Let the Revolution Begin!

Mark 11.1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it, and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and other spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple, and when he looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

While growing up in the church there were few Sundays as exciting as Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday we, as children, always arrived a little bit earlier to church with joyful hope and anticipation for the parade of palms that would mark the beginning of worship.

Like shepherds guiding the sheep, we were herded into a single-file line down the hallway by the narthex, we were each handed a single palm frond, and were given these detailed and explicit instructions: “You will march down the center aisle, you will wave your palms, and you WILL NOT HIT EACH OTHER.”

And so the hymn would begin in the sanctuary, and we would quickly file into the house of worship waving palm branches above our heads while all the adults shouted “Hosanna!”

That was the routine every year. Regardless of whatever was going on in the world, or even in the church, on Palm Sunday the kids got to participate in, and frankly lead, worship.

At least, that used to be the routine.

Sometime among the years, we decided that we could march down the center, we could wave our palms, but it would be far more fun if we did so while we were hitting each other with the palm branches.

It started subtlety, one young boy raised the palm branch higher than usual, and instead of waving it back and forth, he brought it down with passion on the head of the girl in front of him. To which she turned around and smacked him across the chest. And as if the message shot throughout the aisle, we all began pummeling each other until the formerly apathetic adults jumped into the pile and broke up the fight.

The was the last time they let the kids lead the parade.

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And, to be clear, I am not advocating for brawls to break out between the pews. However, that palm branch debacle was probably more faithful to the truth of Palm Sunday than any peaceful and cherubic portrayal.

This world of ours revolves around, and is perpetuated by, violence, war, and aggression. Therefore, the question remains: what does it mean to wage peace?

When we open our eyes to the brokenness of the world, we cannot ignore the immense pain, conflict, and destruction around us. On Thursday night we had a bible study here at the church and I challenged those in attendance to fill the white board with examples of problems just in our local community, and in a few minutes we completely ran out of space.

We are broken people living in a broken world.

The people in Jerusalem were crying out of deep fear, pain, and grief, when Jesus rolled into town. Like the scores of young people who marched on major cities this weekend, they saw the world around them as imperfect and they were looking for a change.

Jesus came proclaiming and promising that the kingdom of God was near, and everyone assumed they knew what that meant. Even the disciples had their own ideas about who this Messiah of theirs was. All were eager to make sure their understanding and expectations of a new beginning were met in the person of Jesus.

And so they shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming kingdom!”

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We might hear those words and picture perfect children singing in 4 part harmony, we might even imagine the scene from Jesus Christ Superstar when a bunch of hippies surrounded a white Jesus in color coordinated liturgical dance moves. But those imagined scenes do a disservice to the truth: the crowds were looking for a revolution.

It’s hard to translate the word “Hosanna” but the closest connection might be the expression “Save us!” It is an emphatic demand, a desire for the status quo to be disrupted; it is a call of desperation.

That same phrase of “Hosanna!” was shouted in those same streets of Jerusalem 150 years before Jesus rode into town. There was a Hebrew family named the Maccabees who stirred up a violent political revolution that somehow drove the mighty Roman Empire out of their city. That family ruled after the bloody battle until, inevitably, the empire returned and reasserted their violent power.

When the crowds during that Palm Sunday shouted “Hosanna!” they were doing so with the memory of what happened the last time a revolutionary paraded into town. Their cries to be saved and delivered came with the expectation that blood would roll through the streets of Jerusalem as they took their city back.

            But, of course, by the end of the week, only Jesus’ blood would be rolling through the streets.

If this sounds difficult to process, or if your mind is having a difficult time rationalizing the fact that on Palm Sunday Jesus appeared more like Che Guevara than Mother Teresa, it’s because we’ve watered down the frightening truth of the beginning of Jesus’ final earthly week.

Parading into Jerusalem with the crowds screaming and waving was a seditious act; it was a street demonstration, one in which the Romans were probably waiting in their riot gear for the first sign of violence. It was a rally that teetered on the verse of a riot.

Jesus rode straight into the heart of the empire’s kingdom in Jerusalem, into the realm in which violence and destruction ruled the day. The people gathered and shouted and cheered him on with hopes that a revolution would begin.

And he did it all on the back of a colt, with no weapon but the Word.

Jesus was, and is, a revolutionary. But his revolution is one that begins in the heart, and transforms the world. His way is a new way, a new kingdom, a deeper covenant, in which strength is found in simplicity, wealth in generosity, and power in humility.

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No one’s blood would be spilled except for the revolutionary on the colt, who heard the crowds shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday and “Crucify!” on Friday.

And all the while, Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. When we think about Palm Sunday we are mostly consumed by the images of the road, and the crowds, and the branches. But in the actual scripture, most of the passage is about the plan. Go to the village, find a colt, tell them the Lord needs it, bring it to me. The preparation is part of the plan.

And all of these elements are important because they point to the greater political ramifications of this poor Jewish rabbi upending the world.

Jesus begins at the Mount of Olives, which was the traditional location from which people expected the final battle for Jerusalem to begin. It was there that Jesus began his final campaign in the holy city. Jesus sends out the disciples for provisions, all of the items necessary for the revolution. However, the items and the situation become rather weird. The Lord does not require weapons of warfare and conflict, but a small colt (not even a full grown donkey). Jesus parades into the heart of the empire’s imperial stronghold unarmed and on the back of a small animal.

It is a parody of power.

The whole scene, from the Mount of Olives, to the crowds screaming, to arriving late in Bethany, they all show how Jesus is turning worldly notions of power upside down. It is in these things that Jesus proclaims, through his actions, that the last will be first and the first will be last. It is explosive in scope because here, in this scene, Jesus is at his most wild and political self.

It truly was the beginning of the revolution.

And yet, we portray this frightening and pivotal moment with a levity that should leave us reeling. This decisive event cannot, and should not, be limited to an opening processional where children, or even a whole congregation, are waving palm branches, with cute smiles and contentment.

We have the benefit of knowing the whole story, we know what happens at the end of the week, and still we, like the crowds and the disciples, assume we know what’s best for Jesus. We make Palm Sunday all about us and the ways we celebrate and we remember. But this day is really not about us. Save for the fact that we just as easily vacillate between asking for God to save us and shouting for God’s destruction.

Palm Sunday is focused on Jesus, on his willingness to upset that status quo, on his subverting the powers and principalities with a new revolution.

On the other side of Easter, when the earliest disciples began spreading the news of the resurrection, when the birth of church took place, rumors began to spread about these Christ people. They were strange and subversive, not because they plotted to overthrow the empire with violent means, but because they gathered together for meals and prayer, they shared all that they had, and they made sure that no one was in need.

At first they were simply called people of “The Way.” A way that seemed very strange to the world. But very quickly, as they began to grow and spread throughout the greater Mediterranean area, they we given a new name. They were called world turners, because they were charged with trying to turn the world upside down.

They believed that power, true power, was found in sacrifice and not in violence. They believed that love would always be more powerful than hate. And they believed that Jesus, the one they followed, made the impossible possible.

If any of you turned your televisions on yesterday, you saw millions of young people in this country, millions of young people all over the world marching toward the places of power. They were marching for their lives, because they believe a change needs to come.

I saw a video of one of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in which he was asked, “What are you hoping to accomplish? What needs to change?” And he said, “I don’t care if Congress is with us or against us, change is coming.” (That sounds pretty seditious right?) He ended by finally stating, “Today the revolution begins!”

Frankly, I agree with him, and the church should be allied with those who are seeking peace in the world. However, there was one thing he said that was wrong: the revolution didn’t begin yesterday – it began on Palm Sunday. Amen.

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The End Of The Rainbow

Genesis 9.8-17

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Lent is a season of repentance and introspection. However, that doesn’t mean the liturgical season encourages navel-gazing – in fact it compels us to look at our lives individually and corporately. Lent almost forces us to ask, “How have I failed, and how have we failed?”

It is not an easy season in the life of the church.

In preparing for this Lent I was struck by the theme of covenants – both biblical and otherwise, and what they have to do with our faithfulness. Almost everyone here is familiar with what a covenant is, we’ve borrowed money, or rented an apartment, or purchased a car, all under the auspices of a contract. They exist because of a fundamental distrust that we have for one another and institutions, we use them to protect ourselves should the other not hold up their end of the bargain.

Yet the truest and deepest relationships are those built on trust – when we lovingly yield ourselves to the other with vulnerability and fragility. And that is precisely what God has offered us in the covenant – the vulnerability required for true trust.

 

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Things were looking good for the people of God, but just six chapters into the Good Book, humanity has become polluted beyond repair. The situation was so terrible that God sends a flood to start over. However, God calls upon Noah to build an Ark that will be the seed of new life, and he and his family, plus two of every animal are spared..

And then, after rocking gently on the waves for forty days and forty nights, the waters recede; the family and animals walk down the ramp, and up in the sky is a rainbow declaring God’s love toward all of creation.

This, of course, is the most beloved of all Sunday School stories for children. I have yet to encounter a church nursery or children’s Sunday school room in which the ark wasn’t painted on a wall, or a book describing the events couldn’t be found on a shelf, or plastic figurines of the animals and Noah weren’t tossed in a corner after years of repeated use and play.

At my last church I would take time every year to teach the children in our preschool about Noah and his Ark. We would put on little animal masks and line up two by two and march around the church property making animals sounds as loud as we possibly could while cars would slow down to watch a tall bearded man lead a group of children in flapping their wings, clomping their jaws, and shaking their tails.

And it would inevitably end in the playground where there was a large plastic boat that had enough space for everyone to climb aboard. We would pretend that the waves we shaking us back and forth, and then we’d look up in the sky for our make-believe rainbow.

            The end.

And we almost always tell the story that way; we jump straight to the rainbow. But in jumping ahead, we forget about the immense devastation the survivors would have witnessed. We forget that God sent the flood for a reason, and that death and carnage would have spread as far as the eye could see.

Have you seen what Houston looked like after the flood waters receded? Do you remember how long it took to sift through the entire city of New Orleans after Katrina? That’s what the flood must have been like, but worse.

            And we teach this story to our children.

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The rainbow was in the sky as a sign and reminder of the covenant God made with God’s people, but it was also done in the presence of death and destruction. “Never again,” says the Lord, “Will I destroy the earth.”

On Wednesday afternoon, while countless Christians were walking around with ashes in the sign of a cross smeared across their foreheads, a young man pulled the fire-alarm at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and waited for people to pour out in the hallways. And then he began shooting.

17 dead, another dozen injured.

In October, a man looked out from his room in Las Vegas at the crowds of people dancing at a music festival. While the pumping music was filling the air, he added to it with the sound of gunshots.

58 dead, 851 injured.

On December 14th, 2012, a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and began shooting.

20 dead, the majority of whom were 6 or 7 years old.

Since the shooting at Sandy Hook, more than 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings. Those numbers don’t include what happened in Las Vegas, or a number of other shooting related events. But in the last five years, 400 people have been shot in over 200 school shootings.

Called to life out of chaos and nothingness by the breath of God, we humans seem at every turn bent on returning to that chaos. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” And so God sent the flood.

Following the Flood, God placed the rainbow in the sky, and God promised to never drop such violence on us again, and for some reason, we’ve failed to hold up our end of the bargain.

God’s act over creation binds all of creation together, from the fish in the sea to the birds in the air, to the people in the pews next to you. And yet violence, anger, aggression, they rule the day. They captivate our attention, they fuel our inner thoughts, they drive our responses to frustration. We are a people near the end of the rainbow.

It’s like we’re so obsessed with the end of the story, we forget what got us here.

Since Wednesday afternoon I have been bombarded with messages from people both inside and outside of the church.

On one side there are people fighting for stricter gun control. They believe that sensible legislation could prevent events like those we’ve seen as of recent from ever happening again. They want to make it harder to purchase a firearm.

It’s important to note, that of the last 18 mass shootings, the majority of the firearms were purchased legally and with a federal background check.

On the other side, there are people fighting for greater access to weapons and freedom to use them. They believe that arming teachers and administrators will prevent events like those we’ve seen as of recent from ever happening again. They want to protect their freedom to defend themselves and others.

Violence, it seems, is inescapable. Regardless of the rainbows above our heads, this world of ours is captivated by one in which the power to end life reigns supreme.

But God has a knack for making a way out of no way.

We all know what chaos looks like, we don’t need the reminder from Genesis, we have the nightly news, and Facebook, and Twitter to show us what real chaos looks like. But it is in the midst of chaos, with the stories flooding in and the destruction around our ankles, that the rainbow arches across the sky demanding our attention.

And when we see that bow, when we hear about those teachers who sacrificed their lives to protect their students, when we witness the children standing in front of the school praying for their friends, we remember what God did for humanity and all of creation, we get a taste of the covenant, we discover redemption.

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Maybe that’s why we teach children the story of Noah and the Ark, and the rainbow in the sky, even if we’ve lost a connection to its deep and frightening truth – we want our children, in fact we want everyone, to know that God’s love and hope is present in the chaos, that even while the world is full of disturbing devastation, God has not forgotten us.

In the covenant made through the sign of the rainbow, God bound God’s own self to us in a new and different way. God became intimately connected with the creatures of his creation, preserving, sustaining, and encouraging them (us) toward redemption.

The rainbow, therefore, acts like a mirror, in which we see the truth of our reflection. We see who we really are, with our anger, and our propensity toward violence, and our fear. We see the truth, and we remember that God hung his bow in the sky.

So, perhaps the time has come to reclaim the strange, ugly, and beautiful truth of the rainbow. Maybe the time has come to put an end to the rainbow in nurseries and children’s bibles alone. Perhaps we need to seal our hearts with the rainbow that declares a new day has broken, that there is a better way, that there is room for all of the colors that make the covenant what it is.

That kind of rediscovery could completely reshape and shake up what we know of who we are. It won’t make us perfect, it won’t rid the world of evil, but it will stand as a reminder, just as it once did, that God has not abandoned us to our own devices, that God has made a new day and a new way.

This story from near the beginning, is the beginning of the covenants that lead to the kingdom. It is a promise established in Noah, and later with Abraham, David, and through our baptisms into Jesus’ death and resurrection.

            The covenant, at its core, is a witness to the fact that God is stuck with us, and that we are stuck with God.

In life, there are moments when we can feel the rage build within us. It usually happens in response to something we experience in another person, whether right in front of us, on television, or on the Internet.

And, to be clear, there are times when rage is appropriate. The Psalms are filled with these little vignettes into the anger of the people Israel amidst such terrible injustice. It is good and right for us to be angry when we see what happened in Florida this week, it is good and right for us to be angry about innocent children being murdered indiscriminately, it is good and right for us to voice our opinions about what can and needs to change.

            The challenge is in remembering that God is with us in the midst of our anger. That God saw the deplorable state of the world not only during the days of Noah, but in the days right before Jesus’ birth, and God sent us a new sign, in his Son, who came to show that love always trumps violence, that we are bound to one another even when we can’t stand each other, and that there is a better way.

The rainbow above Noah’s head, the experience of Jesus in our lives, they are a reminder that the world was broken, is still broken, and that God is in the business of reconciliation. It forces us to confront the brokenness of our own lives, and in the lives of others. It even makes us uncomfortable – for if God was willing to refrain from violence upon the world, if God was willing to hang up the bow, why haven’t we done the same? Amen.

The Greatest Thing In History

I wrote about the Christian problem with Nuclear War back in August and in my naiveté I thought I wouldn’t have to bring it up again any time soon. I was wrong…

Following Jesus, being disciples of the living God, requires a life of pacifism. It is not just one of the ways to respond to War; it is the way. And yet, pacifism is a privilege of the powerful. It is far too easy to talk about the virtues of a commitment to pacifism from the comfort of the ivory tower that is the United States of America. Or at least it was until world leaders started threatening each other with Thermonuclear War comparing nuclear button sizes this week…

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Early in the morning on August 6th, 1945 the airfield was still remarkably dark so the commanding officer turned on floodlights for posterity. There were enough people wandering around on the field that the captain had to lean out of the window of the aircraft to direct the bystanders out of the way of the propellers before take off. However, he did have time to offer a friendly wave to photographers before departing.

The flight lasted six hours and they flew through nearly perfect conditions. At 8:15 in the morning they finally arrived directly above their target of Hiroshima and the bomb was released. It fell for 43 seconds before it reached the perfect height for maximum destruction and was detonated.

70,000 people were killed and another 70,000 were injured.

At about the same time the bomb was detonated, President Truman was on the battle cruiser Augusta. When the first report came in about the success of the mission, Truman turned to a group of sailors and said, “This is the greatest thing in history.”

We, as American Christians, have a problem with War. Historically, the early church and Christians did not engage in war – they believed their convictions in following Christ’s commands prevented them from waging violence against others. And, frankly, they were being persecuted and killed at such a rate that they didn’t have time to think about fighting in wars, nor were militaries interested in having Christians fight for them. You know, because of the whole “praying for their enemies” thing.

But then Emperor Constantine came onto the scene, following Jesus Christ turned into Christendom, and everything changed. With Christianity as the state sanctioned religion, Rome could tell its citizens to fight, and they did.

But still, there have always been those who respond to War throughout the church differently. There are Pacifists who believe conflict is unwarranted and therefore should be avoided. There are those who believe in the Just War Theory and that there can be a moral response to war with justifiable force. And still yet there are others who believe in the “Blank Check” model where they are happy to support those in charge of the military without really questioning who they are killing and why.

We might not realize it, but most Americans believe in the “blank check” model, in that our government regularly deploys troops and drones to attack and kill people all over the world (in war zones and other places) and we rarely bat an eye. So long as we feel safe, we are happy to support those leading without question.

But as Christians, Jesus commands us to love our enemies and pray for the people who persecute us. Now, to be clear, this is not a nice invitation or even a call to a particular type of ministry. We like imagining the “white, blonde hair, blue eyed” Jesus with open arms who loves us and expects the minimum in return. But more often than not, Jesus commands his disciples to a radical life at odds with the status quo.

“I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Anybody can respond to love with love, but what good does it do to only love the people who love you. Instead, be perfect as your heavenly Father in perfect.”

            This is our command.

            And it is also our dilemma.

Jesus commands us to love our enemies and love our neighbors. But what are we to do when our enemies are killing our neighbors, or vice versa? Is there really such a thing as a just war? Are we called to remain pacifists even when innocent lives are being taken? Was it okay for us to take boys from Virginia and send them to Vietnam to kill and be killed? Should we send our military to North Korea to kill and be killed?

This is the controversy of War.

War, a state of armed conflict between two groups, is like an addictive drug. It gives people something worth dying and killing for. It often increases the economic wealth and prosperity in our country. It achieves for our nation all that a political ideal could ever hope for: Citizens no longer remain indifferent to their national identity, but every part of the land brims with unified life and activity. There is nothing wrong with America that a war cannot cure.

When the North and South were still economically and relationally divided after the Civil War, it was World War I that brought us back together as one country. When we were deep in the ravages of the Great Depression, it was Word War II that delivered us into the greatest economic prosperity we’ve ever experienced. When we were despondent after our failure in Vietnam (and subsequent shameful treatment of Veterans), the supposed weapons of mass destruction in Iraq gave us every reason to rally behind our country.

But we don’t like talking about death and war – that’s why the least attended worship services during the year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday when we can do nothing but confront our finitude. But War commands and demands our allegiance, it is the fuel that turns the world, it has been with humanity since the very beginning.

And Jesus has the gall to tell us to love and pray for our enemies.

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This week President Trump’s declared that if North Korea continues to provoke the Unites States we will respond with a power the likes of which the world has never seen his nuclear button is far larger and more powerful than Kim Jong-un’s. And in response to President Trump’s words tweet, Christians on the left and the right have responded with bombastic language (pun intended).

A Tweet from the Twitter account of U.S. President Donald Trump

On the right there have been pastors coming out to announce that God has given President Trump the right and the authority to wipe North Korea off the map. And on the left there have been Christian pacifists who have declared that the President is out of his mind and that we are on the brink of annihilation because of his crass words. However, we will never get anywhere near a kingdom of peace if war-hungry Christians use scripture to defend nuclear aggression or if pacifists keep perceiving themselves as superior or entitled. Otherwise the world will become a heap of ashes or people in the military who return from conflict will return as those from Vietnam – to a country that did not understand.

War is complicated and ugly and addictive. It reveals our sinfulness in a way that few controversies can. War illuminates our lust for bloodshed and retribution. War offers a view into our unadulterated obsession with the hoarding of natural resources. War conveys our frightening disregard for the sanctity of human life. War is our sinfulness manifest in machine guns and atomic weapons. War is the depth of our depravity.

Even the word “War” fails to express the sinfulness of the act. We so quickly connect the word “War” with the righteous outcomes of our wars. We believe we fought the Civil War to free the slaves, when in fact it had far more to do with economic disparity. We believe we fought Word War II to save the Jews, when in fact it had more to do with seeking vengeance against the Germans and the Japanese. We believe we went to War in the Middle East with terrorism because of September 11th, but it had a lot to do with long-standing problems and an unrelenting desire for oil.

Can you imagine how differently we would remember the wars of the past if we stopped calling them wars and called them something else? Like World Massacre II, or the Vietnam Annihilation, or Operation Desert Carnage?

On August 6th, 1945, we dropped the first atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in order to end the bloodiest war the world had ever seen. With the push of a button we exterminated 70,000 people in an instant, and our president called it the greatest thing in history. Truman was a lifelong Baptist and was supported by the overwhelming majority of American Christians, most of whom expressed little misgiving about the use of the atomic bomb. But that very bomb is the sign of our moral incapacitation and the destruction of our faithful imagination.

For we Christians know, deep in the marrow of our souls, that the “greatest thing in the history of the world” is not the bomb that indiscriminately murdered 70,000 people, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is, and forever will be, the greatest thing in the history of the world because Jesus broke the chains of death and sin and commands us to follow him. Jesus Christ, Son of Man and Son of God, embodied a life of non-violent pacifism that shakes us to the core of our being and convicts our sensibilities.

There is, of course, the privilege of pacifism and its ineffectiveness when combatted by the evil in the world. Pacifism pales in comparison to the immediacy of armed military conflict, but it is the closest example we have to what it means to live like Jesus. And Jesus wasn’t particularly interested in offering us the path of least resistance toward salvation. Instead, he demanded our allegiance.

God in Christ came in order to reconcile the world through the cross. The living God through the Messiah spoke difficult commands and orders to the disciples, things we still struggle with today. But God was bold enough to send his son to die in order to save us, not by storming the Temple with swords and shields, not by overthrowing the Roman Empire and instituting democracy, but with a slow and non-violent march to the top of a hill with a cross on his back.

Devotional – Amos 5.23-24

Devotional:

Amos 5.23-24

Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

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Yesterday morning, while countless Christians were passing the peace, or humming the hymns, or celebrating communion all over the country, a man carried a Ruger assault-style rifle into a small Baptist church in southern Texas and murdered 26 people. Officials have reported that the associate pastor was walking up to the pulpit to preach when the gunfire began and that the victims ranged in age from 5 to 72.

Within a short period of time people all across the country flocked to social media and news outlets to share reflections, condolences, and prayers. Politicians tweeted their thoughts, parents held onto their children a little tighter, and pastors started thinking about how in the world they could address what happened in their own churches.

It was about a month ago that we were all reeling from the news that a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers in Las Vegas leaving 58 dead and 546 injured.

And within a short period of time people all across the country flocked to social media and news outlets to share reflections, condolences, and prayers. Politicians tweeted their thoughts, parents held onto their children a little tighter, and pastors started thinking about how in the world they could address what happened.

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Is God tired of all our talking (and tweeting)? Are the prayers that we offer in the midst of a crisis, and then forget about until the next thing comes, being heard? Is God listening to all of this noise?

What would it look like to let justice roll down like waters in a world that lives in the shadow of the cross? When did we let the words we offer become more important than living lives of righteousness? Is the noise we produce so deafening that we can no longer hear what God has to say?

There’s no easy solution to the recent horrific shooting tragedies. We are clearly a people divided on just about everything these days, and in particular when in comes to gun rights and gun control. But when it comes to the realm of the church, when we think about what this all means for the kingdom of God, we have to ask ourselves if God has grown tired of all our talking.

This is not to say that we should cease to pray. In fact, we should pray without ceasing. But our prayers that we offer to God cannot be limited to words we toss around while our hands are clenched together. Sometimes the most faithful prayers are the ones we make with our actions.

Devotional – Exodus 20.13

Devotional:

Exodus 20.13

You shall not murder.

Weekly Devotional Image

I woke up early this morning so that I could go to the gym before heading over to the church. It was early enough that it was still very dark outside and there were only a handful of cars in the parking lot. When I made it to the workout room I quickly stretched in the corner and then went over to a treadmill to start running. After about 15 minutes I slowly noticed that all the people had stopped using their machines because it became eerily quiet and I looked up at the TV. All of us at the gym were transfixed as we watched the closed captioning scroll across the screen. “Deadly shooting in Las Vegas. 20 dead. 100 plus injured.”

I don’t know how long we stood there like statues, but I remember the first sound I heard was the simple whimpering of a man over on an elliptical.

Throughout the day the reports coming out of Las Vegas have become clearer and more detailed such that, at the time of writing this devotional, 58 people have died and over 500 people were injured in the massacre outside of the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The emotional roller coaster of an event like this can be exhausting. There’s the shock that comes when we attempt to understand how someone could bring such terror and evil into the world. There’s the fear that something like Las Vegas could happen in our own communities. There’s the immense sadness when recognizing the high toll of lives and injuries in such a brief period of time. There’s the anger that percolates within us as we watch the footage of people running for their lives and we heard the gunfire ringing in the background. And, of course, there’s the bewilderment that comes with discovering that this marks the 273rd mass shooting in the United States this year, and today is only the 274th day of the year.

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You shall not murder: four simple words in the middle of Exodus 20; four words that rest at the heart of most major religions; four words that we must not forget.

In the days, weeks, months, and even years ahead the massacre in Las Vegas will be used to manipulate political decisions, it will be used to strike fear into the hearts of individuals, and it will be used as a rallying cry for change. But what happened in Las Vegas cannot be used as a tool, or worse: a weapon, to bring about more violence in the world. Violence will always beget more violence. We, as Christians, are called to pray for those who died, those who are suffering, and those who are afraid. We, as Christians, are called to do all that we can to ensure the wellbeing of the people around us in every way, shape, or form that we can imagine. And we, as Christians, must never forget those four words from Exodus 20: You shall not murder.

The Gifts of God – Peace

Micah 5.2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are the one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

 

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The children looked perfect in their Christmas pageant costumes. One by one they entered the chancel area in preparation for proclaiming their individual lines. The shepherds came first, watching over their sheep. Then the animals of the manger came forth, including a cow, a bird, and a mouse. They all made it to their spots and sat perfectly still as a donkey, Mary, and Joseph walked up to the microphone and exclaimed that a baby would soon be born, but they would need to find a place to stay.

Then the angelic cherubs boldly walked down the center aisle in the dark each holding an electric candle. The lead angel walked up to the microphone and frightening declared: “Do not be afraid! I bring joy to everyone!” The wise men and a camel followed the star to the manger where they presented the baby Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

I had the best vantage point of the entire production from up here in the pulpit. I could see all of the children with their costumes and I could also look out at the faces of all the parents, families, and friends that had gathered for this spectacular performance. I was honestly beaming while I stood up here on Tuesday evening because the kids had all done such a great job, they all nailed their lines, and were standing perfectly still in their spots.

Except for one of our shepherds.

Throughout the weeks of practice we had purposely withheld the shepherd staffs from the children knowing full and well that they would play with them too much. And during the actual performance most of them were being wonderful, but one of the shepherds could not overcome the desire to do something.

At first he just twirled the staff around in his hands like trying to start a fire on the carpet. Later, he swung it from side to side like a microphone at a rock and roll concert. I tried my best to whisper powerfully for him to stop, and though he would for a moment or two, he would then start up with something new.

As we were nearing the end of the performance, nearly all of the characters and animals from the manger scene were in place; the little shepherd grabbed his staff and started lifting it into the air. I, of course, immediately thought of Moses lifting up his staff in the wilderness to strike the rock for water. I, of course, immediately thought of how theological our young shepherd was being as he lifted the staff into the air, but then I realized he was about to bash somebody on the top of the head!

Breaking character from the pulpit, I quickly reached down and stopped the staff in mid arch. My eyes went down the shaft of the staff to the little hand, to the arm, to the face of the young shepherd, and instead of seeing a repentant and apologetic look; he had the biggest and proudest grin on his face.

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We lean toward violence. From Preschoolers picking up shepherd staffs, to fights in high school, to international and political disagreements, we lean toward violence. There is a power that comes with violence and demonstrates our importance and opinion. Violence has been at the forefront of some of the most important historical moments in the entirety of human existence and still captivates our attention. The movies that make the most money, the stories that garner the most attention, the moments we can’t tear our eyes away from usually contain violence.

As I have found myself saying too often from this pulpit: just turn on the TV or get online and you will be immediately bombarded with the violence in the world and the local community. Even this season of Advent and preparation for the holidays tends to bring out the worst in us. We have short tempers with the people ahead of us in line while we are buying gifts. We mutter inappropriate comments about drivers that are just driving too slowly. And we secretly expect to receive as many good gifts as we give.

Our lives and the world are filled with aggression, anger, and violence.

Yet, the prophet tells us about the one who will come with peace.

Micah spoke during a time of considerable unrest. The situation was grim with corrupt political leaders. There were fearful enemies on the horizon. Internal disputes were pinning people against one another. (Sound familiar?) And while the people saw no hope, Micah saw the promise of peace. Micah looked beyond the present circumstances, he looked beyond the news headlines and the talking heads, he looked beyond the broken and tarnished community to what God was promising to do.

From the little town of Bethlehem will come one who will rule the world. From a back road town of insignificance will come the one who will lead his flock in the way that leads to life and peace.

Many of us have a hard time imaging that an impressive hero can come from such a small town and such a fragile beginning. We, instead, look to politicians and presidents, magistrates and ministers, to fix all of our problems. But from the words of scripture this morning, Micah is jumping up and down and waving his arms to move us in an entirely different direction. He is pointing not at the towering leaders of the world on CNN. He is not drawing us to the political buildings in Washington DC. Instead he is pushing us to a small, out of the way, little place called Bethlehem.

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Jesus is the one of peace, the one who comes as a light in the darkness, the one who will stand and lead like a shepherd. Jesus came from humble beginnings and changed the world.

One of the things that the bible loves to show us is that true power and peace often comes from unexpected people in unexpected places. Many of us have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are desensitized to the insignificance of Bethlehem in the most significant story ever told.

Yet, important babies that change the world can be born just about anywhere. Bethlehem is proof of that. Every baby has the potential to help remind us of the way that leads to peace. Jesus is proof of that.

This week, our little neck of the woods made national news. A local geography teacher landed in the hot seat for an assignment where her students were required to copy a text in Arabic from the Quran. The purpose was to demonstrate the beauty and power of calligraphy and, in a sense, teach students to appreciate people who have differing beliefs and opinions. However, when a particular parent found out that the text in Arabic said, “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” everything came to a head.

In the days that followed, a community meeting was held at a local church for concerned parents who were outraged by the assignment. Augusta County rightly started to step up security measures in order to maintain the peace, but the longer the situation percolated the more frightening it became. On Thursday morning there were armed guards at Riverheads elementary school. And on Thursday afternoon, every student in Augusta County was ordered to leave their respective school and the buildings were to go on lockdown. Lastly, Friday’s classes were completely canceled.

Augusta County received so many threats by phone and mail that they believed they could not guarantee the safety of their students and decided to cancel an entire day of school.

There are so many facets to the story that we don’t have enough time to address all of them, but suffice it to say, it is sad. It is a sad that a teacher did not take the time to re-evaluate what text she was having the students copy. It is sad that an entire community responded immediately out of fear and hatred. It is sad that such a tremendous amount of people were filled with rage to the point that Augusta County had to cancel school. It is sad.

While Fox News picked up the story for the nation to learn about what was going on here, I felt God’s Word calling me to listen to the Bethlehem-like voices. Instead of reading news article after news article from talking heads, I went to the local youth of our community and listened.

This is what one of them said: “Religion is not the problem. Religion does not breed terrorism. Ignorance breeds terrorism. Lack of education breeds terrorism. Failure to see the world around you breeds terrorism. Incompetence breeds terrorism. The inability to accept one’s wrongs breeds terrorism. The inability to connect and empathize and understand your fellow human beings is what breeds terrorism.”

I don’t know how to fix or change what happened in Augusta County this week, but if we continue to treat everyone who is different from us with nothing but suspicion and fear, then we have lost our connection to the one who comes in peace. If we make the self-righteous assumption that everyone should look like us, think like us, and talk likes us, then we have stopped following Jesus.

For too long we have lived with a culture that teaches us to defeat our enemies so that only our friends will be left. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do! Jesus, the one born in a manger in Bethlehem, Jesus the one who shall be our peace, Jesus the one who we worship on Christmas Eve and every Sunday of our lives, tells us to love our enemies! Jesus calls us to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus tells us to live our lives in the way that leads to peace.

God’s peace in Christ is a gift; a gift with strings attached. God gives us peace, but we are to be instruments of God’s peace on earth. We know that peace is not easy. It requires a willingness to sacrifice and be vulnerable with people who differ from us. Peace is uncomfortable. Peace is strange. Peace is difficult because it is so contrary to the ways of the world.

Peace is hard, but so is following Jesus. Amen.