. If you feel called to live like a disciple, prepare yourself to be hated by the world.

These two scriptures from Romans and John contain the tension of what it means to be a Christian in the United States. We constantly wrestle between being subject to the governing authorities and pushing back against the governing authorities. We wrestle between what it means to love the world and what it means to be hated by the world. We, as disciples, live in the world but we are not of the world. We may be citizens of the United States, but our truest citizenship is in heaven.

Years ago there was a civil case raised against an organization for displaying a nativity scene on public property. Because of the separation of Church and State, the concerned citizen believed the nativity scene had to be removed. However, when the matter was brought to trial, the court ruled in favor of the Christian display. The reasoning was that because the nativity scene was next to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus, it had every right to be there. Christians across the country rejoiced when the matter was settled and celebrated what they thought was a decisive victory for the church.

But was it? Should we celebrate a time when the nativity is one of many signs of the holiday? Or should we savor its sacredness? Do we want the nativity to be the same as holiday cartoons, or do we want it to symbolize the profound incarnation of God in the flesh being born in a manger?

A few years ago there was another civil case raised against a baker for refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding. Because of the freedom of religion, the baker believed it was within his right to refuse service to people who went against his religious convictions. The matter went to trial and the judge ruled that the baker unlawfully and illegally discriminated the couple for their sexual orientation. Christians across the country protested when the matter was settled, and vehemently opposed the ruling.

Were they right? Should Christians support the freedom to pick and choose who they serve? Or should they follow the command to love the way Jesus loved? Do we want the church to be connected with the religious liberty that isolates particular people, or do we want to go against the conventions of fanatical Christianity and love people regardless of any particular identity?

The separation of the Church and the State is a good thing because for too long the state controlled the church. The Constantinian revolution was certainly responsible for spreading Christianity across the globe, but it also led to things like the Crusades and the Inquisition. Constantine co-opted the church for the role of government in such a way that it limited the qualities that made Christians strange, and instead made them normative. Gone were the days when people lived by the convictions of Christ, and instead they went to church because that’s what they were expected to do.

But the era of Constantine did not die when our nation was founded. Though we articulate beliefs like the Separation of Church and State, it still says, “in God we trust” on our national currency, children still pledge their allegiance to the flag and country under God every morning before school starts, and we still have many courts where we must place our hands on a bible and are asked, “Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

So perhaps now is the time, the best time, to recover those qualities that will make the world hate us. Not the qualities of religious bigotry and prejudice that for too long have dominated the state’s view of the church. But the qualities of Christ-like love that drive the state crazy. Like refusing to bow and worship our country and our politicians as if they were gods, and instead worshipping the risen Lord. Like gathering together on a day set apart to hold ourselves accountable to honesty, truthfulness, and peace. Like sitting before a table of ordinary food of bread and wine that becomes the extraordinary gift of body and blood.

We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We might have national citizenship, but our true Lord is Jesus Christ. We are like strangers living in a strange land. Amen.

 

Controversy Original