A Man Without A Church

Devotional:

Psalm 82.3-4

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

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I have shared on a number of occasions that one of my favorite writers is the late Kurt Vonnegut Jr. I was introduced to his novels and short stories when I was in middle school and quickly read through everything he published. I know that it can sound strange to hear that Vonnegut is one of the favorite writers of a pastor since he basically loathed organized religion and spoke avidly of his own humanism. To quote, “We Humanists behave as well as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an Afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.” 

And yet, some of Vonnegut’s thoughts on the church speak, to me, a better truth than is often heard in the church. In his writing and speaking he could both critique and admire the church in a way that is instructive and ultimately productive. 

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Vonnegut died in 2007 two weeks before he was scheduled to speak in his home town of Indianapolis for an event celebrating his life and achievements. The speech he wrote for that event was the last thing he wrote before he died and it contains a lot of his more memorable contributions to the literary ethos. However, there is something in the speech that does appear anywhere else in Vonnegut’s corpus, to my knowledge:

“I got a letter a while back from a man who had been a captive in the American penal system since he was sixteen years old. He is now forty-two, and about to get out. He asked me what he should do. I told him: ‘Join a church.’ And now please note that I have raised my right hand. And that means I am not kidding, that whatever I say next I believe to be true. So here goes: The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime wasn’t our contribution to the defeat of the Nazis, in which I played such a large part, or Ronald Regan’s overthrow of Godless Communism, in Russia at least. The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime is how African-American citizens have maintained their dignity and self-respect, despite their having been treated by white Americans, both in and out of government, and simply because of their skin color, as though they were contemptible and loathsome, and even diseased. Their churches helped them do that.”

These words, in fact some of the last words from Vonnegut, are all the more striking when considering the fact that he hailed from Indiana which, when he was a kid, contained the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, and was the last state to have a lynching of a African-American citizen north of the Mason-Dixon Line. 

At its best, the church has been the place in which justice was given to the weak and orphaned and where the rights of the lowly were maintained. The church has, at times, rescued the weak and needy by delivering them from the hand of the wicked.

But, at its worst, the church has been the place where injustice has rained down like waters, where the marginalized have been further marginalized. 

It was not that long ago, all things considered, when African-Americans were forced to sit in the balconies of churches rather than with everyone else. It was not that long ago that Martin Luther King Jr. declared 11am on Sunday mornings to be the most racially segregated moment of the week. The prejudices of the past are still very present here in the present.

Vonnegut often described himself “a man without a country.” But reading his last bit of writing makes me wonder if he was actually “a man without a church.”

For if the church is not the place where justice is present, where the rights of the lowly are maintained, and the weak and needy are delivered, then what in the world are we doing?

The Politics of Easter: A Reflection

Matthew 28.3-5

His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid.”
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A few weeks ago I told the church I serve about my experience of voting during the Virginia Primary. When I arrived at my voting location I was disappointed with the limited number of participants. But by the time I left, the parking lot was starting to fill rapidly.

When I got into the building I went over to the table to receive my instructions and eventually got set up with a machine to cast my vote. While my wife finished registering and voting I stood off to the side.

I really try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes it feels impossible. When people walk into a building and starting 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.

The two most well known stories of the New Testament bookend Jesus’ life. The two most well attended church services in the year similarly reflect these bookends: Christmas and Easter. As a pastor, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some of the hardest services to plan and preside over. And honestly, I feel guilty about how much they stress me out. They’re supposed to be the most joyful and incredible worship services in the year, and they leave me feeling anxious.

Part of the problem is the fact that a whole lot of people show up on Christmas and Easter who otherwise never attend church. That means that we’ve got one hour to show them how powerful regular worship can be in the hope of getting them to attend worship between the major holidays.

The other problem is the fact that most of the people who attend on Christmas and Easter already know the story. It has been told for two millennia and a 15-minute sermon from a pulpit is unlikely to shine a new light on either narrative.

But the biggest problem with Christmas and Easter is the fact that many of us read ourselves into the story as the wrong characters.

On Christmas Eve we hear about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and Joseph to share with them the Good News that they will be bring God in the flesh into the world. They, of course, are terrified by this news but the angel says, “Do not be afraid.” We like to stop the story there because it fits well with our sensibilities. We like to think about being afraid of starting something new and God showing up to reassure us.

But the story goes on to talk about Herod’s fear. Herod heard about a messiah possibly being born in Bethlehem. Out of fear that this child will one day usurp his power, he ordered all of the babies born in Bethlehem to be murdered. Obviously, this is not a popular topic for Christmas Eve. But it is important. It is important because most of us have never, nor will we ever be in a position like a Mary and Joseph. We have families and a government that support our way of life. We know we have people to count on, we know that there is money in our bank accounts. Many of us will never know the fear that Mary and Joseph experienced on that Christmas Eve.

But many of us can connect with Herod’s fear about people in a faraway place whose existence threaten our power and way of life. (Think Syrian Refugees or ISIS)

On Easter we hear about Mary Magdalene and the other Mary going to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ dead body, and instead they experience an earthquake and an angelic presence. The angel says to the women, “Do not be afraid.” But he scares the Roman guards nearly to the point of death. We like the story to focus on God’s power over death and Jesus’ resurrection from the grave. We like to hear about how Jesus’ victory over death opens up the gates of heaven for people like us.

But the story specifically sets up a distinction between the women at the tomb, and the guards at the tomb. And if we’re honest, most of us are like the guards in the story; we’re Caesar’s people. We might know about loss and suffering, we might’ve experienced the awful power of death in a loved one or friend, but we’ve never had to tread lightly for fear that our political system will murder us for speaking out, we’ve never known what it’s like to watch someone die on a cross and then be placed in a grave, we’ve never had to guard our political opinions because we live in the land of freedom.

But what we do know is that most of our lives are pretty good. Many of us have the right skin color, the right passport, the right education, the right sexual orientation, and the right amount of wealth to be rewarded in our society.

And Jesus, the guy Christians claim to worship on Christmas, Easter, and every Sunday in between, came to make the first last and the last first.

So maybe we should be afraid. We should be afraid because God raised his Son from the dead and calls us to sacrifice our own lives for people who betray us. Maybe we should be afraid because we’re told to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Maybe we should be afraid because Jesus tells us to love our enemies, whether they support Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz or Donald Trump.

When angels show up in scripture, but in particular at Christmas and Easter, they come to people who have every reason to be afraid and they bring words of comfort: Your Son will be God in the flesh; Jesus has been raised from the dead. God speaks to the outcasts, to the last, least, and lost and brings them Good News.

We, who have nothing to fear, we who are so comfortable and content in our lives… Maybe it’s time to recognize that following Jesus’ will disrupt the comfort and the contentment we feel. Maybe it’s time to start praying for and acting on behalf of people who are belittled and broken by our political system. Maybe it’s time for us to stop ignoring everyone with a different way of life, particularly if have a different skin color, a different passport, a different education, a different sexual orientation, or a different socio-economic status. Maybe it’s time to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and let it shake our lives.

 

 

(with thanks to Jason Micheli for inspiring parts of this reflection)

Devotional – John 20.30

Devotional:

John 20.30

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.

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My favorite piece of scripture is Mark 10.45: For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” I love the idea that, like Jesus, we are called to serve the needs of others rather than focusing on ourselves all the time. One of the verses that has made the most impact in my life is from Matthew 27.46: “And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” Through it I began to realize the depth of Jesus’ humanity and what he went through on our behalf.

There are plenty of verses that make me laugh, like Acts 20.9: “A young man named Eutychus, who was sitting in the window, began to sink off into a deep sleep while Paul talked still longer. Overcome by sleep, he fell to the ground three floors below and was picked up dead.” And there are some passages that leave me scratching my head in confusion, like Mark 9.50: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?”

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Last Easter my friend Jason Micheli preached his sermon on what he called “the biblical verse that really ticks [him] off, the scripture verse that irritates the you-know-what out of [him] is John 20.30: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.”

And I have to agree with him.

Why in the world would John omit other stories about Jesus’ life? If there were other miracles, other teachings, other divine moments, why wouldn’t he include them in the gospel? Most of the time I read from the bible I feel very fulfilled, but when I read John 20.30 I feel like I got short-changed.

Yet, on some level, I feel like it’s quite appropriate. If Easter tells us anything it’s that the living Lord is still on the move meeting us on the roads of life. John’s gospel could never contain all of Jesus’ miracles because he is still making them happen here and now. Sometimes we believe that we can only find and discover the Lord in the sacred texts of scripture, but that’s when we need to open our eyes to the wonders around us and see how God is still moving in the world.

When was the last time you felt the presence of God? Hopefully you experienced the Spirit of the Lord during your recent Easter service, or maybe you discovered God in the breaking of bread during communion. This week, let us all take heart knowing that we can find God in the words of scripture and in our experiences in the world.