TEXT: Acts 8:26-40
That video was created by the group Improv Everywhere. You can find them on YouTube. They are masters of helping people find themselves in interesting and awkward situations. Situations that they never expected. Doing things that they never believed in response to the situation. In the case of this video, simply setting up a lectern and a bull horn with the simple directions “Declare your love” resulted in a lot of curiosity and a lot of interesting declarations. Despite the peculiarity of the situation, these everyday people – like you and me – stop for a moment, step outside of society’s expectations, and declare their love for total strangers to hear. In doing so, others smile, laugh, and react joyously to their words. Not only does it bring joy to strangers, it also brings joy to those who participate. In bringing joy to others, the participants receive joy.
Philip is not a major figure in the bible. He’s not one of the superstars like Moses or David or Paul. Philip is one of the first seven Deacons of the Church – ordained with the specific role and purpose of “waiting on tables” – which is what the word “diakonia” means in Greek. The Deacons were selected by the Apostles to handle the proper distribution of food and goods in the Church so that no one was missed – such as widows and orphans. And the Apostles created the office of Deacon because they simply did not have the time both to teach the word of God AND address all the pastoral care needs of their growing congregation. That’s the biblical reason why we have Deacons in the Presbyterian Church today – to be the major pastoral care arm of the congregation, addressing the pastoral needs of the congregation, so that the pastor can do the work of teaching and spreading the Word of God alongside the Elders of the Church.
But Philip is called to more than his ordained role. Philip is also called to be an evangelist – to share the Word of God with others, especially those who might not otherwise be accepted. So, when an angel of the Lord commands Deacon Philip to go to a road in the middle of nowhere, he simply got up and went. And, to no surprise, Deacon Philip finds a person in need of someone to teach them about the Word of God. There Deacon Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch. And not only does Deacon Philip help the eunuch understand the Word of God, Deacon Philip also baptizes the eunuch – welcoming him into the Church – even though this eunuch was most likely excluded from worship in the Temple in Jerusalem for a number of reasons. Even though this eunuch was nothing like the rest of the members of the early church.
First, because they are Ethiopian – and not necessarily considered a “Jew” (though it is possible he could have been) – the Ethiopian would have been confined to the outer courtyard of the temple, known as the court of the Gentiles, because only Jews could enter the inner courtyard. Secondly, because they are also a eunuch – a male who has his testicles removed before puberty so as not to be a threat to female royalty – they are banned from entering the court of the Gentiles because it is written in Deuteronomy 23:1- “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” At the same time, there were a LOT of stigmas and stereotypes surrounding eunuchs – ironically, most of which said that they were sexually deviant and immoral – because of their non-binary gender identity. Eunuchs were not really men. But they were also not women. They were something different. A third gender. So, the Torah’s rules against eunuch’s were written because of these false stigmas, untrue stereotypes, and their misunderstood gender identity.
Despite having their ethnicity and gender identity working against them both in religion and society, the Ethiopian eunuch does have a lot going for them. They are wealthy enough to own a chariot with its own driver and an expensive scroll of the prophet Isaiah. They are highly educated. Not only can they read (in a language other than their own) but they are also in charge of the treasury of the Candace of Ethiopia. They’re basically the minister of finance, the secretary of the treasury, for the nation. They have a devout faith in God – otherwise why would they waste time and money to travel such a long distance to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and study a giant scroll of Isaiah? They are humble – unafraid to admit that they do not understand what they are reading. Unafraid to declare that they don’t know everything about their faith. And so therefore, this Ethiopian eunuch is also hospitable – especially towards someone who is willing to help them understand – even some random guy running alongside the chariot, yelling,“Do you understand what you are reading?” Personally, I would take offense if someone did that to me, but the Ethiopian eunuch shows humility and hospitality to Deacon Philip.
I also find it interesting that of ALL the books of the Hebrew Bible that the Ethiopian chose to purchase, they chose to buy the one book that says in chapter 11: “11 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.” And in chapter 56, Isaiah says: “For thus says the Lord:/To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,/ who choose the things that please me/ and hold fast my covenant,/ I will give, in my house and within my walls,/ a monument and a name/ better than sons and daughters;/ I will give them an everlasting name/ that shall not be cut off.”
I’m guessing that at some point, the Ethiopian eunuch heard these verses of Isaiah, and wanted to read it for themselves. That the Ethiopian eunuch wanted to know for sure that there was a place for a total outsider like them within God’s promises – a foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity. A place for them within the Temple walls, worshipping alongside the other children of God. But the Ethiopian eunuch gets to a certain passage – specifically Isaiah 53:7-8 – and begins to struggle with understanding who it is the Prophet Isaiah is speaking about: himself or someone else? That’s when Deacon Philip shows up for a quick bible study.
Now it isn’t written what Deacon Philip said specifically to the Ethiopian eunuch, only that Philip, “began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to them the good news about Jesus.” We can infer that at some point Philip talked about baptism as the ritual of initiation into the Church because of what happens next. But then again, with what Deacon Philip has learned, this is not a possibility because of the eunuch’s gender non-conformity and the stigmas surrounding their sexuality. Deacon Philip does what the Lord commands him to do – tell the Good News to this outsider – but he knows that his new religion – Christianity – is clear about keeping sexual deviants like eunuchs out of the Church. What is Deacon Philip to do? How will he know if it’s okay to baptize the eunuch?
The Lord clearly has plans beyond the rules of the church. Because coincidentally, they come upon a random pool of water in the middle of the desert in the heat of the day! What a fortuitous opportunity for the Ethiopian eunuch to be baptized. So, the eunuch questions Philip – I would even say “challenges” Philip – by asking, “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And so, without regard for the Ethiopian eunuch’s outsider status as a foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity – without requiring the Ethiopian eunuch to make a statement of faith or to pray the sinner’s prayer or to “ask Jesus into their heart” – Deacon Philip takes the Ethiopian eunuch into the water, and baptizes them. And the minute the eunuch comes up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord literally “snatches Philip away” and the Ethiopian eunuch never sees him again. But it says that the eunuch “went on their way rejoicing!”
What’s even more fascinating about this story is the legend that then continues about the Ethiopian eunuch beyond the scriptures. According to legend, the eunuch then returns to Ethiopia and founds the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – making Ethiopia the second country to establish Christianity as its official religion. This foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity becomes the founder of one of the oldest Christian Churches in the world – founded in 333 AD. This Ethiopian eunuch becomes the founder of a Christian group that currently has between 40 and 50 million followers world-wide! Clearly, the Ethiopian eunuch – despite his status as foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity – was blessed by God – through Deacon Philip – so that they could be a blessing for millions of future followers of Jesus Christ. Clearly the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion – despite their “otherness” and “difference” – was the work of God who sees beyond the concerns of human religious rules and societal expectations.
And you know what – the Ethiopian eunuch was not the only person who is converted that day. Deacon Philip is also converted that day as well. The Lord sent Philip to teach the Good News to a person who otherwise is excluded from the worship of God. To baptize a person who is banned from the temple because of the priest’s strict adherence to a legalistic reading of Leviticus. And Deacon Philip – having been raised on and taught these rules, having learned a legalistic reading of the Hebrew scriptures, having grown up in a culture that saw eunuchs as “sexually immoral” because of their ambiguous gender identity – would have never chosen to baptize a eunuch on his own. But on that day, Deacon Philip’s understanding of the work of God is transformed, and he is converted from practicing a religion to living his faith. As the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, When Philip joined this person who sought to worship God despite [their] exclusion, was it perhaps Philip himself who was converted to the faith?” Because when the Holy Spirit brings you to something – you better pay attention. When Christ calls you to something – you better listen. When God commands you to do something – even something that seems out of line with what both your religion and society always taught you – you better follow through. Not only because it will be a blessing to that person, people, or situation – but because it will also be a blessing to you. God most often blesses us by making us a blessing to others. Those who follow Christ are always blessed to be a blessing.
One of the ways you can see people being blessed to be a blessing is right here at Grace during the Welcome Table. Even though it’s only been operating for 9 weeks now, the Welcome Table is averaging over 40 people a week – the vast majority of which do not currently attend Grace. More and more families are starting to attend – and so around 15-20 children are part of those being blessed. And while the free meal is a blessing to the people who come to the Welcome Table – the blessing for us here at Grace is found in the chance to build relationships with those who attend. To sit and hear them share their stories and their lives with you. To learn about the hardships and struggles that they go through. To discover just how hard they are working to overcome them. The blessing we receive here at Grace is NOT in being fed – but in feeding. The blessing that Grace Presbyterian Church receives is the chance to love our neighbors as ourselves. The blessing we as a congregation receive is the opportunity to sacrifice just a few hours of our time, once a week, so that someone in our own community goes to bed with a full stomach.
After all, isn’t that the kind of community you WANT to live in? One where people – where children – don’t go to bed hungry at night? Don’t you want to be a part of the solution to your community’s problems? Don’t you want the opportunity to be a blessing? To be the hands and feet of Christ for your neighbors in your own community? Just think of the impact you can make in the lives of people in your own community simply by sacrificing a couple of the 168 hours in your week. By sacrificing only 2% of your week. Small sacrifices can lead to big transformations – both in other’s lives and your own life.
Now some may ask, “But are these people going to come to worship on Sunday?” But, worship attendance is the worst way to measure church growth – because it’s NOT the point of God’s mission. Mission is never about getting butts in the seats on Sunday. Nowhere in scripture did Jesus command the Disciples to build a church and measure its success by weekly worship attendance. Instead, Jesus commissions his Disciples – including us today – to take on THE MISSION OF GOD every hour of our lives. And the Mission of God is about being blessed by being a blessing. About growing as Disciples by making other Disciples. About dying to the life religion and society tells you to want and resurrecting to a fullness of life by sacrificing what you’ve always wanted. About following the Spirit’s call to do the hard work of faith – instead of following the expectations of religion and society. Christianity is NOT about making your life easier. If anything, it’s about sacrifice that just might make your life harder. Because, faithfully following Christ will ALWAYS lead you to the cross.
Like Philip, conversion is the death of everything you’ve ever understood about yourself and your life. Yet we always try to avoid this inevitable and painful reality of the Christian faith because society (and even religion) tells us that we should never be uncomfortable.
But we can’t forget that, in the Christin faith, death always leads to resurrection – to new life. Not just the extension of this life into the hereafter – but a fullness of life in the here and now. Jesus tells us in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” And isn’t that what we all want? A fullness of life? Right here? Right now? Isn’t that why we struggle to sacrifice what we have, because we’re afraid that if we give up something, we’ll miss out on the fullness of life? And yet, that’s the opposite of what Jesus calls a fullness of life. Fullness of life isn’t found in what you gain, but rather in what you sacrifice.
Fullness of life through faith in Jesus requires us to leave behind the man-made rules and expectations of religion and society so that we may live into the Spirit led doubts and uncertainties of faith. Faith that defies religious and social conventions in order to do the holy and revolutionary work of blessing those on the margins of society and religion. Faith that desires all to receive the same fullness of life as you – because that’s what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Faith that sits down to dinner with sinners, overturns the tables of the affluent, condemns self-righteous religious leaders, and challenges oppressive political powers. Faith that feeds the hungry simply because they need to be fed. Faith that welcomes children because Jesus teaches us that the kingdom belongs to them. Faith that forgives the adulterer, pardons the criminal, listens to women, heals the leper, welcomes the foreigner, and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch – even when religion and society tells us they are not worth it.
Faith calls us to always bless others
– and in doing so –
we are always blessed.
Text: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-13 & Mark 15:33-39
The story of Adam and Eve has been called “The Fall” ever since Augustine, and serves as the basis for his theology of “Original Sin.” It’s one of the texts that John Calvin uses to refer to the “Total Depravity” of humanity. Personally, I’m not a fan of the theologies of “Original Sin” or “Total Depravity.” I’m not even a fan of referring to this story as “The Fall.” Because, I’m more concerned about the way the story reveals about humanity, specifically humanity’s internal drives and desires that lead us to sin. And in doing so, how this text can reveal the internal desires of our congregations that drive the decline of our churches, and thus help us to transform ourselves and ours ecclesiology and missiology for the Great Emergence.
And so I will not be reading this text from a Reformed or traditional or conservative or even progressive hermeneutic. Instead, I’m reading this text through the lens of radical theology – specifically, what is known as pyrotheology as developed by Irish theologian Peter Rollins. Radical theology is part of the Emergence movement in Christianity and applies other philosophical and critical theories – such as psychoanalysis and existentialism – to provide a hermeneutic that allows us to discover what it means to be human, specifically the human drives and desires working within these texts that are still affecting us and the Church today.
God tells Adam and Eve, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” If you want to guarantee that a child will WANT a toy, tell them they CAN’T have it. Because once something is prohibited it immediately becomes desired, and we are develop this drive to obtain it at all costs. For Adam and Eve, their drive for the fruit of the tree is established the minute God forbids them to eat it. And then the serpent comes along and calls into question the trustworthiness of God, causing Adam and Eve to be more aware that there is something they cannot have despite all the freedom they DO have. And as soon as they consider the possibility that God is NOT telling them something, Adam and Eve become insecure. And it is this “original insecurity” that points to their Lack – this feeling that there is something missing within themselves that can only be fulfilled by something greater than themselves such as the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the things which we believe will fulfill our lack are sacred-objects. The problem is, even though the sacred-object of the fruit promises to take away the Lack within them, once obtained, the sacred-object creates greater insecurity and increases their awareness of how much more Lack is in their lives. For it is only after they eat of the tree that Adam and Eve “know they are naked” and began to feel shame and guilt. Gaining knowledge does not make life easier – and this text shows us just how painful knowing the whole truth can be. That’s why ignorance is bliss. But ignorance is NOT the mark of human maturity. Running from or avoiding your inner issues isn’t going to make them go away.
So we avoid the painful truth about ourselves by scapegoating. In scapegoating, we believe the reason why we can’t obtain the sacred-object we desire is the fault of another individual or group of people (often marginalized people such as the poor, racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQI+ community, etc.). So instead of OWNING our Lack we PROJECT our Lack upon the scapegoat. Blaming it for our sins and our failings. Adam scapegoats Eve for his desire to fulfill his lack with the fruit of the tree. Eve projects her lack on the serpent’s deception. We do the same thing when we come across the poor in our streets, saying things like, “Don’t give them any money, they’ll just spend it on booze and drugs.” Or “Why should my hard-earned money pay to support lazy welfare queens?” We project our own spiritual and moral poverty onto them – blaming them for our immoral desires and sinful laziness. This is why Jesus says, “The poor will always be with you.” Because you cannot alleviate economic poverty until you address the spiritual and moral poverty within yourself.
And when the drive for our sacred-object proves too challenging, we pursue substitute objects instead – wealth, power, fame, success, status, etc. – hoping they will be able to fill the lack within us. Yet, as soon as we obtain these substitute objects, we quickly realize how futile they are, and our drive for the sacred-object grows stronger.
So, how does this work in the Church? Do we have sacred-objects in the Church that we are driven to attain – believing that once we do, we will feel whole and complete again, that all our problems will go away? Now I’m sure most of us can agree that every church has its idols, its sacred cows. The things that if you touch them or move them or (God-forbid) RE-move them, heaven and earth will collapse! They often have a plaque on them with some dead person’s name. Or they are traditions that we repeat over and over again even though we have NO idea why we are doing them. (“It’s just how we’ve always done it.”) Or it’s that person or family who’s always in charge of a particular event, small group, committee, or always on Session.
Sometimes these idols are programs, annual events, bible studies, kitchens (don’t get me started on kitchens!), cliques, worship styles, decorations, familiar hymns, and even pews. But while many in the Church desire these things, they are not sacred-objects. They are merely the substitutes for the sacred-object that truly drives everything we do in the Church. And we create all kinds of scapegoats to blame for why we haven’t attained it. Because it’s much easier to create scapegoats for the death of the Church. Like Adam and Eve we would rather blame others than take responsibility for our dying church. Blaming things like: the community for not making the church a priority. Millennials for not taking their faith seriously. Lack of financial resources and/or volunteers for why we can’t start new programs to attract the idolized “young families with children.” But remember, we always project onto the scapegoat what is true about us.
We blame the community for not making the church a priority because we don’t make Discipleship a priority. We want church to be a simple obligation for us – a weekly euphoric experience of “feel good” worship that doesn’t challenge anything we believe, doesn’t force us to change anything about ourselves, and numbs our pain long enough until we can return next Sunday to get another fix at our spiritual crackhouse. Meanwhile, those who pursue true Discipleship don’t play the blame game. Churches that accept responsibility for their problems and confront them head on are doing Discipleship right.
Millennials are often blamed by older generations – especially Boomers – for not taking their faith seriously. Yet, who do they think raised them? The National Study of Youth and Religion – a 20-year longitudinal study of Millennials – found that the number one influence on a youth’s future faith commitment is their parents (pastor’s and youth ministers rank at the bottom of influence). Millennials don’t take faith seriously because growing up they never saw their Boomer parents taking their faith seriously. Young people know the difference between following Jesus, and just showing up for an hour lecture on Sundays. And we, as the Church, don’t take our faith seriously, because we lack the ability to take God seriously. Meanwhile, churches that do take God seriously also take the discipleship of their children and youth seriously – fully integrating them throughout the life of the congregation instead of isolating them into their own silo ministry away from the rest of the congregation.
We blame others for not volunteering meanwhile, what are you volunteering for Becky? When was the last time you ushered? When was the last time you helped teach Sunday School? What do you mean you’ve already “served your time?” I didn’t realize being a servant of Christ had a time limit. We lack volunteers because we lack the experience of being a servant. We pay people to do everything for us nowadays. Uber drives for us. Uber eats will deliver fast food for us. We pay a pastor to develop our spirituality and outsource our children and youth’s faith development to the youth pastor – as long as they make sure our kids graduate nice, sober, virgins who identify as Christian, but not so much that they would jeopardize their future by doing something crazy like being a missionary in a foreign country.
We blame others for the lack of our financial resources – meanwhile every pastor who’s seen the stewardship rolls knows that the people who complain the most give the least – if they even give at all. That often the people who earn the most give the smallest percentage. That many of our congregations are literally being supported on the backs of the poorest and oldest members of our congregation – because they are the ones who understand sacrificial generosity. Meanwhile the rest project their lack of sacrificial generosity upon others. And they do so because of the serpents in our world. The serpent of capitalism who tells us that you are nothing without the next best thing. The serpent of scarcity who tell you that that other marginalized group is coming for your resources, so you better do something or you will starve. The serpent of independence who tells us we can’t trust each other for help if something happens. The serpent of privilege who tells us we deserve what we had and others do not. The serpent of socio-economic status tells us we can’t be so generous that we sacrifice the status that material things give us. We lack understanding of sacrificial generosity because we lack understanding of the sacrifice of Christ. And so our collect drive towards the sacred-object keeps growing.
So, what is the sacred-object of the Church? I argue that our true sacred-object is the belief in Church Growth – developed out of the nostalgia for a church full of young families like believe we had back in 1950/60/70/80/90-something. How many pastors, during PNC interviews were asked, “What can you do to grow the church?” (raise your hands) And it’s because our biggest anxiety is that the Church is declining, the church is dying, and our particular congregation is going to close if it doesn’t grow. And if God can’t save the church, then can God save me?
But instead of moving forward, we keep falling back into patterns, programs, and polities of 30, 40, 50+ years ago. This is our “original insecurity” – believing that unless we use the patterns, programs, and polities we already know, we can never trust there to be the outcome we desire – Church Growth. Therefore, we have a choice to make in confronting this “original insecurity.” We can either 1) cowardly create scapegoats to project our lack upon and blame for our church decline (and watch our church die anyway) or 2) do the messy work of courageously facing ourselves, owning our lack as a community of faith, and seeking total transformation. And while we all know what we should do, and we also know we prefer to do. Fortunately, the Good News in the midst of this is found in the crucifixion – just not in the way you would think.
Traditionally, the crucifixion provides the ground of meaning for Christian soteriology (theology of salvation). And while the traditional, “Jesus died for you”, penal substitution model rallied by John Calvin promotes an intellectual understanding of the crucifixion and the atonement, it does not provide an existential understanding. An understanding that gets within your very being and transforms the way you see the world, causing you to “repent” – “to turn around” as the Greek word metanoia implies – and to live your life radically different. As I tell my congregation, “Repentance doesn’t mean to say you’re sorry. Because if you ask God to forgive you for something you’ve done without changing your way of life that lead you to do it, you are an unrepentant sinner.” We need to understand the crucifixion in such a way that it is no longer an intellectual exercise, but a transformation of our total selves: heart, mind, body, and soul. So that we can become repentant and walk away from our sacred-objects and walk towards the direction that Jesus is leading us – which, I hope we remember, is always to the cross.
And so a radical reading of the crucifixion is one in which the crucifixion does not GIVE meaning to life or religion, but instead represents the LOSS of all meaning. For Jesus to be crucified meant two things: 1) it religiously meant that Jesus was cursed of God because Deuteronomy 21:23 (and later Paul in Galatians 3:13) states that anyone hung from a tree is cursed of God. And 2) socio-politically, crucifixion was meant to erase your identity and your existence to the state. So in his crucifixion, Jesus’ life no longer has any meaning on both a religious and socio-political level. Jesus cries out “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me.” because he has become totally meaningless to heaven and earth.
And at that moment of total meaninglessness, the curtain in the temple rips in two from the top to the bottom. The curtain – the prohibition that kept everyone else out of the Holy of Holies – the place where the very presence of God, the ultimate sacred-object, was said to dwell – rips open to reveal… NOTHING. Nothing is there. Now while there are many traditional interpretations of this, a radical reading argues that the presence of God was never there to begin with. The presence of God was only there virtually. It was all in our heads. It didn’t exist. And the only reason we desired it was because we were prohibited from attaining it like a child’s much wanted toy. The absence of the sacred-object reveals the meaninglessness of the whole system of unattainable sacred-objects. It’s a traumatic and shocking realization that is not just intellectual – but also existential. We feel it in our entire being. It forces us to no longer view God as the object of intellectual study, dogmas, and devotion. It forces us to abandon the idea of God as some subject of mystical contemplation and mystery we can never know but try to seek union with. Instead God is an uncontrollable event that changes our perception of the world, which in turn, transforms how we interact with the world, thus changing the world.
This is the Good News of Christianity. The removal of the prohibition – the tearing of the curtain – confronts us with “the ridiculous nature of our stubborn attachments” to sacred-objects that simply are not there. The Good News is that the absence of the sacred-object reveals the meaninglessness of the whole system of unattainable sacred-objects that can never fulfill our lack. The Good News is that we are saved FROM the sacred-objects of our desire – which would eventually become a Hell of our own making. We are saved from the oppressive substitute desires that take us from one meaningless moment to the next. We are saved from religious and socio-political serpents that instill insecurities to point out our lack in order to control us. We are saved from the rules of religion so that we can trust the promises of God. We are saved from the need to constantly pursue wholeness and perfection.
And as Peter Rollins says, “we discover that what lies on the other side of the [curtain]…isn’t qualitatively better…this insight… invites us into a different form of life, one in which we experience the disappearance of the sacred-object and the problems it creates for us” (71). We are saved to different form of life – not so we can attend feel good worship on Sundays. But so we can step deeper into life – with its pain, loss, and suffering – and discover the beauty and meaning that it already has. We are saved so we can love.
Love is the only experience of desire that is NOT oppressive. To love a person or a cause is to discover something that is both IN our world and gives weight TO our world. In love, desire is not consumed on the object of our love. Instead, our beloved fuels and sustains our desires. While this all sounds wonderful and ideal, the reality is we avoid love because it comes hand-in-hand with pain and suffering. Love requires vulnerability. And vulnerability puts you at risk of pain and suffering. Therefore, we have domesticated the Gospel into nothing more than a means of alleviating my pain and suffering and achieving my personal salvation. We avoid things in the Church that make us uncomfortable, that force us to face our own lack, and exchange it for false gospel of shallow, superficial, “niceness.” The only way to completely shelter yourself from pain and suffering is to avoid love. Churches that focus on being nice and keeping their members comfortable are Churches without love. And since God is love, they are also Churches without God.
The sacred is still there, but it returns in the form of a tangible depth – not some intellectual fiction. The sacred no longer shelters us from the secular, but instead springs forth from the secular. It’s a way of life in which we live as though everything has meaning instead of trying to seek meaning in everything. We discover the sacred is not about experiencing something positive, but about experiencing depth and density in all things. This causes us to shift from a desire for things we don’t have to a desire born out of loving what we do have, the things and people we’ve already encountered. Those who experience the sacred in this way are truly gracious and grateful for what they already have rather than concerned for what they don’t have.
For the Church, the Good News of Christianity is that the thing that we believe will save the Church and us – the sacred-object of Church Growth DOES NOT EXIST! It doesn’t currently exist because it’s 2019 NOT 1950/60/70! It NEVER did exist because it was the desire for Church Growth that got us to this moment of death and decline. That’s why sin results in death. Sin is the death drive towards the sacred-object. Forgiveness of sin is the removal of the sacred object, freeing us from that sense of lack within ourselves, and stopping our drive towards death. Churches that continue driving towards Church Growth instead of living into sacrificial love will be judged by the law – the law of natural selection – where failure to adapt results in death.
But the Church will thrive in places where the community embraces its Lack. Where the community confesses its flaws, faults, and failures, and seeks actual repentance – turning away from their sacred and substitute objects (including their church buildings) and turning towards the direction that Jesus is leading them. The direction of ministry over institutionalism. Of people over patterns, programs, and polities. Of love over buildings. The church that stops desiring the things they don’t have – such as members and money – and that is thankful for what it does have – their local community, compassionate love, and confidence in God’s promises – will experience eternal life – life in the fullest – even if the church closes.
The most powerful experience of “Church” I’ve ever had was when I was required to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for a seminary pastoral care class. AA is a community that embraces their lack. That acknowledges what is actually wrong. They know their alcoholism is “a manifestation of their own internal antagonisms.” And as such, “acceptance of one’s own issues…helps provide the atmosphere in which…positive transformation…can happen” (Rollins 46). Can you imagine a church like that? A church where acceptance of your own issues – your lack – creates an environment of love where you can be transformed – where you can truly repent and turn your life around? Where you can turn away from the sacred-object of your desires and turn towards the path in which Jesus is leading you. A church where the response to “How are you?” is the truth instead of the socially acceptable lie of “I’m fine.” Can a church do that? Can a church actually admit to its flaws and failures? Can a church confess its scapegoating of others? Maybe someone should create a 12-Step program for the Church. Maybe we don’t have a choice but to do so.
While it’s been a LOT more than 12 steps, embracing our lack is something we’ve been working on at Grace Presbyterian in Crystal City. We’ve been working on naming and embracing our lack. On accepting that we are not perfect. Of claiming our failures instead of scapegoating others. This has been a long and difficult journey, and we are still a work in progress. Some people easily embrace this. These people are typically more self-aware and emotionally intelligent. Other people, meanwhile, simply cannot go along with this because they can’t deal with the pain of confronting their own lack, their own inner issues. They can’t accept the reality that maybe, just maybe, they are not the “good Christian” they claim to be.
There are several things that we have been repenting and transforming what it means for us to be the church in the Great Emergence – but I’ve already preached too long for a Presbyterian pastor. So I want to acknowledge our newest missional endeavor called The Welcome Table. This idea is spearheaded by Suzanne & Diane DeWitt Hall, a married couple new to the congregation. Every Tuesday night from 5:30 to 7:00 pm, The Welcome Table serves a FREE community meal to anyone who wants it. This meal is NOT just for the homeless or poor – hungry for food. It’s also for the lonely widow – hungry for fellowship, the tired caregiver or parent – hungry for a break from cooking for one night, the spiritually lost – hungry for the presence of God, the marginalized – hungry for love and acceptance. Since the first night, seven weeks ago, we average over 40 patrons a night, – only 6-7 are members of Grace – and we average between 6-10 volunteers – several of which are members of the community. There are around 10 to 15 children and youth who both attend and help serve and clean up. The spirit of authenticity, of grace, of mercy, of generosity, of discipleship, of love during The Welcome Table is a powerful witness to the Good News. There is no desire for sacred-objects here – for praise or accolades. Our faults and failures are openly discussed. And there is a willingness to sacrifice one’s time and resources to offer love in the form of food, fellowship, and relationship.
Recently a thin, frail, young woman, fighting bone cancer, came in cautiously questioning if she could take a meal home to her mentally disabled grandmother for whom she is the caregiver. The young woman was shocked when she experienced the love and generosity of the volunteers in the program. Then Diane DeWitt Hall herself gave me the opportunity to witness Christ at work, as she graciously sat down with this young woman and showed her the genuine Christian love and hospitality that she needed. When the young woman said she couldn’t believe that anyone at the church would be that kind to her, Diane simply replied, “But that’s what love does. Love gives without expectation. And God is love.” For this young woman, the curtain was torn on the judgmental, patriarchal, and wrathful God that she had always known, revealing it was never there all along. Instead, she was able to experience divine love, that welcomed her and transformed her view of the world.
It’s time for us to repent of our sinful death drive towards Church Growth – because it doesn’t exist, it never did exist, and it never will exist – and free our minds of its virtual existence otherwise it will continue to insist that we distract ourselves with shallow substitute objects that will only turn us into the walking dead. To experience eternal life in Christ – not just a continuation of life later but a fullness of life in the here and now – we must learn from communities like AA and embrace our lack. We must stop retreating from life and begin diving deeper into it. That’s what salvation is about: freedom from our meaningless religious, social, political, and economic desires so we can experience the tangible, incarnate, and meaningful forms of the sacred immersed deep within the creation – especially among the marginalized. And in doing so, we live into love and discover – not the secret to Church growth – but the Christian faith for the first time. AMEN
Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome arrive at the end of the Sabbath to finished what they started. To anoint the dead body of Jesus. To prepare his body with fragrant oils, flowers, and spices – mostly to offset the horrible stench of a decaying body in the heat of the ancient near east. They know what to expect. They know what they will find. They know how this goes. They saw how Jesus was brutalized and crucified. They stayed and watched him die while all the men ran away in fear. And now, they return to the tomb, still loyal to their Rabbi, and bring him the traditional ritual preparations that they avoided earlier because it was too close to the start of the Sabbath. As they get closer to the tomb, they suddenly realize a problem. They remember the huge stone that sealed the tomb entrance. A stone so huge and heavy that the three of them together doubt that they can move it. “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” they ask each other. Again they have failed. Again they have lost the chance to give their Rabbi the proper burial rites. Again they experience the pain of death.
But as they get closer, they see the tomb and the stone is rolled away. Quickly they run into the entrance of the tomb – but instead of a dead Rabbi, they find a young man, dressed in white, sitting on the right side. The sight is amazing. It’s alarming. It’s startling.
The young man in white addresses them like a sassy administrative assistant explaining why they can’t just walk into the boss’ office for a quick word: “You’re here to see Jesus? Yeah…Sorry. Just missed him. But he left a message that anyone who shows up looking for him is to go back home to Galilee. He will meet you there, just like he told you a thousand times before. Now if you’ll please excuse me I’ve got a lot of post-resurrection things to do. Have a blessed day! Buh-bye!”
This is completely and totally unexpected. This is not how things are supposed to go. This is not what their religion taught them. This is not the way they understood how the world works. Dead people don’t just come back to life. Not even a Rabbi like Jesus. Something must be wrong. Jesus’s body should be here. (pause) But if this is true, then everything is different now. If resurrection is real. If Jesus has truly returned from the dead. If Jesus truly is the Son of God that others claimed him to be – then the situation is even more frightening. Because that means that God is lose in the world. That God is no longer trapped within the walls of the temple. That God is literally walking among us. That God is no longer under the control of our rituals, our liturgies, our offerings, and our sacrifices. NO! Instead, God is in control of the world – and that is the most frightening thing of all! Whether Jesus’ body was taken or resurrection is real, either way, no one can know about this. They won’t be able to handle the truth of the situation.
And on top of that, they were instructed to tell the other Disciples to return home. To return to the place they left behind because they were following Jesus. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would Jesus tell them to go back to that little, backwater, redneck area known as Galilee when there was so much left for them to do here in Jerusalem? Besides, do you know what the Disciples left behind in Galilee? They upset a lot of people back there, leaving behind loved ones who needed them. Jobs they needed to survive. It would just be too uncomfortable, too awkward to go back home – especially after they’ve discovered something as dramatic and life-changing as the resurrection. Home would just be too painful. Too risky. Why would Jesus want them to risk going back to that?
And so the three women quickly flee from the empty tomb. Franticly shaking from the frightening reality of the situation, they vow never to tell another living soul what they had seen – because they were absolutely terrified, you see.
For us – on the other side of the resurrection – we prefer to avoid Good Friday and skip right to Easter. Simply because we don’t like death. We’ve learned to be afraid of death. To avoid death. To avoid anything or anyone close to death. We no longer take care of our own dead – like we once did 150 years ago. Instead we send them off to a mortuary so that somebody else takes care of them. Death is associated with feelings of pain, suffering, and sorrow. Feelings that we simply want to avoid or at least numb ourselves to – one way or another.
Meanwhile, we LOVE Easter! We love the idea of resurrection! We think it’s just great that resurrection means that we get to live on forever! That we get to continue on with life right where we left off. That we will move on to a higher plane of existence where we will see all those who died before us, and we will have this great big family reunion! A reunion where we will see our loved ones just as we did before they died. That everything with them will be just like it was before. That we’ll just pick up where we left off. And yet, we could NOT be more wrong.
The women did not run from the tomb because Jesus was dead. The women ran from the tomb because Jesus resurrected. Resurrection is MUCH more frightening than death. Because resurrection is not about picking up where we left off after we die. Resurrection is about something completely different.
The mystery of Easter is that God is always in the business of making things new! Completely new. Not continuing on with the old ways or the old models. But making ALL things new. Our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. Event our beliefs. Our religion. Our faith. Our view of the world.
If we pay close enough attention, we will realize that resurrection is not pretty. Resurrection is not easy. Resurrection is messy. Despite all the beautiful art of the resurrection of Jesus in a shimmering white robe, completely free of blood and dirt, with his shining blonde hair flowing in the wind – I imagine that Jesus struggled to free himself from the graveclothes. Emerging like a butterfly from a cocoon – messy and dirty with dried blood in his hair and dirt under his fingernails. That he coughed and choked as his lungs took their first breathes of air again. I imagine that those first few steps he took in the tomb were difficult, that his legs were wobbly, and that he probably stumbled a bit. That he was a frightened at first, as he stood there in the darkness of the tomb, not knowing how he was going to get out. Then, as the stone rolled open, and the first light of Easter morning poured into the tomb, I imagine that he shielded his eyes from the brightness of the light. Once his eyes adjusted, Jesus looked at the holes in his wrists and feet and felt the wound in his side. And once he took his first step out of the tomb, I imagine that Jesus was just as shocked and amazed as the women were. Shocked and amazed that he was back in the real world once again. That he stopped to look around at the beauty of God’s creation. To just take it all in. The trees had never looked so green. The sky had never looked so blue. The air never smelled so fresh. Everything felt so different – and that’s because it was. Everything about the world was completely different – everything about the world was new again because of the messiness of the resurrection.
Understanding the resurrection as messy – as an event that makes all things new over and over again – is much more terrifying than death. Because – let’s be honest – we don’t like new. We don’t like change. We don’t like having to learn how to do things differently. We don’t like it when we discover something new about ourselves and realize that everything about our lives is going to be different whether we like it or not. Just think about when your smart phone or an app on your phone or tablet goes through a major update. Suddenly you have to relearn how all the basic functions work, where to find certain functions you need, etc. It’s frustrating. We get mad! We do anything and everything we can to avoid it. We reject the update reminders – hoping that we can put off the update as long as possible – even avoiding it altogether. But, at some point, if you do NOT update – if you do NOT let your smart phone or app become new again – you will discover that your smart phone or app quickly becomes obsolete. And our lives can become obsolete when we fail to embrace the renewal that comes with the frightening reality of resurrection.
Despite how frightening and messy resurrection is – if we are willing to enter into the mess and receive the renewal that Christ is freely offering us – salvation: a life lived to the fullest – is available to us in the here and now. Not just in heaven after we die. And salvation doesn’t mean that everything will be perfect. Salvation doesn’t mean everything will be nice and neat like a painting of the resurrection. Salvation means that no matter what happens, you can trust in Christ to be with you even in the most difficult moments of life. And while the initial realization of resurrection is sudden and dramatic – the process of salvation, of learning to live life to the fullest, can take a lifetime.
Because messy resurrection and the new life of salvation looks nothing like the prosperity gospel’s lies of wealth, success, and affluence. Resurrection and renewal looks less like a party at the bar with your friends and a lot more like recovering alcoholics at an AA meeting. Less like being forgiven and more like forgiving those who don’t deserve it. Less like acknowledging that you were right and more like admitting you were wrong. Less like getting things your way and more like being thankful for the changes happening. Less like getting to avoid a difficult situation and more like engaging in that awkward and uncomfortable discussion. Less like getting to hold on to the traditions you believed you could not live without and more like realizing that you could live without them all along. Less like getting the things that you want and more like realizing that the thing you never hoped for – that came out of nowhere – was the one thing you always needed your entire life.
Resurrection – being made new – is filled with frightening and awkward moments, especially at the beginning. And so resurrection and renewal feels like: Admitting to others you have an addiction and that you can’t do anything about it on your own. Coming out of the closet later in life, admitting it to both yourself and your spouse, and working together to find a healthy way to move forward for your family’s sake. Hearing “you are cancer free” after undergoing a grueling battle of radiation and chemotherapy. A family embracing a loved one who has returned after years of being gone due to hurt feelings and rejection. A church grasping that its glory days are over and working to change everything about itself in order to serve the mission of Christ for this day and age – because the mission of Christ is more important than its human traditions.
Messy resurrection and renewal means getting a fresh start. Of getting a “do-over” even when it means that those you left behind may only see you the way you were BEFORE your resurrection. And to do that, you’ve got to go back to the place you call home. It will be difficult. It will be painful. But we take comfort in the promise that Jesus is already there waiting for you. But when you return home – post-resurrection – it’s not with the same understanding. Not with the same expectations. Not with the same viewpoint you had before. Because the messiness of resurrection forces you to see the depth and breadth of the world – both the pain and the healing, the suffering and the joy. You finally see the suffering within those who have hurt you. You see the pain within yourself that caused you to hurt other. And you start to understand. To discover what truly matters in this life. And instead of desiring some type of perfection, status, or success, you lovingly embrace the sacred even within the broken and the messy.
And in that act of loving, you experience God. Within that act of loving, you transform your home into a place where you can live fully again – where you can experience salvation in the here and now. Within that act of love, you find place to call home within Christ himself – whose own messy resurrection is making you new day after day after day.
Thanks be to God. AMEN.
The sweat runs down his brow as Jesus hangs in the orange glow of the burning sun. The intense heat beating down upon his broken and bleeding body. How did Jesus end up here? Why was this innocent man convicted of treason against the state and blasphemy against his own religion? Surely there must have been a flaw in the system. Surely those in charge are the worst of humanity – mean, petty, and jealous people. At least that’s what we like to tell ourselves, isn’t it? Because it makes the story of Jesus’ unjust execution easier for us to stomach.
And yet, as Jesus looks at the crowd before him, at all those who played a part in his execution – Pilate, the High Priest, Herod, the mob, the Disciples who ran away when things got tough – Jesus says to them, “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” It doesn’t make sense. Because if these really were mean, jealous, and petty people, then Jesus would have forgiven them for those specific sins. Yet, he doesn’t. Instead, Jesus forgives them because they have no idea what they are doing.
And that’s because these political and religious people are not simply mean, jealous, and petty. In fact, in that day and age, they are believed to be the best in the world. The people best charged by God to interpret the scripture. The leaders put into place by God as the best enforcers of the Roman law. The people who execute Jesus are the best human society has to offer. And they act with the best intentions. So much so, Jesus doesn’t even fight them. And if this is the case, what about us today? Those of us who believe we are “good people” and “good Christians”, who have the “best intentions”? I want us prodigious, pious people of God to sincerely ask ourselves, “What if the cross is the best that we can do?” What if, when God appears in front of our faces, the pure presence of love incarnate, the cross is the best that we can do? What if when God offers the free gift of grace to all people, the best response we have is to murder our own God?
Many of you may be saying to yourself, “I would NEVER do that! I would NEVER hurt Jesus!” And yet, Jesus teaches us in his Judgement of the Nations: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Right now, as we sit here in the comfort of this sanctuary, across our own community we allow teenagers to go homeless, children to go hungry, immigrants to be feared as a threat to our lively hood, and elderly we abandon and ignore. We pray for them. We have the best intentions to help them – even though really we don’t. And when we allow this to continue, to allow our fellow humans to live homeless, hungry, rejected, and abandoned – we crucify Christ all over again. “Father, forgive us…”
When the Religious Leaders cannot execute Jesus in their own way, they go to the Political Leaders to obtain what they want. The Temple Priests bring Jesus to Pilate and manipulate Pilate’s politics to guarantee an execution. Do not be fooled – Jesus is found guilty of both religious blasphemy and political treason. Jesus is murdered by the marriage of Church and State. And the Religious and Political Leaders do not know how dangerous such an unholy marriage will be. So dangerous, that they murder their own God. And we continue to do the same today as the coitus between Church and State grows deeper and more dysfunctional. We create laws so we can treat others as second-class citizens because we fear their existence threatens our religious beliefs, threatens our country, even our very salvation. (We must have very little faith in God’s grace if that is true.) We fight for the lives of children while they are the womb – claiming our God-given responsibility for their lives. Yet the moment they are born, like Pilate, we wash our hands of any further responsibility for their quality of life – making sure that child has access to food, healthcare, and an education. We have the best intentions. We say we are protecting our faith and saving lives. Yet our best intentions allow others to be treated as sub-human and children to suffer – and in doing so, we crucify Christ all over again. “Father, forgive us, for we do not know…”
Jesus’ ministry emphasized welcoming outcasts, forgiving sinners, caring for immigrants, and sharing life with the most unseemly people of society. Jesus teaches that “the first will be last and the last will be first” – upsetting the status quo of society. Jesus justifies “ungodly sinners”, returning their righteousness taken from them by the self-righteous – upsetting their theology of God’s justice. And when you are the social and religious majority, the ones in power because of your wealth, status, or self-righteousness – when you have been in such a privileged position for so long – even equality with those once seen as beneath you, feels like oppression. But, the Kingdom of God is coming to overturn your Kingdom of Privilege and Self-Righteousness. And the only way to protect your privilege – to protect the assurance of your theological rightness – to make sure that your religion and state will be great again – is to take those Jesus ministered to, label them “sinners” and refuse them a place in our churches and communities. We have the best intentions. We are protecting our way of life. Yet in labeling and rejecting others, we crucify Jesus and ignore all his ministry stands for. “Father forgive us; for we do not know what we are doing.”
Remember, you will NEVER meet a person that God does NOT love. You will NEVER meet a person that Christ did NOT die for. And when you do something to harm a neighbor or fail to bring a neighbor out of harm’s way – you crucify Jesus all over again. And the times we are most likely to crucify Jesus is when we believe we are at our best.
Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing. Thanks be to God for these gracious and merciful words of Jesus Christ. Otherwise, we’d all be damned to a hell of our own best intentions. AMEN.
Scripture Texts: Isaiah 35:1-3 & Matthew 21:1-11
I can only imagine what that day must have been like. To see the crowds. To see the ecstasy and the excitement. To feel the energy and electricity of the crowd as he entered on that day. To see the very representation of the “son of god,” “the lord of all,” “the savior of the world” as he entered with his grand army. As biblical historians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe the events of Palm Sunday, it would have been, “a visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums. The swirling of dust. The eyes of onlookers…some curious, some awed, some resentful.”
In case you haven’t already figured it out by now, I’m not referring to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, I’m referring to Pontius Pilate’s entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover festival. A time when the Jewish people celebrate their liberation from slavery – and anticipated their future liberation from an occupying military force. A time in which the population of Jerusalem would swell from 50,000 to over 200,000. A time where Pilate – the Roman Governor of Judea would leave his luxurious abode in Caesarea on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in order to personally oversee Roman security during this festival. In order to personally remind the Jews with his royal procession that while they may commemorate a victory against Egypt long ago, such resistance against the Roman Empire is futile. And to also remember, that while they may be allowed to worship their God in the temple, the true son of god, the lord of all, and the savior of the world was actually Caesar Tiberius. Pilate’s pompous parade represents a political and theological threat to any who would suggest otherwise.
It is against this backdrop that Jesus’ Palm Sunday processional occurs. It is against this backdrop of a rival culture in which church and state are one in the same, where the Emperor is also god, and where true power comes from having the biggest weapons, the most soldiers, and the ability to keep people in their place. And Jesus, in response to this grand and gratuitous showing of power, prestige, and oppression, does just the opposite.
I imagine that Jesus had seen this parade many times before. That Jesus throughout his childhood and young adult life had seen the way in which the Romans waltzed into Jerusalem during the Passover feast, year after year. The way in which the bombastic and over-bearing Romans always made sure that the Jewish people knew that their place was under the foot of Caesar. And years of seeing such rival political and religious power had to of had an effect on Jesus. Therefore, I’m not so sure that the Palm Sunday processional was just some happy accident. Just some completely spontaneous moment of celebration. I can’t help but think that Jesus has been planning this political parody protest parade for some time. That Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. That the availability of the colt wasn’t some moment of prophetic fortune, but a purposeful plan made by Jesus to intentionally mock the Romans and all that they hold sacred.
Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem is the complete inverse of Pilate’s procession. Pilate arrives with his totally prepared, highly disciplined, and fully armored army. Meanwhile Jesus shows up with his rag-tag group of confused, hopeful, and vulnerable Disciples. Pilate shows up amidst the wealth and power of the Roman Empire. Meanwhile Jesus shows up amidst the poverty and the humility of the Kingdom of God. Pilate arrives upon the back of a great stead ready to ride into the face of opposing armies at any time. Meanwhile Jesus arrives on the back of new colt, which shuddered when confronted by the crowd’s cries of “Hosanna!” Pilate arrives as an act of violent aggression from Rome. Meanwhile Jesus arrives as act of non-violent resistance from God. Pilate’s entrance is truly triumphant by all human measures, even our own. Meanwhile Jesus’ entrance is the embodiment of total submission and servanthood. Jesus’ entrance is a threat to the political order. And something must be done about it.
Jesus planned protest, his parody of Roman rule is confusing even to his own people. Those of the elite religious class – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests, and the scribes – they simply don’t get the joke. They don’t understand the irony of this moment. This is not the way the prophesized Messiah was supposed to arrive according to tradition. For them, Jesus’ entrance does not signal the return of the king to the throne of David. Despite the fact that his growing band of followers cry out to him, “Hosanna! Save Us!” Despite the fact that the crowd calls to him, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” Despite all these statements to the contrary, Jesus appears to be anything but royal to the religious powers that be. Jesus surely could not be the successor to the Great King David, for even David’s kingdom was built upon bloodshed and military might, and this man comes only in peace and will shed no blood but his own. None of the religious insiders really understand what is going on. Not even his own Disciples. And for those in power – especially the religious authorities – Jesus entrance is a threat to the way things have always been. A threat to the “good ol’ days.” A threat to the status quo. A threat to the established religious order. And something must be done about it.
This entry is only triumphal for those who truly follow Jesus. His protest is only supported by the peasants from the surrounding countryside, by those on the social and religious fringes of society. By those who truly know who he is. And the Gospel shows us over and over again that the only people who truly recognize Jesus for who he truly is – the Son of God – are those on the fringes of social and religious life – the sick, the sinful, the outcast, the demon-possessed. And yet, the irony of this moment for them is that even they don’t quite understand how anti-triumphal this moment is. His followers were correct in their hope that he is the Messiah – the anointed one of God. His followers were correct in calling him king, as their words suggest. But this king is different. His kingdom is different. His kingdom is so much more than Jerusalem. And is throne is upon a cross.
Because Jesus’ entry fulfills the expectations of the prophet Zechariah and his paradoxical image of kingship. For in chapter nine, Zechariah says, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!/Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!/Lo, your king comes to you;/triumphant and victorious is he,/humble and riding on a donkey,/on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus’ entry is a shift in the identity of the Messiah. A shift in Israel’s expectation of the salvation of the world. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah includes persecution, suffering, and solidarity with the oppressed. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah is more than just a political revolution, more than a social revolution, it is a revolution of all that we are and all that we understand about our lives. All that we understand about the world. It is a revolution of love. A revolution of sacrificial love on behalf of those who do not deserve it. And yet Jesus brings the revolution anyway. It’s a revolution to lift up those who have done nothing to help themselves, and yet Jesus brings the revolution anyway. It’s a revolution to forgive those who oppose all that Jesus stands for, and yet Jesus brings the revolution anyway. And this revolution comes not in the form of a great conquering power like Pilate and the Roman Empire, but in the form of a lowly servant upon the back of a young colt, followed by all those whom society and religion have rejected.
And it is this lowliness that we need to remember as Christians. The authoritative lowliness of God displayed in Jesus Christ. The lowliness we see throughout Jesus ministry in the Gospels. A lowliness that allows Jesus to enter into the deepest and darkest levels of our humanity and bring us the light of his salvation. The grand, divine lowliness of Christ that we must acknowledge and worship. Because what we worship is what we will become. And to ignore this lowliness is to ignore the presence of God among the lowly, the outcast, and the oppressed. To praise wealth and success is to worship the god Mammon of the American Dream and not the Lord God of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Everybody loves a parade.
But as Christians we have to decide whose parade we are actually following?
Who is it we are truly worshiping?
Are we following the parade of Caesar’s status quo?
Caesar’s systems of injustice and inequality?
Caesar’s proliferation of poverty to keep people in their place?
Caesar’s self-centered accumulation of wealth and material possessions?
Caesar’s promotion of war and violence and all the death and destruction of God’s Creation that comes with it?
OR are we following Jesus’ non-violent protest for peace? Jesus’s revolution of sacrificial love?
Jesus’ movement for justice and equality for all of God’s children?
Jesus’ parade of welcome to the outcasts?
Jesus’ Kingdom that seeks to turn our whole world upside down!
Are we crying “Hosanna!” or are we shouting “Crucify!”?
The day is coming, my friends, when you must decide to make Christ’s parade of political protest a priority. And that day will only come when we work as one for the sake of God’s Kingdom over the sake of our own individual wants and desires.
So, turn to someone near you, and say to them:
“With your help, the day is coming.”
Let us stand and do that now.
Scripture Text: Isaiah 58:6-12
Sermon based off of: The Storyteller's Companion to the Bible, Vol. 7: The Prophets II
My friends, I really only have one question for today. “What is good enough for God?” We come to worship on most Sundays. We give our offerings…however generous or not they may be. We pray…at least at church…hopefully more. Some of us go to bible studies, and some of us even study the bible at home. We donate food and money to mission projects. And some of us even give of our time and effort to support other programs, to make sure the church is maintained and operates weekly, and to serve those in our community.
But the question remains: Is that Good enough for God?”
P1: There he goes, doing it again. Questioning our faith.
Trying to make us feel guilty because we’re not embracing every charity case in the community.
P2: I’m so tired of being made to feel guilty every time I come to church.
I don’t come to church to feel guilty.
I come to church to give me a “feel good message” to get me through next week.
P3: What’s he saying? We’re not doing enough? I’ve done more than anybody else in this church for years
– since before he was born. I’ve done my fair share. Somebody else needs to do it.
P4: “What’s good enough for God?” I think what he really means is,
“What’s good enough for the pastor.” And what about him?
What if he isn’t good enough for the congregation?
The prophet Isaiah is addressing religious people who do all the right things: They fast. They observe the Sabbath. They pray. All of which – at that time, and even today – is believed to draw one close to God. Fasting was especially believed to attract God’s attention. That God would be more likely to grant you your wishes – I mean “prayers” – if you fasted. And so the people fast. Yet God doesn’t seem to notice them. God doesn’t seem to care. In fact, God is completely silent. The people feel left in the dark. Abandoned by God. And they begin to wonder:
“Why? Why isn’t God responding?
We’re doing everything right God.
Following all the proper rituals.
Praying all the proper prayers.
Avoiding work on the Sabbath.
Just like you commanded.
Isn’t all of that enough?
Is it not good enough, God?”
Being a prophet, Isaiah gets to speak for God. And so Isaiah tells the people – the “church members” of that day – “No! It’s not enough! It’s not enough for you just to fast, just to say your prayers, or just to keep the Sabbath.”
And so, God – through Isaiah – redefines the meaning of a fast.
No longer is it about sackcloth and ashes.
No longer is it about starvation to serve your own spirituality.
No longer will your religious practices prove your piety.
Instead… the new kind of fast that God calls for is to “release wicked restraints, untying the ropes of the yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke.”
The new fast that God calls for is NOT about abstaining from bread, but is about, “sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family.”
P1: I liked it better when we had Pastor Joe.
Friendly, easy-going, older guy, who made you feel good all the time,
and didn’t have too many new ideas or expectations.
P2: We do enough around here.
We’ve done plenty in the past.
We used to let that Alcoholics Anonymous Group meet here –
but then we asked them to leave when they didn’t properly clean up.
Plus, they could have stolen something. After all, they are addicts.
We have to be careful about who we let in our church.
P3: We donate plenty of money to those special offerings every year.
And we are always giving money to those homeless youth.
What more does he want?
P4: Isn’t that what we pay him to do?
To do the ministry for us?
He is the MINISTER after all.
Which actually leads me to a second question for you.
“What would it look like if this church took up the kind of fast that Isaiah is talking about?”
What would our congregation begin to look like?
Would we have homeless people – especially homeless
teenagers – sleeping on our pews in the winter?
Would we have neighborhood children coming here after school
every week – where they find loving mentors and security they
may not have elsewhere?
Would we open our doors to people who have never set foot in
any church before – much less our church?
And if we did, how would we treat them?
The people who are poor, people who are homeless and hungry,
single parents, people of color, people with addictions, people
with mental illness, people who don’t look, act, or even think
like us? Because these are the people that Isaiah is talking about.
Will we choose the kind of fast that God commands in Isaiah?
It’s NOT a question of if we are ABLE to do it or not. It’s a question of whether we are bible-believing Christians or not.
It’s a question of whether we trust in the grace of God or not. It’s a question of whether we take the Word of God – Jesus Christ – seriously or not? It’s a question of whether we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us or not? It’s a question of whether we WANT to be Disciples of Christ or not.
P1: Here we go again! – More new ideas for us to do. I’m just not comfortable talking to “those people.” How do we know that they’re not dangerous? How do we know they won’t try to hurt us or one of the kids in the church? We have to keep them safe.
P2: Why are we so focused on bringing in those people? What about all the people that have left the church since he got here? Why isn’t the pastor focused on bringing them back?
P3: Who is he to question if I take the bible seriously or not? I’m a good person. And I don’t have to prove it by helping serve homeless people in my church. I believe in Jesus. I was always taught that was enough.
P4: We’ve had homeless people here before. We’ve had people with mental illness here before. They never stick around. They always end up going somewhere else. Why are we so focused on helping them when we need to be attracting young families who can donate money to the church, keep the building open, and run our programs for us? After all, most of us are on a fixed income.
“What is good enough for God? What is a fast that is acceptable
to God?” I know that these questions are difficult and
challenging. It’s not easy to change when you don’t have to. It’s
not easy to do things in a new way when the old way always
seemed to work before. But nowhere in scripture does it ever say
that following Jesus will be easy. In fact, Jesus admits that being
his faithful disciple will be difficult. Even the actual Disciples
who followed Jesus ran away when Jesus got to the cross. Jesus
never promised us the journey of faith would be easy. Jesus only
promised us that we would never be alone on the journey of
faith. Being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ will always be
Isaiah goes on to argue that if we do this, then good things will happen: “…if you open your heart to the hungry, and provide abundantly for those who are afflicted, then your light will shine in the darkness, and then your gloom will be like the noon. The LORD will guide you continually and provide for you, even in the parched places…You will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water that won’t run dry.”
P1: When we tried to run a program for neighborhood kids before, they wrecked the place and things went missing. I think they may have taken those things.
P2: How are we going to fund this? There’s not enough money in the budget to take care of all these people. What about the members’ needs? How will we pay for our beloved building? How will we pay for staff to do these things for us?
P3: I just don’t think that this church is meeting my needs anymore. Doesn’t he know that if he keeps this up, more people are going to leave?
P4: What good is being a faithful Disciple gonna be when the bank account runs dry? What’s God going to do then? Make money magically appear?
My friends, I don’t have to write sermons to say that we – as
Christians – are called to step outside our comfort zones and
bring justice to those around us. All I have to do is read the
scriptures. It’s clearly there in black and white. And even when I
do all the fancy interpretation using the original Hebrew… the
call to do justice is even stronger than it is in English. So, I
invite you all to think seriously what Isaiah is saying to us here:
What is good enough for God?
What are the signs of our faithfulness to God?
What is the new fast that this congregation – that ALL who
profess faith in Christ – is called to do?
P1: Well, I faithfully come to worship every Sunday. And frankly, I’m not getting much out of it anymore. Maybe I should shop for a church that offers what I like, that sings the hymns I know, and that preaches sermons that don’t make me uncomfortable.
P2: I faithfully give my regular donation every week. And frankly, I’m not getting much of a return on my investment. Maybe I should shop for a church that meets my needs.
P3: I faithfully taught Sunday School for 10 years. I’ve done my fair share. Someone else needs to step up. I’m too old to be doing this stuff anymore. Besides, when are people going to celebrate and venerate me like we did our elders when we were kids? Maybe I need to shop for a church where they focus on the people inside the church – those who have put in their time and effort – instead of those outside the church who haven’t earned it.
P4: I wonder if what I am I doing IS good enough for God? And am I doing it faithfully? If I’m not doing enough, will I have enough courage and energy to do more? Could I start by just eating dinner at the Welcome Table on Tuesday night? Maybe that will help me to break out of my comfort zone? I heard 40 people are showing up each night. Nearly all of them are people from outside the church. Is God doing something new here? Despite all the upset, all the change, all those who left – maybe we’re not dying after all.
Perhaps we are resurrecting. Perhaps God is watering the seeds we have planted, and now we are starting to grow like the garden Isaiah spoke about. And I have a choice to make: I can either stay in the tomb of how things “used to be” or emerge from the womb as the new life that is becoming. (pause) …And I want to know how it feels to truly live again.
(Prays) Dear Jesus, call me out of the grave I have dug for myself. You are the resurrection and the life. No one comes to God, except through you. And so, I’m NOT asking you to come into MY heart and MY life. Instead, call me to come into YOUR heart and YOUR life. Make me into a faithful Disciple, following you wherever you go: to the poor, to the broken, to the outcast, …even to the cross. AMEN.
Scripture Text: Luke 23:32-43
Recently on Facebook there have been a number of videos about communities of people offering radical forgiveness towards those who hurt them. The most recent being the members of the New Zealand mosque who offered their forgiveness to the gunman who shot and killed 49 members. The husband of a woman who was killed said that he didn’t hate the shooter, but that he prays for him, and that he will know the salvation of his creator. Another video is of an American Muslim mother whose son was shot and killed by a 14 year old African-American boy during a robbery. The mother came to the courtroom to plead for the boy’s life, standing alongside his mother and family. She told the boy, “I do not hate you. It’s not our way…We are connected now. I will be here with your family to help you, because I do not want your life to end like my son’s life.” Another video I saw this past week involved two men – one a former White Supremacist and the other a Sikh who lost his father in a shooting at a Sikh Temple by a White Supremacist. The former supremacist – acknowledging his own complicity in these events – helped the Sikh man to understand why these racists act out so violently – because of their own internal hurt and suffering. As the Sikh man put it – “Hurt people hurt people.” Knowing that saying “I’m sorry” isn’t going to solve this issue, the two men formed a non-profit to help vulnerable young people to know that they are not alone – to help them heal so that their hurt doesn’t cause them to hurt others in the future. In doing so, the former white supremacist learned that forgiveness isn’t as simple as saying, “I’m sorry.” It takes greater effort and even a community of people.
Yet in the church, we make forgiveness seem simple and individual. In our liturgy we have a Prayer of Confession that we all recite robotically – often without even processing the words we are saying. And if the silence afterwards is too long, somebody will inevitably complain – arguing that it disrupts the flow of the service. But the deeper truth is – they don’t want to be stuck with their own thoughts for too long. With thinking about the things they’ve done to hurt God and others. It makes them feel bad. Makes them feel guilty. We always try to avoid things that make us feel guilty. And in doing so, we come neither to appreciate the radical grace that God gives us, nor understand the sacrifice that God made to be able to offer us forgiveness. And when we simply say, “I’m sorry God.” Or “Forgive me, Jesus” without any attempt at repentance – without any attempt to actually change our habits that cause those sins, we make a mockery of the profound, mysterious, and deep grace of God in Jesus Christ.
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, German theologian and Nazi-fighting pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this shallow and flip understanding of God’s forgiveness, “cheap grace” – and goes on to describe “cheap grace” as:
“…the deadly enemy of the church…Cheap grace…is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits…Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth…[and] an intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient…In such a Church…no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin…Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner…and so everything can remain as it was before…let[ting] the Christian live like the rest of the world, let[ting] [them] model [themselves] on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin…Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Meanwhile, the opposite of “cheap grace” is “costly grace,” which Bonhoeffer describes as “…the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which [one] must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs [one their] life, and it is grace because it gives [one] the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of [God’s] Son…and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon [God’s] Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Jesus did not die because his gospel of grace was easy and comforting and identical to the social, religious, and political culture. Jesus died because his gospel of grace was costly and challenging and counter to the social, religious, and political culture. Even the early church members were martyred for the same radical reasons. So why is the Church no longer seen as radical? Why is the Church no longer so counter-cultural and counter-political? Why is the Church no longer challenging the status quo and the powers-that-be? Why does the Church work so hard to make faith so easy, so comfortable, and so identical to the rest of our social, religious, and political culture? Why do we openly avoid conflicts and taking sides for the sake of “niceness” – but then sinfully engage them in secret through rumors, hearsay, and false-accusations? Why do we want our religious leaders to avoid talking about touchy topics like money, race, religion, social justice, and politics – when those were the topics that Jesus and the Old Testament Prophets talked about ALL THE TIME! What are we afraid is going to happen? Are we afraid that we will reach a point where we can’t look one another in the eye? Where we can’t stand to be in the same room with each other? Where we’ll not be able to forgive one another? Or are we afraid that we will discover that the problem isn’t with the other person. The problem is within ourselves. And now we have to do the awkward and uncomfortable work of confronting the person you’ve hurt. Asking them for forgiveness. And finding a way to repent – to change the way we live our lives – in order to embrace and to live within this costly grace.
Because the grace required to save the world was so costly, so challenging, and so counter to the culture, religion, and politics of its own day that it caused the people it sought to save to execute their own God? And yet, even as humanity did this. Even as humanity failed to see the presence of God literally walking among them. Even as humanity unknowingly murdered its own savior – we were still forgiven.
That’s what Jesus means when he says, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And while some people may argue that Jesus’ statement is directed at those gambling for his cloak – because that’s the sentence that immediately follows the quote – in the quote’s grammar, the word “they” isn’t directed at anyone in particular. It’s a very broad and general “they” – referring to all those present. Maybe even all those to come. And so Jesus’ word of forgiveness is directed at all of us.
Jesus’ word of forgiveness is directed at Pontius Pilate – who, even though he knew in his heart, mind, and soul that Jesus was innocent, also understood that setting Jesus free would destroy him politically. And so Pilate sacrifices Jesus for the sake of his political career.
Jesus’ word of forgiveness is directed at those soldiers who performed the crucifixion – those who beat him with whips, nailed his wrists and feet to the cross, and mocked him as he suffered an agonizing death – all because they were “just following orders.” And so the soldiers sacrifice Jesus for the sake of their loyalty to the state.
Jesus’ word of forgiveness is directed at the Temple Priests who sold Jesus out to the Roman government – those who had already compromised their religious values to the government, yet knew that if they didn’t want anything else about their religion to change; that if they didn’t want to lose their status within the religious community, they had to get rid of Jesus any way they could. And so the Temple Priests sacrifice Jesus for the sake of the religious status quo.
Jesus’ word of forgiveness is also directed at the members of the mob who surrounded him at his trial and who stood by and did nothing as he was unjustly executed. Those who get so caught up in the rumors, the hearsay, and false accusations. Those who only believe that which reflects their own bias rather than wrestle with truth that challenges them. Those who prefer to stew in their anger rather than engage in conversation with the person at whom they are angry. And so the mob members sacrifice Jesus for the sake of justifying their own rumors, false accusations, and preconceived truths.
And even though NONE of these people confessed to the sins they committed – not Pilate nor the soldiers; neither the Temple Priests nor the mob – even without a confession, the grace of God in Jesus Christ is given to them. Because Jesus can clearly see that these individuals have absolutely no idea what it is that they are doing. And it’s not because they are necessarily bad people. Its not because the system of justice failed to operate appropriately. It’s because they are blinded by their own ambition, their own unquestioned loyalty, their own desire for status, and their own need for self-justification. They are blinded from seeing the presence of God, even when God is standing right in front of them. “They don’t know what they are doing”, and so forgiveness is still given.
And friends, that is the kind of God we truly need. We do NOT need a God who is ready to punish us the moment we fail. We do NOT need a God who is so distant from us that our suffering is unfelt and ignored. We do not need a God who only rewards the pious with blessings. We need a God who enters into the pain, the hurt, the sorrow, and the suffering of our lives: “where the good die young and the old grow lonely; a world of wars and cancer, of corruption and pollution, of recession and joblessness; a world where so often there is little reason to hope or dream.”
And when we hurt others because of that suffering – because we don’t know what we are doing – we need a God who forgives us even when we don’t know we need it or even when we don’t believe we need it. We need a God who tells the guilty criminal on the cross, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Not in the future when you die – but right here, right now. Because if Jesus is willing to save that criminal – the most rejected and outcast person of his society – and offer him paradise even in the midst of his greatest suffering – then Jesus is willing to do the same for you, even in the midst of your suffering. The question is, can you do the same for someone else? Can you offer forgiveness and paradise to those who have hurt you?
If we are honest with ourselves, we can easily see that those people present at the crucifixion are us. If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are driven more by our own ambitions, unquestioned loyalties, desire for status, and need for self-justification than we are by our gratitude for the undeserved grace of God in Jesus Christ because we really have no intention in changing who we are. And people driven by ambition, loyalty, status, and self-justification can create entire Churches driven by the same ideals. Churches who only desire the “cheap grace” of religion instead of “costly grace” of following Jesus. But when you pursue cheap grace, you unknowingly sacrifice Jesus for the sake of your own comfort.
Any church whose ambition is more focused on growing worship attendance rather than growing in Discipleship unknowingly sends Jesus away to be sacrificed. Any church focused on unquestioned loyalty to the status quo rather than the ever-changing mission of the church unknowingly sends Jesus to the cross. Any church concerned more about maintaining their status rather than raising the status of their neighbors around them unknowingly murders Jesus. Any church that seeks their own self-justification rather than seeking justice for their neighbors has unknowingly and unjustly executed Jesus.
But when a Church – a community of people, grateful for the undeserved grace of God in Jesus Christ – when a Church fully understands and embraces costly grace, they become the Body of Christ. And just as Christ forgave those who unknowingly brought about his own death, the Body of Christ – the Church – is expected to do the same. The Church is expected to be a Community of Forgiveness. And as a Community of Forgiveness, we must make the conscious choice to move from resentment to forgiveness. We must make the choice to move from anger to love. We must make the choice to move from revenge to grace. We must make the choice to stop blaming the community and the culture for why our Church stopped growing in the ways we think it should and, instead take responsibility for our own complicity in our stagnation and decline. Take responsibility for our own lack of Discipleship, our own resistance to keeping up with God’s mission, our own avoidance of those of lower status, and our own preference for cheap grace.
And that’s what is happening right now. We are becoming a Community of Forgiveness. We are moving away from old habits in order to repent – to change who we are as a congregation – and live with Jesus in paradise today. For generations this congregation has allowed unhealthy behaviors to go unchecked, enabling a system where issues and disagreements were buried and ignored instead of confronted and resolved. And when you do that, these issues rear their ugly head again. Even when Cain tried to bury his brother, Able’s blood cried out from the ground. Over the years we’ve enabled programs and groups within the church to form competing factions over church resources instead of us all working together for God’s unified mission as a congregation. Throughout its history, the focus of this church’s mission was on serving those “inside” the church instead of serving those “outside” the church. Over time, the members of this congregation were taught that the intention of worship was to provide a weekly dose of spiritual feel good medicine to reinforce our already comfortable way of life instead of challenging us to repent of our current lives and turn to living as Disciples by following Christ wherever he leads us – even when he leads us to the cross to die. This church learned that rumors, hearsay, false accusations, parking lot conversations, influential donations, and threats of leaving could manipulate church leaders into meeting people’s preferences – to maintain the status quo – rather than serve God’s ever-changing mission. This church learned that Discipleship – including leading regular bible study, worship, teaching, prayer, and leadership – was not an expectation of the congregation, just a select few who felt “knowledgeable enough” to lead them. And despite the fact that this is a Presbyterian congregation – which was founded on the theological and biblical premise that the authority AND responsibility for the church’s ministry and mission equally belongs to BOTH the congregation and the pastor – somehow this church learned that the responsibility for the ministry and mission belongs entirely to the pastor while the authority belongs entirely to the congregation – leaving one with all the weight but no say, and the other with all the say, but none of the weight. And yet, none of this is what the church is supposed to be as a community of forgiveness. None of this is found in the vows we take at ordination or at baptism, when we become members of the church.
At our baptisms, our confirmations, or when we become members of the church, we all vow to “turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world.” That vow is about repentance – “changing your life.” And if you aren’t changing, then you aren’t repentant, and you have failed to uphold your baptismal vow. And if you can’t change your life, you can’t give or receive forgiveness.
We promise to “turn TO Jesus…trusting in his grace and love.” We make an acknowledgement that the costly grace of Christ is a real thing in which we trust. But when we exchange it for “cheap grace”, we make a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice. And cheap grace is not true forgiveness.
We promise to “be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love.” Yet how can we be faithful disciples – how can we obey Christ’s word and show his love – if we don’t gather together to study his word so that we can understand his love? How can we offer radical forgiveness if we don’t learn about the radical forgiveness offered to us?
And finally, we all affirm and reaffirm at every baptism, that each and every one of us will “devote yourself to the church’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers, and through your study and service, share in the church’s worship and mission, and fulfill your calling to be a Disciple of Christ.” If we don’t live life together – in our teaching, fellowship, and breaking of bread. In our prayers, our study, and our service – how will we ever be able to become the Body of Christ – the one who was able to forgive even those who were unrepentant? How will we ever become a community of forgiveness?
Often times the transformation of repentance takes forms that we do not like, that make us uncomfortable. We don’t like to see old friends leave. We don’t like to see decreasing attendance in Sunday morning worship. We don’t like to see the budget draw a bigger deficit due to decreased giving. We don’t want to upset others by telling them they can’t do things the way they’ve always done it. But a Community of Forgiveness can only be formed – the Body of Christ can only become healthy – by facing the unhealthy and unbiblical habits we’ve developed over the years, and replacing them with healthier, more biblical habits. By confronting those who have hurt you because some may not even know that they hurt you – causing you to stew in your own anger waiting for something that will never happen. By being willing to be confronted – and to listen without judgment – when others tell you how you’ve hurt them. By not jumping to unhealthy habits during a confrontation such as self-justification, leaning on your status as a long-time member or generous donor, using your loyalty to certain people or groups to hold others hostage, or allowing your own ambitions – your own ideas of what “should be” – to blind you to the work the Holy Spirit is doing here and now. But instead, living into the vows we all take at each and every baptism. And we will get the chance to reaffirm those vows today as Leland is baptized. When we reach the portion of the service where I ask the entire congregation to stand and reaffirm their vow as a member of the church – along with Leland – pay attention to those words as I ask them of you:
Will you devote yourself to the church’s teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers,
and through your study and service,
share in the Church’s worship and mission
and fulfill your calling to be a Disciple of Christ?
For a Community of Forgiveness can only be formed by people growing as Disciples of Christ – willing to confront one another with radical forgiveness – and coming together to form the one Body of Christ – through which ALL people are forgiven, whether they ask for it or not.
Friends, you are radically forgiven. Can you radically forgive? Not just those outside the church, but also those inside the church? Can we be a community of forgiveness where we welcome ALL people to experience God’s grace?
I think we can.
I know we can.
And we will practice being a community of forgiveness now
by turning to someone near you and saying to them
“You are family.”
Scripture Text: Matthew 25:31-40
Our passage today is one of much theological debate – especially within most Protestant traditions. Three of the five major theological tenants developed from the Protestant Reformation are sola fide (by faith alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), and sola scriptura (by scripture alone). This is where we get the basic Protestant Christian theological idea that only by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, as revealed by the Holy Spirit in scripture, does one attain eternal salvation. And different denominations developed diverse demonstrations of how one is saved by “faith alone, grace alone, and scripture alone” and therefore identify as “Christian”. Whether it’s baptism, praying the “sinner’s prayer,” talking in tongues, taking confirmation, or personal revelation – there are numerous ways in which Protestant traditions argue that one is assured of their salvation by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, as revealed by the Holy Spirit in scripture.
Each of these expressions of faith emphasize the action of God within the individual resulting in one professing that they “believe” or “have faith” in Jesus, establishing their religious identity as “Christian” and assuring them of their salvation.
Yet there is another expression of faith that is rapidly growing, especially among younger Christians. It’s an expression of faith that has always been a part of the historical church’s mission and ministry, but in the Protestant tradition has been hotly debated as to whether or not this expression of faith is a sign of one’s salvation – a sign that one actually believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In some Protestant circles and even in the culture at large, this expression of faith is seen as “anti-gospel” and even “political.” It’s not always seen as an expression of Christian faith because “anyone could do it” and in fact, it’s more often done by those who are NOT Christian than those who ARE.
This expression of faith is known as Christian social justice, where one sees that things within our world are not the way God intended. Therefore, the individual or church – out of their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and assurance of their salvation – perform the acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility just as Christ did and commands in the parable: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, offering hospitality to strangers, caring for the sick, and visiting those in prison. However, this idea that one can “earn” their salvation through such good works runs against the solas of the Reformation. Meaning that if we can earn our salvation through our good works, then we are NOT saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit in scripture. We are simply saving ourselves. And yet you look at a text like today’s and you start to wonder: “Then why is Jesus teaching this parable? And how does this work within our theological tradition?”
Jesus says that all the “goats” – those who ignore the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner – will “go away into eternal punishment.” Jesus is saying that if you do NOT do these things, you will “burn in Hell.” And that’s true if you read this passage from a perspective of fear. Of trying to frighten people into being good. But then again, if people are doing these good works only to avoid “eternal punishment” then they are not doing them with the right intentions anyways. They are doing them for selfish reasons, out of an expectation of a reward – NOT out of genuine generosity or for the sake of justice for others.
Meanwhile the “sheep” – those who DO these acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility – they do them without knowing there will be any reward. Their actions come from a place of authentic compassion for others – of wanting for others what they already have. And we know this because even the “sheep” ask Jesus – “When was it that we saw you hungry…or thirsty…a stranger…or naked…sick or in prison?” The sheep have no idea that Jesus is present in these places. Therefore, they do not do these actions to win Jesus’s favor. They do not do these actions out of fear of “eternal punishment.” They do these actions because they are truly righteous. They do these actions because those who authentically identify as “Christian” instinctively perform acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility. As a Christian, you do these actions because when you know you have freely received the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit in Scripture – the only appropriate response is to live by doing justice, loving mercy, giving generously, and walking humbly with God. Faith in Jesus knows that everything you have is not yours to keep but is a gift from God to be stewarded for the good of all people.
That’s the good news in this passage. It’s not that you should do these things out of fear, otherwise you are not authentically Christian. It’s that you are blessed with the opportunity to do these acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility because you are Christian. The truly righteous will do these acts without fear of change, without fear of condemnation, and without fear of one’s own abilities.
Fear can paralyze us. Stop us from moving forward. But faith in Jesus Christ is not about staying in place, but about moving forward from the current reality of this world into a new reality called the Kin-dom of God – which we help God to build in the here and now.
Fear can be used to by people to dominate the world – just like the Roman’s used fear to create the Pax Romana where if you don’t obey the rules, you’re simply slaughtered. But faith in God moves us away from the rules and punishment of the Empire – which only lead to condemnation – to the freedom and grace of the Kin-dom of God – which leads us to our salvation.
Fear can fixate us on what we can NOT do, on what we have NOT done, or how we are NOT successful. But the faith in the Holy Spirit moves us into personal reflection where we realize that the work the Spirit is calling us to is not complicated. Is not difficult. Is not easily measurable. It’s just different. And the faithful trusts the Spirit to equip us with the skills to perform these good works. We just need to be willing to take a risk and do them.
As one commentator put it: “Food, water, clothing, hospitality, companionship: these are not only the most necessary elements for communal life; they are the most readily available to give.” And there are moments when we – as a church – fail at accomplishing these simple tasks, and there are moments as a church where we greatly succeed at these tasks. There are moments where we behave like goats and moments where we behave like sheep. Moments where we are representatives of this world and moments where we are Christ’s representatives.
Recently we, as a church, have behaved as both goats and sheep. On this past Ash Wednesday, a student from my World Religions class attended our pancake supper and service. This student, who is highly active in her own church, wrote the following in her reflection:
“…the congregation’s welcoming was not the best. I showed up for the pancakes and sausage supper but did not eat anything because I did not know what I supposed to do. I was not originally welcomed when I first walked into the church. I sat in the corner of the dining room for 10 minutes by myself, there were people who kept glancing at me, but no one came up to talk to me or greet me. After feeling like loner, I found my way into the chapel where I still sat by myself until the sermon started. When I was sitting alone in the chapel there were ladies that walked past me but did not talk to me. I was spoken to by 5 people in total, however only two of the people who talked to me made me feel welcomed, they were Pastor Noah and Jamie. The other three people said hello to me, but I think it was only because I kept getting in their way when I tried to find my way to the Chapel. I felt unwelcomed and ignored, kind of like I was unwanted and did not belong in the church… I thought the sermon was a great experience and if I had to judge, I would attend the church again based on the sermon alone… However, I also must factor in how I felt like an outcast when I stepped inside the church… If I was looking for a home church for me to attend, I would not pick your church because I did not feel like I was welcomed."
So here we had an opportunity to provide food, water, hospitality, and companionship – 4 out of the 5 things that Jesus mentions in this parable – to a young person, and we failed to do that. We acted like goats. We were representatives of the selfishness and fear of this world. Simply avoiding being mean is NOT Christian hospitality. Christian hospitality means treating every person who enters our doors like Jesus himself just walked into the church because – as this parable clearly teaches – that’s exactly what is happening. When you deny food, water, hospitality, and companionship to these people – whether it’s directly or, in this case, indirectly – you deny it to Jesus himself. It is not their responsibility to know what to do. It is the responsibility of us in the church to graciously welcome them into our life as a community as if they’re a dear friend you haven’t seen in a long time. And the only reason why you would not be able to do that, is if you truly do NOT trust in your own salvation.
On the other hand, just this past week, this same church was successful at a simple task. At behaving like sheep. At being Christ’s representatives in this community. This past Tuesday we began our new program called The Welcome Table. Initiated by our new members Suzanne & Diane DeWitt Hall, unanimously approved by Session, and supported by 12 volunteers from the community – The Welcome Table served a meal of hot soup, bread, fruit, and deserts to 44 people last Tuesday night – only 6 of which were members of our congregation. Two of the people in attendance were literally homeless. The energy in the room was wonderful. Total strangers sat together, got to know each other, and left as friends. Last Tuesday night, this church provided 4 out of 5 of these simple elements of food, water, hospitality, and companionship to every person who arrived. No one cared about comfort zones, or backgrounds, or church attendance. We just cared for others like Jesus did. Like Jesus commanded us to do. (Love your neighbor as yourself?) And the only reason why we can do this mission is because the people involved trust in their own salvation. Because when you truly believe that – justice, mercy, humility, and generosity such as this is simply a part of your everyday existence.
Now I don’t know about you, but The Welcome Table is the church that I dream of. That I pray for every day. I dream of a church where “success” is measured in hunger fed, thirst quenched, nakedness covered, strangers welcomed, and people visited the other 167 hours of the week instead of butts in seats for one hour on a Sunday. I dream of a church of self-sacrificial sheep instead of a church of selfish scape goats. I dream of a church where the members are not representatives of the world but are Christ’s representatives to the world. I dream of a church that becomes what the Church was always supposed to be – a community of love, grace, and generosity – until our culture made it all about self-righteous rules, damnable doctrines, earned rewards, and self-satisfaction. Because it’s our culture that has change our view of God so dramatically, that we now believe we have to earn God’s love.
One commentator stated: How we think about God is inextricably related to how we live our lives and interact with the world around us.” In other words, if you think that God is all about rules, judgement, earned rewards, and self-satisfaction – then you will treat others the same way. But if you believe that God is about communities of unconditional love, undeserved grace, and abundant generosity – then you will offer the same to others. And those who know your salvation will find this easier than those who don’t. Because those of you who struggle to know your salvation in Christ will always feel “less suitable for the work of the church, less likely to engage in it, and thereby less likely to have the very experiences that will inspire the faith [you] feel [you] lack.” In other words, you’re not going to get the “self-satisfaction” from church you desire unless you engage in the actual work of the church outside of worship. Because while your initial profession of faith in Jesus Christ – your justification – while it may come through an act of baptism, praying the sinner’s prayer, talking in tongues, confirmation, or even personal revelation; maturity in faith – your discipleship – comes only by serving the presence of Jesus in every person you encounter – and that takes acts of justice, mercy, generosity, and humility. Being a Disciple of Christ means providing the simple elements of food, water, clothing, hospitality, and companionship to everyone you encounter – whether you think they deserve it or not – because Christ gave those things to you even when you know you do NOT deserve it. To do anything less is to be ungrateful to God.
So while good works do not earn your salvation – especially if it’s not for the right reasons – it is a good indicator of what you truly believe about your own salvation. And therefore, as a church, we can no longer measure the church’s success only by attendance on Sunday morning. We must also measure the numbers of lives changing outside of worship the other 167 hours of the week. If someone doesn’t attend worship on Sunday mornings but serves in our ministries on other days of the week, do we consider them to have less faith than the person who shows up every Sunday but never darkens the door of the church all the other days of the year? If someone doesn’t quite have their beliefs figured out but tries to live out their faith through their good works, are they less faithful than the person who knows all the “right answers” but fails to ever put that faith in action? If someone can’t attend on Sundays, but attends bible studies and prays with others outside the church, are they any less faithful than those who only recite the prayers and listen to the sermon on Sunday morning? Any church that dreams to still be in existence in the next decade better address these questions. Because ultimately, the answers to these questions will reveal what it is we truly believe about our own salvation, and whether or not we, as a Church, are truly Christ’s representatives.
Whether or not we truly see Christ in others.
Turn to someone near you, and say to them,
“I see Christ in you.”
Before I begin this sermon and someone accuses me of “preaching politics," let me say that gun violence - while there are political dimensions to it – is primarily a social issue. And pastors are allowed to and supposed to preach about social issues and the appropriate Christian ethical response to them. Preaching about gun violence is no different than preaching about issues such as abortion or gay rights. You can disagree with me if you want, but you are going to have a hard time finding a Presbyterian pastor who does NOT preach about gun violence today. If I did NOT preach on this today – especially after the shooting in New Zealand – then I would not be deserving of my ordination. So, here we go…
In times of tragedy. When all seems to be wrong with the world. When it feels like evil is winning. The psalms of lament give us the words we need to pray. To express our deepest pain. To release our anger and frustration at God. And also to praise God even in the face of tragedy.
Last year, the Lenten season began with the mass shooting at Marjorie Stone Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. On that Ash Wednesday, 17 teenagers were shot and killed. In all the previous mass shooting up until then, our politicians continued to respond with the same, tired, meaningless mantra of “thoughts and prayers.” But Parkland was different. The students of Parkland were filled with righteous anger. And the students of Parkland were no longer going to accept the cowardly “thoughts and prayers” of the people elected to serve them. The Parkland students started their own movement – “March for Our Lives” – as they took to the streets on a tour all across the nation to help raise awareness about gun violence and to push lawmakers to pass common sense gun legislation. They are becoming the answer to both our and their own thoughts and prayers.
This past week, the gun violence that is all too common in America reached New Zealand when a gunman entered two mosques – right as the prayers were beginning – killing 49 Muslim worshippers and injuring at least 20 others. The man’s motives were fueled by his white supremacist beliefs – his fear of those who are simply different than him.
The leaders of New Zealand responded with thoughts and prayers, but then became the answer to their own prayers. The nation is banning all automatic weapons – weapons whose sole purpose is to kill people in war – so that such mass violence will not continue. Other nations that have enacted such laws have seen a dramatic drop in deaths due to gun violence.
Now I know that many out there may make the argument, “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” But as my favorite British comedian, Eddie Izzard once said, “Yes, but I think the gun helps.”
I know there are those who believe in the “good guy with a gun” theory and therefore advocate for arming teachers and even congregation members of churches. First of all, a study conducted on New York City police officers found that under controlled circumstances, highly trained police officers only hit their target 30% of the time. And during intense situations – such as a shoot out – only hit their target less than 18% of the time. So why do you think you are going to be the “good guy” whose a better shot than a highly trained police officer.
At the same time, insurance companies are beginning to refuse to cover entire school districts if they arm teachers because all their data reveals that the risks increase when you do so. And insurance companies have no political agenda. They are all about dollars and statistics. They just want to make sure they don’t have to pay out and will avoid any risks that may cost them.
Our own insurance company even told us that while they would cover us if we armed congregation members, they will require strict guidelines and our insurance premiums would go up significantly because of the increased risk associated with arming congregation members. While planning for our safety team here at Grace – following the shooting at Sandy Springs Church in Texas – we consulted with a church safety expert who was both a former police officer and personal body guard for televangelist Joyce Meyers. The FIRST thing he said was NOT to arm anyone in your congregation. And again, it was emphasized to us that doing so increases the risks that someone in the congregation would get hurt. At the same time, in the event of an incident, law enforcement would not be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. Teachers are taught this as well during intruder drills. They are taught NOT to pick the gun if they manage to subdue the shooter because they may be mistaken for the bad guy.
Yet, here in America, we keep using these same, tired old arguments to stop any kind of common-sense gun legislation. Legislation such as not allowing people found guilty of domestic violence to access a gun. Requiring background checks on everyone who buys a gun, including those purchased at gun shows and sold privately – which are current loopholes in the system. Not allowing people who show up on the terrorist “no fly” list to purchase guns. Not allowing people who have major mental health issues to purchase a gun. And yet, all these examples of common-sense gun legislation have been voted DOWN under the argument that second amendment rights would be violated.
Our loose and free gun laws are a deadly issue. The state with the loosest gun regulations is our own state of Missouri. And the regulations are about to get looser. Last year the state tried to push through a bill termed the “Guns Everywhere Bill” which would not allow any private business – including bars, houses of worship, private schools, and daycares – to restrict people from bringing firearms onto their premises. The law prevented public schools and universities from banning firearms from their campuses. And the law even prevented private land owners from banning people from bringing firearms onto their property, even if they posted a “no firearms allowed” sign. Basically, the law gave anyone a legal right to bring a gun anywhere and there is nothing you could do to stop it. The law, however, was defeated. But it is back again as Missouri House Bill 258. The bill is almost identical as the previous bill. I’ve included a fact sheet from “Everytown for Gun Safety” – the larger umbrella organization that Moms Demand Action falls under.
It’s important to note just how vulnerable this bill will make our children and others to gun violence. People cannot be prevented from bringing guns into bars where excessive drinking can lead to increased aggression. We recently had a man stabbed to death at the bar less than a block from here. Imagine if there was a gun used instead. How many other people may have been killed or injured? Imagine not being able to keep guns out of our sanctuary. Would you feel comfortable knowing that someone in the sanctuary is carrying a gun? Not to mention the violation of church and state separation the bill causes. Imagine people you don’t know having the freedom to conceal carry a weapon into your child’s school or daycare. How does that stop school shootings? Sounds to me like it can only serve to increase them. Finally, imagine having the right to decide who can or cannot bring a gun onto your own private property taken away. That is what this bill will do.
Personally, none of this sounds like common sense. It all sounds like an excellent way to frighten people into buying MORE guns and thus putting more money in the pockets of those in the gun industry. In America, when it comes down to common sense or money – money always wins. That’s why it says, “In God We Trust” on our money – not because we trust in God, but because money IS our God.
So the psalmist laments: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” How long are we going to tolerate this? And are we only going to sit and pray about it? The problem with “thoughts and prayers” is that we have this belief that God is going to somehow supernaturally make people change their mind if we just pray hard enough. Yet throughout scripture, we find people praying to God for help, and then going out and doing the work because God strengthens them to do it. That’s what happened at Parkland, I believe. The thoughts and prayers of the Parkland students gave them the strength to stand up and fight for their lives. And so I ask you to do the same. Don’t just offer thoughts and prayers for God to fix this – otherwise you will continue to lament “How long, O Lord?” In moments like these, you are the answer to your own prayers. God put you here for a purpose – and sometimes that purpose is to be the answer to the prayers of others, and sometimes to be the answer to your own prayers.
I’m going to have some of the Mom’s Demand Action members pass out cards to you. These are cards that will go to your local state representative. Take the time to tell them to vote “NO” on Missouri House Bill 258 because we do not want our personal property rights taken away, we do not want private business rights to be taken away, and we do not want just anybody to be able to take firearms into places where we expect our children to be safe from gun violence – such as our schools, daycares, and churches. Take the time to do that now. And as the offering plates are passed around, you can drop your card in there. And after today, take the time to call your state representative and tell them personally. Use the talking points on this handout about the bill to voice your opposition.
Between groups like Moms Demand Action and people like you and me – we can become the answer to our prayers and the prayers of others. And when we do – we will sing the final two verses of Psalm 13 –
“But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because the Lord has dealt bountifully with me.”
Or, as the old saying goes in the African-American Church tradition:
“God is good, all the time,
and all the time, God is good.”
Turn to someone near you, and offer this exchange of assurance:
“God is good, all the time
and all the time, God is good.”
Scripture Text: Romans 8:31-30
Paul is addressing the concerns of Christians suffering under the oppression of the Roman Empire. They are confused, and rightly so. Their big question being: “If I’m already saved, why does my life suck?” And it’s a very good question. Suffering can have a powerful effect on our faith. Suffering can make us feel disconnected from God, abandoned by God, unworthy of God’s love. But Paul gives a rallying cry to those who suffer because of their faith in Christ. In the earlier verses, Paul tells the Romans that even when our suffering makes us so weak that we can’t even pray – the Spirit prays for us “with sighs too deep for words.” That all those who love God – even when we feel disconnected, abandoned, or unworthy of God – are also called by God to serve God’s purposes. Because – and this is where our scripture today really bring Paul’s argument home – there is absolutely NOTHING in the world that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. And so, Paul poses a series of rhetorical questions that, for any Christian, should be meaningless –
“With God on our side like this, how can we lose?” – You won’t because you belong to God.
“And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger?”– No worries even if they do, because you are a child of God.
Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? – NO! Because you are a child of God, infinitely loved by Jesus Christ, whose Spirit is present with you even in the darkest moments of your pain and suffering.
Two weeks ago, the United Methodist Church gathered in St. Louis to do what so many other mainline denominations – including the PCUSA – has done. To make the decision about the worthiness of LGBTQIA+ persons with the church. What’s important to note is that, unlike the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church is a world-wide denomination. And even though 2/3 of the American delegates supported the full inclusion of the LGBTQIA+ Children of God in the church – including ordination and marriage – the large number of international delegates from more conservative countries in the global south where homosexuality is punishable by death – caused the most conservative proposal to pass by a 6 point margin. Now the denomination is in a period of flux, because despite passing, the conservative proposal has issues that must go before the denomination’s judiciary boards before it can be put into action. But in response to this action of regression instead of progression, United Methodist Deacons, Pastors, Bishops, lay leaders, and congregations all across the U.S. have stated that they will NOT obey the new proposal, even if it does pass the judiciary board. Congregations have hung giant rainbow flags stating things like: “All are really welcome” or “We’re not those kind of Methodists.” And these congregations and leaders are responding this way because they see their actions as a push for social justice within the Church. That to pass such a resolution is to say that there are some people who are disconnected from God, abandoned by God, unworthy of God’s love. And the LGBTQIA+ community is suffering and lamenting the actions of the greater church. The Church which raised them, baptized them, confirmed them, and taught them that God loved them, is now the Church that will not marry them to the person they love. The Church where they heard the Spirit’s call to ministry is now the Church that will not ordain them because of the person they love. The feelings of many in the LGBTQIA+ community is that the Church does not see them as a child of God. And they are pushing back, declaring themselves and all people – even those who opposed their inclusion – to be children of God, loved by God, never to be separated from God – even by actions of the Church.
For people struggling to understand the issues surrounding the exclusion and oppression of people because of their race, gender, social class, religion, etc., the argument is often – “But I’m color-blind. I don’t see color. It’s not about that." And you know what? They are right. The problem is not that we are blind to race, gender, class, religion, sexuality, etc. The problem is that we are blind to God. The problem is, we prefer to see someone for what makes them separate from us rather than what we share in common. The problem is, we prefer to see someone as the “Other” our culture made them into rather than the Child of God that God created to be. The problem is, we prefer labels over names.
Labels are easy. Labels are simple. Labels are shallow. Labels are safe. Labels don’t require you to engage with another child of God but allows you the safety and comfort of gossip, rumors, and exaggeration. Labels don’t require you to think about the individuality of another child of God but allows you the ease of thoughtless, simple stereotypes and assumptions. Labels don’t require the risk of a relationship with another child of God but allows you to rest in the safety of shallow social niceties.
But to name someone is different. Names are difficult. Names are complex. Names are deep. Names are risky. Naming requires you to engage with another child of God, to share a conversation with them, even when the conversation is awkward and uncomfortable – because that usually means that there is something about you that needs to change. Naming requires you to think about all the complex factors that compose the God-given identity of each individual child of God – a complex combination of their age, gender-identity, religion, race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, sexuality, family of origin, etc. – so that you can see them as more than a nameless label. Naming requires you to be vulnerable to another child of God, getting to know their soul and not the labels forced upon them by our culture of fear and anxiety. The only label that should ever apply to another person is “Child of God.” And for each person you label as a “Child of God” you then have to be able to Name Each One. Because unlike a person’s race, gender-identity, sexuality, etc. – seeing someone as a “Child of God” and being able to call them by name is a choice. If we don’t know someone’s name, it’s because we choose NOT to know them. And we make that choice over and over again, each and every time we encounter another “Child of God.” Choosing to know someone well enough to name them is one of the most important choices we must make as individual Christians and as the Church if we are to continue building the Kin-dom of God in the here and now by bringing about justice for ALL of God’s children. Because if you don’t know someone well enough to name them, then how do you know they’ve received the justice they deserve?
Imagine what our community would be like if we knew people by their names instead of their labels? Imagine what our church would be like if we all actually knew each other’s names (because there are some of us who don’t and we’ve chosen not to do that)? Imagine what the world would be like if we stopped being God-blinded and started seeing others through the eyes of Christ? We would discover that everyone we meet is a Child of God, loved by Christ, and called by the Spirit. Imagine if every Church saw all people that way? Imagine how many of us in this room – especially those of us who are white, straight, male, Christians – imagine how you would feel if someone saw you as your labels instead of knew you by your name? Imagine if they saw you as something other than a child of God? Imagine if those labels caused them to actually fear you?
Last semester, one of my World Religions students – a young, white, straight, male, good ‘ol boy from DeSoto – did an extra credit assignment by visiting the mosque in St. Louis. Here is what he wrote:
I had an experience, and it was a small one, but it made me think differently about how people perceive me and how other people are perceived. It was shortly after the Pittsburgh incident at the synagogue last year. And by shortly, I mean one or two weeks after that. I was visiting Daar-Ul-Islam, a local mosque in the St. Louis area. While I was there taking the tour, I noticed the security guard following the tour around. At first, I didn’t think anything of it. I figured he did that all the time; it’s what security is supposed to do. But I was the only one on the tour, and it just seemed weird the entire time to me. At the end of the tour I was talking to the Guide, and she said something that caught me off guard. “We were worried when we got your phone call. With what just happened in Pittsburgh, we didn’t know if we were next.” At first, I was at a loss for words. It completely caught me off guard, and I never would have expected that coming from anyone. Even if you are thinking that, you don’t say that to anyone. In fact, if you did say that to someone, that is the exact thing that would have set them off. After I left, I cooled off some in my car. I thought on it for a while and understood why they might have thought that. After it was said and done, [I realized] they handled my visit very professionally, aside from the end. But to be thinking and fearing that the guy you’re giving this tour to might be there to shoot up the entire place, yet they still treated me with the respect that they did, and tried to answer all the questions that I asked, it really shows how dedicated they are to their religion and helping inform new people about it.
Listen to that last sentence again: “to be thinking and fearing that the guy you’re giving this tour to might be there to shoot up the entire place, yet they still treated me with respect… really shows how dedicated [Muslims] are to their religion and helping inform new people about it." I wonder how many people can say that about the Church? I wonder how many churches could do the same thing? – treat someone as a child of God even in the face of the fear that they might “shoot up the place”? In our current culture of fear and anxiety, it’s becoming more and more difficult to name people as a child of God instead of labeling as something they’re not. But as Christians, we are called to be better than our culture. We are called to see everyone as a child of God, loved by Christ, and called by the Holy Spirit. And we can do that because, as scripture teaches us, we are already named as God’s beloved child in our baptism. We are already embraced by the love of Christ that will never be lost. And we are already called by the Holy Spirit to serve the world. There is nothing that will ever take any of that away. There is nothing you can do that will ever take that away. It’s just the reality of creation. And because of our identity as beloved and called children of God, we love our neighbors as ourselves no matter where they live, who they are, what they look like, how they believe, when they got here, or why they love someone. That’s not our responsibility. That’s not our authority. We are called simply to love. And in loving them, they discover that they are a beloved child of God.
It reminds me of an email an openly gay student sent me after the semester ended. In the email he wrote:
“Until I took your class, I never thought I could go to church again.
Now I know that I can when I am ready.
Thank you for helping me know that I am loved by God.”
Yes, my sibling in Christ. You are a beloved child of God.
And each and every one of you is a beloved child of God.
And to remind you of that, and to help us to name each other,
I want you to turn to someone near you,
find out their name if you don’t know it, and say this to them:
“[Kirk], you are a child of God.” Let’s us stand and do that now.