Thanksgiving is our Altar to an Unknown God

It wouldn’t be a treasured holiday if someone didn’t take the time to rain on your parade. It’s my turn:

In chapter 17 of the Acts of the Apostles, Paul is in Athens and stands at the Areopagus to try and persuade an audience of pagan Greeks to become Christian by appealing to their own philosophers. At the outset, Paul greets them in this way:

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.

…Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

At the core of Paul’s complaint about the Athenian religious practices is that they have no idea of the kind of god they’re actually worshiping. Pagan gods had to be appeased so that they would bestow benefactions on the people, but there was a recognition that gods of other lands whose names they didn’t know might feel left out, so an altar to unknown gods was a way of covering their butt against those foreign gods.  In Paul’s mind, this reflected a genuine, fundamental misunderstanding about the way the cosmos worked. People were worshiping and giving thanks to a god whose character they knew nothing about. They just wanted to make sure the good things kept flowing their way.

The U.S. American holiday of Thanksgiving is a kind of altar to an unknown god. Forgetting for a moment that the holiday itself is built on a utopian misrepresentation of relations between Native peoples and colonizers, it is probably the single most religious thing most Americans do. Gratitude is recognized by everyone–even science– as a universally good character trait and has become a kind of religion unto itself. Thanksgiving presents itself the high holy day of the religion of Gratitude, and for weeks leading up to it we get to see and hear who are the most pious adherents to the faith. 30 days of gratitude, pictures of gratitude. But to whom or what are we expressing gratitude? Is it possible to be grateful without being grateful to someone? Are we grateful to the randomness of the universe that brought all these good things into our lives?

(You could probably imagine Paul saying, “Americans. I see how extremely thankful you are, for I went into your homes on Thanksgiving and heard you utter prayers to an unknown god…)

When many Americans sit down for their annual feast this week, they will offer a prayer of thanks for food, family, freedom, military servicemen and women, firefighters, police, Donald Trump, nice houses, health, wealth, generic blessings. To whom? Most would say, “God.” To which I would say, “which god?” We like to rattle off a laundry list of the benefactions that our god has given, as if we’re afraid that if we don’t, the benefactions might just stop.

I question which god we’re talking about because we live in a world that is extraordinarily skeptical of religion and god in general, and yet one day of year it’s okay to belong to the religion of Gratitude because it’s not a god that actually asks anything of you.  For Christians, expressing gratitude ought to be first and foremost done for who God is. We proclaim (as Paul did) that God is revealed through the risen Jesus, and the character of God is most fully known by the character of Jesus, who submitted to Roman torture and was executed by the religious and political forces of his day. This God is the kind of god who takes sides with the oppressed. This God is with families of police violence. This God was already standing with the Native people in this land even while those who claimed to be bringing God here came and slaughtered them not on behalf of YHWH, but on behalf of Mars, the god of war (*Side note: I find something especially intriguing about the fact that Paul’s speech takes place on the Areopagus, which means Mars Hill) . This is the kind of God that asks you to find him with the oppressed.

So yes, I question the fact that the very American leaders who daily bring the world closer to the brink of nuclear war can have the audacity to sit down at Thanksgiving and give “Thanks”  and we all pretend that we’re giving thanks to the same god who the next day will bless their bombs. Yes, I question a one day a year pass on the evil, racism, hatred, sexual aggression that is engendered the other 364 days by so many.

Gratitude is essentially a kind of prayer, and on the one hand is heard by God regardless of the person saying it or even what name they use or don’t use for God. Paul affirms, in a slightly backhanded compliment kind of way, the religious zeal of the Athenians because he does recognize a grain of good in it. But Paul, we’re told just before this passage, is disturbed by their idols. Prayer to an idol, worship to an idol, is not actually that much better than no prayer at all. Prayer and gratitude are, in many ways, about what happens to us, not just what happens in the world, but we forget that the object of our gratitude and prayer is actually what shapes us. Gratitude to an idol, whether its an unknown god or money, or a host of other self-serving objects, results in a life that resembles that idol. I would submit that many who will offer prayers of thanks this Thursday offer them to the gods of war, money, power, and whiteness.

Christianity as a whole in the US has forgotten the character of the God to whom we say we give thanks. It has forgotten that God looks like Jesus, and it has forgotten that Jesus always bears the marks of suffering and death because he continues to suffer with the poor of the world, in whatever shape that takes. So of course on the one day that everyone is expected to be quasi-religious, we’re part of the rest of Americans who are just totally confused as to what god we pray to. Of course Thanksgiving is followed by Black Friday and rampant consumerism for the next 5 weeks until we come to the next holiday where we don’t quite know what it means.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Paul goes on to say, “While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

From our prophet and poet extraordinaire, Wendell Berry, who if he were on Twitter, he might steal the REI slogan, #optoutside.

    Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
Say no to the Lords of War which is Money
which is Fire. Say no by saying yes
to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.

 

 

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Singing the Victory of God

Sermon Scripture Text: Revelation 18:21-24, 19:1-9

Audio Here, preached at Peace Fellowship Church on August 20, 2017.

For many of us, Revelation is the last book of the Bible we turn to for comfort. Oh sure, we may hear a reassuring word at a funeral (like Ch. 7—“God will wipe away every tear”) or the vision from the end of the book of the new heavens and new earth, Chapter21. But I would venture to guess that few of us look to Revelation for questions about the rest of life.

For understandable reasons, many of us avoid this book like the 6th plague (that’s a Revelation joke—seeing if you’re paying attention. You didn’t know Revelation could be funny, did you?). Or, for other people, they have maybe made too much of it, offering it as a kind of playbook or movie script for the so-called “end times.” Some have even made a big profit from an industry that relies on a certain, narrow, interpretation of it—Left Behind, Late Great Planet Earth, and the like.

For me, I also avoided reading it for most of my life. I remember in 8th or 9th grade, I was in a Bible Study through my church youth group, led by other youth, and we talked about choosing Revelation for our book of study one year. I came home and told my dad about this idea, and he immediately vetoed it, explaining that it was a complicated book that needed a careful, trained guide in order to understand. So I steered clear of it for the most part for a long time out of a kind of fear that I was not ready to comprehend its message.

Yet, sometime after college, my same father wrote such a guide to Reading Revelation well—Responsibly—with an eye to literary genre, political issues of the time, and other important guide posts to make it seem less unreachable, and more like Scripture, meaning a text through which we believe the Holy Spirit can breathe new life into us with each reading. For if a part of our Bible has become unreadable, scary, foreign, then it has stopped being Scripture. It can go on the shelf with books like James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Anyone who has ever read that book knows it needs its own companion guide to understand!).

Since I helped my dad index the book, I had to read it, and I found myself opened in a new way to the message of the Apocalypse. Since then, I have come regard it as the unsung hero of the New Testament—the only book of almost entirely prophetic literature in the NT, who fantastic images and scenes invite us to use our imagination as well to adopt a new imagination—an apocalyptic imagination. The word apocalypse means “unveiling,” and it implies—by definition at least–not the “end of times” but rather that the curtain between the spiritual realm and our earthly realm has been pulled back for a glimpse into deeper forces—both good and evil—at work in our world. An apocalyptic imagination, therefore, invites us to look at our lives, individually and communally, as a part of a deeper struggle, and in the mind of Revelation, a truer victory, than may be immediately apparent. Revelation is like the Matrix—taking the red pill—to see with different lenses. (Sorry—have I missed the boat on Matrix references? Is that so 2005?) Revelation invites us to understand that God has, is, and will defeat evil. Let me re-say that: Revelation is the unequivocal assertion that God has defeated, is defeating, and will defeat evil once and for all. Amen? In short, Revelation presents the answer to the problem of evil. In your life, you may be asking, or have asked, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be until your justice comes?” like the faithful saints in Revelation 9. Revelation’s Lamb says, “Behold I am coming soon.”

At a basic level, there are TWO prevailing themes in Revelation.

1) God is forever. God is described as the Alpha and Omega; the one who was, is, and is to come. The first and Last. Ancient of Days. God shares the throne with the Lamb who was slaughtered, who was found worthy because he was slaughtered, because his power is expressed not by might, but by humble sacrifice. This is significant—any other fantastic images of the Lamb or Jesus in Revelation are rooted in—not contradicting—this first and most crucial image of the Lion-who-is-slaughtered-Lamb in Chapter 4 is an unusual conqueror. He conquers through self-giving love.

By contrast, evil in its many forms, is not forever. The language of Revelation is the impending end of all sickness, oppression, war, persecution. Whether it takes the form of a dragon, beasts, economic injustice ,plagues, sickness, racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, colonialism,  (someone say Amen?)—its days are officially numbered when the kingdom of God begins to take over the authority given to kings of the earth (chapters 11 and 12 in Revelation) and, as it so beautifully says in 11:15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” Some might know this as the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.

Revelation addresses many kinds of evil, but the root issue throughout is idolatry, which leads to the second basic theme: true worship of God and the Lamb. Why is Revelation so concerned with the sin of idolatry? What does idolatry mean? Idolatry, generally, is giving worship or allegiance to other things or gods besides the true God and Lamb. In a literal sense, people during John the Seer’s day (who wrote Revelation) were literally worshiping statues of Greek and Roman gods, the emperor himself, all sorts of things. Christians were constantly struggling with their own relationship to these gods and the often debaucherous cult of worship that surrounded them at temples. On the one hand, John is speaking about a particularly specific and dangerous idea. Yet, idolatry means more than just conscious worship or homage to a statue.

Throughout the Old Testament, idolatry is seen as the fundamental sin of Israel. Whether in the Garden of Eden (giving deference to the Serpent— it is no coincidence that Revelation uses a giant serpent/dragon to represent the Satan), the golden calf at Mt. Sinai, or the worship of Baal and other foreign gods, God’s people have tended to let other things take the place of YHWH. In a big picture kind of way, idolatry is at the heart of all sin. So in Revelation, John is showing that a particular kind of idolatry is at work in the world: evil, in the form of a dragon and his beast minions is trying to get people to worship them, pay them homage, and give allegiance that is due God alone (makes you stop and wonder about all those who criticize Colin Kapernick and others for not standing during the National Anthem). This idolatry is especially subtle as it comes through the nations, those tasked with to protecting and caring for the people have deceived them into giving their loyalty and trust in their sovereignty alone. Those who participate in and perpetuate its unjust economy (a mark on the forehead or wrist) are also committing idolatry. God is not deceived. John then uses the graphic imagery of “fornication” for Babylon, which is the embodiment of all the wickedness of the Beasts. Babylon fornicates with other kings and nations instead of being faithful to YHWH. Our text today contrasts the faithful church against the adulterous Babylon. Babylon of course is the land of exile that Israel dwelt in—the land of Baal, of idolatry, where God’s presence does not dwell. By using metaphoric imagery and coded language (Babylon instead of Rome, for instance, or Beast instead of Nero), the people and places are universal, calling for “a mind with wisdom,” to use John’s phrase, to see Babylon as any nation or institution that places itself at odds with God’s just and merciful ways. Just like Babylon can be any city or nation that oppresses, or demands allegiance and power, so too can dragons be any leaders or powers that push for war, racism, violence, hatred, and the temptation to idolatry can take any number of forms. This is one place where apocalyptic imagination is so vital.

Of course, the other side of idolatry is genuine, true worship of the only one who is worthy, and Revelation gives us almost 2 dozen explicit instances of worship in the form of proclamation and song. These songs and proclamations are sung by a variety of characters that I am today calling the “Heavenly Choir,” though there are some distinct subsets within this mass choir. This choir acts in many ways like the choruses of ancient Greek tragedies—they are always in the background of the drama, responding to events and people who appear. Yet in style, they’re more like a gospel choir, participating in a kind of “call and response” mode. Brian Blount calls the worship in Revelation a “Spiritual-Blues impulse,” meaning that over and over, the sung praises of God erupt responsively.

It blew my mind when I realized just how much worship is part of Revelation. It was always pitched to me as a scary story about judgment and plagues and God ruthlessly destroying enemies of God. Those things are in there—though not with the fear and cruelty that is often gleefully trumpeted—but far, far more prevalent are the songs of adulation, joy, adoration, and just praise of who God is.  (It is an interesting literary aside that those who worship the beast are never given a voice—we don’t know the “lyrics” to their idolatrous praise. In fact, the only voices, until the passage of text directly related to the one at hand for us today, we hear belong to God or God’s faithful. )

I see this call-and-response choir in 3 ways:

  1. Responding to God’s character: Especially in Chapters 4 and 5, there are these different groups of people that praise God simply because God is creator. God is worthy of worship because of who God is: the Creator. The Lamb is worthy of worship because he has been slaughtered and ransomed people from every nation to God.

2. Responding to other Saints: Often the songs of worship come in response to other groups singing. As we see in our text today, there is sometimes a domino effect: one group starts singing, then another chimes in, and then another, and then an “Amen.”

3.Responding to What God Does: Remember that Revelation is the story of God’s past, present, and future victory over evil. Different parts of this “heavenly choir” witness God gain some victory over evil and they respond in song and worship. Listen to the words from Chapter 19:3 (after Babylon has fallen): Once more they said, “Hallelujah! The smoke rises from her forever!” It’s like God’s victory is the “Call,” and worship is the “response.” And it almost feels like someone said, “Can I get an Amen?” because the next thing we hear is, “Amen, Hallelujah!” And then the multitude calls back, “Hallelujah! The Lord Almighty reigns!”

Singing the Victory with our Lives

Brothers and sisters, Revelation is not the script of the “end times,” but it is a kind of script in that it invites us to participate in the divine drama of salvation. We’ve been cast, as a community, as God’s people, as the “choir.” Our text today invites us and challenges us to think about what that means:

This specific passage is in response to the “fall of Babylon.” We see the response first of those who mourn Babylon’s defeat in Chapter 18:  First the kings and nations who benefited from her sins: “Alas, alas!” Then the Merchants and those who got rich off her oppression of others, weep and wail at the loss of its splendor. Then the sailors and those who carried the so-called Greatness of Babylon to others throw dust on their heads and ask, “What city was like the great city!” They might have said Make Babylon Great Again.  This is the city that we are told, had become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a ruiner of other nations. This is the city God’s people are told to come out of, to steer clear of its sins.

When Babylon receives its defeat, its ill-gained riches lost, its finery and excess wealth destroyed, are the people told to feel sorry? No, they are told, rejoice! Rejoice that Babylon has fallen!

Revelation challenges us to wonder if we’re rooting for Babylon to win. Do we stand to gain, like merchants and sailors and kings, from Babylon? This Babylon will fall, whatever it is. It may be the nicest Babylon the world has ever known, but it is still Babylon. It may not be a violent fall—let’s pray not—but it will fall. Unjust leaders will be brought down; systemic racism will end; Mass Incarceration will end; Unjust over-consumption will be over. Revelation tells us that all Babylons will fall, but then turns and asks us, “Will you weep with the merchants or rejoice with the angels?”

This passage, like others in Chapters 14-16 is worship of God in response to God’s victory over evil. The choir are literal witnesses of God’s justice. They erupt in joy and praise, claiming God’s sovereignty, God’s authority, over all. They are songs of testimony. We are invited to sing our songs in response to God’s goodness, God’s character, yes, but just as much to respond to God’s justice. Do we have songs that proclaim this victory? Do we sing them with confidence of their truth?

This should tell us that our weekly worship services are not merely social gatherings, they are not merely affirmation gatherings, where we tell each other we’re not crazy. No, they have a participatory nature: when we worship, our songs become a corporate shout-down of evil, because we know God has already won the battle! Revelation is filled with this funny tension—knowing that God has already claimed victory in the Lamb who conquers, and that the Beast has a mortal wound, that its days have been numbered and that its time is short, and yet knowing that even now the beast is still trying to steal our allegiance. We sing in response to each little and big victory we see happening. The victory is God’s, we are simply the witnesses. We just sing the victory—in song and word on Sunday, with our lives the rest of the week

The beauty of worship in Revelation can inspire and invite us to write new songs (literally—2 different times, the choirs spontaneously sing a new song) that tell both of God’s worthiness and God’s justice. In that sense, our apocalyptic imagination is so necessary—without it, we will continue to see the darkness of the world instead of the light breaking through. I know we have writers here—write lyrics, and poetry, and testimonies. Work with a musician, write a song that we can sing together. Write a prayer or a call and response chant for the community. Be open to impulses that spontaneously urge you to praise God in our services, your life.

A new imagination is so desperately needed in American Christianity, and a commitment to the kind of worship evident in Revelation could be the avenue that leads us there. It is not enough to be simply for or against “empire” or patriotism or nationalism. St. John writes to churches—plural—facing various kinds of challenges and temptations, but the unifying call for all of them is in chapters 4 and 5: to behold the throne of God and the victorious Lamb and worship them with a new song. We all must become performers and narrators of the drama of God’s restorative acts and judgment through worship in our communities. That is our first call, to worship, and it strips away all of the other layers that our fallen selves add on—allegiance to political parties, leaders, even Christendom itself. When this happens, the community becomes (as another, wise Gorman has written), “a sacred space in which their imaginations and lives can be increasingly converted into the image of the Lamb” (Gprman, Reading Revelation Responsibly 178). It is through worship that dividing walls of political ideologies within in the church can be broken. Worship could heal the fractured church.

In the end, literally, worship is what we have been created to do, and it is the only appropriate response to the voice of the One who stands knocking, to the Spirit which says, “Come,” and to the God who is in enthroned above all creation. Through worship in the spirit of Revelation, an apocalyptic imagination is made available and a life of faithful witness is possible.

As we close today in song, I want to invite you to imbue your songs with new meaning. Add some extra weight to your hallelujah today. Let’s sing the victory of God! We even have a 2 part chorus for our closing song today.

Somone sing God’s victory over illness this past week. Someone rejoice as a piece of Babylon fell when that brave woman pulled that statue down in Durham. Someone sing God’s victory as thousands of people marched yesterday to shout down hatred and hate speech. Someone sing God’s victory as a white supremacist and war mongerer at the White House got fired. Someone sing the victory that’s still coming over violence and gentrification here in Deanwood and DC. Someone sing  the victory over economic injustice. You know the angels in heaven will be singing when a certain world leader resigns. Someone sing that victory!

It’s coming—God’s victory—but let the forces of wickedness in the spiritual realms hear you sing it today and live it so loud this week that the very walls of hostility in our world come tumbling down. Amen? Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] Gorman, 178.

Taking Jesus Seriously AND Literally

Before a couple of months ago, the idea of taking a politician “seriously but not literally,” was a somewhat laughable notion. Yet, because of Donald Trump’s outlandish rhetoric and tendency to say nearly unbelievable things, this has become a legitimate argument for why he has been so popular among some people. People take his anger, his “get things done” style seriously, they just don’t take him at his word on every last crazy thing he says.

We do, however, apply this logic to other relationships. You hope that if your boyfriend proposes to you, he means it literally. But if he says, “I’ll love you for all eternity,” you know he means it seriously but can’t possibly mean it literally. I remember when I was in fifth grade, a boy hit me in the stomach with the leg of his chair. It hurt quite a bit and I was really angry, so to avoid yelling or punching him, I grabbed the nearest thing to me–which happened to be a pair of scissors–to squeeze, and said angrily, “I’m going to kill you.” Now, I did not think about the fact that squeezing a pair of scissors and saying “I’m going to kill you” could be legitimately perceived as a threat, since I’d never even really been in trouble at school. Yet, he told his mother, and later that night my mother sat me down to figure out what had happened. I tried to convince her that I was not to be taken literally, just seriously–I was just angry, not murderous! But of course, if I had continued to exhibit that kind of behavior, it would be irresponsible to presume that I never meant it literally.

At a certain point, failing to take a person’s words, whether for good or bad, literally (as in, “I mean this exactly how it sounds”) ultimately means not taking them seriously either. And that is a recipe for real world consequences.

One of the biggest problems in the church right now is a plethora of Christians who have realized that the best way to deal with the “crazy” things that Jesus says is to take him seriously, but not literally.** Sometimes the literary style of the gospels makes that separation easier because Jesus often tells parables that make use of symbolism or metaphor-rich characters, and therefore have meanings that can be personalized or made so abstract as to have little concrete value. So the parable of the Good Samaritan can be about me being nice to people down on their luck instead of a subversive indictment of xenophobia and exclusion. Jesus couldn’t possibly be saying something about immigrants and refugees! He means this parable seriously (read: don’t be a jerk) not literally (redefine what it means to be a neighbor).

From there, it is easy to “parable-ize” the rest of Jesus’ teachings. The Sermon on the Mount becomes a lesson in our sinfulness and inability to reach the perfection Jesus says awaits us in heaven.We can personalize “love your enemies,” to mean be nice to your boss or that coworker who is always gunning for your promotion, instead of a call to a new kind of community that extends love and hospitality to those who would do them wrong, refusing to hate or fear the people the government says we should. Teachings about wealth (give all you possess to the poor) and violence (do good to those who persecute you) don’t actually mean for us to do them. The description of judgment in Matthew 25 where the just and unjust are divided up based how they took care of the most vulnerable certainly can’t be taken literally because then our eternity would be bound up with our behavior and we know Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a church door so that we could all pray the “sinner’s prayer” and get the bar code stamped to our hearts that lets us into heaven when we die.

This isn’t to dismiss legitimate differences of interpretation based on careful exegesis and context. But I would argue that most interpretations of Jesus’s hardest teachings absolve Christians from taking Jesus at his word.

We easily forget that Jesus was a kind of politician. He was running a campaign, calling would-be disciples to join a quiet, non-coercive, nonviolent revolution to take over the entire world right now. He invited them to eternal life,  not just in quantity but in quality. He taught how to have an eternal kind of life that is meant to be lived now in order that the world might see the salvation of our God.  He instructed them not only that they should (and actually could!) do things that don’t make worldly sense, but that he himself would do something nobody else had ever done: rise from the dead. At a certain point, if you keep finding ways for Jesus’ teaching to be taken seriously but not literally, you no longer have the resurrection. The resurrection demands us take Jesus seriously AND literally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

**There is a caveat here, which is that sometimes Christians have made the mistake of taking somethings too literally in the OT or in books like Revelation. I’m specifically talking here about the gospels. Of course, there is a legitimate debate about what “literally” means when we talk about the Bible, but that is a conversation for another time.**

 

Dear Conservative White Evangelicals

To my dear white brothers and sisters (who consider themselves conservative Evangelical Christians),

I want to appeal to you today to help heal some of the wounds fracturing not only the country we live in, but more importantly the church, which has no borders or nationalities except the kingdom of God. I am a white Christian who grew up, in many ways, in the same evangelical culture as many of you. I listened to messages about accepting Jesus into my heart; I listened to Third Day, the Newsboys, DC Talk. I experienced the genuinely loving and heartfelt aspects of this kind of Christianity. I have no baggage or bitterness, even as some of my theological viewpoints have diverged from what my youth group experience was. I learned what it means to be a servant to the world from mission and service trips to rebuild homes with my evangelical youth group.

So I get it. You voted for Donald Trump because you care about unborn children, not because you hate people who support abortion. You worry fiercely about a nation that you feel disregards the most vulnerable: the unborn. You saw a chance to get someone named to the Supreme Court who could make it much harder to get a legal abortion in the U.S.

I get it. You’re concerned about waning biblical authority in church and society when it comes to issues of gender, sexuality, and marriage. Perhaps you worry that you will be forced to betray your own theological convictions in your workplace or business, or that your children will no longer respect you or the Bible because of what they learn in public school. And I know that you care about poverty, disease, war, treatment of women, fair health care, and God’s creation. You  don’t like being reduced in identity to one or two issues, as important as they may be to you. You genuinely try to teach your children not to judge based on skin color. I may not agree exactly with you on all of the above, but I trust that you believe your convictions are borne out of love for God and the Bible.

And yet, I have a suspicion that many of you don’t like Donald Trump and may now find yourselves with a case of buyer’s remorse. He lies. About small things (crowd sizes) and big things (voter fraud) to protect his own ego. That is not a good example for children and violates one of the ten commandments that many of you still wish were the guiding principles for this country. He has said horrible things about women. He has mocked the disabled. He has not demonstrated the kind of moral character most of us would hope for in a president. And whatever you may hope happens for abortion in the coming years, the very real threat of nuclear war would make life unthinkable for an entire generation of unborn children.

So I have two invitations to extend to you today, from your brothers and sisters who share many of your concerns and beliefs, even if we disagree strongly about what it means to see them lived out: 1) Join the resistance. A “wait and see” mentality is exceptionally dangerous, as the church found out in Adolf Hitler. Worried first and foremost for their own security and safety, Christians in Germany found themselves without a real voice to resist the evil happening to their neighbors.

Secondly, dialogue with us.Your brothers and sisters who disagree on many issues want to dialogue with you. We really do. We want to have conversations about social issues, race, and how we understand Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount in our world. We want to be part of healing divisions in our churches. We have theologically grounded view points, arrived at by careful Bible study and conversation, as you do. Trust that we are not disrespectful of the Bible. Come together with us and read the Scriptures anew. But to do that, we all need to get out of the echo chambers on our social media feeds and sit down face to face, open to one another.

I do have one other request: don’t be afraid of protesters and demonstrators. I realize that for some of you, passages like 2 Timothy 2:2-3 make such public dissent distasteful. But many of us believe that the same Jesus who threw out the money changers in the temple is standing with us in the streets. Trust that we have arrived at our convictions with prayer and discernment, even if you don’t find yourself in the same boat.

Let us all work toward the unity our Lord Jesus prayed for before he was crucified.

Peace and all good,

Brian

 

 

Worship at the Foot of the Cross

The last in a series of 7 Lenten reflections written for Peace Fellowship Church.

 

Luke 4:9-13

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,

“He will command his angels concerning you,

to protect you”,

and

“On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Luke 23:35-38

35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

When Luke describes Jesus’ temptation in the desert, he includes an important detail: the devil will return “at an opportune time” to tempt Jesus again. As has been mentioned in previous weeks, the first two temptations do arise again in Jesus’ life, albeit more subtly. The first temptation is mirrored in the miracles Jesus performs (impressive power to woo the people); the second temptation during his entry into Jerusalem (take the world by force instead of suffering).

If we read the third temptation alongside the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is hard to miss the parallelism. “Throw yourself from here” sounds a lot like “come down, save yourself.” Of course, this is the moment that the devil tempts Jesus to prove himself. Jesus is alone, weak from physical torment, facing uncertainty about himself and his role. Sound familiar? Jesus is back in the desert!

(Ironically, the scoffers at the cross who want Jesus to prove his kingship by leaving the cross are correct that he is the King of the Jews and that he is about to prove it. But he proves his royal worth by staying on the cross.)

Jesus’ responses are parallel as well.  In the desert, he essentially says, “Trust God, even when it seems scary!” At the cross (skipping down to verse 46), he says the nearly same thing, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke is a masterful story teller. But it doesn’t even end there.

Right after Jesus says his final words and dies, the centurion standing by praises God and proclaims Jesus’ innocence. Why did the Israelites go out to the desert in the first place? To worship God. Jesus, like Moses, has freed his people that they may worship God. The desert has always been, first and foremost, about the worship of God.

We have come full circle during this Lenten season. We entered this time in search of deeper worship of God, knowing that in encountering temptation we are given the chance to declare God’s beauty, truth, and faithfulness. We followed Jesus through his temptation, saw how our lives face similar temptations. We followed Jesus into Jerusalem, and we even followed him to the foot of the cross. But it is here we must leave him, for in our sinfulness and unworthiness we have no option but to let him do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. His cross is different than ours. Today, on Good Friday, we must watch him suffer for us as a church, as a world, and as individuals. We must watch him utter his last breath, fully submissive to the will of God, trusting God to the end.

The only appropriate response is worship.

Jesus’ Crown is Always Made of Thorns

Lent, like Jesus’ ministry, is not a static season, but rather is funneling us towards the cross. Especially in the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the story intensifies as Jesus enters Jerusalem and confronts both the Roman and Jewish authorities.  Likewise, all of our fasting, prayer, and self-reflection is in preparation for Holy Week, the final days of Lent where we confront face to face our sin and Jesus’ suffering. Jesus’ temptation resurfaces in his last days as well.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey:

Luke 19:28-39
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.” ’ 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’


If you ever visit Jerusalem, it is a powerful experience to stand atop the Mount of Olives and look out at Jerusalem and to imagine this scene (and the one following, where Jesus weeps for a city that does not know what makes for peace, a lament which could be stated as powerfully today about Jerusalem). The Mount of Olives is quite steep and near its peak is the most important cemetery in Judaism. Figures from thousands of years of Jewish history are buried here because it is believed that the Messiah will appear at the Mount of Olives first and make his way to the Temple Mount (in the old city). His appearance will mark the beginning of the Resurrection of the Dead, and those who are buried there will be the first raised. So when Jesus appears on the Mount of Olives, entering Jerusalem and making his way to the temple, he is evoking all of the hope and dreams of Israel. Finally, a conquering king!

This is the second temptation all over again for Jesus. Just like the devil took him to a high place to look at all the kingdoms he could have, Jesus is again at a high place looking at a kingdom he could take by force. Knowing the implications of what he is about to do, he could use the crowd’s energy and incite a rebellion. The tempter is there again: will he seek power through violent means?

Yet this entry into Jerusalem flips the entire conquering narrative. Jesus enters on a colt, not a war horse. He proceeds to the temple where he disrupts the temple activities instead of endorsing them. And eventually he is even crowned, though with a crown of thorns. His actions, to use a musical metaphor, are to the tune of victory and conquering but in a different key. In other words, it’s not that Jesus has not come to conquer the evil of the world, or that he is not now king, but rather this is how God conquers in Jesus—through meekness, suffering, and his own death. The kingdom of God comes to earth not through violence done by God, but violence done to God. Jesus refuses to give in to temptation because he knows that God’s way achieves true peace and true justice.

Holy Week invites us to even more careful reflection. As we draw nearer to the cross, we must ask what kind of king do we hope for in Jesus? Do we truly believe that the way of suffering is the means by which the world is saved? Will we acknowledge not only his lordship but the manner in which he rules? Will we be subjects to a king in a kingdom whose quality is of another world?

Will we remember that Jesus’ crown is always a crown of thorns?

Let us fast and pray that we do not fall into temptation.

The Second Temptation

Lent is characterized as a time of self-reflection, a chance to go deeper inwardly, ask hard questions of ourselves, and appreciate in a new way what the cross means for each of us. All this is true. Jesus’s temptation in the desert was deeply personal and confronting that temptation required a wholehearted trust and love of God. Yet the cross, and consequently Lent, is not solely about our individual spiritual conversion. Jesus dies for the whole world out of love for humanity and obedience to God, not just individuals. Especially as a community of witnesses, we can see Lent as a way to ask questions of the faith we practice together.

The temptation story provides a framework for one way of this kind of introspection. In Luke 4:5-8, the devil comes to Jesus a second time:

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Here, Jesus is blatantly tempted to worship the devil, though as we have noted previously, all three temptations are about worship. In this second temptation, the payoff is power and dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. But why is it the devil wants worship? The context here is crucial: the Roman emperor, Caesar, proclaimed himself a god, and a whole cult of emperor worship was common during Jesus’s—and almost more importantly, Luke’s—day, something the Jews rightly despised because they knew only YHWH was God. Therefore, to give allegiance to Caesar also meant idolatry to the one true God. It was impossible to serve Rome and YHWH. The association of worship with imperial authority was quite strong. On the flip side, to declare that worship belonged only to YHWH was to declare the kingdoms—and their rulers—defeated and subservient to God. When Jesus responds this way to the devil, he is not simply spurning an evil idea, but making a declarative and victorious statement: kingdoms of the world take notice, your days of evil are numbered.

But God’s victory looks like Jesus in the wilderness—painful, meek, and vulnerable. Like turning the stones into bread, the “temptation behind the temptation,” so to speak, is a shortcut, a way of bypassing the pain and suffering of the cross. Equally important to what God will do in the world is how God will do it. How Jesus acts is how God acts.

For us, the Western church, a local body of witnesses, this may be the temptation we face most strongly as a body. It is most painfully clear, especially during election years, that we often want to achieve influence and dominion over the kingdoms of the world. We see the name of Jesus used to coerce, to cajole, and to slyly win over voters. On a more subtle level, we give our allegiance to powers and authorities other than God, sometimes directly—as in a pledge of allegiance—and sometimes indirectly, through what we spend our money on. How might our church be more faithful in pledging our sole worship to God?

There is no single answer to the complexities of life’s many situations and demands, and we are called to discern faithfully what it means to be loyal and worship only God. Yet a helpful thought, from a 2nd Century Christian writing call The 2nd Epistle to Diagnetus may remind us that our true home, and our true worship, do not belong to this world:

Christians live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.

The Church has had a long and sad history of collusion with power and dominion over people and nations, from Nazi Germany to slavery to colonialism and back even further to the Inquisition and the Crusades. We must mourn this tragic tendency to succumb to the second temptation of Jesus. As we continue to sit in the darkness of Lent, in our individual and corporate sin, let us confess our past and present yearnings to give in, and pray to be equipped to name our accuser and see his defeat on the cross.

Lenten Devotional: Confronting our Accuser

The following is the fourth in a series of weekly reflections composed for distribution to Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. All of the reflections for Lent are derived from Luke 4, focusing on themes of wilderness and temptation.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’s temptation in Chapter 4, we get a fascinating picture of the struggles Jesus is facing. Unlike Israel’s wandering in the desert, Jesus is confronted with a seemingly physical embodiment of temptation, which Matthew and Luke call diabolos, or devil. In this way, Jesus’s temptation is more like Adam and Eve’s in the garden, and though the writer of Genesis never calls the snake “devil” or “Satan,” it certainly plays the same role as the tempter in Luke.

As was mentioned in a previous devotion, it is helpful to think of temptation primarily as a desire to worship something other than the true God. By this definition, Adam and Eve’s original sin was not simply about disobedience, but giving in to worship of knowledge instead of God. They gave up their vocation as divine image bearers and stewards of creation and instead gave homage to a snake and a tree. They became servants of a different god.

However, the parallel between Jesus and Adam and Eve is important not only because of the nature of their temptation, but because the stories highlight the source of their temptation. Put another way, both Luke and Genesis go out of the way to name the accuser (aka Satan) in contrast to the loving provision of God. There is such a thing as evil and that evil wants our worship and allegiance. We too must learn to name our accusers.

Of course, we must be careful when talking about the source of our temptation. It is easy to shift blame for our actions to someone or something else. “The devil made me do it” or something like that can quickly become a way to avoid responsibility. Often we are our own accuser and tempter. Our sin and pride compete with our true selves. And while sometimes it may be helpful to think of evil as personified in one figure like the devil, we must be careful not to imagine a red, hoofed creature with a pitch fork, essentially making a caricature of evil and thus maybe not taking it seriously. Often, as we all know, evil is cloaked in respectable, civil clothing, and is more a force than an individual person.

Yet with these cautions in mind, we are challenged to name the parts of our life and world that would call us to worship and trust something other than God. It might be money, or sex, or status. It might be a relationship or a job. Individual people or situations can play the role of the Satan without being Satan in the flesh. An “accuser” is simply something that questions God’s faithfulness and worthiness of all our worship. We can see such accusers in positions of government, in schools, and even in churches sometimes—people who would point us toward something other than God alone. We might need help seeing our accusers—certainly Adam and Eve did!—and our community and spiritual friends can be that mirror for us.

When we look at these two stories of temptation—Jesus and Adam and Eve—we see two contrasting ways of responding—fear and mistrust, or sublime trust and confidence in God’s goodness. Lent is the season of darkness, of mourning the lostness of ourselves and the world. We must go deeper into that darkness to discover the Light of the World. Lent provides the context for asking again of ourselves and our world, “To whom shall we give worship?” And as the Bible says over and over, most clearly in Revelation 4 and 5, only the One who “was and is and is to come” and the Lamb who conquers at Easter are worthy.

Lenten Devotional: Confronting our Shadow

The following is the third in a series of weekly reflections composed for distribution to Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. All of the reflections for Lent are derived from Luke 4, focusing on themes of wilderness and temptation.

Throughout the church’s history, the desert has played an important role in spiritual formation. In the Bible, the desert is the proving ground for the Israelites and Jesus. Later, a group of wise Christians, who became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, went to the desert in search of spiritual rebirth in response to disturbing trends in the church’s relationship to the state. They were the founders of monasticism, solely devoted to the worship of God. Their only work at first was praying the entire canon of the Psalms every day.

Something about the bleakness of the desert brings out our deepest demons and presents the chance to confront them, to face our shadow side directly. Just a year out of college, I wanted such formation. So, in 2009, I spent the summer interning for the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The CAC had just purchased a 200 acre plot of wild and undeveloped land a couple of hours west of Albuquerque quite literally in the middle of nowhere with no cell signal, miles from the nearest person. At the end of my internship, I took a weekend-long solo, silent retreat there.

I had grand spiritual plans for my excursion into the wilderness. I planned to fast from food, bring only my Bible, journal, and guitar. I’d spend the entire weekend praying, walking, and confronting my own insecurities and demons. I’d emerge a stronger and more faithful disciple, ready to embark on God’s calling on my life. A coworker loaned me an old, steel-pole tent. Upon my arrival, I began to set it, only to find it impossible to do alone. The ground was too dry and sandy to hold in the stakes; I had no hammer or mallet to drive them in far enough. It was not intuitive how to put the poles together, and every time I made some progress, the wind would whip around and knock the whole thing down. I remember getting so angry at myself, at the tent, at the surroundings. Here I was, trying to be holy and prayerful, and instead spent seven hours putting this tent together.

I look back at that weekend with great fondness because even as my impatience and frustration threatened to get the better of me, I knew it was an important part of my desert experience. In the desert, we are alone with God and our own temptation. We do not get to pick and choose the things which will challenge us, the things which will demand our worship. The great majority of my weekend was filled with prayer and song, and I was consistently reminded of the utter beauty of creation, as alone as I will probably ever be. But that first day brought out the worst in me.

While I do believe there is something unique and mystical about the actual desert, we can seek out the kind of formation the desert offers in other ways. We can create regular space in our lives to be alone and in prayer; we can fast; we can take a day or weekend of silent retreat. Many people use Holy Week (the days leading up to Easter) as a time of more intentional fasting and prayer. If we enter into the kind of space the desert symbolizes, then we can be assured of two things: 1) The Satan, the accuser and tempter, will meet us there to tempt us and cause us to confront our shadow; 2) God will meet us there to remind us of our true selves, created in God’s image to worship God alone.

Like Jesus and the Desert Fathers and Mothers, some of our most profound formation will come when we encounter our deepest temptations alone with God. There is no end to the importance of community in Christian formation, but there are some thing we must choose to face on our own. Let us take Lent as a challenge to go deeper into the darkness, knowing that the Light of Resurrection awaits us at Easter.

Lenten Devotional: Stones into Bread

The following is the second in a series of weekly reflections composed for distribution to Peace Fellowship Church in Washington, D.C. All of the reflections for Lent are derived from Luke 4, focusing on themes of wilderness and temptation.

Stones into Bread

The call to the desert was a call to worship, just like our call during Lent is first and foremost to true worship. As God’s beloved creations, we are charged with reflecting his image into the world, caring for creation, and returning to God the glory and praise due our creator in the form of worship. This is why the first commandment is to love God above all else. In Hebrew, this command is called the Shema, and Jews are expected to recite it at least twice a day. It is central to our faith.

If worship of God is our true vocation, then temptation is not about wanting to do things we shouldn’t. Instead, it is a desire to offer worship to something other than our creator God, whether that is sex, power, fame, status, or even our physical needs. When we willingly enter the wilderness, desiring to encounter God, the Satan will undoubtedly give us opportunities to worship these other things.

The temptation to turn stones into bread is not a way of saying that our physical needs do not matter, but rather that they need to be properly ordered. Jesus’s response quotes Deuteronomy 8:3—just a handful of verses after the Shema—which reminds us all that we do not live on bread alone, but by the breath and word of God. Yet we need bread as well, and God’s desire to provide bread ought to help us want to know our Creator.

Bread is significant in Jesus’s life as well, as he feeds the 5000 with just a few loaves of bread. Implicit in this miracle is a temptation to win the people over by addressing their physical hunger. Perhaps the cross isn’t necessary if Jesus can simply gain enough popular support and overthrow the Romans? Yet, we know Jesus resists that temptation as well. And at the end of Luke’s gospel, perhaps most fittingly, Jesus is known by the disciples in the breaking of bread. We see clearly here that bread is not the problem, but in fact can be the instrument of revelation. Jesus, in the desert, knows that bread has a more noble purpose than simply meeting his physical needs.

For us, we can take courage from Jesus’s example. As we fast during Lent, whether it is from chocolate, television, or other material things—not bad in themselves—we remember their proper order in our lives. Hopefully, the twinges of desire for them spur us to worship and prayer, as a kind of training ground to face our deeper temptations, those things which demand our allegiance and ultimately our worship.