The (Christian) Problem With Elections

Devotional:

Psalm 146.3

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

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

Except the world interferes with both all the time! We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back their role in politics, and I even get letters in the mail from political parties asking me to endorse particular candidates from the pulpit!

Whether we like it or not, the so-called “separation of church and state” actually looks more like a very complicated marriage where neither partner is sure why they are still together.

It then becomes remarkably difficult for Christians to think theologically about what it means to be political, and we wind up privatizing whatever it is we do on Sundays at the expense of letting it influence how we behave Monday-Saturday. 

However, as Christians, we believe that our truest citizenship does not lie in our geography, or our nationstate, or even our socio-economic bracket. Instead, we believe our citizenship is in heaven.

We follow and worship a Lord whose kingdom is very different from the one that surrounds us in the world. All of our assumptions about what it important, who we are to be, and what we are to care about are changed by Jesus Christ who is our Lord of lords.

But then a question naturally follows: If our truest citizenship is in heaven, should we still participate in the forms of citizenship made manifest in something like an election?

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The answer, of course, is yes. By all means we can participate in the political process of our country and we can certainly vote in something like an election.

And yet, the Lord cautions us with a very particular and poignant word: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”

Today we tend to throw all of our eggs in our respective political baskets and we, foolishly, believe that so long as our candidate gets elected everything will be fine for us. But politicians and political ideologies have come and gone, people have rejoiced and people have wept, and many things have remained the same. 

The democratic practices we hold so dear are very important, but they will not bring us salvation.

Or, to put it more succinctly, Stanley Hauerwas says:

“I think voting is way overvalued. We forget that voting is inherently a coercive activity – its where 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do! People forget that voting is not an end in itself… Democracy, in its fundamental form, is patience; it requires us to listen, in the Pauline sense, to the lesser member. And we have to wait, oftentimes, if the lesser member isn’t convinced.”

So this election day, as we wrestle with the call to be both faithful and political, let us pray that the Lord might grant us the patience necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that whomever is elected will not bring us salvation, but that we wait with hope and joy for the Lord of lords, Jesus the Christ, whom we did not elect. 

Instead, he elected us. 

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The Fruit Of The Womb

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (Ruth 3.1-4, 4.13-17, Psalm 127, Hebrews 9.24-28, Mark 12.38-44). Teer serves as an associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and is one of the cohosts for Crackers And Grape Juice. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent devotionals, Rated R scriptures, podophobia, neighborhood names, bringing God into the voting booth, the once-for-all-ness of the atonement, sacrificing Jesus one Sunday a month, and ignoring people in robes. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Fruit of the Womb

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Teer Talking About Feet…

We Definitely Need To Talk

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The midterm elections are coming up.

Do you all know what those are?

I’m sure you haven’t heard of them. I’m sure that you’ve been able to watch your favorites shows on television, and listen to your favorite radio station, and even get on the computer without hearing about who is running and where.

All of us here don’t care about politics. And we certainly never talk about politics. Not here at church when we’re milling around before the worship service. Not at work when we’re sitting around at a common table with fellow employees. Not at home when we’re catching up with a neighbor over the fence.

No. Politics are a rather boring endeavor these days. It’s just too bad that we don’t care about our politics enough!

So, for the vast majority of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about (read: sarcasm), the midterms elections will be taking place on November 6th. They happen every four years, and they always fall during the mid-point of a president’s four-year term in office. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, and there are 33 being voted on in the Senate. 

In certain places there will also be state governors on the ballots in addition to ordinances that pertain to the local community.

All in all, it is just another voting day.

Yet, in all of its regularity and perfunctory nature, all the research and data made available points to the conclusion that more than 4 billion dollars will be spent on the elections by election day, with at least 1 billion of that being spent on television ads alone.

4 billion dollars for an election.

Now, don’t get me wrong – elections are important, they are part of the fabric of our country, and they represent a freedom many people in other parts of the world will never know. And, of course, not all politicians are bad or evil or corrupt. Some of them feel called to run for office because they want to make things better.

But, at the same time, I want to just say again… 4 billion dollars!

That’s more than what it cost to make every single Marvel movie, combined!

What does it say about those running, and those of us financially supporting those who are running, that we are willing to spend 4 billion dollars on an election?

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James and John were two of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and he referred to the sons of Zebedee as the sons of thunder. Why? We don’t really know, but if it was good enough for Jesus, then it should be good enough for us.

The thunder brothers were pretty self-absorbed.

Jesus has just predicted his passion for a third, and final, time. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and I will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn me to death; then they will hand me over to the Gentiles; they will mock me, and spit upon me, and flog me, and kill me; and after three days I will rise again.”

And what happens next? The thunder brothers approach Jesus, immediately after he told them for the third time what was to happen. Like the children they were, they said, “Hey Jesus, will you do whatever we ask you?”

“What do you want?!”

“Allow us to sit at your right and left in your glory!”

They wanted all the power. They wanted to be Jesus’ Secretary of State and his Secretary of Defense. They wanted to be the junior and senior State Senators. They wanted to be the Speaker of the House and the Majority Leader in the Senate of whatever Jesus’ kingdom would be.

And yet, their question comes on the heels of Jesus laying it all out for the disciples. So either they were not listening to what their Messiah said, or they were just plain dumb.

Which makes me wonder how people reacted to this story the first time they heard it. Did they laugh? Because it is laughable.

Did the other 10 point their fingers and ridicule the thunder brothers for their idiot question? Well, apparently not. Because, lest we bash the thunder brothers alone, the rest of the disciples fared no better. Hearing Jesus’ utter rebuke of their request, the rest of the disciples got angry. 

It doesn’t take much of an imagination to picture these would be rag-tag followers of the holy one bickering with each other about who was the best, and who would get the authority, and who held all the power.

It was such a squabble that Jesus had to respond with his teaching about true greatness and true power: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The whole story reads like a comedy. We have the benefit of knowing the end of the story, we know that the tomb is empty, but did any of us feel like laughing when the text was read today?

We, for some reason, feel either defensive about their behavior, or we’re apathetic. 

We might not like to admit it, but we can feel for the thunder brothers; maybe they just want to make sure they’re protected should anything serious happen to Jesus, or perhaps they’re just seizing their moment and shoring up future opportunities…

It’s far too easy to bash the thunder brothers across the sands of time, because all of us here have a little bit of that same thunder in us, and maybe our thirst for power and security has us asking for things that we do not really understand.

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Surely, we know better than to make outlandish and insensitive requests like the thunder brothers did, but most of us still want to be first in line at the grocery store, we want our children to go to the very best schools, we want to pay the lowest amount of taxes possible. 

We want, we want, we want…

We actually want a whole lot of things that we’d never actually admit out loud.

But maybe the thunder brothers were just desperate. And then, could we really blame them? Here they are, getting close to the end of the gospel, Jesus has thrice told them about his impending death… Maybe the thunder brothers just wanted to make sure their pension was going to be okay. 

So, perhaps it was just pure desperation that propelled them to ask for such a crazy thing – and therefore their desperate clutch for power blinded them from the truth of the Messiah they were following.

But desperation, particularly in the face of the cross, is a strange thing to experience in the kingdom.

And we really are no better. Each of us, in different ways, are desperate for our own power. From the frightening ways that we are so gripped by the politics of our time (4 billion dollars!) to the strange ways we isolate ourselves from experiencing anything other than what we might deem as normative. 

We are a people hell bent on securing our futures, rather than risking the way of the cross.

Even the church itself is guilty of the thunder brothers temptation. We water down the gospel and present it in bite-size pieces in order to appeal to as many people as possible. We want all the grace without all the transformation. We want Jesus to fix our problems, but when someone else is in need, it is all too easy to turn a blind eye.

We, sinners and saints, are all filled with insecurities and fears that drive us toward greed and covetousness. As individuals, and families, and communities, and political parties, and even as the church, we do it all the time. 

Overcoming these deep seated insecurities is no easy thing, and it certainly can’t change overnight. But it does start to transform into something else through service, whatever that might mean. Because it is in serving those we might otherwise deem unworthy, that we are confronted with the profound truth – we are unworthy.

In the other we see the sin of our desire for power.

But serving others, putting others’ needs first, doesn’t “fix” us. It’s not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. All serving does is reorient our perspective, while transforming the world for someone else. Serving the other helps us see how often our thirst for power is what drives us away from the cross instead of toward it. 

Jesus’ rebuke of the thunder brothers, and the rest of the disciples, might sound harsh to our modern and prejudiced ears, but it’s actually a promise. Jesus promises that we need not live in fear, we need not wake up every morning worrying about our security, we need not scheme to accrue as much power as possible. But Jesus doesn’t promise our protection, or our safety, or even our power – Jesus promises us the cross!

The way of prosperity and power, though decisively tempting in a time like ours, is but a shadow and shallow promise of what the empty tomb ironically contains. Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, is a way of resistance to the dominating systems that are all around us, and are within us. 

Those domination systems are those that do whatever it takes to maintain and exert power dynamics that keep the weak weak. From politics, to families, to churches, the thirst and hunger for power lives and breathes by controlling people, subordinating the marginalized, and further dividing the weak from the strong, the powerful from the powerless, and the rich from the poor.

But the way of the cross is the ultimate alternative to the domination systems that plague our existence. Jesus lived and breathed not by amassing power and prestige, but by bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.

Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus regularly resisted the kind of power that is still all too present in the world. From being tempted with ultimate power in the wilderness, to the temptations of the crowds jeering while he hung on the cross – Jesus always believed in something that we often forget.

True power comes through weakness, true power comes through service, true power comes through sacrifice.

We know that among others those whom they recognize as their rulers, the politicians and the powerful, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it not so among us; whoever wishes to become great among us must be a servant, and whoever wishes to be first must be slave of all. 

For Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

For us.

And that changes everything. Amen.

A Better Way To Vote

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Benson McGlone about the readings for Easter 7B (Acts 1.15-17, 21-26, Psalm 1, 1 John 5.9-13, John 17.6-19). Benson is currently planting a church in Northern Virginia, and is one of the hosts of the Free Range Church Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including theological tattoos, roosters with fishes and sheep, casting lots, church democracy, the intersection between finances and leadership, biblical happiness, knowing what we need, and the divine soliloquy. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Better Way To Vote

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Calming the (Political) Storm

Mark 4.35-41

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

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On Tuesday morning, Lindsey and I woke up early to hit the polls before work. We were expecting long lines so we made sure to plan for enough time and double check our voting location. When we arrived, we were both a little shocked to discover the limited number of participants but we walked into the building with excitement.

I went over to the table to receive instructions and eventually went over to the machine to cast my vote. Lindsey, however, was forced to reregister because of a filing error, so I stood off to the side and waited patiently.

I really try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes it feels impossible. When people walk into to a building and start shouting things, it’s hard not to notice.

The first man came in wearing bib overalls, dirt all over his boots, with his hair going every direction. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” The man stared blankly back and then declared, “Well, I ain’t no socialist so I’ll be voting Republican.

The second man came in wearing a perfectly pressed suit, with a tie clip, and an expensive looking watch on his wrist. When he arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” Without taking time to think about his answer he said, “I can’t trust Hillary but I’m still voting Democrat.

The first woman came in wearing a completely coordinated outfit, her hair and makeup looked perfect, and her heels were so high they started giving me vertigo. When she arrived at the table the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting for?” I don’t think the woman was really paying attention because she filled the next few minutes trying to convince the volunteer that our country is in a mess and the only good option we have left is the Christian Ted Cruz.

The next woman came in wearing a sweat suit, with spit-up on her shoulder, while making a comment about her baby waiting in the car. She was clearly in a rush so when the volunteer asked, “What party will you be voting…” She interrupted and yelled, “Anyone but Trump!

It didn’t take long for me to notice that all of the people coming in to vote were doing so out of fear. None of them were particularly satisfied with any of the candidates, they represented different walks of life, and the one thing that united them was fear.

On that day, when the evening had come, Jesus said, “Let us go across to the other side.” As the sun was setting in the distance, darkness was hovering over the waters, and Jesus suggested that it was time to go across the Sea of Galilee. And this was no simple journey; Jesus had been ministering to the Jews in the Jewish territory, but now he wanted his disciples to go across to the other side, to the gentiles.

This is probably Jesus’ first foray into dangerous territory, his first opportunity to proclaim a sense of inclusion that still mystifies most of us today.

And while they were out on the water, making the journey from their side to the other side, a great windstorm arose, smashing waves against the boat so hard that it was being swamped with water. But Jesus was asleep! So the disciples woke him up and asked, “Teacher, do you not care that we are going to die?

Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and there was a dead calm. He turned to his disciples and said, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?

They were definitely afraid; afraid of the wind and the waves crashing against the boat, afraid about the journey to the other side, afraid for their very lives.

And notice that Jesus does not say, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.” There are plenty of things for Jesus’ disciples then, and now, to be afraid of: isolation, pain, illness, losing one’s job, money problems, failure, death. Instead, he asks, “Why are you afraid?”

            Why are you afraid for your lives when I’m here on the boat with you?

            Why are you afraid of rejection and failure when I’m here with you in life?

            Why are you afraid of death when you know that I rose from the grave?

What a fitting text for this political season in our lives. While many of us grow tired of the countless fights and arguments that break out on the news, while the chain of endless debates rattle with sound bite after sound bite, while people go to the polls to vote against someone rather than for someone, Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid?”

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We are afraid. We are afraid of the wind and the waves that assail our fragile ships. We are afraid for our lives, our church, our cities, our politics, our country, our world. We fear disapproval, rejection, failure, meaninglessness, illness, death… We are held captive by the power of fear.

And perhaps our greatest fear is of anything that differs from us. We are so contented in life that we fear death. We are so rooted in our Republicanism that we fear Democrats, or we are so Liberal that we fear Conservatism. We are so constantly surrounded by white middle-class Christian America, that we fear anyone who is black, or Hispanic, or Muslim, or Atheist. We are so used to seeing the traditional family unit of a husband and wife with 2.5 children that we are afraid of anyone who is lesbian or gay.

And Jesus is the one telling us its time to go to the other side. Jesus is the one who knows, even better than us, that there is plenty to be afraid of, but those things do not have the final word.

What we fail to remember and realize, is that we were once the outsiders that Jesus welcomed in. We were the gentiles waiting on the other shore for an incredible Messiah to show up and graft us in. If it were not for the incredible inclusiveness of Jesus’ ministry, none of us would be here in this place, none of us would have been blessed with grace, and none of us would have received the gift of the cross.

And now we face a time with other outsiders, people for whom many of us are afraid of, people who will rock our boats. And as we get closer, as the scales begin to fall from our eyes, as we begin to see others as brothers and sisters instead of enemies, that’s precisely when the storms start billowing in, playing toward our fears.

“If we start working with the Republicans, we will lose everything we once deemed sacred…”

“If we let another Democrat into the White House, God only knows what kind of terrible things will happen to us…”

“If we start changing what we do on Sunday mornings, the church will die…”

“If we start affirming their relationships, the traditional family will die…”

“If we start opening our borders, our country will die…”

Jesus knows best of all, that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion.

The call to not be afraid bookends the gospel. It is there at the beginning when the angel Gabriel shares the news of the coming Messiah with Mary, and it is there at the end when the disciples encountered the angels on the first Easter. Not because there are no fearsome things on the seas of our days, not because there are no storms, but rather, because God is with us.

That night on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus brought peace in the midst of the storm. This kind of thing happens all the time when people are willing to look past their fear and remember that Jesus is in the boat with us.

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It may be at the polls while people are arguing about the fate of our country, it may be at General Conference when people are arguing about homosexual relationships, it may be in our own families when people are arguing about anything under the sun.

We will face strong winds and huge waves in the middle of a storm. Jesus wants us to remember that he will always be in the boat with us; that we can rely on his strength and mercy when ours runs out; that the prince of peace will always calm the waters.

On Wednesday night I had the youth of our church read the story of Jesus’ calming the storm. We discussed the types of storms that we have witnessed in our lives and then we started to talk about fear. I gave each of them a permanent marker and a plate with the instructions to write down their deepest and truest fears. I promised them that whatever they wrote was between them and God, but they also talked about fears they felt comfortable sharing…

“I’m afraid of death.”

“I’m afraid of our government.”

“I’m afraid of being alone.”

Then we went out into the back parking lot and we smashed the plates into tiny pieces. After we collected all of our broken fears, we started to glue them back together in the shape of the cross (you can see it right here).

Christ’s cross shatters our fears, it breaks down the moments that haunt us, and remind us over and over again that we are not alone. To wear a cross around our necks, to see one in the sanctuary, is a witness to the fact that the cross shatters our fears. The cross is a reminder that God is with us; with us in on the seas of life, with us in our most frightened moments, with us when we need him.

This part of the sanctuary is called the nave. The word comes from the Latin navis, which means “ship.” If you look up at the ceiling, it looks like the inside of a boat. In this place we are bombarded with images of the cross and the ship on the sea as a reminder of how God is with us.

Every week we gather here into this boat, with Christ as the captain, calming the wind and the waves of our fears.

Every week we hear scriptures, and hymns, and prayers that help to remind us who is our real hope and salvation while the world feels like it’s falling apart.

Every week we gather in the boat to remember that Jesus promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age.

Don’t be afraid. Amen.