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.

img_mouseover3 (1)

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.

saints_5236c

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.

Advertisements

Devotional – 2 Thessalonians 3.13

Devotional:

2 Thessalonians 3.13

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Weekly Devotional Image

This election cycle has been exhausting. The endless torrent of sound bites blasted through the television, the revelatory number of click-bait articles on social media, and the overwhelming amount of animosity between neighbors with differing political signs in their front yards have left most of us feeling weary and worn. I don’t know if this is a common thing for pastors to experience during presidential election cycles, but I’ve had more people than I can keep track of show up at my office telling me which candidate God wants me to vote for.

Many have already cast their ballots, but the majority of Americans will gather at the polls tomorrow to make their choice. Churches, schools, and other local community buildings will be filled with all kinds of people; people who are exercising their right to vote for the first time, people who feel they are being forced to vote for the lesser of two evils, people who will vote according to the party line regardless of the names attached to the positions, and people who believe that this election is the most important in the history of the United States.

Sadly, there are some for whom the foretaste of power has given them the bravado to stand outside polling areas to intimidate other voters. Whether the shout at the top of their lungs, or physically approach particular individuals, they will do what they believe is right in order to secure what they believe is right. Sadly, this election cycle has led to the bombing of political offices and the burning of black churches. Violence and fear still reigns supreme in this country. Sadly, the anger and animosity percolating in the country will not come to a peaceful conclusion when all the votes have been tallied. Many will be just as angry, if not angrier, if their candidate loses.

screen-shot-2015-06-19-at-3-11-31-pm

Friends, in this time of great strife and division, do not be weary in doing what is right. Do not forget that the people who we disagree with politically are the very people that Jesus calls us to pray for and love. Do not forget that to be Christian is to believe that Jesus is Lord, and that God is really in control regardless of who wins the election. Do not forget that though we may not think alike, we may certainly love alike.

If you are in the Staunton area, I invite you to gather together at St. John’s UMC at 7pm tomorrow evening. As the polls close and the pundits proclaim early victories on the news, we will be in the Lord’s sanctuary feasting at the table. We will listen for the Spirit and ask for God’s will to be done. We will pray for our politicians, whether we voted for them or not.

Yes, No, Maybe So – Sermon on Romans 13.1-2, John 18.36, and 1 Timothy 2.1-3

(Instead of a typical ~15 minute sermon from the pulpit, I broke the following sermon up into 3 homilies. I preached the first from the pulpit, the second from the lectern, and the third from the middle)

This morning concludes our Sermon Series on Questions. After polling the gathered body regarding your questions about God, Faith, and the Church this series was created. Last week we talked about the ever sensitive topic of forgiveness and whether or not to bury or cremate the dead. This week we finish by looking at the complicated relationship between politics and church. Before we begin I wanted to share with you some the actual questions that led to this sermon: How do we reconcile the divide between what we believe and particular political positions? The Old Testament seems to celebrate violence in God’s name. Jesus seems to permit only peaceful ways; So why do we live ready to go to war with whomever our government says we should? Is it right to have an American Flag in the sanctuary?

should-the-church-be-involved-in-politics

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 

Is the church political: YES

My office is far away from the main entrance to church. I can sit comfortably in the back hallway room, weeding through emails, making phone-calls, and preparing sermons while unaware of anyone entering the church and walking into the main office. If people arrive and desire to speak with me our secretary, Ashley, will either walk with them down toward my room, or call ahead to let me know that someone is on their way. I appreciate this system because I am rarely blindsided by a visit and can usually prepare myself for whatever enters the room. Usually.

Ashley had already gone home for the day when I heard the doorbell ringing. I have learned that I have to run from my office to the entrance if I want to catch people before they give up and assume no one is at the church. So it was with a bible and hymnal tucked under my arm that I found myself sprinting to the door to welcome whoever was waiting.

She was older, painfully shy, and carrying an absurd amount of political paperwork. She stuttered after I flung the door open and it took a lot of interpretation for me to gather that she wanted to talk about an upcoming election. On most days I would politely smile and decline her invitation, but I was in the mood to debate and argue, so I welcomed her in.

In my office we went through the expected pleasantries about how long I have been here, what the church is like, and other regular questions when the stuttering disappeared, and my shy visitor became extremely passionate about the subject of conversation. “Did you know” she began, “that Christians are voting less than they ever have in the past? While the world crumbles around us under the sinful temptations of the devil, people are neglecting their Christian duty to vote for politicians that can help turn the world right-side up… (of course, all I could think about is the fact that Jesus came to turn the world upside-down) … We need your help pastor. We need you, as the leader of this church, to use the pulpit as a tool to get good Christians back to the voting booths so we can bring our country back to the good old days.” I tried to stifle the sigh that was brewing within me, but before I had a chance to rebuke some of her statements, she dropped a bomb from scripture right on top of me, “remember what Paul wrote: ‘let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God.’ We greatly appreciate your helping our cause.

For as much as I was frustrated with some of her language, and her desire for our pulpit to become a political microphone, she was absolutely right. Throughout history Christians have wrestled with the relationship between church and state, and Paul had to address these growing concerns as a major problem in the first century. Christians, since the beginning, have either granted rulers too much power and latitude, or else have refused to give up what is fully entitled to the rulers (remember give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar?). This has resulted in Christians being too subservient in some periods, while in others they have neglected their duty to the area they found themselves in.

Paul wrote these profound words to the church in Rome because he thought that if we can be good citizens, we can be good disciples. We rely on governments, including our own, to bring order to the chaos of our world. As long as people persist in making our future unpredictable, Paul’s words will remain relevant. Wars will develop, evil will manifest itself in crime and violence, and the state will be here to protect the innocent.

Is the church political? YES. We are political because we are subject to authorities over us that were instituted by God. So, in honor of the woman who begged me in my office to do something I never wanted to do, I say this: “Remember to vote.” Amen.

——————————

Church and State

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Is the church political? NO

I loved my AP Government class in high school. First of all, it was taught by the coach of our football team which meant that he spent more time working on the Xs and Os in his notebook than he did about the legislative branch and he was quick to reward us with stellar grades regardless of our effort. But mostly, I loved the class because it embodied, for me, all of the wonderful and incredible things I was about to experience. As a 17 year old, AP Government displayed the strange new world of our American System that I would soon be able to participate in through the right to vote. I eagerly absorbed our reading material because it was enlightening and it was relevant.

Midway through our year together a serviceman showed up in our classroom, and my excitement quickly dwindled and was replaced with disappointment and fear. The marine stood at the front of our class in his uniform while most of us were still rubbing our eyes to wake up, and began to explain the Selective Service. In mere moments I quickly learned that by no choice of mine I would be registered for the Selective Service along with every other male between the ages of 18-25. The marine attempted to calm the nerves that were developing in the room by claiming that it will probably never amount to anything, but that the government needed to have us on record just in case we were ever needed for war.

I was stupefied. How could our Government expect me to go to war when I believe in the one who calls me to love and pray for my enemies? How could our political system set aside young males, just in case, when it contradicts my understanding of God’s love and grace in the world?

God’s kingdom is not of this world, our allegiances are somewhere else. Doing things liking pledging allegiance to the flag and printing “In God We Trust” on our money draws us away from the one in whom we live and forces us to choose between God and country. Those two things are not the same. Having an American flag in our sanctuary is very dangerous because it, on some level, implies that what the cross represents is equal to what the flag represents. When we let the flag, and therefore the country it represents, come too far into our discipled lives, we run the risk of blurring the lines between God’s kingdom and America. It was not that long ago that a man named Hitler was able to bring one of the most advanced and progressive nations in the world into a war through the use of religious fanaticism that started with a nationalist church structure. That kind of thing still happens in the world today.

Is the church political? NO. God’s kingdom is not of this world, we believe in something greater than our country can represent, and we are held to a higher standard than what our country fights for. When our beliefs and faith go against what America proclaims as normative, we are reminded of the fact that God’s kingdom is not of this world. Our hope is built not on political parities but on Jesus Christ and his righteousness. Amen.

——————————

Blog Header World Compassion

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayer, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.

Is the church political? MAYBE SO

I was hunched over the computer with my notes spread out across the desk when the text messages and phone calls started coming through. I quickly hid my phone in a drawer and continued to focus on my studies, my Old Testament Final Exam was in the morning and I felt woefully unprepared. But try as I might to remove the distraction of my phone, it continued to buzz and ring in the drawer when I began to realize that something big must’ve happened. All I needed to do was see the first message for the final to disappear from my thoughts: “We killed Osama bin Laden.

I spent the rest of the evening in front of the television witnessing the reports of our nation’s triumph in killing its greatest enemy, I saw crowds of people gathering in public and in front of political buildings celebrating a great victory while waving American flags back and worth. I even received a phone call from one of my childhood friends who was drunkenly celebrating in front of the White House who wished that I could be there to throw a cold one back with him.

In the days that followed, people continued to celebrate across the American landscape and I felt confused. On some level I kept recalling what it felt like to grow up in Alexandria and really remember the fear I felt when the Pentagon was hit, I remember the devastation that weighed on military families in my neighborhood, I remember the world changing forever on 9/11 and being angry at whoever was responsible. But while I witnessed people celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, I couldn’t help but wonder if we had accomplished anything.

For weeks I struggled with how to feel and what it meant for our country to celebrate the death of a man who celebrated death. I was lost and unsure of my faith and what it meant to follow the one who died for us. The muslims I was used to seeing on Duke’s campus quickly disappeared from the public areas and were replaced with affluent kids dressed in red, white, and blue. Overwhelmed by everything that had taken place, I confided in a friend from seminary about my struggles and asked, “What are we supposed to do?

His response was quick and deliberate: “We pray.

The problematic relationship between church and politics is complicated by the fact that the Christian always belongs to two communities and has loyalties to both. Our identities are divided between God and Country and both are constantly striving for our allegiance. Sadly, there will never be a time that both of them stand for and represent the same things, and we will always live in this paradoxical struggle.

What are we to do when politicians fight for programs that go against our faith?

What are we to do when our country goes to war with our enemies while Jesus is the one who calls us to love them?

What are we to do with a sanctuary and worship service that displays an American flag while proclaiming the empty cross of Christ’s resurrection?

What are we to do when our country no longer stands for the Christian values everyone believes it was founded upon?

First of all then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

We pray when confronted with the troubles of our world, when we are met with the political persuasions of our nation, and when we can no longer understand the balance between God and country. Karl Barth once said that “to clasp our hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

Is the church political? MAYBE SO

We are political in the sense that we recognize that we are in the world, but we are not of the world. That God has called us to be brave and radical people who see the world turned upside down and live into a new reality. That when we clasp our hands together to pray for everyone, our leaders and enemies, our nations and others, we spark the beginning of an uprising against disorder.

The challenge of the relationship between faith and politics will always remain. Since the beginning of the church it has been a concern of Christians everywhere and it will continue to be.  But if we want to truly wrestle with this problem, is we want to take steps of faith into our political culture, we begin by asking: What Would Jesus Do about government?

He would pray for the government, he would listen to all people everywhere treating them with worth, and he would love them with all that he had.

Let it be so with us. Amen.

——————————