Donkeys, Elephants, and The Lamb

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

What is the most important thing in America? As in, if you could take a step back from it all, what do you think has the greatest priority in this country?

Some might say, after a week like the one we just had, that the World Series is the most important thing in America. Baseball is, after all, the great American pastime. Or at least, drinking a beer while eating a hot dog at the World Series is what being an American is all about.

Or maybe the greatest thing in America is the willingness to fight against tyranny and terrorism. This week there was yet another attack against innocent civilians in New York City and the response in condemning the attack was universally accepted.

What’s the most important thing in America? I would make a case, that for Americans freedom is the most important thing in America. Think about it for just a moment: freedom to chose, freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to vote. Nothing is more important to Americans on the political left and right than maintaining the freedom of the individual. We hear about our freedom all the time.

As such, we’ve created a culture where privacy is sought more than community, where no one should be asked to suffer for anyone else, and where we get to say whatever we want, and others can say whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t offend us too much.

In a strange and weird way, our bondage to political realities and political choices has resulted in our bondage to freedom.

When we moved here a handful of months ago, after we finally unpacked most of the house, we set up our TV and signed up for cable. It took a long time to get used to watching commercials again after not seeing them for the majority of the last seven years while I was at my first appointment and while I was in seminary.

I liked watching a narrative from start to finish without interruption, and because the commercials were now interrupting my viewing I started paying more attention to them. During the first two months of cable television, just about every single advertisement had to do with bodies. If you take this pill your body will feel stronger, if you use this cream you will look ten years younger, if you use this shampoo you will get the man of your dreams, if you use this deodorant you will get the woman of your dreams.

And whenever I saw two middle age individuals holding hands while sitting in separate bathtubs, or just being overly affectionate with one another, I didn’t even need to listen to the voiceover to know what they were selling.

But then something changed.

Almost without warning, there was a not a single commercial break without an ad for the gubernatorial race that comes to its fruition this Tuesday. And the more I witnessed the ads the more I realized something bizarre: I never saw an ad describing what either candidate stood for. Instead every ad was dedicated to attacking the other.

At this point, I’m sad to say, I can tell you far more about what’s wrong with both candidates than I can tell you something constructive about what each of them are hoping to accomplish.

Freedom.

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Today we celebrate the saints of God. Since nearly the beginning, the church has set aside a day to remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us in the faith, stretching across the centuries and all around the world. We take time to read their names and pause for a moment of praise to the Lord for the many ways those saints shaped our faith even here and now.

And we don’t get to choose our saints, much like we don’t get to choose our politicians. I mean we do in the sense that we get to vote on them, but more often that not we just get the politicians we deserve.

Today, our culture has been separated into two divided categories: Donkeys and Elephants. Just about every fabric of our lives can be whittled down to one of the two dominant political ideologies such that we can’t watch TV, or read a newspaper, or get online, or even drive down the road without being bombarded by one of the two political animals. The suffocating political atmosphere of today is oppressive and often forces us to identify what camp we’re in.

And, sadly, because we have total and ultimate freedom, the thing we hold dear, we can surround ourselves with people who look like us, think like us, and perhaps most importantly, vote like us.

But saints are the people who gave their lives not to a donkey, and not to an elephant, but to the Lamb.

Revelation is one of the weirder books in the bible, and one not often read in church. In it you can find the kind of stuff that some people shout from the street corners of life. In it we can read about beasts and dragons and lambs. And, often times, it is used by those of a more fundamentalist leaning to detail the coming wrath and destruction of God in such a way that it scares faith into people.

But for as much as Revelation is about a time yet to come, it is also about what the faithful life is like here and now.

The vision contains a great multitude that no one could count, people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. And they’re singing!

This group that is beyond all groups is gathered around the one Lamb at the throne. They are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

            In God’s time, all people will be washed by the blood of the Lamb; through the death of Christ on the cross salvation has entered existence.

Here and now, we are washed through the waters of baptism, something that gives us more identity than any donkey or elephant ever can, something that frees us more than any declaration of independence ever can, and something that saves us better than any politician ever can.

Baptism is the beginning of the journey that leads to sainthood. Because in baptism we enter into the revolution of God where the Lamb at the throne determines our lives more than anything else. Where we can find a unity through the waters that is almost completely absent in every other part of existence.

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Church, thanks be to God, is one of the last remaining places where we willingly gather with people who don’t think, look, act, and vote like us. Church is the place where we believe our baptismal identities are more important and more determinative than the political sign in our front yard and the person whose name we choose in the voting booth.

Whenever we gather in this space, we are brought before the throne with the Lamb at the center. This thing we call worship is our best chance to be reminded that God is the One guiding us to springs of water, and that God is the One invested in the work of wiping every tear from our eyes. Church is where we come to meet the saints with hope that someone might call us saints when we’re gone.

We live between the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. We rest in the time between when we hear the beautiful tones of God’s final Word that stretches into eternity and reaches back into the farthest moments of time itself.

            And, like the saints of Revelation, we sing.

The music of the saints, the very music of salvation, gives a different sound and understanding to what we prioritize in this life. When we sing with the great cloud of witnesses from the past, present, and future, we boldly proclaim that it is always the Lord and not the empire that liberates. When we lift our voices to the sky we do so in declaration that the Lamb is more important than a donkey and an elephant.

It is through the music of God, the sounds of the saints, that we receive the endurance necessary to make it through whatever trouble springs up in our lives.

That heavenly choir of revelation, a choir that we harmonize with here on earth, invites the revolution of God that will not let division have the final word.

Almost a year ago I woke up and drove down the road from the parsonage to the local Seventh Day Adventist church, which was my polling station for the presidential election. For the better part of two years, with billions of dollars raised and spent by both campaigns, the time had come for the country to decide who would be our next president.

I pulled into the parking lot before the Sun had peaked over the horizon, and with a coffee mug in my hand and my clergy collar around my neck, I walked into the fellowship hall to cast my vote.

I remember the polling operators looking dreadful and depressed, as if the previous months had sucked the very life out of them, and I walked passed to my booth.

There before me on the table was a piece of paper that countless individuals have fought to protect. There, with big fonts and circles to fill in, was the very freedom our country was founded on. I filled in my circle and walked over to the machine, which ate my decision, and rang a little bell for completion.

And then I looked up. On the wall above the voting machine was a giant painting of Jesus. Not Jesus dying on the cross, nor was it Jesus praying in the garden, nor was it any of the miracles Jesus performed through his ministry. No, it was a giant painting of Jesus laughing his butt off.

            And it was perfect.

Salvation belongs to God alone. Even though all nations, and races, and creeds, and languages are pictured in the divine vision of revelation, salvation does not belong to any of them. All of them are guilty of promising something to a particular group while damning another.

The donkeys and the elephants can’t and won’t save us. They exist to instill a sense of freedom that isolates us from one another rather than binding us to one another. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise salvation that only brings division.

But the Lamb of God is at the center of the throne. The saints of God, those who came before, those who are with us now, and those who are yet to come sing with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Amen.

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The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword

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A few weeks ago I loaded up my recording equipment with Teer Hardy and we drove down to the Virginia Conference office in Glen Allen to interview our Bishop, Sharma Lewis. 3/4 of the Crackers & Grape Juice team were able to interview her last year, and we wanted to find our how her time in the episcopacy has been, and where she’s sees us moving in the coming years. Our conversation covered a range of topics including the new vision for the Annual Conference, responses to racism in the church, and the Bishop even offered her thoughts on Jason Micheli‘s book Cancer Is FunnyIf you want to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword.

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Prisoners of Hope

Zechariah 9.9-12

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.

 

People of Cokesbury Church: the time has come to rejoice! And I don’t mean the easy-going, carefree, yeah we’re happy kind of joy, but jumping on the pews, putting your hands in the air, shouting to the Lord kind of joy. Glory glory glory!

Behold! Our king comes to us, he is triumphant and mighty and victorious. He comes humbly on the back of a donkey. He will destroy the tanks of armies and the defenses of countries. The missiles and the guns and weapons will be obliterated and peace will reign. Our donkey-riding king will rule from east to west and over the whole earth.

We’ve got reason to celebrate! Our king frees us from the waterless pit of our despair and depression. We prisoners of hope have been delivered.

Or maybe, we don’t feel like celebrating. Perhaps our lives don’t match up with the glory described by Zechariah. Maybe the world is a little too broken for peace to rain down like waters. Perhaps we don’t feel like dancing and shouting because we are stuck in a pit; a pit of anger or bitterness or fear or shame or loneliness.

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There was a man who was walking down the street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and after struggling for a time he began to cry out for help.

A doctor was passing by along the road and he looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment while stroking the stethoscope around his neck, and then he reached into his pocket, wrote a prescription, dropped it into the hole, and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Hey Reverend! I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me out?” The pastor very slowly and deliberately put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next a sweet older woman from the local church came up to the edge of the hole and the man yelled, “Excuse me! Please help me out of here.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “It’s me, I’m stuck in the hole, can you help me out?” To which the friend jumped right down into the hole. The man said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” And the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

Today I am forever hearing about how we need to get others to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord in Savior. As if people are wandering around aimlessly looking for something to give meaning to their lives, and so long as they open up their hearts Jesus will be there waiting for them.

The problem with all of that is the fact that Jesus is the king who comes to us, not the other way around. We often get trapped in the pit of believing that we’ve got to go looking for Jesus when he’s the one looking for us.

Our Lord is the one who finds us wandering around the pit of our sorrow and jumps in to show us the way out. Jumping into the pit, after all, is the great story of scripture. God saw what God had made in Genesis and jumped down into the Garden to make humanity in the divine image. God saw Jacob struggling with his relationships and identity and jumped down to wrestle with him by the banks of the river. God saw the suffering of God’s people in Egypt and jumped down to call Moses from the burning bush. God saw the directionless plight of the people and jumped down to anoint David to rule as king. God saw the brokenness of the world and jumped down to take on flesh in the form of a baby born in a manger.

Jesus is the king who jumps down into the pit of our existence and offers us hope.

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I’ve only been here a short while, but I’ve already seen signs of hope in this church and in this community. Complete strangers in my neighborhood have introduced themselves simply because I’m new, employees at particular businesses have gone above and beyond to be kind and welcoming, a certain someone at the church even gave my wife a bouquet of roses last week.

And from where I stand this morning I see hope. I see individuals whose lives have been transformed by the gospel. I don’t even know many of your names but I know God has acted in your lives, I know that God has delivered you from the pit, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

From where I stand I see a church not built on demographics and like-mindedness. I don’t see a church consumed by consumption and driven by desire. I don’t see a church fixated on financial matter or obsessed with objectives.

I see a church of different opinions but similar love. I see a church of faith and fellowship. I see a church of love and hope.

This is a church with prisoners of hope.

We are captivated more by the optimism of “what if” than the pessimism of “it’s too late.” We are held in bondage to the belief that we are more than the mistakes of the past, more that the pain of the present, and more than the unknown of the future. We are prisoners of hope.

And our hope is in Jesus Christ, the one who finds us in the pit and shows us the way out. To be clear: the way out is a way out. It’s not a simple affirmation or secret sentence that fixes everything. Jesus invites us to follow him on the way that leads to life.

The church, as the body of Christ, as the gathering of disciples on the Way, is not a building or a program or an institution. It is neither stuck nor static. The church is a living, breathing, and moving thing.

Institutions care about maintaining the institution, keeping the doors open from week to week, working to keep it working like the past. Movements, however, care about the people, about keeping them from falling into pits of despair and jumping in when someone falls in regardless.

We move on the way out of the pit by following our king. And our king is not like worldly leaders. Our king doesn’t live in a white house or control the gathering of nations. He’s not waking up with Wall Street or guiding troops into battle. Our king comes to us humble on a donkey.

Christ is victorious against the powers of this world, the powers of nations and economics and militaristic might. And even more Jesus is victorious over our greatest enemy, death. But this doesn’t mean that death no longer stings, it does. Without the sting of death there would be no need for hope.

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And we are prisoners of that hope. We look out at this broken and shattered world around us as an opportunity to be put back together. We don’t limit our vision of the man on the corner to his economic situation, we don’t see the young teen loitering as a criminal, we don’t see the loud neighbors as a threat to our security. We are prisoners of hope, we believe in the goodness of all people even when they try to prove the contrary.

This was my first full week at the church and I was wrong about what to expect. I figured that you all knew that I would be overwhelmed by having to unpack my office and adjust to a new community. I assumed that you all would leave me alone for a couple weeks until I got settled. But you all just kept showing up everyday as if I was your pastor.

And you’ve had your questions and I tried to field them as best as I could. I listened to your thoughts and reflections. But if you came by the office this week you know that I won’t let you leave without asking a question of my own: Why Cokesbury Church?

There is a plethora of churches in the Woodbridge community, churches of all shapes and sizes and worship styles. So of all the churches here in this place, why do you choose to gather at this place?

“I’ve been going here as long as I can remember…”

            “The people are just so friendly…”

            “Someone signed me up for the Flea Market and I’ve been coming ever since.”

I’ve enjoyed hearing the answers because they’ve provided a slice of the identity of this place, but one particular answer has really stuck with me.

I won’t say who it was, but someone from this church came by this week and I asked him or her why he or she came to this church. The person thought about it for a good amount of time before answering. “I was lost and Jesus found me in this place.”

Notice: the answer wasn’t I found Jesus here, but that Jesus found me in this place.

All of us have been lost at one point or another. We have fallen into pits that we simply could not escape on our own. We’ve been burdened by financial fear, relationship woes, or employment uncertainty. We’ve felt suffocated by limited direction, unending loneliness, or deep despair. We’ve been bullied, belittled, or berated. But Jesus found us and guided us out.

Thanks be to God that we are shackled as prisoners of hope. Thanks be to God that the Lord has delivered us from a faulty and limited vision of what can be. Thanks be to God that the Lord made a way where there was no way.

The promise of our hope, the hope that we are held captive by, is the restoration of all people and of all things. There is victory in Jesus, victory over the powers and the principalities bent on holding us down, victory over the steeps walls that feel inescapable, even victory over the chains of death.

I don’t know what most of you are going through right now. I don’t know what’s keeping you awake at night, what’s driving you crazy whenever you turn on the television, what causes your fists to clench up whenever you hear it. I don’t know what you’re afraid of, what you’re missing, or what you need. I don’t know where you’ve been, where you are, or where you’re going.

But I do know that Jesus does not leave us abandoned. Jesus jumps down into the miry bog of our lives and says, “Follow me, I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.” Amen.

Devotional – John 14.18

Devotional:

John 14.18

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

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I stood by the bell tower in my robe and I casually greeted everyone as they walked into the building for worship. Just inside the doors were greeters, ushers, and handful of other church members eagerly waiting to address those entering with greetings and salutations. I talked with individuals and families under the bell tower and when one particular woman stepped forward she was greeted by the small crowd with, “Happy Mother’s Day!” and she immediately grimaced; she is not a mother, and will never be one.

On Monday I spoke with a member of the church about a number of matters pertaining to the local community and right before we said goodbye she apologized for not being in church the day before. I asked if everything was okay, or if there was a specific reason she avoided church to which she responded, “I never come to church on Mother’s Day. It just hits too close to home.” She is not a mother, and will never be one.

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Mother’s Day is a strange Sunday in the liturgical life of the church. There is nothing in scripture about the need to have a specific day focused on the glorification of those who are mothers, but in many churches that is exactly what it becomes. And it happens to such a degree that while trying to be grateful for mothers, we often ostracize a sizable community within our churches who can’t be, don’t want to be, or never will be, mothers.

To so emphasize and value the roles of the presumed normative domestic situation does a disservice to the truth of what the church is called to be: the new family.

Jesus, near the end of his earthly life, promised to not leave his friends orphaned. In a sense Jesus’ promise is a prediction of his own death and resurrection, but it also speaks to the future existence of the community of faith. Just as Jesus’ friends were not abandoned after the cross, so too have we not been abandoned in our communities of faith.

Through the sacraments of baptism and communion we are grafted into a community whereby the common identifiers and labels of mother and father are no longer limited by their biological connections. Instead we become brother and sister and mother and father to the entire community that gathers together to encounter the living God.

Being a mother is a remarkable responsibility and should be lauded on a regular basis, but it is not the most important identity that one can have. Following Jesus Christ as a disciple implies a willingness to be maternal toward all people regardless of whether or not we are biological mothers.

In the community of faith we are called to open our eyes to the realities of those around us so that, rather than discomforting someone on their way in or ostracizing someone to the point that they don’t even come, we remember that God will not leave us orphaned, not even in church.

What Things?

Luke 24.13-19

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?”

 

We only know what we know. Though, perhaps a better way to put it is this: we only know what we have been told.

On my first Sunday as the pastor here I stood up in the pulpit and I said that we are the stories we tell. The narratives we tell ourselves and our friends and our families reorient our lives in a way that we often can’t see unless in retrospect. This can be a good thing when our lives are determined by the great narrative of God with God’s people, but it can also become problematic when the only story we tell is our own.

As children we learn by stories. We teach our young about George Washington chopping down his cherry tree as a way to teach the virtue of telling the truth. We tell stories about Jesus teaching his disciples to treat one another the way they wish to be treated in order to instill a sense of the so-called “golden rule.” And perhaps the story we tell the most, the lesson we hope to share on a habitual basis, is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The “don’t judge a book by it’s cover” story is made manifest in a number of ways from literally not judging a written book by it’s cover page to not judging people because of their clothing. We tell that story over and over again to our children.

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And here’s the great irony: we judge books by their covers all the time.

We are told to love the street beggar, but we only see them for their shabby clothing, putrid smell, and most of the time we just walk straight past them.

We are told to love the wealthy, but we only see them for their perfectly pressed shirts, their obscene jewelry, and we assume they have no sense of how the world actually works.

We are told to love people from the South, but we limit our understanding of them to Confederate Flags, Country music, and repressed racism.

We are told to love people from the North, but we only see them for their entitlement, their inability to empathize, and we label them Yankees.

We are told to love the Democrat, but we only see them for their bleeding hearts, tax heavy foolishness, and their thirst for total power.

We are told to love the Republican, but we only see them for their love of guns, dismantling of Government programs, and white superiority.

We are told to love the Muslim, but we only see them for their headscarves, for their Sharia Law that the news channels are forever warning us about, and we blame them for all the problems in the Middle East.

We are told to love the Jew, but we see them as consumed by the pursuit of wealth, always digging up issues from the past, and we assume they are up to more than they let on.

We are told to love the Atheist, but we only see them for their over-reliance on science, their negative attitudes toward religion, and we assume they are going to hell.

We might not fall into all of those generalizations, but each and every one of us are sinners who are guilty of judging books based on their covers. Or, to put it another way, we only know the stories we are told.

            It’s like something keeps us from recognizing Jesus in one another.

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We barely know anything about the disciples who made their way to Emmaus on the first Easter. One of them has a name, Cleopas, but other than that all we know is that they are walking and talking when Jesus shows up. Regardless of their past decisions, or even their faithfulness to the newly risen Christ, their proximity to the Lord on the road has cemented them in the identity and narrative of Christianity forever.

While they were walking and talking, Jesus came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you all talking about?” They stood still looking sad.

            What a telling sentence; from the mere question of a stranger they were stopped dead in their tracks as the reality of what had taken place set in all over again. And then Cleopas realized something strange: how could this man, so close to the city, not know what we have been talking about? Everyone’s been talking about it. And so he asks Jesus, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place in these days?” And Jesus replied, “What things?”

            What a remarkably important question. What had taken place in Jerusalem? What had they seen? What had they heard? What’s the story?

How would we answer the question? Imagine, if you can, walking downtown one afternoon, and a stranger walked up and asked us to tell them about Jesus. What would we say?

Would we tell the truth of Jesus’ horrific death on the cross? Would we add our own editorial reflections in order to cast doubt on what we really think? Do we so believe the story that we could tell it?

How we answer Jesus’ question constitutes the very fabric of our lives.

I announced last week that I’ll be leaving St. John’s at the end of June for a new appointment, and in the wake of that announcement I realized I could probably be a little more probing, and perhaps even controversial, from the pulpit since I’m on the way out. Rather than surface level faith stuff, we, and by we I mean me, we can talk about things we would otherwise ignore.

Since I arrived in Staunton four years ago there has been a debate about our local high school. It started long before I got here, and it will be here far after I leave. And it doesn’t have to do with student-teacher dynamics, or accreditation, or any number of other important educational precepts. The controversy is all about the name: Robert E. Lee High School.

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Some, of course, want the name to change: They say it’s a relic of the past, it encourages prejudice among the student body, it’s offensive, it’s archaic, it’s racist, etc.

Some, of course, want the name to stay the same: They say it has a profound history with the community that can’t just be washed away, Lee represents a class of gentlemen almost forgotten to the sands of time, we should be proud of the name. It’s important, it’s patriotic, it’s powerful, etc.

And this fight goes on and on and on.

And here’s the thing: the name of the school is offensive and it does hurt people, just like the Confederate flag does. They see the name and it brings forth all sorts of animosity and resentment and fear and pain. Yet, at the very same time, the name is just a name and changing the name of the high school will change very little. It’s as if we believe that by removing the name we will remove all the prejudice and racism and judgment from an entire community.

It doesn’t work like that.

The name Robert E. Lee will forever evoke positive and negative responses from this community; some will support it and some will oppose it. But the problem is far bigger than a name.

And what do we even really know about Robert E. Lee other than the fact that he was a general for the confederacy during the Civil War? We go on and on about what he represents both positively and negatively, but do we really know who he was? Or are we prevented from seeing the Jesus in him too?

A long time ago, in fact, within a year of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox concluding the Civil War, there was a fashionable church in Richmond, VA filled with white folk on a Communion Sunday. Battered and worn, the South was in quite a state after the war, but these people knew well enough that they should be in church. And on that Sunday, an unwanted black man walked into the church right in the middle of the worship service and made his way down the center aisle with all eyes following him and the preacher stupefied in the pulpit. The black man walked down the aisle under the weight of the prejudice and judgment of the church and he knelt down at the Altar and opened up his hands.

Can you imagine the whispered comments between the pews? Can you hear the hushed hateful words in the house of the Lord?

The congregation sat there completely shocked by what they had witnessed and the buzz of anticipation began to ring.

Sensing the room’s pulse, a distinguished member of the church stood up and walked toward the altar. Some leaned toward friends and spouses with whispers of gratitude for the church member handling the situation, and others sighed with relief knowing that he would take care of the awful interruption. But, when the church member arrived at the Altar, he knelt down beside his black brother, wrapped his arms around him, and began to pray. Within second, the entire congregation stood up, as if transfixed by the Spirit, walked to the front and followed his example.

That church member was Robert E. Lee.

Is that story enough to justify keeping the name of our high school? Or does the history of the South, and the continued prejudice toward people of color necessitate a change of name regardless of what Lee did in that church building? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that unless we are willing to open our eyes to the Jesus in one another, unless we are willing to kneel at the Altar with people different from us, unless we are willing to answer Jesus’ question, nothing will ever change.

We make so many assumptions of people without ever doing the good and difficult work of learning who they really are. We see a bumper sticker, or we hear an accent, or we observe a skin tone, or we read a Facebook post, and we let that dictate who they are to us. When truthfully, what we make of those limited observations says far more about us, than about the ones we see.

“Are you the only one in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place these days?” “What things?”

They talked on the road on their way to Emmaus, they told the mysterious man what they had seen and what they had heard, and the more they walked the more Jesus interpreted for them the scriptures. And when night came, Jesus continued to walk but the two men invited him to stay in the city. So they gathered around a table and Jesus took a loaf of bread, broke it, offered it to his friends and their eyes were opened.

Jesus opened their eyes to the truth of the one they were with. Through the simple and ordinary event of breaking bread the profound and extraordinary reality of the resurrection was made manifest before them.

On the roads of life our eyes are often prevented from recognizing the Jesus within the other. Instead we make the continued assumptions and judgments and ignore them. But when we encounter the other, and take time to sit around a common table, when we let the story of Christ reshapes our lives, when we kneel at the altar beside those who are different from us, Jesus opens our eyes. Amen.

Love The Sinner, Hate The Sin

Matthew 7.1-5

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to you neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye.

 

We announced this sermon series a couple months back, and ever since then a number of you have expressed your excitement about the possibility of confronting these Christianisms. Whether you were in the middle of suffering and someone said, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or a friend tried to explain how your struggles were given to you by the Lord because “everything happens for a reason” or any number of situations, these dumb things that Christians say are things all of us have heard.

However, some of you have also expressed your concern about today’s statement, the last one in the series, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

It sounds so right doesn’t it? What could possibly be wrong with it?

We can all agree that Christians say a lot of dumb things, but this is a good thing to say, right?

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In my experience, when people say “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are usually referring to homosexuality. For many, it is a kind and Christian way to say, “I love my gay friends, but I hate that they’re gay.” In this post-truth, post-liberal, post-whatever period, it is a way for some of us to cover our true feelings while appearing congenial toward those whom we disagree with about sexuality.

Though recently, when I’ve heard people say it they are now using it with regard to the realm of politics. It is amazing how quickly the Christian cover-all for conversations about homosexuality has shifted to conversations about who, or who isn’t, running the country. “Well, I know she voted for that traitor Hillary Clinton, but I love her anyway.” Or “Donald Trump is ruining our country, but I love him anyway.” “I love my brother, but he can be a bleeding liberal.” “I love my sister, but she’s so conservative she’s off the political spectrum.”

Love the sinner, hate the sin.

It sounds good, but it’s pretty hard to hate another’s sin, without harming the sinner.

What is sin? We don’t talk about it anymore. Pastors like me would rather talk about God’s loving nature, than God’s judgment. We would rather tell people like you to love your neighbors, than to tell you to tell your neighbor they’re sinners. We would rather skip over the hard and strange passages about condemnation than truly proclaim that God’s scripture is still speaking to us today.

But for a long time, and I mean a LONG time, sin was THE thing that pastors talked about; sinners in the hands of an angry God, fire and brim stone, and repent or burn forever.

We’re afraid of sin. And not sin as a behavior; we’re afraid to talk about it because it makes us, and our congregations, uncomfortable. I hear again and again that people don’t want to leave church feeling miserable about their lives and their behavior, so preachers like me water down the gospel and we avoid even mentioning sin.

In fact, I had a professor in seminary who taught us to preach ten sermons about grace for every one sermon about sin. We preachers, and you Christians, can’t handle the topic of sin like we once could.

But what is it?

In both Hebrew and Greek the words for sin basically means “to wander from the path” or “to miss the mark.” Sin is any action, thought, or behavior that divides us from God. Sin can be any choice, or lack of choice, that results in failing to do something we know we should.

And here’s the thing: We all do it. All of us sin. From the guy standing before you in a white robe, to the decades long Sunday School teacher, to the child drawing on his bulletin, to the person in the pew across the aisle, to you. We are all sinners.

We think, say, and do things we should not. And we fail to think, say, and do things we should.

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Love the sinner. Of course we are supposed to love the sinner. Jesus did it all the time. Most of his ministry was about loving sinners. The problem is that Jesus does not call his disciples to love sinners, but to love our neighbors.

This is an important difference. The difference being the starting point. If we say we are going to love sinners, we will view other people more like sinners and less like neighbors. It automatically puts us into a place of judgment where we are the righteous, and they are not.

Loving sinners also furthers the problematic identity problem where by we understand and identify others by their mistakes. We label people by their sins. Regardless of when the sin occurred, and even regardless of frequency, we still call people things like cheaters, adulterers, and liars.

Or, to put it another way: Instead of seeing our neighbors as our neighbors, we judge them and identify them by which political candidate’s name was on a sign in their front yard.

A while back one of my friends was starting a new job fresh out of college. He was understandably nervous when he entered the office building for the first time and made his way to a cubicle near the corner of the room. He quietly unloaded his boxes of pertinent materials onto his desk and set up pictures of his family and friends while other employees walked idly by.

There were signs that someone had used the cubicle before him: an accidental scratch across the desk, a piece of discarded paper in the trashcan, and finger smudges on the computer monitor. But other than that, the cubicle was empty.

He worked his first full day under the weight of focus, though a few people came by to introduce themselves. And when it was time to go home he packed his bag and opened the top drawer to grab his pen when he noticed a post-it note near the back. Without thinking much about it, he grabbed it and read three big words: DO NOT TRUST. And underneath those words were the names of five people from the office.

Can you imagine? No matter how hard he tried to forget the note, no matter how hard he tried to trust the people in spite of what he read, his entire perspective had been reshaped by those three words.

The same happens when we view others as sinners first, and neighbors second. We should always try to love them, but we can love them even more if we see them first as our brothers and sisters and less as sinners in our midst.

Jesus says, “Why do you look for the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” We’re good at seeing the sin in others. That’s what Facebook is for! So we can vent about the sinners in our midst and all the problems they’re causing for the rest of us!

Jesus used this expression because he knew that the disciples would struggle with the tendency to judge others. So instead of loving the sinner, perhaps it’s better to say “I am a sinner, and I ‘m trying love my neighbor.”

But we still have to face the end, “hate the sin.”

Jesus spent a lot of time with sinners: drunks, prostitutes, thieves, murderers, traitors, and countless others who sinned against the Lord. Jesus routinely gathered with them to do what we will do in a few minutes, he broke bread with them. Jesus gave him the most precious gift he had to offer, his time. And then he told them to follow him.

But Jesus never, not even once, said to any of them, “I love you, but I hate your sin.”

Jesus, instead, offered forgiveness.

He encountered all kinds of people who were defined by their choices, and he saw them for who they were in spite of their sins. His love was such that it knew no bounds. It was enough.

            But we are not like Jesus. We fail to love the other as brother and the stranger as sister. We have logs in our eyes and say things like, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

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There was a man who died, and upon his death he arrived at the pearly gates in heaven. He looked all around and soaked up the sights of the fluffy clouds and he was so excited to see people just on the other side of the gate that he had missed for so long. He wanted to run straight to them but there was a line leading up to St. Peter. So the man got in line and waited patiently for his turn.

He knew it wasn’t the right thing to do, but as he got closer he couldn’t help eavesdropping on the conversations between St. Peter and the soon to be residents of heaven. “Oh you did so much for that soup kitchen!” “You’re the one who read scripture out loud in church every week, very good, very good.” And so on. But when the man’s turn came, St. Peter looked down in the Book of Life and then said, “Yeah you were a believer, but you skipped the ‘not being a jerk about it’ part.”

Saying, and living by, “love the sinner, hate the sin” makes us jerks. It means the log in our eye is so large that we are unable from seeing others as brothers and sisters. It means that our own sinfulness blinds us from truly loving.

There is sin in this world. People will make the wrong choice, they will choose evil. We will make sinful decisions; we will avoid doing the things we know we should do. But instead of rallying together and focusing on all the sins and problems of other people, instead of flocking to the Internet and like-minded dinner parties to declare the sins of the other, we all need to take a good hard look in the mirror. We need to recognize the log in our own eyes before we dare point out the speck in another.

Because Jesus, looks right into our hearts and says “I love you, log and all.”

God in Christ knows the prejudices we’re ashamed of, God knows the golden calves we worship instead of Him, God sees our self-righteousness and indignation and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God sees the emails we craft out of anger but are too afraid to send, God knows the ways we lie to our spouses and our children, God witnesses the depth of our depravity and says, “I love you, log and all.”

God was there with us in the voting booth, God hears the sighs we utter in response to someone on the other side of the political aisle, God knows how we really feel and says, “I love you, log and all.”

“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” We say it. We read it. We might even live by it. But we should just stop with the word “love.”

Love.

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Not Hallmark love. Not Valentine’s Day love. But love like Jesus. That might be good enough. Because loving like Jesus does not mean turning away from the sinners in our midst. It means walking up to a crowd of people who are about to do something terrible and saying, “Who among you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone!”

It means encountering the beauty of the Lord and responding with the truest words we can ever say: “Have mercy on me Lord, a sinner.”

It means being humble enough to seek out those whom we have wronged and asking for their forgiveness.

It means caring for those on the margins regardless of the decisions they’ve made or the sins they’ve committed.

It means reaching out to the people who we disagree with most not to change their mind, but to offer them the same thing Jesus offer us, time.

So the next time we say “love the sinner, hate the sin.” Let’s just stop with love. Amen.

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

A guy was walking down a street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and he began crying out for help. A doctor was passing by and looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment, wrote a prescription, threw it down into the hole and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Reverend, I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me up?” The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church came up and the man yelled, “Please help me. I’m stuck down here and I can’t get out.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “Hey! It’s me down here! Can you help me out?” And the friend jumped right into the hole. The first guy said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” The friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

A relatively recent poll found that better than eight in ten Americans think, “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. In fact, more than half the people who responded to the poll were strongly convinced that it is one of the major messages of scripture.

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Guess what? It’s not in the bible!

Do you know where it actually comes from? There are hints of the phrase in ancient Greek mythology, but it became popularized by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac published in 1736.

And yet, a majority of people in this country believe it is a major aspect of Christianity straight from the lips of Jesus.

Of course, there is some, very small, truth to the statement. After all, if we sit around our dinner tables praying for God to miraculously provide us with food, we’re going to be disappointed. We can eat because God has blessed creation with abundance and through things like employment we can afford to provide food for our tables. God helps us because we work to help ourselves.

Likewise, focusing in school, listening to our spouses, nurturing our children, these things result in our lives being better because we have worked for them to be better.

But that pales in comparison to how “God helps those who help themselves” has been used by Christians to avoid our obligation to help others.

Like the woman walking passed the man in the hole, it blinds us from our responsibility toward others and frees us from feeling guilty for how broken the world is outside of our respective bubbles.

The truth is: some people cannot help themselves. Societal discrimination, generational poverty, institutional racism, and a host of other problems prevent people from helping themselves. Some people, in fact many people, are in holes so deep, with walls so steep, that they can’t climb out without help.

About a year ago, some of the pastors in Staunton got together to talk about ways we could minister to the homeless population in our community. We asked ourselves how our respective churches could work together to help the people that cannot help themselves.

At first we debated the pros and cons of establishing something like a computer lab to help individuals apply for jobs. The thought being that if they found work, they could have an income, and no longer be homeless. We discussed offering weekly classes in reading, mathematics, and financial management at the Valley Mission to teach important skills necessary for breaking free from the cycle of homelessness. But in the end, only after we finally connected with homeless community members in Staunton, we discovered what they really needed were showers and a place to do their laundry.

What we failed to realize was that all the best training and teaching would be meaningless if the individuals arrived to a job interview wearing the same clothes they had been sleeping in for months.

We, the pastors, had walked passed the hole many times and decided how to fix the problem from our vantage point, rather than jumping into the hole in the first place.

The Church, and I mean big “C” Church, cannot shrug off the responsibility to help others with the use of another trite and cliché sentence because God, over and over again, commands his people to take special care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the needy.

A cursory scan through the prominent stories of the Old and New testaments leads us to the biblical truth that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

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In Leviticus, God commands the farmers to not harvest all the way to the edge of the fields. Certain amounts of the produce were supposed to be left for the poor and the immigrant. Instead of consuming it themselves, or selling it for a profit, a portion was to be left for those who were not able to make ends meet or for the strangers in the land.

In another part of the Old Testament, God says that compassion for others is itself a form of worship. There are times when the priest and the religious leaders heaped up sacrifice after sacrifice, they had the perfect worship services with all the right prayers and all the right songs, and God tells them their worship has become lifeless.

            What difference does it make if we show up at a place like this for an hour a week if we ignore the people God tells us to care about the rest of the week?

In the New Testament, Jesus is forever going from town to town and seeks out the last, the least, and the lost. And when he finds them, the sick and the needy, does he say, “God will help you if you help yourself?” When the crowds gathered to hear Jesus speak, did he command the disciples to tell the hungry 5,000 that God will give them food if they go collect it for themselves?

No. Jesus helps them. He connects with their brokenness and brings healing. He sends the abandoned back to the villages that disowned them, he feeds the hungry out of the abundant grace of God, and he helps people precisely because they cannot help themselves.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been the one down in the pit? Have you ever encountered a moment in your life that felt so suffocating and oppressive that you knew you couldn’t get out of it on your own? Have you lost a job, or a spouse, or a child? Have you received a frightening medical diagnosis, or a horrible tip for the stock market, or a habit that you couldn’t kick?

We can claw all we want, we can plead on our knees with our hands clasped in the air, but sometimes the only way out of the pit is if someone jumps in to help us find the way out.

From where will out help come? We lift our eyes to the edge of the pit and we see that our help comes from the Lord. The Lord who sends us a friend willing to jump down into the depths of our despair, the Lord who never abandons us even when we feel alone, the Lord who was willing to jump down into the pit of humanity and be born into this fractured world of ours.

That, my friends, is the whole point. We help others who cannot help themselves because God helps us when we cannot help ourselves. God came into the world as a baby in the deep pit of fear and suffering of a couple all alone in the world. God went to the margins of society in Jesus Christ to sink low into the stink of the world and offer hope. God went to the broken families and the battered spouses and the abandoned children and showed the way out. God went to the very depth of death just so that all of us could find the way to salvation.

Tomorrow, some of us who work will not have to because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is a day set apart to remember the man who led this country through a particularly horrible period of racial injustice. His life, his teachings, his marches, and his protests all bear witness to his willingness to jump into the pit of his people’s suffering, in order to find a way out.

A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

If we are serious about following Jesus, it’s going to cost us. It might cause embarrassment, or ridicule, or shame. It might cost us money, or time, or status. But jumping into the pit comes with a cost. Thanks be to God.

 

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