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.

Joseph’s Story as a Gospel Story: God’s Will and our Plans

[Below is the transcript of the sermon I preached on Dec. 14, 2015 at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be found here.]

This morning we’re in the third week of our Advent series, where we’re looking at a different character each week from the birth narratives of the Gospels — in the Christmas story. And this Sunday we come to the character of Joseph. And as we’ve been asking for some time now, we’ll continue to raise this central series of questions: What do we see for our lives in this story, particular in what it tells us about God and about ourselves? So that’s where we’re headed.

I’m sure many of you since Thanksgiving have already purchased and decorated a Christmas tree. Well, Whitney and I did this about two weeks ago, and after decorating it – after she mostly decorated it – we were sitting in our living room, and out of the corner of my eye I look over and noticed that the tree was beginning to fall over, and before I can even do anything to get over there and catch it or something, which probably would have been a disaster anyway — it had already just crashed into our coffee table, and it sounded like all of our more fragile ornaments had broken. It didn’t catch on fire or anything, but for a moment it did kind of feel like I was in the Griswald family living room from the Christmas vacation movie.

Thankfully, we actually only lost a few ornaments, but the reason the tree fell over was because we had propped it on this box that we thought made it look better, and put a skirt around it — just the way we liked. But the box was just not giving it the support or the surface area that it needed into order to be balanced, so we had to abandon that plan, and now it just doesn’t look as good.

And I don’t want to take the Christmas decoration example too far, but obviously it’s appropriate given the season and how much in our culture that we love to decorate for the holidays.

One of the beloved Christmas stories of our time that highlights some of the superficiality of our decorating habits during this time of the year — I’m not talking about anyone at Saint Peter’s, only everybody else in Mt. Pleasant — Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” No doubt you all know it. And probably most of you have seen the movie that came out staring Jim Carey as the Grinch in the year 2000. This was actually the movie that Whitney and I saw on our first date about 15 years ago – so for the longest time we watched it every year on that day. I will admit I eventually got kind of tired of it, but we still love to quote it, and it’s just full of satire about the consumer experience of Christmas.

One of the most memorable moments from the movie, as it relates to decorating for Christmas, is when Betty-Lou Who, is competing with her neighbor, Martha May, to win the prize for the best decorated home in Whoville. Martha May pulls out a Christmas-light machine gun to decorate her house [picture], and of course she wins. This scene in the movie is an exaggeration, of course, of what we do on Christmas to make everything look good and feel good, but it also pin-points exactly what TJ was talking about last Sunday with the look-good, feel-good culture that we live in.

This can be missed sometimes in the Grinch, because of the humor, but throughout the movie there’s actually this fairly strong critique of our society’s obsession with self-image and self-presentation.

We make plans, and we make ourselves presentable. But these plans and the way we try to present ourselves often get in the way of what God is trying to do in our lives. And one thing the Joseph story seems to be teaching us, is that ultimately, God doesn’t care very much about our plans or image.

Now, it’s one of the stories in the Bible that doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to appreciate. Those of us who are men, especially, can pretty easily put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes to think about what it would have been like, socially, to agree to marry someone, who’s already pregnant claiming that the pregnancy had divine rather than human origin. (Of course, Mary’s circumstances were probably even more terrifying, but we’re looking at her story next week.)

It sounds totally scandalous though, that’s she’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit – it sounds like she’s completely making it up. And of course Joseph is made to look like a total fool if he claims to believe her and not divorce her.

In the First Century, even when two people weren’t officially married yet, if they were engaged, for the Hebrew people this was still a legally binding agreement, unlike it is today. And so after finding out that she’s pregnant, it would have been within Joseph’s right, certainly his interest, and even his obligation, legally, for him to publicly expose and shame Mary.

So this is the situation that Joseph finds himself in. But Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, that he was just – not unlike Zechariah and Elizabeth – and that he because of this, he was willing to divorce her quietly when he learned about the pregnancy, and to take the significant social risk of not making a big fuss about it. People would still eventually find out, and that would really be embarrassing. But he’s willing to face that.

So at this point in the story, before the angel speaks to him in his dream, Joseph is already portrayed as a upstanding, God-honoring man, who’s merciful and compassionate toward Mary – even though he has good reason not to be. He spares her from disgrace. This might remind you of other moments later in the gospel when Jesus steps in and spares people from disgrace. So Joseph is not far from the Kingdom of God, even before Jesus or John the Baptist has announced it. He knows the law not merely at the external level but at its very heart. Much like King David, and as descendant of the house of David, Joseph is a man after God’s own heart.

And I think this is important for helping us understand the relationship better between the Old Testament and New Testament a little better. Joseph is standing right in the middle, between the old and the new — his story is part of a key turning point. Joseph is a bridge figure, because he anticipates the new thing that God is going to do in Jesus. He sees beyond the conventional understanding of the Law and God’s commandments. He has an intuition into Christian love, which, though implicit in the Old Testament, has not yet been fully demonstrated and made explicit until the person of Jesus comes on the scene.

This is why Jesus says later on in Matthew, in the famous Sermon on the Mount, “You’ve heard it said, an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…” — This is Jesus quoting Exodus 21:24, and it’s the “let the punishment fit the crime” mentality, which many of us naturally default to — but, Jesus says, “I tell you, do not resist an evil person…” (5:38-39a). And this raises all kinds of complicated questions for us today, in the age of terrorism and mass shootings. But I think the point about the movement from the Old to the New, is that justice is not served by simply letting the punishment fit the crime. The gospel is telling us something different.. Ultimately, there is nothing we can do to justify ourselves before God or before others. And if we can’t justify ourselves, neither can we justly condemn anyone else. Even if what they do is evil.

And for Matthew, who tells it a little differently than Luke — Luke narrates from Mary’s perspective — for Matthew, Joseph is the person in the story that really signals toward that true justice, the heart of the law which is love. Because when he receives the angel’s message he’s not offended by it — he’s not scandalized by it. There’s no indication that he doubts it. He might have struggled with it before making a decision — it may have been a very difficult decision. But he’s able to make the decision to believe it and respond in faith.

Now, without the angel’s message, he’s not going to stay engaged to marry. He can’t. It would be unthinkable for him. He has to divorce her – it would be viewed as impious not to. This is the difference between the gospel, and the best that religion and morality has to offer. Showing some mercy but finally walking away is the most that human beings in their own strength and wisdom can do without God’s love. Without God’s love, good, honest, ethical people, run out of imagination. Only love would compel someone to marry a crazy, poor, pregnant woman. Only love could see an act like this as God’s will and trust it enough to follow through on it.

This is where God breaks into the story. It’s where God interrupts it, and disrupts it. It’s what moves the story onto a whole new playing field. It becomes a gospel story, a story about radical grace rather than just a story about kindness.

A well-known author by the name of Joseph Campbell has a famous quote that goes like this: “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

We can say that in a Christian way: We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned so as to enter the Kingdom of heaven — which is how Jesus describes it in the gospel of Matthew. We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned — we must be willing to let go of the image we’ve protected — if we want to live life in the Kingdom of God.

Joseph completely gives us his plans, which were good plans, but he gives them up. Joseph lets go of the self-image he had, of the reputation he’d kept — and he did this in a culture that would never look at him the same way again. This is the kind of stuff God works through — even though it looks like foolishness to the world sometimes.

When I was in seminary, I worked as a chaplain in one of the dorms at Baylor University. And I was married at the time — yes, Whitney and I lived in a dorm together one year (which was special). And I was leading a Bible study with a group of freshmen one year. One of the most common themes and questions that arises in a college-student Bible study — some of you will appreciate this — is that of God’s will and how to know God’s will for your life. There’s this desire among young adults with a certain kind of Christian background and church experience – to talk about just wanting to stay in God’s will for their life. You know, you think about the big decisions we’re making in life that often come during or soon after those years of young adulthood, and it’s usually stuff like: What should I major in, what do I want to do when I graduate, where do I want to live, who am I going to marry?

And when you’re in college, if you had a traditional college experience, it’s like the only thing that adult ever asks you about, when you’re in this stage of life: what are you studying, what are you going to do with that degree? So you can’t really blame them for being preoccupied with these questions. And then what’s funny is that as we get older, those questions don’t really even change that much – they just kind of morph. They become, what neighborhood should we buy in, should I make a career change, should we move, where are we going to send out kids to school? Are they going to get into a good school? Can we afford to send them there? Adult versions of the same kinds of questions.

So there’s a pattern here with the way we think about God’s will for our life remains at the external and circumstantial level. It’s not that these questions are unimportant — they’re not — God cares about them, and we should pray through them. God’s will does pertain to these questions. They matter.

But if we look back not just to the First Century but also any century since then until now, most of the time, you didn’t even have the luxury of asking most of these questions! Where are you going to live, what a career are you going to choose, even who you’re going to marry — these big life choices, weren’t choices. They were pretty much decided for you.

And so maybe having these choices in the first place is part of the problem. It let us assumes that we’re the ones in control of our lives, and that we get to make our own futures. This freedom becomes an idol, and as an idol, it’s at the root of our culture’s obsession with planning and with self-image. So much so that we take whatever we plan and however we want to present ourselves, and call it God’s will or we trick ourselves into thinking it’s God’s will.

We have to be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned, and the self-image we prefer, in order to live in the Kingdom of God.

So just looking at the Joseph story one last time: is the lesson simply that we need to pay attention to our dreams so that we can hear God tell us what we should do? I don’t want to rule that out necessary, and in fact that can happen.

But most of the time, we find ourselves struggling to know what to do because we’re not clear, and because we’re not certain, about what God wants, at the external level.

So why doesn’t Joseph say, oh that was just a dream. Who knows what God wants? The thing that most determines whether we’re living in God’s will for our life is not so much the choices about the external, circumstantial things. But about the kind of people we decide we want to become before we even face those choices. Who are we going to follow? What are we going to trust? How we answer those questions will largely determine everything else.

There are couple places in the New Testament that stand out where this question about God’s will is addressed:

  • Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. – Rom 12:2
  • It is God’s will that you should be sanctified… give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – 1 Thess. 4:3a; 5:18

The reason that Josephs responds the way he does, when the angel tells him in his dream not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, is because he had already chosen what he was going to live for, and who he wanted to be. This made him open and ready for God to move and speak to him in an unexpected way.

Joseph could never have guessed what the angel was about to ask to do, and yet, when he gets the news, he believes it, and when he’s to ask to stay with Mary, he does it. He is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favor of a deeper and higher understanding of it — one the leads to the kingdom of God, the heart of the law, and that is governed by God’s love. This is what makes the Christmas story a gospel story.

So before closing, here are two questions for us to continue to reflect on:

  1. Are their plans in your life, they could be good plans, that God might be calling you to give up?
  2. Is there an image that you’re keeping, that you’re trying to protect, that God is asking you to let go of?

So in our lives, let those words of Paul be your guide: Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world! Rather, with Joseph as our example, do not let your plans and your self-image get in the way of what God wants to do! But be transformed and sanctified by the renewing of our mind, in the light of your love, and by the heart of your law.  So that we can live and walk in your kingdom.  So that we can know what your will is — your good, pleasing and perfect will. Amen.

Fear, Doubt, and Silence in Zechariah’s Faith Journey

[Here is the audio for this sermon that was preached on Sunday, November 30, 2015 at Saint Peter’s Church.]

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25; 67-79

One of the most commonly-stressed themes during the season of advent, is that we are entering into a time of waiting, hoping, longing — with expectation — that God is going to come and do something new, something remarkable in our lives and in the world. Which might seem strange, given that we already know the outcome of this story. Are we just pretending to be waiting to find out what’s going to happen?

Well one reason we wait is to practice waiting, because so much of life is waiting — being patient, preparing, trusting, having faith, even when we don’t know what’s going to happen. This takes courage. It’s scary, and many times, we doubt. The character of Zechariah in the first Christmas story illustrates this as well as any.

We’re told in the text that both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were righteous in the eyes of God, and that they came from the order of the Jewish priesthood, so he had some special responsibilities as a religious leader. And so he knew as well as anybody what the Jewish hope was for a Messiah. The way that the angel Gabriel speaks to Zechariah, further suggests that he had been praying for years to have a child.

And yet, his hope for this had all but run out, given his age and his wife Elizabeth’s barren state. He could never have guessed that he would be the father to John the Baptist, the greatest prophet Israel has ever known! The most he could hope for was that someone else would have such an honor.

For those of us familiar with the Old Testament, when we hear this story, we probably immediately think of, among other stories, the most famous: God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17-18) – we also think of their reaction, their disbelief in response to the announcement. Actually, they laugh, when God tells them they‘re to have a son. And eventually they end up taking matters into their own hands.  Abraham sleeps with Hagar who gives birth to Ishmael, who was not the son that God had promised. So the scene with Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah follows a similar pattern, and this is intentional on the Gospel writer’s part.

One of the questions we’re asking each week in the e-devotionals that will be going out starting tomorrow, is a question we’ve been asking as a church throughout this fall when we read the Bible together: What is this story telling us about God, and about ourselves? And obviously one of the things it’s saying is that God is faithful. That God’s commitment to accomplish his purposes is not going to be hindered by human weakness: age, infertility, insignificance, poverty, whatever! In fact, God consistently chooses to work through these weaknesses. But we forget this: that God is steadfast, that God is on the side of the weak. Zechariah doubts too, and as a result he carries the mark of his doubt by losing his speech. But ultimately, because of God’s mercy, Zechariah’s story doesn’t end with doubt. As we read, it ends with song and praise.

So we’re going to look more at how that happens. What are the causes of Zechariah’s doubt? And how does God take Zechariah — and us! — on a journey from doubt to faith?

I know not everyone here as seen the movies or read the books, but I can’t help but mention the Hunger Games Trilogy as an illustration of what it might have been like to be a Jew in First Century Israel-Palestine. Because the last movie just came out, and because I know some of you have seen it, and all of you have probably heard of it. Whitney has read the books, so she kind of got me into it. But it’s really this compelling picture of the experience of living in a colony that’s occupied by a foreign Empire. Some people want to revolt. Others think it’s better to wait, but everyone knows there’s an enemy, and everyone is waiting to see if a true anointed leader is going to rise up and bring them liberation. So maybe this helps us imagine with a more contemporary example, what people like Zechariah might have been feeling. Otherwise, I think it’s very difficult for us to relate to this, given when and where we live.

Before this moment in Israel’s history, and many of you know this, there had been foreign occupation, after occupation – hundreds of years. Yes, many of you have known pain and loss, and what it is to face incredible difficulty and even tragedy in your lives. But few if any of us have lived through something like what the Jews as a whole people had endured under the Romans and in previous generations under the Greeks– was almost unimaginable. The Jewish historian Josephus writes that around the time of Jesus’ birth, there was a revolt when Herod the Great died. After the Romans repressed the rebellion, they crucified 2000 Jews to make a statement about what happens to insurrectionists. This is why in one of the reasons why in Zechariah’s song, there’s such a strong theme of God taking the side of those who have been cast down, and of delivering Israel from their enemies. This is the political climate that Jesus comes into. And this is the historical situation in which Zechariah is trying to have faith.

Another element in the story is that, culturally and religiously at this time, having children was essential for carrying on the family name, perpetuating God’s covenant with Israel, and providing oneself with care in one’s old age. So barrenness, or infertility, was regarded as a tragedy, a disgrace, and even a sign of God’s punishment. Zechariah and Elizabeth were stigmatized and already likely somewhat estranged from their community because of this.

Historically, they’re discouraged, and culturally and religiously, they’re discouraged. So it’s hard to blame the guy for a doubting a little when he hears this news! So naturally, what does Zechariah says when he hears the good news that Elizabeth is going to have a son, and not just any son, but John the Baptist?

v. 18: Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” “How can I know that this is so?” Some translations say. Zechariah wants to know: how can he be certain about what the angel has told him? It was a way to ask for proof.

So what is the cause of Zechariah’s doubt? The first thing is, his desire for certainty. The desire for certainty is not only one of the main causes of doubt, but it’s also one of the greatest barriers to faith. One of the theologians I’ve read over the years, John Henry Newman, says that: “If we insist on being as sure as is conceivable… [then] we must be content to creep along the ground and never soar.” (Flying is risky much like faith is risky.) Faith is not the same thing as certainty. And if we wait for certainty, we’ll never “take off.”

It is true that real faith does brings with it, assurance, and confidence, and trust, a kind of security, but it’s the kind of security that brings peace even in the face of uncertainty, rather than certainty itself. Maybe we could say it this way: Faith is knowing that everything is going to be ok even if everything is not going to be ok. Which doesn’t sound very happy, I realize, but there’s a real freedom that comes with this faith, a freedom that eases the urge to want to secure everything in our lives: our children, our financial futures, our relationships, our reputation… Some of this stuff has to be done – we have responsibilities – but when our responsibilities are carried out from a place of gratitude and trust, then what is uncertain won’t unsettle us so much.

Now, this moment for Zechariah would have been a very important moment in his life. He wasn’t simply performing a weekly duty in the temple. He would have been chosen by casting lots, as the text says, and the honor of offering the incense in this particular ceremony usually only came once. And everybody else was waiting outside, praying! So there’s some pressure, and he’s already pretty nervous! When Gabriel shows up, it says Zechariah is gripped with fear!

And the first thing the angel says to him, v. 13, is “Do not be afraid Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” – Do not be afraid. Did y’all know that the commandment not to be afraid, to fear not, occurs more times in the Bible than any other? If one of the greatest barriers to having faith is our desire for certainty, then at the heart of our desire for certainty is fear. It’s one of our strongest emotions and instincts, maybe the most difficult to overcome.

Now, sometimes it’s true that, we doubt because there’s a lack of evidence, because something isn’t reasonable — because an argument doesn’t hold up. And I’m not dismissing good questions, or intellectual objections. And too many Christians settle for weak answers to good questions. Nonetheless, more often than not, when it comes to having genuine faith, the Bible seems to suggest that fear is a bigger stumbling block than our intellect.

Because there are some things that we’re never going to be able to understand – at least not in the way that we’d like to. A Catholic priest and author by the name of Richard Rohr calls these things the big five, and he names them as birth, death, suffering, love, and God. Don’t try to make too much sense of these aspects of life, Rohr says. They’re non-rational. They’re not irrational, but neither can they be understood by reason alone. They’re mysterious. I’m reminded of Saint Augustine’s words here:

“We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God.”

Again, this is not an excuse to justify irrational beliefs. But neither is the absence of certainty an excuse for your lack of faith, for your doubt. Do not be afraid, the angel says, your prayer has been heard.

You see, to doubt something though, is always to trust something else more – there’s no such thing as pure doubt. We doubt because we trust something else instead. What are you trusting more than the good news? What are you afraid of that’s causing you to doubt?

The trouble with fear and doubt though is that we can’t just will them away. We’re so naturally prone to both! And familiarity with the faith or church attendance doesn’t necessary guarantee our protection from them. So what can we possibly do about this?

Well, it may be that the best direction we can take from the story is just to look at what God does to Zechariah. He shuts him up! He loses his ability to speak for like 9 months! I don’t think I’ve gone without speaking for more than about 9 hours, the majority of which was probably during sleep.

At first, it might seem like God is punishing Zechariah, and I’m sure that it felt like it. I bet those first few days and weeks, maybe even months, were miserable. But where does Zechariah end up at the end of the story?

His song in v. 74 and few verses after declares that God has come to

enable us to serve him without fear, to give his people a knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God!

Not only does Zechariah now believe, having seen his wife give birth, but somehow, during the suffering and frustration of his mandatory silence, he’s come to believe in the good news without fear, to believe that it means salvation, rescue forgiveness and mercy.

It might be that Zechariah’s forced silence was the best thing to ever happen to him. Sometimes the only way to quiet the echo chamber of our mind, with its voices of fear and doubt, might be to just find the time to stop talking for a little while.

So maybe just as one takeaway for us this week, we can try to observe some voluntary silence. To practice our waiting. To give room for God to grow our faith in those places where fear and doubt linger. Let’s pray.

The Widow’s Mite or the Widow’s Plight? What we do with what God has given us

[This is the transcript for the sermon I preached at Saint Peter’s Church on November 15, 2015. The audio can be found here.]

Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” – Mark 12:41-44, NIV

So as some of you know, we are right in the middle of a short three-week series that began last Sunday in the book of Numbers, where we looked at the story of Joshua and the 12 scouts or spies that were sent out to investigate the land of Canaan — the promise land. 10 of the 12 that came back did not believe that God could help them, and the people as a whole were persuaded that it was not possible to take the land that God had promised. They thought that God was setting them up for defeat. It’s a really a tragic story in many ways, as it shows that there are serious consequences for refusing to claim what God has given us, and to steward it with a willingness to risk and make sacrifices — to trust that God will make good on his promises!

For today though, we’re looking at this short little story in Mark’s Gospel (it also shows up in Luke), but it actually asks very much the same question of us: “What are you going to do with what you’ve been given?”

Every time I read this story, I think of this coin that Whitney has. It’s supposedly a “Widow’s Mite” – a Greek Lepton (1/64 of a day’s wages then — it’s worth a little bit more than that these days though!) Her family on her mom’s side is from the Cayman Islands, and somehow a number of these coins made their way to the Caribbean on ships, and they’ve been dated back to the early Roman era. So she and her three brothers each have one. And like her favorite piece of jewelry — besides her wedding ring of course — because it symbolizes her family heritage.

But, the coin is also valuable to Whitney and me because of the story it represents. It’s a famous story and for whatever reason it’s one of those that really seems to resonate with people — there’s just something about the way something so insignificant can be seen as invaluable in the eyes of God.

Now, when we hear the word temple, which is where it says this story took place, we might be tempted to think of something like a church. But as some of you may know, this was a massive, public space. It probably looked and felt more like a marketplace. There were a number of places scattered around where you could purchase birds or wood for offerings, or frankincense. There was also a place for the free-will offering, which is where Jesus and this woman were.

The wealthy, powerful and important people would have been visibly giving large offerings, and you would have been able to hear the noise of their big gifts being tossed into the treasury.

And Jesus is not impressed — especially since they were giving their gifts in such a way as to be noticed. The widow, on the other hand, gives everything she has to live on, it says — her Bios! is the Greek word, and it probably goes totally unnoticed, but not by Jesus. He recognizes her radical trust in God to provide for her.

Jesus then goes on to point out that the rich after giving their large gifts were still rich. The rich in this story give out of their abundance, but they do not sacrifice their abundance. They share their leftovers. It’s kind of like famous billionaires we know of, some of whom are even very socially conscious (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett, Oprah…). And I’m not bashing them. I’m just saying, they’re still very rich even after they give.

And of course we do the same. We usually just give what we can afford to, even if that’s a lot. Most of us probably do not eat less, or dress worse, or travel less, because of what we give… Our giving doesn’t cut substantially into our life. We don’t give up control. But the widow did.

So Jesus tells us that the offerings of the wealthy pale in comparison to the sacrifice that the widow makes. She’s living on the currency of the Kingdom of God! While the wealthy people give what to be noticed, they give what they can spare, they give to stay in control.

And so this is the common, straightforward reading of the story, and it’s a good one. It teaches us something very important. That God looks at their heart — not the amount of money that we give. That we’re to give sacrificially, and joyfully. That we’re to give because we’re seeking God. Not because we want something from God. And finally, it poses the question, not just what are you giving, but what are you holding back. Is trust informing your stewardship, or is fear ruling over you?! What’s keeping you from giving more of your life away? What are you going to do with what God has given you?

As is often the case in reading the Bible though, and you all know this, to get to the best stuff, sometimes we have to dig a little deeper. And we don’t have to be scholars to do it! Sometimes it just takes one google search. Again, the natural thing to assume I think is that the Temple was kind of like the church, or that tithing to the temple was like tithing to the church. But the Temple was more like the city government than it was like a church, and tithing was more like paying taxes than making charitable donations. It likely added up to something much higher than 10%.

Because the Temple had a political and economic function just as much as a religious one. Church and state were not separate. It was public and central to society. Of course they were occupied by the Romans, so they weren’t totally in charge. It was more like a colony within the Empire. But the Temple had long been accused of collaborating with the Empire. This is what led to some of the rebellions that we can read about.

But the point is, there was a hierarchy. And at the top were the political and religious leaders. We really need only look at the previous three verses to see this, and to see what Jesus was saying about these people:

38 As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Mark puts these verses about the corrupt leaders right next to the ones about the widow’s offerings for a reason! And keep in mind, this is a holy week story. Jesus has already rode in a donkey and disturbed the peace by driving out the moneychangers in the temple.

Why does he say though, for instance, that the teachers of the law “devour widows’ houses”? Well, from what we can know historically, the scribes and the teachers of the law were part of the literate class that worked for the wealthy. So this is most likely a reference to their activity of administering loan agreements and foreclosing on people’s property when loans couldn’t be repaid! And obviously, widows in the First Century had no way of making any money.

But in ancient Israel, widows and the poor were not supposed to be required to make offerings to the Temple. So something isn’t right about this picture. Mark is pointing this out, and Jesus is criticizing it! In other words, here the passage can be heard not just as praising the widow, but as condemning the way the poor are being manipulated to give to the temple!

And this criticism from Jesus falls right in line with the Prophetic tradition — the second half of the Old Testament — where we read again and again God’s warning to his people about their social responsibility for the marginalized and for the poor. Hear what the prophet Zechariah says (7:9-11):

8 And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: 9 “This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears.

Reflecting back on the message of the earlier prophets and what led Israel into Exile, God is basically saying through Zechariah, “my heart is so bound up with the needs and the circumstances of the poor & weak, that if you act against them, you act against me!” Ignoring them is to ignore me! (like Matt. 25: “What you do to the least of these…”)

Now, this is not to say that when you take care of the poor you’re somehow earning God’s favor. What it does mean though, is that, if you don’t have room in your heart for the poor, you don’t have room in your heart for God.

So yes, this poor widow has a beautiful, generous heart, and she’s an example to us, but she’s also a victim of an unjust society. The temple had become a place where widows were robbed. Though the affluent were tithing, the weightier matters of the law are neglected (Matt 23:23). The money the widow gave was going to the very same people who would take money from Judas only a few days later to capture Jesus and have him crucified!

For some reason though, these circumstances seem to be the kind in which God meets people the most — identifying with the plight of the widow and the marginalized. The widow is a victim of a self-righteous and unjust society – Jesus lets himself become victim to a self-righteous, unjust society. The same sin and suffering that takes advantage of her sends Jesus to the cross. We could say the same sin that lead to a mass-shooting, terrorist attack in Paris two nights ago, in Beirut last week, in Charleston earlier this year — this same sin puts Jesus on the cross. He enters into the sin, suffering and death of the world on a mission to redeem it.

Next Friday I’m going to Atlanta for a day to hear the world-famous German-theologian Jurgen Moltmann speak at a conference about his 40-year-old book now, The Crucified God. He’s 89-years old now. Moltmann was a POW after fighting for the Germans in WWII. During his time as a Ally prisoner, his cell was decorated with images of the concentration camps so as to remind him and his cellmates of what they had done. Moltmann says that at that time he would have rather died than had to face the truth and the shame of his country’s crimes and his role in those crimes. Here’s a quote though that captures the conclusion he ultimately came to in his book:

“God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressed and the oppressors from oppression and to open up to them the reality of a free, generous and compassionate humanity.”

Friends, no other religion says anything like this. Jesus dies for the widow, but he also dies for perpetrators, the Pharisees and the terrorists. There is no one is out of the reach of the grace of God, and there is no thing that can separate you from it.

And if we grasp this – if it grasps us – it’s no longer a matter of trying to figure out what God wants us to do. Or how much God requires us to give. Those are very moralistic and religious questions. When the story of God’s love seizes us, we’re moved to give our whole lives to it — our bios, like the widow. We don’t have to be in control anymore, because of our gratitude, and because of our trust!

So is this passage about tithing? Is it about giving and stewardship? Yes it is, but it’s also about the Gospel itself, which is the real reason why we give anything.

As members of Saint Peter’s, your tithes and offerings, your gifts — whether in terms of money, time, or talents — are not gifts to the institution, or to the staff, or clergy. This church, this staff, is not separate from you. You know this! but this is not a transaction. Yeah there are operating costs, which we try to keep as low as can so that we can give as much as we can directly to the ministries that God has entrusted to us and to things outside of ourselves.

But truly, you are not giving to the church. Rather, you are the church, and as the church, you give. We give as the church, and, when we do, God is really the one giving, through us. That’s how we become the body of Christ, tangibly, his hands and feet in the world. So that we can do our ministry, but also so that we can work to take care of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger.

And this means we partner with others. The church can’t do it all, and shouldn’t try! Maybe some of your money needs to go to sponsor children through Compassion International or World Vision. There are water wells to be drilled, good micro-finance banks to be funded, possibly. Human trafficking to be stopped. Environmental restoration projects to be supported.

So as a church we partner with Suzy McCall and LAMB in Honduras, where our team of 12 women is currently serving. We’re sending a team to Haiti again in January to work in the medical center we sponsor there. We’ve partnered with the Pink Bus on the East Side. We’re forming a new Art Bus team, and we’re looking for other local ministry opportunities. We give to our diocese which goes to support church planting.

Tithing is not mentioned very much in the New Testament, and when it is, the details are unclear. But rather than being an excuse not to tithe, if anything, Jesus raises the standard to a much higher level. He tells the rich young ruler to give everything! Now he doesn’t tell everyone to give everything, but the chances are that he’s challenging each us to give more than we’re comfortable giving.

There’s a quote in your bulletin from C.S. Lewis that has stuck with me on this question:

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”

What we’re going to see next week, as we turn back to the Joshua story, is that even when we’re up against giant obstacles in our life, when we trust, and risk, and give, God is with us. I know that can sound a little bit cliche or just like a Christian platitude — I hear it even as I say it — but I really believe that when we step out and let go of the need to control in generosity and in sacrifice, that Christ is there, just as he was in this widow’s life.

The widow in the story gave everything. The rich people let her do it — while they only gave for show, while they gave what they could spare, and while they gave to stay in control.

Our giving, by comparison, is a response to what God has already given us. So the challenge is simply this, as we ask of ourselves again, each day: What are we going to do with what God has given us? Let’s pray.

Imagining the Beauty and Drama of Christ from History’s Underside: Toward an Ecclesial Postmodern Political Theology

If postmodern theology is to awaken the political imagination of Christian churches and energize them in a subversive and liberating way, then I submit that it must do at least two things: First, it must speak with a depth of theological conviction and fidelity to the Christian tradition in a way that at the same time transcends both modern and pre-modern epistemological strongholds.

And secondly, postmodern theology must recast the church’s mission in a manner that is, while not defined by this, still significantly informed by of a political-economic ethic from the standpoint of the experience of those on the underside of history — which is to say, those who do not benefit from the dominant center of society but rather find themselves on the periphery, in many respects. In particular, when I say underside, I mean those victimized to some degree by euro-american, “colonial-capitalist” history (whether it be on the basis of class, race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or what have you).

So, there two challenges for the church — one postmodern/epistemological, the other postcolonial/political-material. And my way of thinking about these two fronts of that the church is facing, is helped by drawing on the work of two major figures: Hans Urs von Balthasar and Enrique Dussel.

Balthasar’s theology, for those who may not know, begins with a theology of beauty — and really it’s an epistemology – an approach to truth and faith from an aesthetic starting point, rather than a propositional or moral one. And then, only after having started with beauty, does he move into what he calls theo-dramatics. Because he’s saying that what is truly beautiful is the key for knowing, inspiring and approximating God’s goodness in the world, shaped by the Christian story: “God’s drama” of salvation history. This also has implications for ecclesiology, which I will touch on briefly below.

The second thinker I’m relying on is Enrique Dussel. Dussel is a contemporary of Latin American liberation theologians (LTs) like Gustavo Gutierrez and Jon Sobrino, but he has really distinguished himself as a philosopher more so than a theologian by seriously and critically engaging modern European and American philosophers of the 20th Century. Specifically he appropriates Emmanuel Levinas but in a more socio-political rather than phenomenological vein, using some of Levinas’s same categories, like exteriority and alterity, to talk about how the most privileged political and ethical perspective is always that of the victim and outsider — the excluded one.

But even more than that, Dussel retells the history of modernity itself, which for him is essentially coterminous with colonialism, in terms of having its origin and defining material moment in the Spanish conquest and invasion of the Americas – in the events of the subjugation, brutality and exploitation of the indigenous people there and what that has continued to mean for Latin American history ever since even well into the 20th and 21st Century. This is how he conceives of history itself from the experience of its “underside,” what he also terms the “subaltern.” Modern Western civilization was built on this imperial “discovery” and the slave-based economy that ensued. The consequences are still being experienced, especially by the governments of Central America in the past 50 years.

But Balthasar is the figure who I believe can guide us — not all the way, but for a while — beyond the modern/post-modern impasse, while also being faithful to the Christian tradition (even though he of course has his blind-spots too). Here’s what I mean: if modernity was guilty of logocentrism, condescension, normalization and universalization by way of trying to smooth out differences, then postmodernity has been prone to paralyze constructive politics in the name of heterogeneity and multiculturalism/pluralism (Rosa Maria Rodriguez Magda). Alan Badiou has voiced a comparable critique of postmodernity by describing it as “communitarian particularism” that “reduces the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . [that] ends up in a cultural and historical relativism” (Badiou, 2003). And I think von Bathasar’s theology, again, because of both his aesthetic epistemology, on the one hand, and his christocentrism, on the other, avoids the cliff on either side.

In addition, I’m trying to map an ecclesial political theology, which means it will take its departure from the social location of the Christian faith community, rather than principally from the standpoint of state citizenship. For the latter is yet another way that political theology has too often been captured by modernity.

At the same time, these two places or identities – that of the church and the state – cannot be separated. I’m not calling for a neo-anabaptist politic. But Balthasar argues that, in his public ministry, Jesus illustrates how there can be an opening up a horizon beyond the immediacy of the state, indirectly limiting the state by subjecting it to an eschatological critique. Which is by no means an abandonment of the material, but it does signal toward something beyond the material that is always manifesting and incarnating itself in the material. So there remains the indication of a liberation the originates in God, not humanity.

Here’s what this politics boils down to though for Balthasar. In Theodrama vol. 2 he states that:

“Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” of the body of Christ in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize the inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live…”

So political power comes in the weakness of that solidarity that the church has with the most vulnerable.

Like Jesus, though, there is a refusal to concede to the “rivalries of history,” for Balthasar. The church cannot grab power or seek to influence it from the top down. And there’s a lot about this that I think we should hold on to. So Balthasar gives us parameters for a Christian ecclesiology, but there is much wanting here in terms of the promise of and cry for liberation from oppression! There’s not enough urgency in Balthasar. So for a political and economic ethic, I turn to Dussel.

It’s worth noting that while he’s not a pacifist, Dussel considers any power taken by the state, rather than power given by the people in their consent, to be illegitimate. Because this would be self-referential power and therefore fetishism.

Dussel accuses both the neoliberal US and the Latin American Left of historically presupposing the necessity of violence against their political opponent – and instead contends that politics is about the continuation of life whose aim is the very preservation of the opponent — through the means of deliberation and delegation, and so on. So Dussel’s is a biopolitics – of the preservation, enhancement and continuation of the life of the political community but also of its very condition for material reproduction: the planet, culture and indigenous traditions!

  1. So the first of three ethical principles that Dussel follows is a material one, expressed as the obligation to produce life. Its concern is with human bodies and their well-being. This is the source of value for the political community, not production or consumption.
  2. The second principle, then, is more formal and procedural, as that of discourse ethics (it’s the goal of consensus around moral validity). Bearing in mind the first principle then, discourse here is always carried out with the voice of the underside, and of victims setting the terms of dialogue.
  3. Third, there is the criterion of feasibility (feasibility of mediations), the question of what can actually and practically be achieved in any given political situation.

These three criteria – material, dialogical and feasible – are co-constitutive of what Dussel judges can finally be called “good.”

Finally, though, I turn back to Balthasar. In his mind, Beauty (aesthetics) is the starting point, and may in fact have the most potent recourse to inciting the Good.

And obviously, for Balthasar, the archetype of beauty is the life-form, and the whole drama of Jesus, the Christ figure, whose beauty is most fully revealed in relief from the ugliness of humanity’s violence that puts people on crosses. So beauty is made known above all in God’s willingness to go to that human, bodily and historical-material, political place of suffering and rejection.

So to summarize all of this: because of the kind of beauty that is revealed for Christians in Jesus (this is Balthasar), there is an ecclesiological call to solidarity, with those who Jesus has solidarity with in his suffering. What Dussel then demonstrates, moreover, is that this solidarity must start with those on the margins.  And Dussel’s three principles for political-economic ethics stress that this solidarity is not just a willingness to suffer with, but to suffer for. It is a willingness to resist with and to protest with – not just with but for people, to achieve better conditions for the flourishing of their lives.

As I consider what this theology amounts to if practiced, I imagine that it might reflect several aspects of what political theologian Mark Lewis Taylor calls critical movements of resistance.

Taylor discusses critical movements of resistance as responses to various sufferings and injustices that are being experienced by those on history’s underside as a result of the colonial-capitalist state, in theo-poetic fashion, which is not reducible to the level of political economy (so aesthetics!), but is just as much interested in affecting culture and stirring artistic expression of creative story-telling, dramatic and performative acts of resistance to catalyze a social movement.

So an appropriate Critical Movement of Resistance (CMR) will take broader and deeper forms than mere advocacy for change in public policy, though it certainly includes this. And it will be constituted by at least three visible markings, Taylor says: an 1) owning of agonistic being — solidarity in suffering, sharing in the weight of the world. Second, 2) cultivating of artful reflex, a kind of mirroring or mimicking of the state. Perhaps most powerfully illustrated just biblically in Jesus’ triumphal entry on a donkey, genuine street theater! and thirdly, the 3) fomenting of adversarial political and counter-colonial/decolonial practices, which would need to actually name opponents, call them out, expose them, make evil show itself! Not destroying the opponent, but calling them to repentance! And then attempt to take higher moral ground in an unpredictable and offsetting stealing of the show, beating stakeholders to the stage. It is disruptive and demonstrative, in other words.

This obviously takes strategic planning, vulnerable networking, risk-taking, and in a way that has to be careful not to devolve into sheer aestheticism, and that at least aiming to bring about sustainable, and life-renewing communal activities.