Syria Keeps Bleeding

Syria is bleeding. We must pay attention and respond. Here’s a post from a pastor in the Philippines whose blog I follow.

The back portion of the room was emptied as almost everyone made a hurried descent to the front where we were waiting.

The translator just said, “turid alsalata?” (You want prayers?) She then motioned to everyone to come forward if they wanted to be prayed for. That was perhaps one of the most effortless altar calls I’ve ever seen, almost Billy Grahamic in its euphoria.

I’m used to praying for people. I shuffle, group, lay hands, and pray for prayer requests from people in the church I help pastor every single week. And I have been doing that as part of the staff for 12 years now.

This one was different.

The people who have attended this gathering were mostly Iraqis, Syrians, Arminians, and Kurdish people displaced by war in their home towns. Most of them are part of the millions of refugees who fled to Lebanon at the thick…

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The Authority of Jesus

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

Galatians 1:1-12

Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers and sisters with me,

To the churches in Galatia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

10 Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.

11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

Luke 7:1-10

When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

Whitney and I spent a week or so in Southern California after my graduation a couples weekends ago, and while we were there, in addition to just getting some time away, we met up with some old friends and also met some new people – and for me, it was very interesting. The conversations that you tend to have with people in LA about being a pastor and studying theology in general are a little bit different from the ones I typically have in Charleston. For one thing, most of them were with people who are not Christians.

And what you do for work just tends to inevitably come up, and so for many, when they hear what I do, they’re surprised and confused or curious or something. This probably happened about half a dozen times! And I kept getting  questions, like…

“What made you want to do that? You don’t seem like the type.” Which, I don’t know how to take that, really. It could be good or bad I guess. But here’s what I’ve noticed is sometimes going on in these conversations: these people don’t necessarily have anything against what I do — sometimes they do. But mostly they just don’t understand why I would want to take my faith so seriously. It doesn’t connect with them: church, religion, the Bible — all this stuff. It just seems to many people to be like something they think society has just grown out of, or lost its need for . . .

And honestly, this can be hard to hear sometimes. It make you doubt yourself, and it’s almost like a spiritual battle and internal struggle — because these people are genuine. They’re searching for truth and meaning just like I am, but they see the world so differently. This can unsettle you — make you insecure in your faith.

And I know there’s intellectual explanations for this change in our culture and society in recent years — in communication and transportation and trade. It brings more different kinds of people together across cultures, which sometimes leads to the erosion of traditions. This is what the Israelites feared in Exile in Babylon — that they would become so assimilated to the Babylonian culture, that they would no longer be able to pass on their faith to the next generation.

When you have greater diversity of worldviews concentrated in a smaller geographical area, it just tends to relativize some of people’s core convictions.  

And there are both positive and negative aspects to this new reality. One of the biggest challenges we see, and I think this is the subject of the two readings for this morning, in some ways, is this issue of authority, and where we find it. Where now is our authority?

Authority is something we all experience and interact with on a daily basis in different areas of our lives. From government, to traffic laws, in business, sports, school — or even just in the family, where parents have authority over the children, or at least they try to for a while! And authority gets contested, when people are unhappy about something, but it does seem to be especially contested these days.

Just think about our own recent history as a nation, though. Things like the Iraq War, the Wall Street crash, the bailout of the big banks, congressional gridlock — all of this produced in an emerging generation of young people, a fairly unprecedented distrust the major institutions that hold our society together. And it doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative — both sides have this attitude (which might be one of the reason why “outside” candidates are having more success these days in politics).

It all points to this sentiment today that those at the center of society, those who are part of the establishment, who control money and power are not to be trusted. On both the left and the right. Where is the authority?

And the authority of church and Christianity has hardly fared much better. There have been sex sandals, financial mishandlings, the abuse of power, and on and on. My own alma mater! Baylor University suffered a major blow this week, as a result similar problems. I’m sure many of you heard. And it’s like of course the media loves to point out the failures of Christian institutions, and they’ve been doing a very good job of that this week — and not without some justification. You know, you try to be great at football, academics by the world’s standards while also being Christian — sometimes you pick one more than the other.

And I don’t want to exaggerate or over-dramatize this, but I think it’s fair to say we’re living in an environment, in which not only Christian authority but authority in general is in a kind of crisis.

And yet. here’s what’s so fascinating: Somehow, for some reason, the person of Jesus, what he taught, and how lived, still carries with it, some significant authority, even in our society today. Overall, people remain reverent and respectful of Jesus. They’re intrigued by him, and admire him, even if they don’t worship him or claim to follow him. [IMAGE]

There was a book written a while ago now, but this pastor in Santa Cruz, CA, named Dan Kimball, and this is what the title was:

“They like Jesus, but not the Church.” – Dan Kimball

Or, we could maybe add to this:

“They like Jesus, but not the Bible.”

“They like Jesus, but they’re not so sure about Christians in general.”

“They like Jesus, but they’re not sure about the Christian idea of God.”

So Jesus’s authority or appeal to some extent is recognized even by those outside the faith. This is exactly what we find in the gospel text for this morning.

So Jesus is commending a Roman Centurion and says, this man has more faith even than anyone that I’ve seen in all of Israel! Ok, this guy is a Gentile. He’s not a Jew. And, he’s a representative of Rome, who’s really an enemy of Israel. And yet Jesus not only compliments him, but heals his servant.

Now, just because Jesus compliments the faith of the Centurion does not mean that he was blessing or approving of the Roman Empire or Empires in general — then or now. But Jesus sees the man’s faith as true. And the Centurion, an outsider to Judaism, is able to recognize Jesus’s Authority. That is what is so striking and important.

In the first reading we heard from the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, the issue of the authority and the authority of the gospel is also in question. Paul says, in verses 11-12:

…. 1:11 For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Alright this, is kind of crazy! You know those people who say something that you maybe don’t believe, but then they back it up with God told me so? Paul is that person right now. That’s basically what he’s doing. And I know we’re in church, so we can’t be totally honest about this — we believe that God can speak to us — yes we do. But we are still a little suspicious of these things. Admit it.

So this is no easy claim to make, is it… that we have a message from God, it’s not of our own making!

Paul knows this though, so he’s determined to be persuasive Here’s what he says in v. 10:

“Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

First of all, typically, the truth — true authority — will upset certain people… On the one hand, if what you’re saying appeals to the whole crowd and the masses of a population, there might be cause for suspicion (which is why, at the end of the day, even though Jesus initially did draw crowds, they don’t stick around very long, at least not until they have a chance to condemn him… then they gather back).

At the same time, on the other hand, if only a special, elite group benefits from what is being said, that’s suspect as well!

So Paul’s trying to say, the authority of the gospel that does not originate in the minds of human beings for either of these purposes. It comes from God. He’s not trying to be a crowd pleaser or get in with some wealthy, powerful group. He’s just trying to tell people what he believes is authoritative — what he believes is truth! Now, that doesn’t mean he’s right, but he’s trying to explain his motives & sources.

Because many people would have probably been pretty surprised by Paul’s message here, as someone who used to persecute Christians before he received this revelation from God. And yet, sometimes that’s exactly when and how truth is able to make itself known. Take a look at this quote from C.S. Lewis:

“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that [strange] twist about it that real things have.” – C.S. Lewis

Obviously, this doesn’t prove anything, and Lewis knows this, but I’m fairly persuaded that he’s on to something here.

And it might be why many of the Jews were so scandalized by Jesus’s message – because it was surprising and strange, and not quite what they would have guessed — and it was the same things for the Greeks — the Romans, the Gentiles — they too thought it was foolish. But Jesus wasn’t trying to impress them. He was telling them something he thought was true for everyone, but to please everyone.

And so Paul is criticizing what he calls a “different gospel” – as in not a true one, that people  were giving in to. And we’re no less at risk! It’s so easy to have the gospel right in our minds, while our hearts are tangled up in something else.

So what is this false gospel Paul is attacking? Well, it pretty much boils down to the same thing that gets played out in our lives just as it was for the Galatians.

I like the way Tim Keller says it, actually, in the book that some of us have been reading, Every Good Endeavor. At one point he says this:

“Without an understanding of the gospel, we will be either naively utopian or cynically disillusioned. We will be demonizing something that isn’t bad enough to explain the mess we are in; or we will be idolizing something that isn’t powerful enough to get us out of it.” Tim Keller

So the false gospel is simply what happens when we blame our problems on something other than sin. Usually it’s another person or Group or a situation in which we’ve suffered an injustice or been victimized — sometimes in terrible ways. So it’s not that there’s never any justification for anger in the face wrongdoing. God is a God of justice as well as mercy.

But the false gospel comes in when we put our trust in something other than God’s grace to fix or right a wrong. And usually this trust gets put in ourselves, or in other people — our own right thinking, or our own good actions.  Ok, this is what the Galatians were doing: with their Jewish-ethnic identity, their food laws, the practice of circumcision – imposing it on Gentiles for their inclusion.

And because we’re all involved sin, we cannot simply separate the world into good and evil. That’s the kind of thinking that is used to justify war, condemnation, self-righteousness. But we’re are part of the evil in the world. That’s the bad news of the good news. And there aren’t any exceptions. Now we may not be as responsible for some things, as others are, but we’re still responsible.

So the big question that I raised this morning, is where is the authority? And why, even when people look so unfavorably on Christians, does Jesus manage to still have some authority?

Well, one thing that Jesus seems to always do, is deal honestly with sin — by naming it, exposing it, cutting right through the ways we try to cover it up. But then, treating it, not with blame or punishment, but with the only cure there is: the grace & mercy of God. Honesty about sin, compassion toward sinners and rescue for the victims, for the weak, for the vulnerable — the outsiders. Ok. Jesus takes sin totally seriously & grace totally seriously. That’s not going out of style!

That’s why he always has the authority. It’s the authority of the truth heals and redeems, and is always trying to transforms us. We’re still working on our transformation, but it’s happening.

Judge a tree by its fruit, Jesus says elsewhere. The Centurion sees that fruit in Jesus, and it makes him fruitful. It gives him faith. He’s generous, he’s humble, and he’s pagan! There’s no boundaries on this stuff. That’s why it always has authority.

The Way of Grace and the Politics of the Ascension

[The audio for this sermon can be found here.]

A reading from the Book of Acts 1:1-11:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Today we are taking a little break from the sermon series to celebrate and recognize the event of Jesus’s Ascension, which we just read about.

And at the same time that this sermon series on work and vocation has been going on, a smaller group of us in the church have been meeting in the classroom building before worship to talk about “The Politics of Jesus.” And we just finished up our last session this morning. So I thought it would good if I took some of what we’ve been discussing and going over together in that time this past month or so and tried to weave it to into the text and sermon for today, and it happens to actually fit pretty well — so that’ what I’m going to try to do!

Last week, we had three baptisms, and we recited the Apostle’s Creed together. One of the lines from that Creed is that Christ “ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father.” This statement comes from several places in Scripture, two of which we just read. And this past week in the Church calendar, on Thursday, though we don’t typically observe it as a church, was something called The Feast of the Ascension, which commemorates this very confession in the Creed that 40 Days after Easter, Jesus ascended to heaven and sits on the right hand of the Father.

Honestly, even for people are very comfortable with the Christian tradition and used to being in Church, this account in the gospels, this story, is probably a bit strange-sounding and maybe even hard to believe?! Is Jesus levitating? Is he flying? What’s going on? I mean, if you go up into the clouds, that way, for a long time, I don’t know that it leads to heaven, eventually. Maybe another galaxy, something like that. So what’s really happening? Surely there’s a deeper meaning to this story than the mere description of the physical events.

And might there be some connection between the Ascension of Jesus and our political hopes today? What is this telling us about who really reigns in the world today? What are we trusting in for our well-being and our safety? For our Way of life? It seems like this would be an appropriate to ask this questions, given the state of things, politically, in our country right now!

There’s a movie that came out in 2011 that some of you might have seen, but it wasn’t a big blockbuster really — even though it did get nominated for a number of academy awards. It’s called The Tree of Life [Slide]. But it probably remains fairly unappreciated because it was so unique — in terms of its cinematography and entertainment value. It was simple film.

It’s about a young family in Waco, Texas, in 1956. Whitney and I lived in Waco for about 7 years during and after college while I was in seminary. The oldest son in the family, who’s only about, oh, 10 years old or so, lives in this place of great tension, between the teachings of his dad, and the example and the care of his mother.

And then it like flashes forward to this moment several times throughout the movie when the oldest son, Jack, is all grown up. It shows him in like downtown Dallas in a high rise as a working professional in the business world. But he’s remembering during this time and thinking back to the parenting of his dad and the parenting of his mom, and you can just tell in the movie — what it’s trying to show you, is — this son, his name is Jack — and his parents are Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien — Jack is trying to figure out, ok, whose voice, and which parent do I listen to as I’m living my life today and making these decisions.

Ok, now let me give you a glimpse into each of their worldviews, starting with the dad. Here’s a quote from Mr. O’Brien, talking to Jack. He says:

“It takes a fierce will to get ahead in this world.” – Mr. O’Brien, Tree of Life

This is what the narrator voice in the movie — which is the mother’s voice — calls, “The Way of Nature.” And the thing about the Way of Nature, is that, it’s true to a significant extent! You know? It’s the original way that human beings have been related to the natural order of things from very early – pre-historic civilization. It does take a fierce will to “get ahead” in this world — whatever that means. It takes some ruthlessness to oppose things that stand in your way. Some force and power. We live in a dangerous and competitive world.

And Jack’s dad loves him! He wants him to be safe, strong and not get taken advantage of! Dads I know you can relate to this. I don’t even have a son yet, though I’m supposed to soon, and I feel like I can already relate to this myself.

And the Way of Nature is also about, not just how do I achieve security and prosperity for myself or my family, but for my tribe or my religion — my nation.

Does this sound familiar? Does it describe any if the national, political rhetoric of the day? It’s the way of the kingdoms of this world. It’s the default. It’s what people tend to trust in.

The Bible talks about this Way as well in many places. And calls it by the name sin. It’s condition of self-centeredness and self-reliance. And actually, you don’t have to be a Christian to recognize that this is the way human beings naturally live.

When I was in college, I was an assistant instructor a class called “History of Economics.” I was an economics major. And I had lead review sessions for tests for large groups of students taking this class, and we would a book called The Worldly Philosophers, to learn about some of the greatest thinkers who helped to shape modern European society, particularly in politics and economics. And maybe the biggest name you could think of on the economic side of things as far as the time period of the Enlightenment goes, is Adam Smith — The Father of neo-classical economic theory and of the capitalist mode of production Here’s what Smith said about human nature:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”

— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

It’s difficult to overstate the influence of this idea on the history of this nation. When was the Wealth of Nations written? 1776.

Human beings are self-centered. Smith knew this, and so did most of other modern European political philosophers. Ok, and what’s the strategy for survival in a world like this? Look no further than the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“The higher man is distinguished from the lower by his fearlessness and his readiness to challenge misfortune.”

This is the same advice that Jack’s dad, Mr. O’Brien, gives to his son in the movie — trust in your own might and willpower to be strong and fight hard against the odds to succeed in life!

Ok, now, at the same time, there is also growing tendency this day in age to think that human beings are somehow inherently good natured! Oh that this were true! I wish it was. It’s funny, it seems like I think the only times and places when people are able to think that, is when they’re very far removed from the violence and the brutality that’s going on all the time in the world. And usually these cultures that elevate the human being to a naive level of goodness are very sheltered from poverty and war.

It’s this idea too that human beings are capable of pretty much taking care of themselves through science, technology, or the free market. It’s a fairly new idea in human history, but it’s still a very popular one. But then the 20th Century happened… in which more people were killed in war than all the other wars in human history combined, that we know of.

So maybe Mr. O’Brien is right? Maybe we just need a fierce will to get ahead and survive in this world…

But what does Mrs. O’Brien say, the mother of Jack, in the movie? She says:

“Unless you love, your life will flash by.” – Mrs. O’Brien, The Tree of Life

This is what the narrator in the movie calls, The Way of Grace. Let’s watch and listen to how the movie itself depicts these two different perspectives.

“There are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

“Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

“Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”

“No one who loves the way of grace… ever comes to a bad end.”

And in fact, there is tragic moment at the climactic point in the story of the movie, when someone dies, and it totally shifts the perspective of the dad, all of the sudden. It’s a brutal lesson for him. Because when you come to the end of someone else’s life that you love, which way are you going to wish you had been living by? The Way of Nature, or the Way of Grace?

It says at the beginning of Acts that,

After his suffering, [Jesus] presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

Acts 1:3

So this was Jesus’s main teaching — the Kingdom of God. And he talked about the Kingdom of God before his death and resurrection as well. And what’s the Kingdom of God all about? It short, it turns the natural values of this world upside down. And in particular, ok, the kingdom is God a different way of wielding power — not the natural Way, but by the Way of Grace.

When Jesus is tempted in the desert by Satan after 40 days, Satan makes an offer to him. I’ll give all of the kingdoms of the world, if you would just bow down to me. In other words, Satan is saying, you don’t have establish a kingdom based on the Way of Grace. You can have the kingdoms of the Way of Nature now! But Jesus refuses.

And toward the end of the gospel of Luke, right as he’s being arrested, look at what happens:

 49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? 53 Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour—when darkness reigns.”

The Kingdom of God, we learn, from basically Jesus’s whole publically, does advance by force or violence, but by sacrificial love.  It’s The Way of Grace. And this Kingdom, friends, at the moment of the Ascension, is being declared the real and true Kingdom. Look at what Paul says about this at the beginning of his letter to the Ephesians:

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

– Ephesians 1:18-21

So the Ascension of Christ, ok, is like the Coronation Ceremony for the Kingdom of God and the Way of Grace. It’s the declaration, the announcement! That the world is now being ruled under this different Way — the Way of grace rather than the Way of Nature.

But even after the resurrection, the disciples don’t seem to totally get what Jesus was up to though, do they? We know they didn’t get it before, but even after they’re still a little hazy. In the first chapter of Acts, which we read, they ask:

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

They’re probably like, so Jesus, now that you’re all resurrected and apparently more powerful than death, maybe you should lead the revolution! You can be our secret weapon…

Or, it’s also like they’re saying: “Jesus, when are you going to make things like they used to be? With King David, or King Solomon? When are you going to restore the glory days?

As Americans, some of us might say, when are you going to put someone back in the Oval Office like Ronald Reagan, or JFK, or FDR?! Y’all know we do the same thing…

And what’s Jesus’s answer in the next couple of verses? Basically, he says, don’t worry about that. Your job is to be a witness to the things that I’ve taught you about the Kingdom of God. And you’ll be able to do this by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is coming.

Now, I’m not saying God doesn’t care about politics, or that politics don’t matter. Quite the opposite, in fact. God does care, and it does matter. But I think what Jesus is essentially saying to the disciples, and to us, is: Stop trying to make me the King of the Way of Nature! I’m not going to be a king in the worldly kingdom! That kingdom is passing away anyway. I’m calling you to a live a different kingdom, the kingdom of Grace. And your job is to be like the yeast in the dough that infects the rest of the world with that kingdom. With my kingdom!

Satan tried to do the same thing with Jesus, basically, and so did Peter. Put Jesus on the worldly throne so we can feel like we’re on the winning team. Friends, when the church does this, it’s not pretty. Sometimes it’s even downright demonic.

That’s also why we need to be careful with this phrase, “seated at the right hand of the Father.” Jesus isn’t far away in some distant throne room. Because if we think Jesus is far away, just somewhere where we’re going to join him after we die, then we might just be able to get away with thinking that we can live by the Way of Nature in our politics. But that’s not how the kingdom of God works.

No, Jesus isn’t far away in heaven. He’s right here, present through the Spirit! And this Spirit is empowering you with a different kind of power. It’s the power of the cross – of sacrificial love! It’s the Way of Grace. The Way of God’s kingdom.

That’s why the Angel says, in v. 11, “Why do you stand here, looking into the sky?” after Jesus ascends. It’s as if the angel is saying, God will take care of what ultimately happens. You, though, have other work to do. You get to witness to this Kingdom, this Way of grace. Where power is exercised benevolently rather than selfishly. This is our mission. This is our politics.

And you know another way that Jesus makes himself present and visible to us is through the Communion Table. We believe in the real spiritual presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine, and it’s a sign to us of the kind of lives we’re to lead together when we leave here. Reconciled lives, that share the Way of Grace with others, because God has shared the Way of Grace with us. So let’s pray.

Keeping Jesus Weird: The Peace of the Resurrection

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”  Acts 5:27-32

24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” – John 20:24-29

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Austin, TX, where Whitney and I are from, or if you’ve been there. But they have this saying: “Keep Austin Weird.” There’s a kind of pride in that saying, that you can notice if you spend any time there. It’s definitely something that is part of the city’s reputation, at least certain parts of it, and something that the people who have lived there a long time sort of see as making it special and unique. It stands out from other cities in Texas, culturally, politically, and just in terms of geography and aesthetics. It has a different look and feel to it.

But then sometimes, this pride about being different, being weird, can also be taken a little far. It can get silly, and sometimes people just try to be weird for the sake of being weird – not really for any other reason: people dressing is bizarre ways and doing things in public mostly for the purpose of being noticed.

But it’s hard to see the point sometimes of weirdness like that, other than maybe just because it’s based in a fear of conformity. Or an insecurity about not being special. Which is understandable. Really it is — it’s a deeply human thing to want. To stand out from the crowd. And I think that’s what the phrase keep Austin Weird is really getting at, at its best, “Don’t let this city become like all the other cities. There’s something special, there’s something different here, that makes this place what it is — don’t lose that.”

There’s this pastor I know in Austin though who has a blog called, not “Keep Austin Weird,” but “Keep Jesus Weird.” And I have to admit, I sometimes find myself wishing I’d come up with that title first. It’s pretty clever, and I think it says something important actually for us. In this case, in the case of Jesus, there can also be something very good and maybe even essential about being weird, and keeping Jesus weird.

And this is one of the things the church in America still has to learn, it seems to me: that being a Christian is not normal. And it never was supposed to be normal. But this is hard for us. Many of us grew up in a time and cultural setting when we maybe did think that being Christian was normal. Maybe in some ways we still think that way. But it’s not normal. And it was never intended to be normal. I should be disruptive of what is normal! And in fact, it’s precisely when the church gets to a place where being Christian can be seen as normal, that I think a problem arises. This is especially true when it comes to belief in something as revolutionary as the resurrection of Jesus.

Because there really is nothing normal about believing that a homeless Jewish rabbi from 1st Palestine not only rose from the dead but was the incarnation of the God of the universe. A universe in which this planet is only a speck of dust on the cosmic map — that hasn’t even been around that long compared to the rest of the universe, and human beings haven’t been alive on the planet compared to many other animals planet! It’s not normal to believe this. In fact, it’s weird. It’s kind of crazy. And the more we acknowledge that, and try to comfortable with it, the better off we’re going to be, I’d say. Our beliefs are Christians are  quite strange, if you don’t already believe them. The trouble is many of us grew up believing them. At least at a safe distance.

Are there are indeed many people in the world, 2 billion or so, apparently, which is hard to imagine, who at least, statistically, have some kind of affiliation, however remotely, with the Christian church. But many of them — like some of us too, maybe, some of the time — many of them want to tame that faith. Neutralize it. Adjust it so that it fits, so that it’s comfortable and meshes well with  our culture and way of life. And I’m not even talking about a bad way of life, necessarily. We just want to make it normal. Because weirdness is uncomfortable!

But I think we know that this tends to remove the essential ingredients from what Jesus was all about. And the disciple Thomas, I think, might be able to help us remember to keep Jesus weird. And to keep church and Christianity weird! Because Thomas it seems that Thomas maybe actually did appreciate just how much the resurrection would change things, if it was indeed true. So he says, I gotta see this for myself! Because of this is true, it’s a game-changer.

The tradition has somewhat unfairly named Thomas “doubting Thomas” though, as if we wouldn’t have doubted if we were him! I’m going to defend him a little bit here, I admit — because I’m pretty sure I would have done the same! And the other disciples had already gotten to see Jesus anyway. Thomas just wanted to see him too!

And I can definitely relate to the desire to make belief in Jesus something I can just “see for myself.” To make it normal and less weird. There was a time in my life when I really thought I could basically just reason with pretty much anyone about Christianity and convince them that it was perfectly rational and normal to believe in Jesus. You know, that it wasn’t weird.

A couple of my closest friends in high school growing up and still to this day are not Christians — so we’ve all had many conversations over the years about what makes our faith’s different from each other. And I remember several instances with one of my friends in particular when I basically tried to pin him down, back him into a corner — not literally, but figuratively — and get him to admit that he had rejected Jesus and I would demand that he explain why. I thought I could convince him of the normality and rationality of believing in Christ! I thought I could prove it to him. It wasn’t until much later that I saw the immaturity, naiveté and even arrogance of that attitude.

I still had a lot to learn, and one of the things I needed to learn was that we don’t come to faith through rationalization. Faith is weirder than that! We simply cannot force another to believe. Indeed, I can’t even force myself to believe. Let’s alone someone else. It has to be given. It’s a gift, really.

Now, I have to be open to it. Have ears to hear, eyes to see, as Jesus sometimes talks about. And it may be that part of that sometimes means, because of questions that come up when things aren’t making sense, having to do some learning and figure out if something is inconsistent. So I do think it is necessary in faith to try to rule out irrationalities. But ruling out contradictions is not what brings us to faith. It simply makes way, makes room for faith. Faith is still going to require a leap.

So even though Thomas was doubting, I don’t think he was really a skeptic. There’s a difference. A true skeptic would still doubt even after seeing Jesus. And in fact some do. The Bible talks about this. How some believed, but some still doubted — even after they saw Jesus! (Matt. 28) In contrast, Thomas wanted to believe! He was hungry. He had already been with Jesus and been groomed for discipleship. He had seen and tasted the goodness and beauty of God in Jesus’s life! He just had to be sure, because he knew it would change everything! But then he gives this powerful statement, My Lord My God!

But even when he overcomes his doubt, and after seeing Jesus’s wounded body, it’s not like this meant it was all of the sudden easy for Thomas or any of the other disciples to follow Jesus, totally trust him, and live out their faith! No, that was still difficult, even for them.

And it certainly didn’t become normal or easy to believe in Jesus even after the resurrection. It wasn’t for another 300 years or so, when Constantine came around (he’s usually the person that we blame for this), that Christianity achieved a culturally prominent status. And maybe not so coincidentally, that’s also when being Christian started to no longer require looking very much like Jesus.

And again, in fact, what we see throughout church history is that, when Christianity is normal, it tends not to look very much like Jesus. It looks more like Caesar — like power, like wealth, like success and comfort.

And I think this points to something else that’s essential about what Thomas the disciple wanted to see before he could believe… not just Jesus, but his wounds. This might be an essential detail in the story.

The wounds tell a story, don’t they. Maybe Thomas knew that the wounds were crucial. And that’s why he wanted to see them.

If Jesus had come back and not had the wounds, it might have been easier to forget about or dismiss the fact that, in order for the resurrection to mean something, he had to face the sin of humanity in all of its hate and violence and destruction, and ultimately the death and separation that it brings from God. The wounds are a reminder of the reality of this story and tell us to remember to count the cost of it. It’s a reminder that dying comes before rising.

The past two days I went on a retreat with some guys — some in the church, and some not, and we were just learning more together about what it means to be a disciple-making disciple. And there was a question that came up. I thought it was great. One of the guys in the group asked: Y’all make this sound pretty terrible. Why wouldn’t anybody want to do it, this whole discipleship thing?

This was a really good question! We’re talking about Jesus’s wounds, and dying and suffering before there can be a resurrection? Who would sign up for this? No wonder nobody wants to keep it weird! We prefer a normal Jesus, and understandably so!

Remember what Jesus says though when he appears to the appears to the disciples: John 20:26 Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” (acknowledge that Jesus goes through a wall)

Jesus gives them this peace. This trust. This assurance. He had been abandoned and unjustly condemned and tortured and killed. And he comes back from the dead, not with vengeance, but with peace. That’s going to leave an impression on you, if you witness that. It does give you peace, and it takes away your fear.

So the apostles are then able to testify with confidence and without hesitation, and even though there were all kinds of risks and dangers as a result of that.

And in the passage in Acts, they don’t try to argue their way out of being in trouble. It’s a lot like Jesus really, when he was arrested. They just testify! They tell about their experience of coming to know the good news of repentance and the forgiveness of sin — with their life on the line!

29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! . . . 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

That’s maybe the only argument that ever mattered or the only convincing that’s ever needed. I believe he was Lord and Savior because I’ve come to know and trust and see the transformative power of his message, and of a relationship with him for myself, and in the lives of others.

And that’s how it manages to get passed on, even to those of us who haven’t seen! This is what’s so amazing. And the way that happened, was through someone showing us and teaching us about the love of God with their life, and by inviting us into a relationship with Jesus.

You know that’s the true sign of a lasting movement: when it makes it through the third generation. Not just the second. That is, when it has grandchildren. People who believe without seeing it the way Thomas did.

The same thing has to happen in churches actually. And the spirit behind the third generation of something is always a special kind of phenomenon because it does not in-person contact with the founding moment. And in the case of Christianity, this spirit of course is God’s Holy Spirit which continues to make present to us Christ’s Spirit even though he’s no longer physically with us. It keeps the weirdness going!

And so I think for us at Saint Peter’s, the challenge is to recognize that the faith we hold onto is intended to be passed on, with the weirdness preserved! And the way it’s passed on is by pointing people to the beauty, and the goodness of the source, which we don’t need to prove. We just have to testify. We just have to show it: how has it changed your life? Why is life following Jesus better than life by yourself? I think we can do that. I think we believe without doubt, that it’s better. Life with faith in the resurrection is better. It’s actually truer. Not because it’s normal. But because it’s weird in the best possible way. And we want share that with others.

Good Friday

Reflection on John 19

John tells us that this is all happening on Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery, God’s victory over Pharaoh through the Exodus, which was always potentially a politically sensitive time. It isn’t hard to connect a few dots in your mind between Egypt and Rome, in other, if you were in Pontius Pilates place, you never knew when some Galilean hothead would stir up riots against the hated Empire. (Barabbas in Luke’s account as an example of this!)The religious leaders knew this and were taking advantage of it in how they were bargaining with Pilate.

Pilate’s job was to make sure that an uprising would not happen. There was enormous pressure on him to maintain order.

How does the conversation between Pilate and Jesus go? When asked if he’s a king or what he has done to upset the Jewish priests, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of the world.”

Pilate, who only knows of one world, this world — not Jesus’s world — doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about, and only manages to grab hold of the word he does understand, and asks him: “So you are a king?”

So he totally misses it. “My Kingdom of not of this world.”

Friends it doesn’t matter how many times we hear this. Christians have always struggled with how to interpret Jesus’s statements about the Kingdom of God. Even if we think we’ve got it nailed down conceptually — practically, we’re never quite sure how to work it out. What does this mean, we want to ask Jesus? Many of us have probably heard the saying, “in the world but not of the world,” but the implications of this are rarely clear. Most of the time, we take choose one or the other — in or of — and run with it!

Because, on the one hand, when we’re looking for redemption, as Israel certainly still was, the temptation is to trust in their effort to acquire or benefit from worldly power. The power of Rome’s political and military might. The religious leaders were trying to manipulate it for their own purposes so they could keep the Temple life and Jewish community the way they wanted it to be!

I mean, how many times do we do this! Obviously, it’s happening right now in the political arena in our country. But it also happens in every area of life. We resort to manipulation, deception, passive aggression, resentful treatment of each other in order to get our way. We make power moves and play these political games to fight over getting our share of the pie. This is human nature. Or, on the other hand, we want a savior, a messiah, who just goes and gets these things for us! Gives us what we want.

And finally, there is also the path that lets us check out altogether when it comes to concern for the kingdoms of this world. It’s a way that we look for escape, so that we can create our own separate, uncontaminated space in the world on the sidelines, where it’s safe from harm. It’s how we can sometimes mistakenly understand what it means to not be of the world — by looking to escape it.

Now, Pilate doesn’t seem too alarmed at first, when Jesus says he’s a King, because he doesn’t appear to be very threatening. He doesn’t have armed followers. He’s not talking about a political revolution. But then the religious leaders say that “if you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar’s. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!” Again, they’re playing the power game.

And then we’re told that Pilate becomes afraid. And when he asks them, finally, “shall I crucify your king?” What is there response? “We have no king but Caesar.”

The question that I think this poses to us is fairly straightforward: whose Kingdom are we living in? Because how easy is it, to want Jesus to be a king that looks more like Caesar? I mean do we not want that? Of course we do. We want Jesus to be in control, and in charge of everything that’s happening. We want him to command everyone’s attention and allegiance and worship because of how grand and majestic his works are on the earth. We want Palm Sunday, but without the donkey. Let’s put Jesus on a high horse!

Yeah, because what we don’t want… is the call that comes with citizenship in his kingdom. And that is the call to follow him. It makes me a think of story from earlier in the Gospels.

If you look in your booklet at the beginning in the section that walks you through the stations of the cross, I want to call your attention to two statements in the liturgy there. First the passage underneath the heating of the Fifth Station — the second half of that first paragraph.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels at all, you’ve probably heard these words from Jesus, so I’ll read them:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Stopping there for just a moment.. (Jesus says this in Mark 8, Matthew 14, Luke 9)

Jesus says this to Peter right after what’s called the transfiguration. It’s the turning point in Jesus’s public ministry.  He’s been teaching and healing people, and now he’s turning toward Jerusalem with a mission to go to the cross. But Peter doesn’t want him to do this, does he. What does Peter want. Peter wants to build an altar, a place of worship, to stay there and probably have some good church services every week in this sacred and holy place, where he can always be reminded of what happened and what he saw there, when God showed up in a powerful way. This is what the Temple had become!

But honestly, Jesus seemed much more interested in teaching people to follow him than to worship him. But I think what we actually learn from the passion narrative is that we are supposed to worship Jesus, and the way we do that, is by following him. We do not follow Jesus, by worshiping him, we worship Jesus by following him.

Ok but then look what it says after that: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Now, this is not the next verse in any of these passages. Whoever worked to compile this liturgy pulled this verse, from a totally different place (three chapters earlier in Matthew 11). Which can be a little bit misleading, because as you’re reading this, you might think the verses are right next to each other in the Bible, but they’re not.

But actually, I think this is very good theology. See this is what theology does. It backs up a little bit from the zoomed up view, and tries to connect the idea in one revelation in Scripture, with another, and from what is often a very different place — one that might even seem to contradict the first one!! But it tries to then make sense of how the two can be part of one and the same  truth.

The truth is paradoxical, in this case. Y’all know what that means, if something is a paradox, right? It’s not a contradiction rather an apparent contradiction. In fact, there is a deep resonance between them! It’s like hitting a high and a low note on a musical instrument at the same time. As long as they’re in the same key, they be can octaves apart and still sound good together. And they can be different notes too! Because they make a chord! That’s what harmony does. The beautiful harmony that we enjoyed from the band last night and today.

Flip back one page now to the write-up for the First Station of the Cross in your bulletin to the prayer portion in the middle of the page — it’s the second paragraph. Halfway — about three lines down:

“Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Friends, this is the scandalous claim that the whole Christian faith hangs on: somehow, in mysteriousness of God’s wisdom and love, the way of the cross, is also the way of life and peace.

And we actually, like Peter, don’t like that. We don’t want it. We don’t really understand it. Most of the time we reject it. It scares us, it disturbs us… so we turn the cross into something else. We make it into a mechanism, and a means, rather than the path itself that we’re called onto.

We heard this last night too: when Jesus washes the disciples feet. Aren’t we supposed to wash Jesus’s feet?! This doesn’t make any sense. The God of all creation, comes to us, to serve and unconditionally give of himself.

This the good news of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Pilate has no way of understanding, because he lives in a world of fear and preoccupation with power and control. This is the world that God’s love subverts and undermines — not with worldly force, but with divine love, which, as the cross shows, is more powerful than worldly force. This is the way of the cross, and somehow, it brings peace and life. It feels like dying at first, and it is a kind of dying. But it’s what produces transformation.

There is no transformation without great love or great suffering. On the cross, Jesus embraces both, and calls us to be ready to do the same. That’s the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and that’s the good news.

A Christian Spirituality of Public Life

I gave this lecture at the Ridley Institute, Saint Andrew’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC on March 15.

This subject, if I understand it correctly, is one of special significance to me. For whatever reason, God seems to have given me a particular burden for asking questions about how we as Christians and as the church are to be related to the rest of society, and these questions are rarely simple, and, not only are the questions not simple, but then actually the work that is entailed in doing that relating is also quite challenge. So I think it’s a tall order, and I’m hardly the expert or the authority on the matter, but I do hope that some of my reflection on this that I share with you will prove useful, and if nothing else, at least interesting.

And maybe it would be best to begin by simply clarifying what this topic of spirituality in public life is really about. Because at first it might seem like, when we say, “public life,” that what we’re talking about is, one the one hand, just what Rob presented on last week with regard to vocation — in the work place, in the home, as individuals — which is an important aspect of Christian spirituality, but still not quite what we’re talking about tonight.

Or, on the other hand, you could think that the spirituality of public life is about ethics, or more specifically social ethics. But that is its own distinct subject — Christian social ethics. And I suspect there might even be a time in the future when that is own whole separate class at the Ridley Institute — Christian social justice or social ethics. Because ethics is about the actions we take, and why, and spirituality, by comparison has more to do with the posture we assume. What is the our relationship with God as human beings such that it informs our public life?

And that’s what I want to focus on — what is the posture, the attitude, the nature, of our engagement with society, and in the public domain, as Christians, Because we have an identity as a community of faith, and our witness must shows itself as a group and not just individually. Our individual witness probably pertains somewhat more so to the topic last week, which asked about spirituality with respect our particular vocations, occupations, professions, etc. So what form must our public witness take as the people of God, as followers of Jesus? What kind of spiritual posture does it require? Ok, that’s where I’m headed.

And to try to answer that question, I want to discuss three things:

  1. First, revisiting the subject of sanctification a little bit, which I know was brought up last time — what does it do and how does it help us relate to the public in the way that God intends for us to. So sanctification.
  2. Secondly, what are the most dominant cultural forces today in our society that stand in the way of this sanctification
  3. And third, what spiritual dispositions should we take to respond to those dominant liturgies, scripts, stories, narratives?
  4. Alright — sanctification. I do think it is correct that our posture begins with the journey of sanctification. Ok, and so we are sanctified, made holy, set apart by our spiritual practices and the disciplines that are part of this great tradition we have inherited as Christians — a tradition that includes our commitment to Scripture, prayer, observing the sacraments, and so on.

I was recently at a clergy retreat for my Diocese, which is called Churches for the Sake of Others, part of the Anglican Church of North America, and our bishop is Todd Hunter, who spoke here last year, and a Christian philosopher named James K. A. Smith was there at the retreat as our keynote speaker. Some of you may be familar with his work. I think Rob took a class with him. Smith shared some of his insights from his forthcoming book called “You Are What you Love.” And it was good enough to justify my borrowing a good deal from it, so that’s what I’m going do for a moment as it relates to our thinking about sanctification — and sanctification as the mediating factor between us and our public life together.

With this title, “You Are What you Love,” Smith is drawing on Saint Augustine maybe more than anyone else, and he’s saying that, as human beings, made in the image of God, we are not first and foremost thinkers or even doers. Though of course our lives consist of much thinking and doing. We are above all, lovers.

Augustine famously asked, “What do I love when I love my God?” Which is similar to asking, “What do I worship when I worship my God?” What is ultimate for me, in other words? What do I seek above everything else? What is that thing that I believe will make me happy if I could just have it, achieve it, find it? The thing that could give me my heaven and help me escape this or that hell.

That was what Rob talked about with idolatry last week and he gave several examples of this — the thing that we seek might be the approval of a parent. It could be many other created or finite things: a romantic relationship, the accomplishments of one’s children. Wealth, power, status and so on.

So the question is not whether we love, but what do we love. Because we are lovers. St. Thomas Aquinas said that love is the virtue that order all other virtues.

So if our love is not directed Godward — true north — then the trajectory of our life is going to be off-course.

We are lovers and we are worshipers more so than what we knowers, thinkers, or believers. This means we are always desiring something and moving toward something. The question is where?

So much of what determines where we’re headed is not something we’re conscious of. The large majority of our life’s trajectory is determined by habit more so than choice. Only a very small percentage is affected at the level of decision. The example that Smith gives is learning how to drive. For us as adults, we can get in the car (explain).

 In the same way, and I’ll talk this a little bit more in a moment, take the problem in our society of consumerism — we do not decide to be consumers, necessarily. We don’t reason it out. We behave our way there. It’s the power of habit and we’re lead by our desires, our bodies, and our physical propensities, and so forth.

So the essential thing for Christian spirituality is that we must attend to our loves, look at what we’re worshiping — because we’re all worshiping something — and begin to develop, both corporately and individually, a re-appreciation for the power of habit and how those habits are either producing virtues or vices. Ok, this is why the practices and the disciplines that we follow in church in our daily devotional lives in the home, at work and at play, are so important. We’re all loving and worshipping something, and so as Christians we submit ourselves to a process by which God and the Spirit can re-calibrate and re-habilitate, rehabituate, our hearts and our bodies — not just our minds.

From there though, we must also recognize, however, that not only are we lovers, formed by our habits and by what we seek, but we’re also all being spiritually formed by the cultural liturgies that are all around us and that we’re immersed in.

So the journey of sanctification and spiritual formation is also a journey of unlearning what we’ve already absorbed from our cultural surroundings. Just as all of us are lovers and worshipers going somewhere, so too we should say that every group, every culture, even every subgroup and subculture, every society and every nation, has its own liturgy. And unless we recognize and identify what these liturgies are, they’re likely to have more power over us than we’d like.

And just to clarify, when I say liturgy, I know some of you know what that means, but sometimes it’s a new idea even for folks who have grown up in church that isn’t as traditional or sacramental. What I mean by liturgy is broader than the prayer we pray, and lyrics — though it is that — like a prayer of confession, the Lord’s prayer, the Nicene Creed, hymns and so on — but I’m talking about any set of stories, images, symbols and songs that serve to give meaning and purpose to life for people. We all carry some governing story that guides us, even if again, it’s not conscious to us.

Families have liturgies, corporations, universities have liturgies, nations, even a city like Charleston South Carolina probably. And of course in this crazy season of electoral politics, everybody’s fighting about who’s gonna get to say what the true liturgy really is for this nation. Smith gives examples of other liturgies that are more spatial, physical, architectural. Churches certainly have a liturgy based on how they’re designed, but so do football stadiums, and malls — government — there’s a liturgy to the use of our smart phones. Swiping, swiping, clicking, enlarging, watching — this is at least a ritual of the larger liturgy of consumerism.

Acknowledging of course that not everything you do with your phone is consumeristic — you know what I mean.

The point is, there are these competing and rival liturgies, and there are competing and rival exemplars — Jesus vs. Taylor Swift, I don’t know — but there are rival exemplars for how we as human beings and citizens should live our lives.

  1. Now though I think we have to ask more specifically about what some of these dominant cultural liturgies actually are — what are their hidden values and messages that are shaping us our desires and disciplining our habits?

We could also call these dominant liturgies, scripts, because they tell a story! What are the dominant scripts that inform behavior in our society today?

I’ll just name three: the first one I’ve already mentioned: Consumerism. Secondly, Individualism, and, third, Militarism. I’ll very briefly say something about each one, but really only insofar as they relate to each other. These are huge topics, and I’m barely going to scratch the surface, but the main point is that I hope we see their interconnectedness and the way they reinforce each other.

So I’m going to try to describe the core impulse or assumption behind each one, and I think that will still be worthwhile:

2. Consumerism – We live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us. It assumes, of course, that more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.”

Two descriptive words that go with the value of consumerism, and I’m getting some of this from the work of the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann — our consumerism is technological and it’s therapeutic. I’ll explain those as well.

The technological side is that the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved. The enemy of technological consumerism is inconvenience.

On the therapeutic side, if you have a desire or a discomfort that needs alleviation, there’s something to alleviate, and it’s only a credit card purchase away. Whether it’s medicine, media, a shiny new object, clothing, gadgets, whatever. Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.” For therapeutic consumerism, the cardinal sin that must be resisted at all costs is discomfort.

You know, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe abortions” is one of the most damaging consequences of this. Of course, on the flip side of that, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe sex” is also morally devastating.

2. Individualism – Individualism is a very complex and sophisticated phenomenon, and there’s been great work done on interpreting what it really means in our society in the West. One scholar who comes to mind for this is Charles Taylor in his book, “The Secular Age.”

This is because the reference point for concern about one’s interest in an individualistic society is no longer one’s tribe, group, religion, or nation, but simply one’s self. And there are many facets of individualism, but for the sake of simplicity I just want to name one — and that is its relationship to consumerism.

Ok, if consumerism says the whole earth and all its resources are available to us, then individualism says yes, these are available to us and they’re available to us without regard for what effect that availability has on our neighbors. So implicit in individualism is disconnection from and disregard for the consequences of consumerism for our neighbors — locally and globally. It isn’t malicious though — this is the trick. It really doesn’t know any better, because the habit of individualism has been disciplined to not have to worry about my neighbor!

3. Militarism – Thirdly and finally, with militarism, once more I’ll just say one way it’s connected to consumerism and individualism as well.

And when I say militarism, I should clarify, I’m not saying that as Christians I believe we should necessarily be anti-military. We should love the people who have served and are serving in the armed forces, certainly respect them, just like we love and respect everybody else. And I suspect we have veterans and men and women in uniform even in this room. But that doesn’t mean we get to uncritically support what the military is commanded to do.

The word militar-ism, means is the worship or love of what the military does or can offer us. It’s the absolutization or idolization of the military — making it a kind of ultimate. And the same should be said about consumerism and indivdidualism — there’s nothing wrong with consumption, as such, or individuality. In fact, with a political ideology like communism, one of its greatest shortcomings is its failure to celebrate and protect individuality, as a form of social organization and government.

Ok, so with that disclaimer in mind, though, again, if consumerism says, the earth’s resources and the products we can make are available to me, and individualism ignores the impact on my neighbors.

And militarism, finally, as it relates consumerism and individualism, just says, those resources, that are available without regard for my global or local neighbor, must be guaranteed. My way of life. It must be secured by force, if necessary, and by violent force, if necessary. Militarism is not defense, it’s offensive.

So militarism is intimately connected to the desires for security and safety,  meaning, to have my life protected from harm, disruption and so on, which is of course a desirable thing, but at what cost to others?

In sum, concerning all three of these forces and values, or liturgies, stories: to quote Brueggemann, “It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of these script; they are everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”

III. Now turning finally to the question of how sanctification and how our spiritual life aids us on toward resisting these dominant scripts and liturgies:

One of the things at the heart of all three of these dominant cultural values is clearly a kind of collective self-interest and fear-based outlook on life that just wants to preserve itself, self-medicate and keep things away that are threatening, right? something like that.

And, sanctification, publically speaking, is about getting free from this self-interest — this dominant script and these cultural liturgies. It’s how we discipline ourselves into reliance on mercy beyond judgment. And get freed instead to live in the Kingdom of God. By turning to the liturgies of the Kingdom of God.

So how does this work? What is our alternative story in many ways? This is the most constructive question I’m asking, I hope, as the third and final part of the talk. To answer it, I want to look at just some high points in the biblical narrative.

In the reformed tradition, especially, a common answer of “why sanctification,” might be that we do it for God’s glory, and that’s true, or maybe we would say, it because it’s what God has commanded and we are to be obedient, which is true as well. But there’s another reason.

And we find it first in the Hebrew Scriptures. Starting with the Creation story in Genesis was a counter-cultural claim in many respects. The Babylonian creation story, by contrast, has the earth arises as a result of the god Marduk conquering and killing another god, Tiamet, and then the earth arose from Tiamet’s remains. The Genesis account of creation has no such violent content in order for God to create. In fact, violence is introduced by human beings, not God, when Cain kills Abel.

In addition to that, in Genesis, God says that creation is fundamentally good! The material and physical world is sacred, and so is our work in it. God dwells in creation, especially in the Garden of Eden, where God is imagined as walking and talking with Adam and Eve.

In Augustine great work, The City of God, he recognizes that the movement throughout the Scriptures, the dramatic direction that the whole Bible is taking, is towards, as the title suggests, “The City of God.” Unlike most earthly cities, nations and empires, God’s calling of Israel is for the expressed purpose of building a “city,” “nation,” or “house,” where God dwells with people and people with God.

We see this in an important juxtaposition of Genesis 11 and 12. In Genesis 11, which is the tower of Babel story, it represents humanity’s effort to use their common language and agenda to build a city that reaches to the heavens — in other words, to build a city that rivals God rather than honors and worships God. And as a result, God’s judgment comes on them in the story by dispersing them and giving them different languages and nationalities.

So Genesis 12 serves as the correction and alternative to Babel, when God calls Abraham and makes the following promise:

1 “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

We learn that Israel’s call is essentially this:

They are to be different from other nations for the sake of other nations. They’re blessed to be a blessing! This is what sanctification is all about.

Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God in this way in several of his parables.

Matthew 13

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

The great 20th Century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s explains this parable of the unleavened bread in this way:

“The dough to be made into bread is a lifeless lump of dull, inedible matter; but the yeast, too, it by itself completely inedible [as well], despite the fact that it is the [means by which] the lump is to be turned into bread . . . The yeast must be plunged into the dough; it must sink into it and disappear, in order that its energy may be released and the dough transformed into bread. Alone, it is nothing; buried in the dough it is quite the opposite. But, note, separateness, and indeed a strict separateness, is . . . preliminary to the unity that is being attempted and that alone will result in something palatable . . .”

And so for us as Christians, our sanctification, is what gives us the power to be like leaven in the world.

And this forces us to remember something crucial. We don’t have anything to give to the world on our own. What makes us Christian is something that is first utterly gifted to us — it’s something we possess. The gift of Jesus’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection. And this gift of course is grace.

Christ is the yeast, in our dough, and we are the yeast, as Christians and as the church, we are extending his incarnation into the dough of the world.

So must be very careful not to run ourselves ragged just trying to do good in the world all the time. We will fail miserably and just end up hurting ourselves and others.

Rather, there is rhythm outline for us for public life, and Jesus is the exemplar of this rhythm. In his public ministry, Jesus exhibits models the ebb and flow of contemplation and action! Into the city, back to the mountain or the garden to pray. Into the city with the people, away with his disciples for a little while. Early in the morning while it was still dark, he goes to pray. From Solitude and stillness. To action and engagement. Solitude, retreat and stillness, and then, go do something.

So as a closing line of thought — practically, our spirituality needs countermeasures along these lines that resist and outlast — subvert — the dominant liturgies and scripts of consumerism, individualism and militarism, which I want to suggest can show themselves in three different postures, each of which is a response to those three dominant values.

And to get back to the dominant liturgies and narratives, the dominant scripts of our time that I mentioned for a moment — consumerism, individualism/tribalism, militarism — I believe that an effective Christian countermeasure to these cultural forces, will show itself through three spiritual postures, all of which are understood to be produced by a church that both recognizes itself as having been blessed to be a blessing — ok — called to be different from the world for the sake of the world, and to extend the incarnation of Christ, the yeast of Christ that’s in us, into the dough of the world, the essence of which is grace. These three spiritual postures are:

  1. The first one is just to repeat what Rob said last time: a commitment to be inconvenienced by our neighbors. And I mean, in order to do this well, we of course have to exhibit all of the fruits of the spirit: peace, patience, kindness and so on. It also requires hospitality and generosity. It means a willingness to suffer and to sacrifice.
  1. Secondly, combating individualism, is the formation of community and genuine shared life in which we make the problems of our neighbors, our own problems. Of course this entails actually getting to know our neighbors as well — locally, and globally — especially our most vulnerable and victimized neighbors.
  1. And I’ll just go ahead and say the third is also like the other two: The courage to take risks. To risk ourselves for something good! Something that looks like the Kingdom of God advancing in, breaking into our midst. And this isn’t always some big grandiose vision. It’s oftentimes more like sowing mustard seeds, you know, little community gardens that call attention to our interdependence, our simple, local life and need for companionship and caring relationship. But there is risk involved, and sometimes that risk is big. It could mean living in a neighborhood that isn’t quite as safe, if God calls you to it — putting our kids in a school system isn’t necessary the best in town. It’s going to cost us something.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote about how without risk, there is no faith. Faith is a leap, it is a risk taken, in response to a subjective, inward assurance and passion — one that ultimately demands love. And as such, it is then willing and able to face any uncertainty that life throws at us. All of the external and material unknowns.

I’ve thought for a while now that one of the things that makes Christians different, and makes us like yeast, is if we truly live into this hope and this confidence that even that even if things don’t turn out ok, that’s still ok! It’s a gospel assurance, that moves us to try anything. Because we’re coming from a place of total trust.

And again, because we’re not worried about the outcome, necessarily. Not ultimately. So our politics, for example, will be much less anxious. We’ll have hopes and goals, and we’ll even strive for them with deep resolution, but without fear and with a peace that frees us from having our hope tied to the temporal results. Because we know the “already and not yet” nature of the manifestation of the kingdom of God in history.

Dorothee said that a Christian is one who noticeably lives in such a way that would only make sense if the gospel and the resurrection were true. It goes back to the “different from the world” part of Israel’s calling. And then it might become appealing. But it will be appealing because people will see a beauty to it. Because of the positive difference, not the negative difference, primarily, the Christians make. In other word, because we’re known for what we’re for and what we do, more so than what we’re against. There’s a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that I want to read as a kind of closing theological statement:

 “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures of history as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involve himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings], saving them from having, in their freedom, come in conflict with what God intends.

So this is our assurance, for spirituality in public life. That God’s own self-investment in Christ and through the Spirit never leaves or forsakes us, but rescue us, set us apart — make us different from the world for the sake of the world.

I am Thirsty

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

“I am thirsty.”

In almost feels underwhelming statement, for someone who is being crucified. It reminds me of other times when the Bible seems to have a way of understating things. Like, after Jesus fasted for 40 days, it just says, he was hungry. Yeah, I imagine he was! And “I am thirsty,” is certainly not as dramatic as the saying from last Sunday: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And I guess what I’m most struck by is simply that, “I am thirsty” is not really what you’d expect Jesus to say right before he dies. He’s enduring this agonizing death, and thirst was no doubt an extreme part of that — he would have lost a ton of bodily fluid through what he had endured even prior to crucifixion. But of all the different pains he’s experiencing, why the emphasis on thirst?

John tells us it’s to fulfill Scripture, and of course that’s part of it — John would have been conscious of writing to Jewish audience who still didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, so showing how he fulfilled Scripture is important. But surely that’s not the only reason he says this.

It’s also kind of challenging as a verse in Scripture to focus on in a sermon because it’s not giving us a moral teaching. And it’s not a big claim about doctrine or theology either, at least not directly. On the surface it’s more of an existential cry about his physical condition.

But we know that John is always making use of symbols and metaphors and choosing words with layers of meaning. And Water and thirst are literary themes throughout the gospel of John.

In his conversation with the woman at the well in John chapter 4, Jesus talks about the difference between physical and spiritual thirst when he refers to the living water that he provide for us — the kind of water that quenches our thirst permanently.

As human beings, we have a spiritual thirst and longing for meaning and purpose, and significance in our lives. We want to be whole. We want there to be abundance in our lives.

In the story of the woman at the well, in her case, she had apparently been trying to satisfy that spiritual thirst through her relationships with the men her life, and she had made a total mess of things!

So there’s definitely a spiritual meaning to this idea of thirstiness, and I want to come back to that. But I think it’s also appropriate to stay with the literal and physical nature of his statement for at least a little while. Because sometimes we overlook it, and sometimes as Christians, especially in church, we rush to the spiritual, we focus on the spiritual — for obvious reasons — but we can do this to the neglect of the physical. Or more dangerously, we risk dividing the spiritual and the physical.

So here are three things I want to suggest to you that we can see from this statement about Jesus’s thirst:

  1. First, God is with us in the physical, and Jesus fully experiences it.
  2. Secondly, the spiritual and the physical are inseparable — they’re not the same, but neither are they separate.
  3. And third, that God through Christ on the cross, is reuniting the spiritual and the physical, and healing the false divide that gets put between them.

Since moving to Charleston almost two summers ago, we have not had drinking water in our house because we’re on a well. I mean the water’s fine, we use for everything else, but even when it’s filtered, it’s not quite up to the standard of what you want for drinking. So I go to the grocery store every week, because there’s a place to refill water jugs in the back of the store. And it’s pain, I’m so spoiled, but it saves money by not paying to have water delivered, and it’s super close to our house, so I have no reason to complain. But it’s like this small discipline in my life that reminds of my physical need for water that I would normally just take for granted — I can’t just turn on the faucet.

So again, it’s a small thing, but it’s a good practice, even though it’s pathetic as I get annoyed by having to do it, but it’s a reminder of this basic physical need and dependency in my life.

You know there are also these crazy statistics about water, and it’s hard to make sense of them unless you’re a chemist or something, but supposedly our bodies are made up of 60%-70%.  Water really is our life source — that and oxygen, which are the two things that kill Jesus — his lack of oxygen and loss of water.

If anyone saw the movie, The Martian this past year, it’s a pretty visceral depictions of the severity of the physical world and the elements that we need to survive. It was originally a book, I’m told, which I’m sure was better than the movie like everybody always says. But in this movie, and this doesn’t give anything away, the main character Mark Watney played by Matt Damon, gets stranded on Mars, and has to survive on a limited amount of water for several years. He has some water, but he has to make more — he actually makes water! — not only to drink it, but to grow more food, because there’s no vegetation. He literally has to make water.

And I guess it just put in perspective how fragile life is on our planet, how much it depends on all of these incredibly fine-tuned conditions, like the availability of water, oxygen, the right temperature the right pressure.

We hang in this delicate balance between existence and non-existence, and it’s just incredible that life came to be and that there’s something rather than nothing. I know I’m getting all philosophical, but I think it’s appropriate. When Jesus says, I am thirsty, it’s a profound. Because as Christians, what we believe about that is, somehow, God can relate to thirsting. God enters it, blesses it. Calls it good.

Jesus subjects himself to frailty and dependency on something as specific as water and oxygen, on this one little planet, in this gigantic, vast, expansive universe, for this one tiny little span of time. This Christian story that we’re telling and believing in is extraordinary and so remarkable, I just think we have to stop and meditate on the gravity of it, for a minute. Letting ourselves be made to wonder, and be awed by it.

II. The second thing, the thirst of Jesus shows, is the inseparable link between the physical and spiritual. The physical and the spiritual are not the same, they are distinct, but they’re deeply connected.

“The Bible’s aim is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.” – Wendell Berry

The story of the Bible is one that tells of the relationship between God and humanity, the divine and the human, and how we through our physicality, and our bodies, our material existence, get to receive and to participate in God’s redemptive work.

In the late first century when the gospel of John was likely written, there had started to develop in its early stages of what would become a popular movement or school of thought called gnosticism.

Gnosticism took many forms, but at its root was essentially the idea that the body and the soul, or the material and the immaterial world are separate, and that the significance of the immaterial far outweighed the material. In fact, you could even say that in its most extreme forms, gnosticism held that the physical world was bad, and the spiritual world was good.

So in the worldview of some ancient Greeks during Jesus’s time, this was the assumption — They separated the physical and the spiritual, the bodily and the mental/intellect, and the physical world was almost like a trap that you needed to escape in order to find salvation — in order to be free.

And so what gnosticism tended to teach as well was that knowledge was the key to salvation. What you believed, in your mind, was more important, more lasting, than what you did with your body, you could say. For this reason, too, there were some people who were saying, for example, that Jesus couldn’t have actually had a body, because if he did, then he would be corruptible like the rest of us. This was a heresy called Docetism. The claim was that in fact, he actually only appeared to have a body, and that he was really just a spirit.

The gnostics also believed that God couldn’t suffer, so Jesus couldn’t be God! But the writer of the Gospel of John is saying exactly the opposite of that:

“The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” (John 1:14)

This is a staggering claim, really, that Christians make. It always has been. It’s the most distinguishing claim, I think. Because, if you look at other religions, both Jews and Muslims reject the idea that God could share in human nature, because that would go against God’s nature. On the other hand, Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, tend to say that God is not really God at all — not in a personal sense, and not in a way that distinguishes between the physical and spiritual. For them, the physical and the spiritual are virtually the same. Whereas, for us as Christians, we still want to make some distinction, and Jesus gives us the picture of that.

You know it’s a common thing for non-Christians to question how it is that Jesus as a human could also be divine — that God could be fully in him. And that’s an understandable question. It’s a question we try to wrestle with in the Alpha course each fall at Saint Peter’s. But what’s more surprising is not that non-Christians question Jesus’s divinity, but that Christians forget Jesus’s humanity.

We tend to at least subconsciously, maybe, assume that Jesus was like superman or something because he the power of God is in him, so that it wasn’t very hard for Jesus to do the things that he did or go through what he went through in his life — not just his death, but everything else as well, and the ordinary things that we all go through. But I think we risk misleading ourselves if we assume that.

You know in the letter to the Philippians in the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes that Jesus humbled and emptied himself of his glory, taking on the very form of a human being to be with us, to live on earth, and so on. Ok — he gives us the advantages of divinity without losing his shared nature with God, which is of course a very mysterious doctrine, but as Christians I think we need to try take it seriously!

The past two Sundays, I had the privilege of leading us in the celebration of communion for the first time. And here are some of the words from the liturgy that we’re using right now: that Jesus “was tempted in every way as we are — and he is ultimately able to resist those temptations — but not because he has special powers. I’m serious! It sounds shocking at first, for Christians especially, but I think it’s true.

This may sound kind of crazy to say, but we forget that Jesus is able to live the way he does by accessing the same resources that you and I have. Namely, through his dependency on the Holy Spirit, and his intimately close relationship with God the father. He lived so much in step, so much in tune with God, that he was able to do what he did.

III. Thirdly, God’s reunion and healing of the physical and spiritual divide. There’s a famous quote for early church history around the time that the Nicene Creed was written — toward the middle of the Fourth Century, by a church Father and theologian named Gregory of Nazianzus:

“What is not assumed, is not redeemed.”

When Gregory wrote this, he was still fighting the old Gnostic battle against those who were suggesting that Jesus might not have been fully human. But Jesus had to assume all that it meant to be human in order to redeem humanity. He had to take on the physical in order to redeem the physical. God in Christ covers the deepest and widest possible distance between the sin, darkness and horror of the cross and the beauty and glory and goodness of God.

Through Jesus, God is stepping into the world in the most complete way, touching and taking on everything that human beings go through, absorbing it into himself and, and transforming it, so that there’s no longer any separation between us and God — between the physical and the spiritual.

Here’s a final thought: When Jesus says, “I am thirsty,” the guards take it as a request for something to drink. In response, the soldiers gave Jesus “sour wine” (v. 29), a cheap wine that was commonly drank by the lower class at that time. It would not have quenched his thirst at all. It would have been bitter. Most scholars that John had in mind Psalm 69 when he wrote this, which says,

Their insults have broken my heart,
and I am in despair.
If only one person would show some pity;
if only one would turn and comfort me.
But instead, they give me poison for food;
they offer me sour wine for my thirst. (vv. 20-21)

It makes me wonder what this passage might means to people who thirst or who have to drink unclean water in the world. Water that’s more like poison. Water Mission International here in Charleston reports that 842,000 people die each year globally from diarrhea due to inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand-hygiene. That’s about 2300 per day. And 2.4 billion people are living with unclean water. That’s about 35% the world population.

So this is another part of what I think we can see happening in the death of Jesus. It’s the kind of sin that Jesus dies for, and he tastes its sting. No child who dies of preventable, waterborne disease is alone. Jesus suffers with them. He too says I am thirsty, and then is given this sour drink.

Or I even just think of the stories of suffering in our own church. People getting cancer, cancer coming back, parents facing infertility, those who’ve lost children — there is this pain and this thirst, that you have, and Jesus identifies with it.

TJ talked last week about sin and judgment, and the hope that we have because God is judging the world for all of its sin — the sin that leads to children dying of waterborne diseases, malnutrition, the sin that leads to people living in sexual slavery or being exploited for their cheap labor, as was talked about at the Illuminated event this past week.

Jesus suffers the consequences of our broken relationships with God and each other, the consequences of which are what send people to the cross. You see, God doesn’t crucify Jesus! We do. And he dies for our sake, even though we reject him.

There’s a spiritual thirst, and there’s a physical thirst — they both matter, they can’t be separated, and God in Christ heals the divide between them by embracing and fulfilling our thirst.

You know when the woman at the well asks Jesus about the water he says he can give her (John 4):

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

There’s this song that I know some of you will remember it from growing up in church. I’m not going to sing it, but it’s goes like this. I’m going to let it be the closing thought here. About thirst. About the source of life. And about the living water that Christ gives.

I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me. Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. Opens prison doors, sets the captives free. I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me. Spring up oh well, oh my soul. Spring up oh well, and make me whole. Spring up oh well, and give to me, that life, abundantly!

Christian Responsibility During Election Season: Finding a New Political Consciousness for Churches

[A version of this same post appeared yesterday over on the Missio Alliance blog and can be read here.]

Last week, the Republican and Democratic primaries were held here in the state of South Carolina. I voted, but as I did so, I had the odd feeling that I was acting in a way that was totally divorced from my faith community and any collective sense of citizenship in God’s kingdom. I think this is because when it comes to Christian political responsibility, the role of the church is to make followers of Jesus who witness to an alternative way of being in the world together. The act of voting, privilege and duty that it is, just doesn’t have very much to do with this.

There are political ideals that many of us believe in: freedom, equality, justice, peace, and so on. But these are abstract principles that remain empty without the concrete practice of political and economic organization. Then there are the politics of Jesus: resistance to violence, solidarity with the poor, the neighborliness of the good Samaritan, and the commandment to love even our enemies. This ethical vision simply does not get incarnated at the ballot box. But what I sense in the church still, mostly, is a preoccupation with partisan, personality, media-driven politics that continues to privatize spiritual formation and mission, while at the same time holding up the last defenses of a dying Christendom and of mainstream, American evangelicalism.

Bernie Sanders has talked about the need for political revolution, and it actually looks like the United States is on the verge of having one. Donald Trump’s bewildering success testifies to this maybe even more so than the growing acceptance of the option for “democratic socialism.” There are things about both ends of the partisan spectrum that are resonating with self-identifying Christians. On the right, for example, people are tired of the inefficiencies, fiscal irresponsibility and bureaucratization of big government that has come to characterize so much of the political process. On the left, there is growing indignation about racism, classism, sexism, discrimination against LGBTQ folks, and ecological destruction. And both sides actually seem fed up with the control that money has over elections and legislation. It is not hard to see the justification for any of these attitudes. Insofar as one’s citizenship is seen in terms of the responsibility for the affairs of the state, these are all valid concerns that demand people’s attention.

As a Christian, though, and as a pastor, my concern is about the political consciousness that is being cultivated in the church itself. Christian political consciousness simply doesn’t strike me as very public or social at this point in time. Of course, my church context has predominately been white, middle-class and broadly evangelical, and so I’m sure that’s part of the reason for this. Nevertheless, it’s as if there are primarily two options: 1) find your side, and further participate in a culture of either conservative or liberal theological and political ideology, or 2) don’t talk about it and keep faith and spirituality merely interpersonal, or at most expressed through international mission work. This is what many pastors feel they have to do in order to prevent division in churches.

I do not think there is a clear or simple third way beyond these two chooses, which is why so few churches have found one. The other option is very difficult, and I believe it can only happen over a long period of time within a community that is committed to deep, Jesus-shaped confrontation with the issues that are facing its locale.

A Different Kind of Political Revolution

The political theorist Sheldon Wolin argued that democracy is not a fixed state form, but a political experience in which ordinary people are active political actors. Right now, this kind of democracy has been significantly compromised by the disciplinary force of individualism in our culture, as well as by consumerism’s control of our desires. A majority of Christians in this country still too often equate political involvement with partisan allegiance for the purpose of securing a more Christian way of life. As long as this persists, the church’s witness, posture and political participation in the world will continue to be co-opted, along with everyone else’s, by nationalism, militarism and above all, by the free market.

Christians have the chance to model a new political consciousness that is ecclesial and eucharistic in nature, and that challenges the grip that the dominant liturgies of our society have on people. James K. A. Smith describes how these liturgies have captured our loves and distorted them in accordance with rival exemplars to Jesus. The church must begin to imagine itself as an alternative community with a collective political witness that resists the formative allure these liturgies have on us — liturgies that seek to orient our hearts and direct our unconscious dispositions toward violence, fear, anger, greed and short-term gratification.

I believe God is calling Christians to be partners in making a new economic and political reality altogether. It takes the form of a micro-politics of what God makes possible. There’s no secret formula for this. We already know what it could look like. It’s going to mean embracing interdependence and investing in our neighborhoods — getting to know our neighbors and having them over for dinner. There will need to be more community gardens, after-school programs, farmers’ markets, credit unions, and support of local business cooperatives. It will require reaching across the segregated lines that still divide our gentrified and suburbanized cities.

Currently, most of our residential areas and patterns of life are constructed to keep us separated from each other. New shared work spaces and intentional living communities designed to make our daily lives intersect more can combat this. What better public-private entity than the church to facilitate these kinds of efforts? This is why David Fitch has called pastors “community organizers for the Kingdom.”

At the same time, piety itself and ordinary church practices like worship are also politically significant, because social transformation is a natural byproduct of spiritual transformation. The mistake is made, however, when as Christians we do not also recognize and appreciate the church itself as a political body that lives, breathes and moves in the public sphere. We are not simply dispersed as individuals into secular society throughout week after worship services to live Christianly. We are together a political and cultural, communal presence, with a common faith that sows the seeds of God’s good and beautiful social order in the world.

This election season is probably only going to get uglier and more painful from here on. I’m not saying that we should ignore it. In fact, it can be used as an opportunity to generate meaningful conversations and action for the common good. But the partisan, candidate-focused dimension of it is consuming much of our time and energy, and I’ll be the first to confess this! I find myself reading and sharing articles every day, usually instead of attending to how I might be part of a better political future right where I live. So my prayer is that the Spirit of God would grant us the political consciousness of Christ’s coming reign, for this is the different kind of political revolution into which God has invited us.

Confession, Accountability and Vulnerability

As the season of Lent begins, this message seems like an appropriate one. Below is the manuscript of the sermon I preached at Saint Peter’s Church on Jan. 24, 2016. And here is a link to the audio.

Psalm 32:3-5 (NIV)

Blessed is the one
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one
whose sin the LORD does not count against them
and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

Luke 18:9-14 (NIV)

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Well so as many of you know, we’ve been in a series since the beginning of the year called Unimaginable, and what we’re trying to say with that title, is that often we find ourselves in a place in life that we didn’t imagine we’d ever be in. We don’t know how we got there. It’s not what we hoped or planned for. But we’re there, and we’re stuck. We’re stuck, or we feel like things are out of control.

But where we’re going in this journey that the Christian faith takes us on, is to a place that, we also could not have imagined, because it’s so good. But it’s probably not good in the way that we expected it to be. And it may not be good in the same way that the world and culture around us often tells us it should be. And so, understanding the difference between what the world we live in tends to call God, and what God views as good, is at the heart of why we gather as a church, and how we discover what our purpose is. That’s the big picture of what we’re talking about.

More specifically, though, in just a moment, we’ll get into what is really the 5th step of the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous — even though it’s the third week of the series (we’re condensing a little bit) — which is the step that deals with the importance of confession and accountability in the process of recovery, but also, more broadly, it’s a key step in the process of discipleship, that is, following Jesus.

So this past week in the Connect Group that I’m part of, which meets every Wednesday, as part of in initiative at our church right now called Illuminated, we watched a documentary about human trafficking and sex slavery. And as expected, it was difficult and eye-opening to sit through, but it was gripping. I think all of us were really on the edge of our seats. Not because it was entertaining but because for me, and I think for many of us, it revealed the nature of sin in the world in a way that makes it very difficult to deny how much we’re all susceptible and all caught up in this problem, however removed or indirectly — how much we’re all responsible at some level and keep the cycle harm turning.

It makes you think about how every time we buy something that was made by a company that uses slave-labor, we’re part of the problem. Every time someone looks at pornography, that’s part of the problem.

One of the biggest themes of the film is that the more these investigators started to learn and uncover about the relationship between the sex trade and prostitution, the more it became evident that prostitution is almost never something that any woman chooses for herself. It’s almost as if, because of the incredibly grim circumstances of her life, prostitution chooses her. It has a power over her that she doesn’t control.

And one story in particular really showed this. There was the woman interviewed in the documentary talking, her employer, and how he would abuse her, and manipulate and deceive her, and how terrifying and tormenting this all was — but then a little while after she got interviewed, she ended up going back to this guy, even though she had been rescued from this situation and given the opportunity to find another job.

And apparently, this is not unusual at all. And in almost every instance, what the movie demonstrated is if the women or girls have the right kind of caring and supportive community around them, during the recovery process, they can perhaps move on and see transformation in their life. But if they don’t, the chances of going back into the business are very high.

1. Because there is no freedom in isolation. And without encouragement, accountability, and someone in our life who fully knows us, we’re very likely to fall back into some form of slavery. But much of the time we’re in denial about that.

You see, a “me-too” church, which is what we’re trying to be, happens when we become willing to say, yeah, I’m not the person that I want to be a lot of the time either. I yell at my wife or my husband, at my kids. I put money first in my life. I’m impatient. I’m easily aggravated. I’m not living very generously. I’m mostly living for myself. Being a me-too kind of church, means creating an environment together, in our community, where it’s ok to not be ok. And to talk about is ok! Because we’re all not ok. So what was the first step that we confessed together?

Step 1 – “we admit that we are powerless over our attraction to do wrong and that our lives have become unmanageable.” This is huge. It can’t be skipped.

And then last week, TJ preached on steps two and three, which state that “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us.” And then that “we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.” And as TJ said last week, even if you’re not sure what you think about God, or Jesus, or the Bible, you can still take this step, and many people have.

Of course, these steps are ones that many of us are trying to make, and it’s one that we have to repeat over and over, because if we’re earnestly embarking on the journey of following Jesus and pursing spiritual growth, we’re always going to be discovering new ways that that our lives are not turned over to God’s care.

And then we come to steps Four and Five, which are the focus of our time this morning: “We resolved to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” This one’s fun…

And fifth —  “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” (James 5:16a) And here, this is where so many people get stuck and hit a wall. Here’s what the Big Book says:

“But of the things which really bother and burn us, we say nothing. Certain distressing or humiliating memories, we tell ourselves, ought not to be shared with anyone. These will remain our secret. Not a soul must ever know. We hope they’ll go to the grave with us.”

This is why recovery groups can tend to look pretty different from regular church groups. Recovery groups are full of people that in same area of their life are actually willing to admit that they don’t have control over something, that it’s become unmanageable, and that the only way they’re going to heal from it is if by crying out for help. But we prefer to hide!

It’s like in the story when Adam and Eve realize what they’ve done, and God confronts them about it. God asks Adam, “Where are you?” Adam replied, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” And then of course, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. It’s just classic. It’s the story of all of us.

We’re like children hiding behind closed doors when we get into trouble — this same fear that Adam had lives in us and leads us to conceal stuff – to cover up our baggage and our shame.

But I think we know that when we hide and when we cover up, and when keep things inside, they start to eat away at us. In AA, they found a person who could follow each of the first few steps with as much conviction and sincerity as possible, but if they stop there, it was almost impossible to stay sober.

Whitney and I have been married for more than 7 years, but we also knew each other for more than 7 years before we got married. And we were very young when we met. We dated off and on throughout high school, and when we finally got engaged, it wasn’t a very romantic time in our lives. In fact, at times it was a pretty bumpy road. There was a point in our engagement when I realized that there were things I had kept from Whitney, some sin that I hadn’t acknowledged, that needed to be dealt with, and that she had a right to know about, and confessing that to her almost delayed our wedding. It was not good. But by God’s grace and because of Whitney’s love for me, and her forgiveness, we made it.

2. But the simple lesson is this: we cannot heal what we do not acknowledge – to God, ourselves, and at least one other person.

There’s a famous researcher and author by the name Brene Brown, and she has specialized in studying vulnerability and shame. Here are some of the things she says about vulnerability:

  1. Vulnerability entails emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty. Which is partly why it’s so scary.
  2. Brown tells a story in one of her TED talks about how all these businesses called her after one of her videos went viral and said hey, we want you to come speak to our company, but we’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say anything about shame or vulnerability. We just want you to talk about creativity, innovation and change.Brown responded by saying that’d be ok except that, she had become convinced by her research, that vulnerability is actually the birthplace of creativity, innovation and change.
  3. Finally, Brown makes what she feels the most important observation of all, which is that vulnerability is not weakness; in fact, it’s the most accurate measurement we have of courage.

The story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 is maybe the most famous example in the Bible of the consequences that can follow in the wake of unacknowledged sin. David sleeps another man’s wife while he’s away at war, and then basically after this man Uriah proves his faithfulness to David, David makes certain that Uriah dies in battle so that no one finds about David’s adultery. Which of course doesn’t ultimately work. A little secret needs a bigger one to remain hidden, and it ends up costing David almost everything.

3. The cost of concealment is always greater than the cost of confession!

As it turned out, the first sin that David committed was not the biggest problem or his biggest enemy. It was his unwillingness to face it! But what’s crazy about David is that, in spite of this story, he’s still so revered by the Jewish people. Because he does finally repent of his wrongdoings. He’s considered a model for how we’re to be related to God, and yet he was the worst of sinners!

This is why AA starts off every meeting by saying, “My name is [blank], and I’m an alcoholic. Not, “I’m a pastor, I’m a realtor, a teacher, an entrepreneur… I’m a mother, a parent, I live in Mt. Pleasant, or whatever!

Again though, like David, most of us have to be forced to do this. We won’t choose it. The test of whether you actually want to change is simple: Are you willing to tell another person? We will dare to be that vulnerable?

Now, before wrapping up, I want to say just a couple of things about what confession and accountability is not:
Look at the quote in your bulletin for a minute.

“God does not love us if we change; God loves us so that we can change. “

See, the reason we confess our sins, is not so that we will be forgiven. Now, we do experience, we do receive benefits of forgiveness when we confess our sin. But the offer is always already there. We confess our sins because of the reality of God’s love — that we get to live in it.

God does not love some future version of you. God loves you right now, exactly as you are. Sin and fear, hurt and shame, guilt and all.

Another thing that confession and accountability is not about is the pursuit of moral perfection. As grow in our dependence on God’s grace for restoration, and practice vulnerability, the fruit will be a change our character. But if you just to manage the behavior itself, on your own, you’re either going to fail, or worse, think that you can succeed.

This is what Jesus’ parable in Luke 18 about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is trying to tell us. Who does Jesus say went away justified? The guy who does what he’s supposed to, or the guy who realizes there’s no way he can do what he’s supposed to do, and because of that he cries out for mercy and help? This principle gets illustrated over and over again in the Gospel stories.

This is what the cross is all about! This is how God lures us own and woos us: by loving us in spite of ourselves in the very places where we cannot or will not or dare not love ourselves.

So yes, ok: God loves us and meets us at our worst. But God loves you too much to let you stay that way. So we gotta confess. And we ask others to hold us accountable.

The more you have hidden, the more alone you’re going to feel, and the more in danger you are! Seriously, this is what can ultimately lead to affairs, to financial ruin, to broken homes — to suicide. I know you’ve all seen it.

But even when we know this truth about God’s grace, it’s not like it becomes easy to do. It’s embarrassing to confess sin. It doesn’t make us look good. It’s possible that people might think less of us because of it.

Here’s what happens though when we do confess. You’ve all experienced this at one time or another. When you confess to another person, you feel immediate relief. And it literally, almost instantly, lifts weight and produces a new sense of humility and gratitude, even though it stings and there are still consequences.

Grace sometimes feels like punishment at first. It burns like fire, because it’s purging. It destroys the parts of us that don’t belong. But then what it ultimately does is purify, heal, and mature us. This is why the fire, is such a common biblical image. We think of it as a bad thing, but it has a refining purpose.

The sex trafficker from the documentary, King David, the tax collector in the parable — they all go on this same journey of being refined by the acknowledgement of their sin to others.

So I do invite you, encourage you and challenge, to, if you don’t have this kind of relationship in your life, to commit to establishing it. And praying, that God would make it clear to you, who that person should be.

What the Magi Reveal: From Instinct to Wisdom, and Wisdom to Worship

[This is the manuscript for a sermon that I preached on January 3, 2016 at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be found here.]

Today is the is the final Sunday of our Advent and Christmas sermon series. And if you’re new to the Anglican tradition, you may not know that we actually often continue to talk about Christmas even after Christmas, because it’s so central and foundational to our faith.

This year we’ve studied a number of different characters in the Christmas story: Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mari… Simeon — and this morning we come to the Wise Men, or, the Magi as they’re also called, who are perhaps the most mysterious of all these characters. As we’ve studied each of these figures and their faith journeys, we’ve asked the question of what they can teach us about God and about ourselves, and what does this mean for our lives.
So with the Magi, I want to ask, what makes them wise? Why do we call them that? And how are they different than Herod? Which might seem obvious, but it’s a significant question for how Matthew tells the story. So we’ll look at Herod too. And then, finally, how does God through Jesus cause the Magi’s wisdom to become genuine worship?

Whitney and I were blessed to get to travel back to Austin, TX this past week where both of us are from, to see our families and stay with them. We had a great trip, and got to do pretty much everything that you hope you get to do with family on Christmas and for the holidays. We left just feeling very grateful for the special time we got to have with everyone. For the freedom that we have to travel safely and be with people we love. I share this because as I continued to reflect on this on the way home, it just struck me how radically different and how far removed our experience of Christmas usually is from the one that Mary and Joseph and Jesus had.

Because there are some seriously disrupting and disturbing aspects to this whole episode. The first couple years of Jesus’ life were pretty rough and dangerous! It’d be nice if we had a different story to talk about for the first Sunday of the 2016 – one that would provide a more light-hearted reflection – maybe some inspiration for New Year’s Resolutions. But there’s things about this story that are dark, and horrific!

Of course, this is not the first time that such a slaughter of infants occurs in the Bible, as many of you probably know. In the Exodus story, Pharaoh did the same thing! — by ordering that all male infants under the age of 2 be cast into the Nile, but Moses like Jesus is able to escape because of God’s warning and the help of others. So clearly Matthew is trying to connect the dots between Israel’s expectations for deliverance and Jesus’ fulfillment of that expectation.
The Tradition has called this story the Flight to Egypt, which also has connotations of the Exodus, but later on the church started calling it the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Sometimes the infant victims are even referred to as the first Christian martyrs. So maybe as much as any, this story highlights the harsh reality that the world is not a safe place, and God does not necessarily protect us from having to endure suffering, loss, and injustice and tragedy. It’s a difficult truth.

There’s some non-biblical historical credibility to these events as well, at least insofar as we know that Herod really was the kind of king that was capable of make such a cruel order. We’re told that he had three of his sons executed who he accused of conspiring against him; and before he died, he supposedly ordered that on the day of his burial, one member of every family in his kingdom was to be killed so that the nation might actually mourn.

We don’t know how many babies Herod had killed. It probably wasn’t as many as Pharaoh, because Bethlehem was very small. Some archaeologists have estimated that it might have been several dozen. But really, the number doesn’t matter. Regardless, it makes you want to ask, why couldn’t God have warned the families of all the other babies, if he was able to warn Joseph and the Magi about Herod’s intent to kill Jesus? Where is the hope and comfort in this story? Is there any hope or comfort in it? I think it’s fair to ask this.

Or, the other thing we might be tempted to do just to blame Herod — to call him crazy and evil and let that be the end of it. Which seems reasonable! But we may also want to be careful not to distance ourselves too much and too quickly from Herod — horrible as his acts were, terrible as he was. Even though we’re not in the same situation, and even though we’d never do the things that Herod did, it may still be the case that there’s a little bit of Herod in each of us.

Here’s what I mean by that: Herod is living according to his instincts. He’s in survival mode. He’s motivated by fear and the desire to be safe and in control. Herod is fixated, he’s stuck, in a self-centered, self-serving existence. He can’t see beyond his own interests and concerns. This is what allows him to devalue human life and make decisions without any regard for others. And while it may not show itself in the same extreme ways, we often get stuck in instinct mode ourselves. I know I do.

And secondly, if we just blame Herod, we risk putting ourselves in the place of the same people that Jesus later most directly challenges in his public ministry: the religious leaders of his day. Those who were always ready to demonize or make an enemy out of another group, and to do so while ignoring their own responsibility for the sin and suffering and injustice in the world. Jesus calls them out on this, because he has the authority to do so.

And the final thing about blaming Herod is that he’s also the product of a whole system and empire of sin and injustice — it’s not like he’s working alone, or like he doesn’t answer to someone. Herod is allowed to have power and be a king only because Caesar approves of him and views him as politically advantageous. There’s a structural nature to the violence and fear-based governance that rules the world in the First Century, and we see that same fear-based governance at work in the world today! It’s always on the defensive. It’s willing to harm others in order to protect itself. It’s anxious. It’s always just trying to compete and survive. But this is also natural, it’s normal, it’s conventional — It’s instinctual.

It’s the way of the world. It’s the way of Herod, of Pharaoh, of Caesar… And it’s the instinctual way of human nature that many of us find ourselves living in at times.

But then, there’s the Magi, and they weren’t like Herod. This is the contrast that Matthew is drawing. Because they were wise. They weren’t instinctual – they were wise. The wise men saw the world differently, and they were living for something different. They weren’t living according to their instincts. They were able to see beyond themselves. They were pursuing God, even though they do not know God yet. And somehow, they had the wisdom to see that the true king wasn’t Herod, who was the official king, but Jesus!

Now, we don’t actually know how many of them there were, and there’s no indication that they were kings. Rather, as the name “magi,” suggests, they were like astronomers, magicians, or interpreters or dreams. So maybe they marveled at the vastness of the cosmos, and maybe they looked to the stars, because they were seeking, they were searching for more truth, because they knew that their lives and their purpose depended on something bigger and much more important than themselves. They’re after truth for truth’s sake! Not just for their own benefit or the benefit of the group they were born into.

And this is really important, because many skeptics — they wonder how Christians can believe that something that happened at one time and in one place could have significance for all people and throughout all of history. Sometimes theologians call this the “scandal of particularly.” The idea that God acted most decisively at one moment, in one person, through one group, in all of history. This can be a hard pill to swallow, and understandably so.

Maybe you know people like this today, who aren’t Christians, and still have a lot of questions, but are drawn to God. It’s one of the largest and fastest growing groups of people in country, according to many sociologists — those who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. I think the Magi were kind of like this, and it’s important for us to listen to people like this today.

But the wise men in this story are meant to reveal something to us about precisely this issue — how God does indeed work through one person, one people, and one time and place in history, but in order to reveal something and to do something for the whole world — for everybody throughout all of history. The gospel is breaking down all the barriers of worldly kingdoms. As Paul says in Galatians, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, which is probably why both Jews and Greeks weren’t sure how they felt about this.

For example, in Luke’s version of the story, it was shepherds, not wise men, who came to Bethlehem. They were basically the exact opposite of the wise men. They were poor, uneducated and probably Jewish, while Matthew tells us about these wealthy, educated, and non-Jewish Magi. Which just further testifies to the universal appeal and reach of the gospel to the whole spectrum of social classes.

So the way Matthew narrates what’s going on here not only sets up a contrast between Herod and the Wise Men, but also between the Kingdom of God, which is for all, and the Kingdoms of this world, which elevate one group above everyone else. Jesus’s birth itself begins a new drama and battle between the kingdom that Jesus inaugurates and the on-going kingdoms of this world. Herod is just one example of a worldly king. There are many other Herods today! And the conflict is intensified as the two realms draw closer to each other.

During this week in the new season after Advent which the church still calls Christmas, there is on January 6th, something that the tradition calls Epiphany — the feast of Epiphany. We hear this word (epiphany) and we probably think about having an epiphany, right? A moment of clarifying insight or vision, an ‘aha’ moment, where things that were blurry before, that puzzled us, come more sharply into focus. Well, the church throughout the ages has had something similar in mind with its inclusion of this story during this season of Epiphany. The story has been seen as symbolic of God’s revelation and coming to the Gentiles — the non-Jewish world, and, it’s telling us something about who God has been all along, but that we just didn’t fully know yet.

The magi, then, once more, are part of this same “unveiling”: they help to disclose the mystery of the nature of God’s kingdom ushered in by Jesus!

Ok, but here’s the final act of the story: there’s a limit to all of this wisdom. The wise men take their knowledge as far as it can go! We’ve seen this contrast between instinct with Herod, and the wisdom of the wise men, but what does the birth of Jesus teach the wise men, ultimately, that even they couldn’t have figured out in their own wisdom?

The clue, I think, is that Jesus comes in the most unsuspecting, unimpressive way. As an outside, essentially, and from the margins! There’s nothing safe or ideal about his circumstances. He comes as one who isn’t even welcomed by his own. Rather, he’s excluded and rejected. As Jesus himself would later say in Matthew 8:20, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

Like the nation of Israel itself had been for centuries, Jesus and his parents are forced into Exile because of Herod. And like many people then and now, the Son of God had to seek political asylum and become a refugee. They likely had to flee quickly with very few possessions, and it might have been difficult for Joseph to find work in Egypt as a carpenter and as a migrant. They would have been dependent on others to take care of them. They wouldn’t have any citizenship to rely on.

So Jesus is excluded, he’s marginalized. He has enemies who want to kill him, even though he hasn’t done anything wrong. His plight is like that of the murdered children in the story. And even though he’s initially spared, he ultimately shares in their fate, as the holy innocent one who is slaughtered, who does an unjust death.

Now, the Magi don’t understand all of this yet, but they recognize Jesus as king, and that’s what’s even more amazing about their journey. It says in v. 4 that when the star stopped over the place where the child was, they were overjoyed, and they paid him homage in the form of three gifts (which is probably why the tradition has said there were three kings), at least two of which were symbolic of Jesus’ priestly role, and the death he would later endure.

The familiar passage in Philippians 2 retells this whole story, essentially, in poetic form, about Jesus Christ’s descent, to this lowly place, and the ascent and worship that he receives as a result. It says:

Have the same mind in you as Christ Jesus,Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place, and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

I imagine that this gospel proclamation, though they maybe didn’t hear it, is what the Magi saw, it’s what they observed and experienced when they came to the place where Jesus lay, and it’s what moved them from a place of mere wisdom and searching and expectation, to actual worship and adoration, joyfully giving costly gifts.

So in closing my prayer is that it would be so with you and all of us, that we would be compelled and drawn by the light of Christ that has come into the world at Christmas and into this year, that it would give us an Epiphany, that we’d be compelled and drawn to have the same mind as the Magi, who were wise beyond what they knew, and searched and searched until they found the one who was calling them all along. Calling them beyond their instincts, and beyond their best wisdom to worship the true king and savior of the whole world.