Acts 17: Knowing the Unknown God

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DELIVERED 3 NOVEMBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

I want to start this morning by asking a rhetorical question…but it would probably be helpful to pause for a moment and actually define what a rhetorical question is. There are two parts to this term (which we encounter in our lives and our culture all the time) that we need to consider. The second part is the easiest to define: a “question” is a series of words we use to elicit information from someone else. It’s an essential tool in our “human being toolkit” for learning about concepts, as well as about other people. We use questions to get our bearings in the world when we ask things like:

“What’s the weather today?” “What time is it?” “When is this due?” 

And we also use questions to gain a deeper understanding of others when we ask:

“What’s your name?” “How are you today?” “Is anything wrong?”

But as clear as this part of the definition of a “rhetorical question” might be, the first part of that term is often used to steer us in an entirely different direction. If I were to ask you right now how you would define “rhetorical question,” what might you say? Probably something to the effect of: “a question you aren’t really supposed to answer”…like the one you just asked! We use these kinds of expressions–which we refer to as rhetorical questions–in conversation all the time. Sometimes they are jokes, like: “is the Pope Catholic?” “Do bears poop in the woods?” “Do you have a better idea?” And sometimes we use them to create certain reactions:

“How many times do I have to tell you to do that?” “That’s not a good excuse, is it?” “How should I know?”

In all of these cases, the great irony of how we use rhetorical questions is that we don’t use them as questions at all: they take the form of questions, but they are really just ways for us to make our own point. 

But that’s not what the “rhetorical” part of that term means. “Rhetoric” is a word that refers to the “science and logic of argument.” If something is “rhetorical,” it’s something with the characteristics of a logical argument. So, a “rhetorical question” is supposed to be a question where the answer takes us a step further down a logical path. It’s not supposed to go unanswered…its answer is supposed to lead to more questions. 

This might sound like a lot of silliness, but to set a course for us this morning, I’d like to get to that “rhetorical question” I was promising you. It is, simply, this: What do you really believe? It might seem–when a pastor asks this question in front of a church on a Sunday morning–that the answer goes without saying. But my main point this morning is that I don’t think that’s true. I think your answer–your personal answer–is absolutely a thing worth saying, not because I’m trying to test you or trick you, but because your answer can and should lead you–lead all of us–a step further down a logical path. What we “believe” is the starting point for the real process of discovering and developing what we call our faith, and real faith isn’t something that you memorize or something you just roll your eyes and say “yes” to, like the User Agreement for your iTunes account…real faith is something that grows. And it grows through questions.

This morning, we are continuing in our series on the second half of the book of Acts, which recounts the apostle Paul’s three missionary journeys throughout Europe and Asia. Over the last two weeks, we have tried to dig deeper into the core beliefs of the early church: first, as those beliefs shaped the ways the church managed its own growth, and second, as those beliefs directed the way Paul and the other apostles actually approached new communities. Over the last two weeks, I have personally been struck by how generous and humble both the leaders of the church in Jerusalem and Paul himself were as they managed these early decades of growth. I think our conventional wisdom about leadership is that the more firm and demanding and even dictatorial a leader is, the more inspiring they are, and the more confident they will be as they lead from their strengths. But what I see in the book of Acts is a style of leadership genuinely interested in the feelings, beliefs, and struggles of those they are reaching. Interested in questions. The early apostles are focused on people, and as we saw in Acts 15, when that focus causes tension among them or with their doctrine, they pause, share what they think one another, and dig deeper into their faith in order to find a place of gentle and devout reconciliation. 

It goes without saying that I want Revolution to look more like the church of the first century than the culture of dictators and strongmen we often celebrate in our own corporate cultures! But how can we really do that? What can we see in the patterns of the early church’s behavior that can train us to expand the circle of our church community while also honoring the sincerity of others’ beliefs? Which might be the world’s longest way of asking: what does it mean to share the Good News of our faith and the hope of our experiences with God’s love for us…with others? And my big point today is that the answer is one that has to start with that rhetorical question: what do we really believe?

Today, we are going to be looking at Acts 17, which picks up after Paul and Silas leave the city of Philippi and continue west into Macedonia. They visit 3 cities in this chapter, and although their approaches to each one mimic their approach to Philippi, the reactions others have to them in each city vary widely. In Thessalonica, 

Acts 17:1-5

There was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, ‘This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.’ And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar, and attacked [them in] the house of Jason.”

After Paul and Silas are chased from the city, they go to Berea, and 

Acts 17:10-13

when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. But when the Jews from Thessalonica learned that the word of God was proclaimed by Paul at Berea also, they came there too, agitating and stirring up the crowds.

At this point, Paul and Silas split up, with Silas staying in Berea and working to start a church there, while Paul goes on to Athens, where he was instructed to wait for weeks or months until the other apostles could meet him and they could return to Jerusalem.

So, along with Paul, let’s pause for a moment and see what we can see: in both Thessalonica and Berea, Paul and Silas start–just like we talked about last week!–by going to the places where people are already having conversations about their beliefs. In these two towns, those places are the synagogues, where the minority Jewish communities in each city gathered. Their approach in both synagogues is the same: they participate; they wait their turn to speak; and then, when they have their chances, they try to explain how the miracle of Jesus’s death and resurrection fulfills the ancient Law. Theirs is a Jewish faith, different not in its roots but in its branches: they believe Jesus is the Messiah the Jews have been looking for. And they are prepared to patiently walk this through, examining the prophecies and the evidence, for as long as it takes others to respond. In Thessalonica, they meet for weeks; in Berea, we know they met for at least some extended period of time, because the Jews there are “more noble” than those in Thessalonica, which they demonstrate not by just immediately going along with what Paul is saying, but by eagerly “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” Their nobility is a factor of their sincere curiosity: in effect, Paul and Silas have asked them what they really believe, and now they are working through their beliefs together, with Scripture as their common warrant and their common cause. 

What changes when Paul gets to Athens is that he begins to attract a different curiosity. The Bible says that 

Acts 17:16-21

While Paul was waiting […], his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. [They] brought him to the Areopagus, saying, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’ Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

Paul begins as before by going to the local synagogue…but he is genuinely curious about the religious culture of the city, and before long, it’s the locals who begin to ask Paul our rhetorical question of the morning: ‘what do you really believe?’ They invite Paul to speak at an important gathering place called the Areopagus because they are curious about this ‘new’ thing he is talking about. 

areopagus

Now, it’s important to pause for a moment and note that this is some typical Athens business. Luke, the author of this passage, makes a reference here to a common first century truism about Athenian culture: he says that the people of that city “spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” They are philosophy-drunk, in other words, and their own ‘religiosity’ isn’t so much rooted in devotion to a particular belief, but in devotion to the idea of belief more generally. In this way, the Athenians are much, much like our own culture: although any and every statistic will tell you that the numbers of not only Christians, but adherents to any organized faith, are rapidly declining in this country, forms of non-committal spiritualism are on the rise: the zodiac is back; so are fortune telling and shamanism. And I don’t mean to be unduly insulting to those things: I bring them up as examples of how the concept of religion has shifted and is continuing to shift away from institutions and towards personal exercises and experiences. It is my belief that the church has been playing this game itself for quite awhile now, building church and worship experiences that encourage anonymity and similar kinds of spectating, but they don’t focus on how communities of Christians can develop and strengthen their beliefs. 

So, in the midst of this city that is culturally similar to our own country and home, what does Paul do? How does he approach this moment at the Areopagus? He starts as we have come to expect: by seeing people as they are. He says, 

Acts 17:22

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.”

He acknowledges that they are people who are curious about their beliefs. But then he pivots towards our rhetorical question of the morning: what do they really believe? He says, 

Acts 17:23-27

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 

This is the heart of Paul’s message. He says, “I see that you are very much ‘into’ religion. You have temples and idols for worship all over the place! But for all your religious culture, you haven’t practiced digging in to the things you believe.”

unknowngodHe points out that one of their altars is to “the Unknown God,” which was an altar the Greeks would use as a kind of “catch all,” in case their other temples were missing something. Paul doesn’t mock this…instead, he uses it as a starting point for what he wants to share, which is a challenge to dig deeper into what the Athenians actually believe. He goes on to say, “let’s think through this whole ‘god’ business: if there is a god who created all of this, he would already exist somewhere. He wouldn’t need to live in a temple built by the people he created! And likewise, if he has the power to give life and breath to the world, he doesn’t need anything–he doesn’t need offerings or sacrifices–he can sustain himself. And another thing: if there is a god who made everything, everything that exists would have a common root in him; everything and everyone would be related. So there’s no point in discrimination or arrogance!” 

We can point out that Paul doesn’t say, “here’s who God is!” He says, if you are willing to believe in a god–which your culture of spiritualism suggests you are–let’s think logically about what that god would be like.” What do you really believe? And, as you answer that question, where do those beliefs take you

Paul makes the case here that if you can accept that: 

  1. The world has a creator
  2. That creator has no need of his creation
  3. But that creator reveals himself to his creation

Then it stands to reason that 4) this creation wants his creation to seek him. And 5) that he wouldn’t intentionally frustrate that seeking: he would be possible to find. 

So, we can know the unknown god. 

Acts 17:27

“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.”

The God you are looking for is not far from any one of us. He is at hand. So, why would Paul land at this point, with this audience? I think he did it because it gets to the root of their–and perhaps our–biggest faith problem: we convince ourselves that God is remote; that he is a philosophical question we can have an opinion about. But if God is really God, and if it is true that we have this yearning inside of us to understand and relate to him, that can only be because he made us this way. We must be people of belief. And to feel that yearning, that desire, to believe…and then content ourselves with a statue to an ‘unknown god’…or, in our own culture, to content ourselves with saying things like, ‘yeah, there’s probably a god up there’ or by half-holding to a sense of ‘spirituality’ that is disconnected from any religious devotion doesn’t make any sense. 

Religion, the Church: these things exist to lead us into deeper questions, which in turn are meant to generate a deeper relationship. This is the means by which we pursue a God who wants us to pursue him, and who is not far from any one of us. 

netflix

A silly example, but one that I think gets at the crux of the matter for the Athenians and us: how many of you struggle to pick out a movie on Netflix? I would assume the answer is: everyone who has Netflix. That phenomena of scrolling forever, not being able to make up your mind, and then after 30 minutes just giving up or rewatching The Office for the 12th time…that is a picture of what the Greeks–and what we–do when we choose spirituality over religion, or over the church. We are afraid of making up our minds and really pursuing something. We are afraid of belief. 

But where does that fear come from? I think it comes from worrying that if we pursue something, we are blindly committing to it forever. “What if it turns out that Breaking Bad isn’t that good?” But the absurdity in this attitude is that you don’t have to watch it forever. If it’s not good, you can turn it off. But if you don’t start it, you won’t know. 

It might sound strange for a pastor to say “you can start with a religion, even if you don’t finish it,” but it’s the truth, isn’t it? Our fear of belief hurts us in both directions: we fear eternal commitment, and this fear keeps us from ever asking the questions that can deepen our faith. We become afraid of getting “sucked in” forever. And then, for those who have taken the first steps, we fear jinxing things, and this stops us from asking questions which might break our faith: “what I’m doing now is working…why risk it?” But that’s like stopping after watching a really good pilot for a show! I’m not afraid of saying “just take a step” because I believe in Jesus and in his church: I’m walking this out myself, step by step, and it is still holding me up. Do I know that it will hold me up forever? No, of course not. But every day that I put my weight on my faith and it sustains me is a day that my confidence in my beliefs grows. And that is how beliefs work! 

I want to be clear: by comparing it to Netflix, I am not saying that our religious faith is a matter of entertainment. But I am saying that what we believe about God isn’t something we memorize and accept…it’s something we wrestle with and live out in our lives. It’s something we test and explore and test again. It’s a relationship with our creator…who wants us to know him more. 

Why do I believe that? 

Paul concludes his message to the Athenians by saying 2 things: the first is that what you believe about God matters: if God is God, he has set a way for his creation to be, and he will judge his creation by that standard. And second, that if God is truly relational, he will, in his own ways, reveal himself to his creation. He says, 

Acts 17:29-31

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

God commands us to repent because we can’t browse things forever: we are either trying to be what we are created to be or we aren’t. And God’s desire to be known can be trusted because God came to live with us, to die with us, and yet he lives again. Jesus is proof of a relational God, and his resurrection is proof that God’s Kingdom is coming, and in it, things will be made right. 

So, what can we learn from Paul about how we share our beliefs? We can learn that we should 

  1. Speak with those who are seeking
  2. Reason with what is reasonable
  3. Believe in our beliefs 

My prayer is that this last point in particular will challenge all of us: what do we really believe? What are you wrestling with and putting your weight on? Can you ask each other those questions today? Can you ask it this week, and listen to one another without judgment? It’s worth really and truly doing this: what do we really…believe? About God? About Jesus? About the church? About ourselves? About justice? About hope?  

Are these “rhetorical questions” leading us to more questions, to deeper relationships, to more faith? God knows they can.

Acts 16: Seeing People as People

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DELIVERED 27 OCTOBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

This morning, we are continuing in the second week of our series ”Acts, Part 2,” and to catch us up, last week we looked at the central tension of the book, which is the difficulty of holding firm to the Truth of the Law while also looking to expand the circle of the church community. We looked at the story of an event called the Jerusalem Council, when Paul, a missionary among the non-Jews in Asia, disagreed with other early church leaders over the issue of circumcision. Paul argued that the non-Jews he had been baptizing into the church had demonstrated true conversion, and thus nothing was to be added by having the men among them circumcised as adults. However, others in the church believed that Paul was erasing one part of the Law of Moses, and doing this was a slippery slope. 

We didn’t talk politics last week, but it probably struck some of you that this sounds a heckuva lot like some debates we still have in the church over controversial issues like the roles of women in church leadership, the ways we approach issues of sexuality and gender identity, and even contemporary political topics like war or immigration. And I want to tell you why I didn’t bring up those things: I didn’t do it because I want us to be careful not to allow our contemporary applications of the Bible to obscure the central lesson we learned from our reading last Sunday…which is to say, I didn’t want our rush for a ‘hot take’ on our own world to overshadow the deeper, and I think more foundationally important, points. So, what were those? We saw last week that the early church led through a divisive time in their own history by: 

  1. Staying focused on the trajectory of the Jesus movement
  2. Empathizing with the experiences of new believers
  3. Reading Scripture together with true humility 
  4. Walking through the consequences of their decisions together

Those actions are political. But my hope last week–and my hope now–is that we can embed these principles in our own church in such a deep way that they shape and direct all of our responses, not only to the hot topics of 2019, but in each case we encounter moving forward. It’s not that we don’t have positions on difficult issues…it’s that we want our positions to be more than cheap shots on Facebook or belief statements on our website. We want our positions to be lived out, with humility, empathy, and a deep desire to walk through our beliefs with others, all the way to the end of the line. That’s the example we see in Acts…and its the model we want to live by at Revolution. 

Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734; Paul Preaching in the Areopagus

So, what about this week? This morning, we are going to be zeroing in on a specific example of how Paul and others actually moved into new communities and transformed them by living out what they believed. Our text comes from Acts 16, and in it, we find a play-by-play account of how the church in Philippi got started. There are 4 specific moments we are going to spend time talking about, but before we get into the details, I want to lay out the “big idea” of this chapter for us as clearly as I can. This, I think, will help us to see the connections between these 4 stories, as well as the ways they can best challenge our own practices as a church. The “big idea” is this: 

Paul’s ministry is centered on seeing people as people.

In seeing them where they are and as they are. This central point is going to drive every decision we see Paul and his fellow apostles make in Chapter 16, and it’s also the focal point and central challenge for us this morning: do we see people as people, too? If so, how does that affect the way we act towards others as a church? And if not, what is getting in the way?

So, Story #1: at the beginning of Chapter 16, Paul is introduced to a young man named Timothy who has recently accepted Christian faith, and who comes from a culturally-divided home: his mother is Jewish, and his father is Greek. Accordingly, Timothy was not circumcised. But

Acts 16:3-4

Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, [so] he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. 

Did you catch that? What did Paul do to Timothy?? He circumcised him. And then what was the message Paul and Timothy together were delivering to Macedonia?? Bing: that the conclusion of the Jerusalem Council was that Gentiles do not need to be circumcised. So what is going on here? Why is Paul doing the very thing he is about to go around telling people they don’t need to do

To answer that, we can turn to our own good friend Travis, who has studied the early church and Paul a fair amount, and who–if you ever get him talking about Paul–will inevitably tell you that the most important thing to know about Paul is that he permits nothing to get in the way of the Jesus message. This is a big big big deal for him. Paul recognizes that Christian faith is about freedom and equality; even radically so. But he also knows that Christians live in particular cultures, and picking certain cultural fights can shut people’s ears to the Jesus story. So, Paul encourages–but does not demand–that Christians avoid cultural fights, even to the point of willingly suffering great discrimination, persecution, and harm. So, it fits here that he would circumcise Timothy, even as he is sharing a message that circumcision is unnecessary. He does that–to attach this to our main point this morning–because he sees the people of Philippi and Macedonia first, even in their weakness and insecurity, and he tries to meet them where they are instead of where they should be. This is even true of how he sees the Jews there! Maybe even especially them. 

So, Story #1: Paul circumcises Timothy so they can talk about the absence of a need to circumcise. Why? Because Paul sees where the people currently are and meets them there. 

Now for Story #2: Here, we see Paul, Timothy, and the author of Acts, Luke, establishing a new ministry in the city of Philippi. It’s significant to note what they don’t do: they don’t first find a meeting place and then put up signs for a service. They don’t go to the temples of the city and pick fights with other religious leaders. Instead, 

Acts 16:13-15

on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia […] a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” 

So, where do the apostles begin? They begin among marginalized people, in the place where those people are already gathering for their own religious purposes. They don’t go to the men of Philippi; they go to where the women are. Those are their first contacts. And they don’t go to just any old place: they go where the women go to pray. And once they are there, they enter into existing conversations about faith. They talk about God, and if we take Paul’s sermons at other places in the New Testament as examples, they start by exploring what the women believe. This opens a door, and through that door walks Lydia, a woman who worships God already in her own way, and who the Holy Spirit moves to listen to Paul. She believes his message, she is baptized…and then, she opens up the doors of her home to the apostles, who end up baptizing her entire family. The church in Philippi is born! 

A related aside: a few weeks ago, I was talking with an old friend and missionary, and he was telling me about his desire to start a new podcast where he interviews people of various faiths, just so he can better understand why religion matters to them. This started because of a conversation he had with an Uber driver about Sikhism. He’s not looking to fight or judge: just to listen and share. It strikes me that his approach imitates Paul’s: his point is to understand the spiritual roots of people’s beliefs…and then allow that to open a door for him to share his own beliefs, too. 

Too often, we either wait on people to come looking for us, or we engage them just so we can get to our own point or argument. But we can’t expect openhandedness and sincere listening from others if we aren’t willing to be openhanded and sincere! Do we model real curiosity as we talk to our own neighbors or coworkers about faith? Do we talk to them about faith at all? I am struck by Paul’s willingness to go, to listen, and to share. I am also struck by how his eyes were open to whoever was receptive: Lydia, the text points out, isn’t even from Philippi! She’s not his “target demographic.” But she’s there, and she’s listening. And Paul follows her. Again, Paul and the apostles sees people as people, respect that they already have spiritual beliefs, and seek to engage with them where they are

Story #3: Days later, as the apostles are again 

Acts 16:16-22

going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and us, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the rulers. And when they had brought them to the magistrates, they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods.

Here, we get our first real sign that the way Paul and the apostles are behaving in this city is different than the way the people of the city generally behave towards one another. It perhaps bears mention that this is also our first look at how the men of Philippi behave. In this story, Paul is continuing his ministry down at the river, and he catches the attention of a young female slave who has what the Bible describes as a “spirit” which enables her to tell fortunes. She does this for the profit of a group of men who don’t seem to be around at first. She is following Paul and causing a bit of a commotion–even if what she is saying is actually true–and eventually, Paul releases her from the spirit in this miraculous moment. I am tempted to make the argument that Paul does this because he sympathizes with the girl, but I don’t know if that’s true: the text just says he was “annoyed.” But I can point out this: as the story unfolds, we can see a difference in the way Paul saw the girl and the way her owners saw her. What is that difference? For the owners, she is only a means to gain income: when they go to the judge, they don’t complain that Paul mistreated her; they complain that he interfered with their profit. They were running a business, and that business was unconcerned with the human cost of its operation…which was ongoing demonic possession! But God–if not also Paul–was unwilling to prioritize the health of a business over the health of the people who work for (or are enslaved to) it. 

It would seem here, based on the reaction of the judges and the crowd, that the cynical and dehumanizing way the slaveowners treated the girl was par for the course in Philippi: they quickly agreed that by costing the slavers money, Paul ought to be imprisoned. Even if we can’t be sure of how altruistic Paul’s motives were, we can learn something, I think, from the underlying challenge to consider human costs of the systems around us, be they economic or otherwise. God, we can be sure in this story, sees the young girl first as a human being. He releases her from the bondage of possession; one of several bondages she suffered. And in this, the economy of God and his Kingdom is set against the economy of Philippi and its slavers. People…must be understood first as people. They are not means to an end. 

And lastly, Story #4: After Paul and his companions are beaten, they are imprisoned in the local jail. Then, that very night, 

Acts 16:26-30

there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 

This, I think, is the craziest of the 4 stories, and here’s why: if I were a missionary, and I had been imprisoned so unjustly, and then on the very night of my arrest, there was an earthquake that didn’t knock down the building but DID open the door and release me from my chains? I would be out that door. How in the world could I not see this as God’s miraculous deliverance?! It would be crazy to behave otherwise!!

UNLESS.

pauljailer

Unless my eyes weren’t focused on me. Unless they were focused on the jailor. THIS is where Paul’s approach to Philippi is made most clear, and where it stands most opposed to the common ways of the world. Immediately upon waking and seeing the prison doors open, the jailor moves to take his own life. Why? Because he serves the institution of the State. It’s his job to keep the prisoners inside; if he has failed at this job, he has failed to inhabit the role he is in. 

So why doesn’t Paul leave? Because he sees the servant of the State first as an imagebearer of God. He sees his humanity. He sees him as a person…even before he sees him as a jailer. Can you imagine the relief of the jailer? Can you imagine how quickly and completely his view of Paul, of Paul’s crime, of Paul’s ministry, of Paul’s God must have changed? It was instantaneous. Instantaneously, Paul has the authority to speak to him about Jesus. Because at great cost to himself, Paul saw him and loved him first. 

Do I see people in government or in other civil jobs first as people? Do I see judges or politicians or police officers first as people? Or do I see them first as placeholders for something else? And when I do that, does it change how I relate to them? What I think I can get away with? 

A challenge for the church: what if not one of us cheated the system? What if not one of us gave sass to the lady at the MVA? What if we were kind to those who are doing their jobs, even if we hate the job they are doing? I’ll really step on some toes now:

baybridge

What if every single one of us stayed on Route 50 towards the bridge, without jumping over to that road that goes to Sandy Point so we could jump back into traffic right at the toll booths? That’s a joke, but it gets at a deeper truth: when we stop seeing the people who do institutional jobs as people, we stop behaving like we are real people to them. We look for shortcuts, metaphorical and real. We excuse inhumane behavior. We call for or permit inhumane policies. 

And I don’t think we can fight that by perpetuating inhumane attitudes. What if we were patient? What if we were kind? What if we were loving, even to those whose work we find recklessly unjust? Could we begin to separate people from what they do? Would that extension of humanity challenge them to behave in a more human way themselves? Is this not what Paul does for the jailer? This challenges me so, so deeply

So, what have we seen? We’ve seen Paul see the Jewish authorities as people and work to accommodate them, even when they’re wrong, even when it is painful to Paul (and moreso to Timothy). We’ve seen Paul see people of different faiths as people and meet them where they are, even though he disagrees with them. We’ve seen Paul see a slave girl as a person, even when her owners saw her as property and as commodity, and in doing so, we’ve seen Paul risk and receive a beating and imprisonment for daring to see someone as more than their society saw them. And we’ve seen Paul see an officer of an unjust government as a person, even when it meant staying in prison…and even possibly ignoring a miracle of God himself. Why? Because if he left, the man would die: simple as that. 

So, what about us? Who are we really willing to see? 

I want to close with a story. In 2008, while I was living in South Carolina, I was selected to serve on a jury for a difficult case. The details here are graphic and disturbing, and I want to pause for a moment if anyone would prefer not to hear them, or have their children hear them. [30-second pause]

The defendant in the trial was a 17-year old black man who was facing charges for a crime he had committed when he was only 16. The accusation was as follows: this man–boy, really–was the youngest in a group of 4 teenagers who had specifically targeted a family of Mexican immigrants in a poor neighborhood, broke into their home, beat the two Mexican men they found there nearly to death, and then locked the two young girls they found in the home in a bathroom where they were repeatedly assaulted. The details of the case were horrific: the victims were specifically targeted because they were in the country illegally, and the 4 teenagers did not think they would report the crime. They were very nearly right: the two men, and one of the two women, fled when they were released from the hospital and did not press charges. Only one of the women–who was 15 when the incident happened and whose husband was one of the men who was beaten and disappeared–stayed to see the case through. If she hadn’t, all 4 of the assailants would have been set free. 

Late in the day of the trial, she testified on the stand: she was tiny, and her voice was so quiet we could barely hear her. But she told the story from the beginning: every detail. Her courage was stunning to me. But her testimony wasn’t the most damning part for the defendant, because although he had pled not-guilty to the charges, the three other assailants took plea deals, each earning a 20 year max sentence in exchange for testifying against him, one at a time. It was awful to watch. 

When the prosecution rested, the defense didn’t call a witness. The defense attorney was a court-assigned public defender. Throughout the day, I watched the defendant: he was a kid, and he was so hopelessly lost in this thing.

In the jury room, I was inexplicably made the foreman. We debated for a few hours, and although no one questioned the boy’s guilt, several people were hesitant to take his entire life away for an act of cruelty when he was 16. We eventually came to a decision: guilty.

After I read the verdict, the judge sentenced this boy to Life, plus an additional 60 years after Life is served. He will die in prison. His mother cried inconsolably. Days after the trial, the victim was deported.

I think about this experience a lot, and I ask myself: who should I weep for? For a child-victim of an unspeakable crime? For her husband, somewhere in hiding? I wonder if she found him again; if she is married. For the mother of the boy convicted, who lost her son? For the boy who did a terrible, terrible thing at 16 and will die in prison? For the injustice of the youngest in a group of 4 teens, who will breathe his last breath behind bars while his 3 friends walk free in their late-30s? Who should I weep for? Who in that room is a person, carrying in them the image of God himself? Who am I supposed to see

Who are we supposed to see

 

2019 Family Meeting Keynote Address

I want to thank you for being a part of our traditional Fall Family Meeting! I say “traditional” because our plan is that this is not a one-time event: we want to build a rhythm of gathering each year in the fall, near Revolution’s birthday, in order to do a better job of talking about our church as a church together. We hope these annual meetings give us a chance each year to look back at the year that has been and start to pivot towards the year ahead. We want these meetings to give us a chance to celebrate together, and to talk through changes and updates in the bigger-picture work we are doing as a church in a way that we don’t have time for on Sunday mornings. We want to challenge one another to continue to be invested in the health and future of our church. And we want to spend focused time together in prayer for our community and for the health of Revolution.

So, this evening, there are 7 things we need to talk about, and you can see them there on the front page of the handout you were given when you sat down. We’re going to cover:

  • Our Year-in-Review
  • Budget: Updates and Direction for 2020
  • Medical Debt Relief Update
  • 2020 Theme
  • Staff Recognitions and Transitions
  • New Governance at Revolution
  • Your Church

 

2019 in Review

So, first up: our 2019 year in review. I want to start by saying two quick things: first, I want to say that we haven’t talked about it all that much, but 2019 has been a tremendously important and complicated and even difficult year in the life of our church. This isn’t just because of things that have happened specifically to us; it’s also because of the season we are passing through as a church community. This year, we have walked through a transition in our church’s leadership from the planting pastor–the person and the family who worked to see this church come into being–to a new pastor and a new season. Statistically, transitions like this are incredibly hard on churches: it is typical for a church to see significant percentages of its community leave; it is typical for hard feelings and tensions to surface, and even for communities to split or die. So, first, I want to acknowledge that we have been walking a hard road. But second, I want to personally thank all of you for seeing this process through. I want to thank you for accepting me so quickly in this role, and I want to thank you for continuing to celebrate and love the Burnett family. I want to thank you for unity in our church, and for committing to walk this road together, both with me and with each other. I am honored to be here, and I am privileged to be in a church with each and every one of you. Thank you.

As we look at the year so far, we can see that some of those difficult statistics have shown up…and others haven’t. As many of you know, we have seen the size of our Sunday services shrink over the last 3 years as we have stepped away from Annapolis High School and from the level of production we put on when we were there. A lot of that is sad, but it isn’t unexpected: we believe in the church we have become at Germantown, and we aren’t planning to change course. 

In 2019, our attendance decline seems to have plateaued, which is encouraging. In the spring, we averaged around 160 people on Sundays, and over the summer, that dropped to around 130. This fall, we have rebounded back to that 160 average, which is encouraging. I want to thank you all for sticking it out this year, and I want to encourage you by saying that Revolution’s plan for real growth isn’t going to be driven by mass-mailings or billboards or attention-grabbing events, and the reason is because the folks who come because of those things don’t typically stick. The way we want to grow our church is by you–by me–inviting people we care about who are still trying to figure out what they think about faith to step into our community and look for answers with us. We really and truly want to reach the people of our city who don’t know what they think about church…and we’re only going to do that by being a body of people who love what our church is and want to invite other people to share it with us. 

Other things that have happened this year? This March, I baptized the first person I have ever baptized in my life: my daughter, Cecilia. And next week, Cecilia will be joined by Sophia Derico, as Revolution’s second baptism of 2019. Two weeks after that, Rob Johnson is going to be baptized. I am so, so excited for these two folks and the commitment they have made to chase after Jesus. 

This year, we have also launched several new Groups, including a new Local. Our Groups continue to be welcoming and wonderful places for people to discover community at a level that pushes (but doesn’t overwhelm) them. Many of you know this from experience…but if you don’t, please join a Group!! We have seen Group attendance rise this year, even as our Sunday attendance has fluctuated, and I think that’s a really good sign. 

All in all: 2019 has been a challenging season, but I am proud of how this church has persisted and grown deeper. I am really excited about who we are and where we’re headed.

 

Budget Updates & 2020 Direction

Our next topic is our budget. You may or may not know this, but the last 3 years–since we left Annapolis HS–our budget at Revolution has undergone extremely significant changes. In that span of time, we have reduced our annual operating budget by more than 60%. This has been in response to major changes both in our giving and in our vision for the church. For the first time in our history, we have less than 3 full-time staff members: right now, we have just one. We have reduced operational costs dramatically, including going fully-mobile during the week. We’ve made big changes. 

In this pretty radical season of downsizing, we have been operating by the philosophy that our job, as leadership, is to build the church God provides. This means that who we are–how we are staffed, where we meet, how we are generous–is going to reflect the tithes and offerings that come in. As the lead pastor, I’m a steward or a caretaker of those gifts: and it’s my job to make the most of what we have. 

This year, although our overall giving has been down, we have been efficient in ways that will ensure Revolution ends 2019 in a safe place financially. And we are committed to being the kind of church we currently are: God has led us to focus on community, discipleship, and impact in our city, even if we aren’t a megachurch…and we continue to “punch above our weight,” so to speak, on that front. 

At a meeting like this, it’s appropriate to say that we have needs, financially: we don’t talk about this often on Sunday, mostly because I don’t want any of you who show up with a guest to feel the cringe of “Oh no! It’s a money sermon!!” while you’re sitting there! But here’s the thing: we believe, as Christians, that it is good to give. That ALL of us are stewards of the wealth God blesses us with. That YOUR job as a steward is the same as my job as a lead pastor: God has provided you with resources, and you have a calling to live efficiently and to bless others. One way you can do that is by contributing to a local church like Revolution, but that’s not the ONLY way. Giving is GOOD FOR YOU. It resonates with how we are all made. And I want you to do it, no matter where it goes. I want you to live generously, with your time and your talents and your wealth, and I want you to feel stretched in this…and then I want to be able to celebrate with you in this. 

If you are giving currently to Revolution, THANK YOU. This church is OUR church: it exists because of the people in this room. And it is FOR God’s glory, both in our city, and in each of us.

 

Medical Debt Relief Update

While we are on the topic of generosity, I wanted to tell you guys some pretty cool news that you have all played a critical part in bringing to light.

This past spring, our small church raised an extra $15,000 and donated that money to forgive almost $2,000,000 of medical debt in our local area. To do this, we worked with an organization called RIP Medical Debt, who at the time had an organization goal of forgiving half a billion dollars of medical debt in the United States over the course of their lifetime. We were the second church in the country to approach them, and the first to ask about focusing on debt in a single community. Your generosity ended up reaching 11 counties throughout Maryland, emptying RIP’s portfolios for the entire state. 

As our story spread this past spring, I ended up doing interviews with the Capital, with news stations in DC and Baltimore, with Christianity Today, with Fox News, and even saw our church’s story translated into Korean and Portugese. As our story spread, RIP began connecting other church leaders with me who wanted to follow our example so they could ask questions. I ended up on dozens and dozens of calls, including with megachurch pastors in Texas and Bethel in California. We connected RIP to Stadia, so they could make debt forgiveness a part of launching new churches, too. To date, more than 70 churches in America have partnered with RIP, forgiving almost half a billion dollars of debt in the last 6 months. Our model of geographically-focused campaigning have become a key part of RIP’s strategy nationwide, and this spring, we will be continuing our partnership with them by exploring how we can partner directly with local hospitals to buy more-expensive debt and forgive it BEFORE it can wreck people’s lives. This story is not over, and I promise we will hear more about it in the year ahead!

 

2020 Theme

And on that note, I want to take a second to introduce our “theme” for 2020: we will be following up our year of exploring the question “Why Church?” by spending next year looking at “Mission.” We want to investigate what it means to be people on mission together, and I am excited about how God will use that focus to deepen our work with RIP, see us hopefully beta-test Josh’s Flourish project in our own city, continue deepening our partnerships with Lighthouse Shelter and the Harbor House neighborhood, and developing even more ways for us to have a positive impact on the lives of the people of Annapolis. I’m really excited about this!

 

Recognitions and Transitions

Speaking of the future, I want to update all of you on some changes in our staffing, too. Or, if you don’t actually know who is on staff, I want you to know that, too! 

First of all, I want to take a moment to thank and recognize Shawn Livingston, who is our Children’s Pastor. Shawn stepped in last fall on a 6 month contract, and this past spring, he told me that he would be willing to stay on indefinitely. I want to thank him for bringing steady and consistent leadership to that department, and to making his team a model for recruitment and involvement in our church. Shawn has been a blessing, and I am really excited that he will be staying on with us as a part-time employee. 

I also want to thank my wife, Meredith, who has been serving as our graphic designer for the last few years and who stepped into the chief administrator role this past January. Meredith has brought such incredible consistency to our systems and operations, almost all of it through work that is almost invisible. She manages accounts, handles church emails, runs CCB, does all of our social media on Facebook and Instagram, and also designs every bit of printwork you see at Revolution. She has been amazing.

Sarah Kramer leads our Worship Team, and she has also been an incredible asset. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a line in a song that connects so well with the sermon, it stuns me. And she does that: she picks music that deepens our experiences on Sundays, and I am so grateful for her, for her creativity, and her thoughtfulness. 

And lastly, I want to take a moment to celebrate SUSANNE LEACH, who has led our Production Team for the last several years. Susanne has been a model of faithfulness and consistency: she is there every Sunday, at the crack of dawn, to make sure that our space is set up and ready to go. She also edits and publishes the podcast and puts together the slides and lights each week. She has been so, so steady and faithful, and I have loved working with her.

However, I also want to announce that she is stepping down from her position this month. She has been in a “temporary gig” for several years at this point, and she actually told me last February that she was ready to step down…but she would stay until we found the right replacement. That’s a microcosm of how selfless she has been: she worked 9 more months after giving me her 2 weeks notice

But this month, she is going to be replaced by Garrett Rivera, who will be stepping in to oversee Sunday production and lead those teams. Garrett is really eager to serve the church in this role, and I am excited to have him on the team. I know he’s going to do a great job!

I also want to give Susanne a token of appreciation for her hard work…

 

New Governance at Revolution

Okay, so in some ways the biggest announcement we are making this evening is this next one about changes to our governance model at Revolution. A bit of backstory is warranted here, so here we go:

In 2009, prior to Revolution’s launch, Josh was responsible for building a Management Team to oversee him and to oversee the church as it came into existence. The roles on that team were held by 6 folks from the organizations and churches who played a role in funding the church. In 2013, members of that external Management Team began rotating off, and they were replaced by new members from our church community. Last winter, the last of the original team members rotated off, and for the last year, we have been entirely governed by folks who are also a part of our church. For the last year, the team and I have been steadily working on building a fully internal and fully independent model and system for our governance moving forward. This process was set up in our bylaws all the way back in 2009, and we are ready this evening to announce that we have completed the first phases of our work and we have voted to move forward with a new system.

So, beginning in the first quarter of next year, Revolution will no longer have a Management Team but will instead by governed by a group of what we are calling Lay Leaders as part of a 7-person Leadership Team. That team, which will include 6 Lay Leaders and the Lead Pastor, will govern the church through what’s known as a plurality of leadership model. That means that we will have equal authority, as members of that team, and all the big decisions about our church’s future and life and health will be made together. This is really exciting news, and I am incredibly excited about this plan!

But how does this impact everybody here? And what are the details about what these positions are and how they will work for the health of our church?

What is most encouraging for me about the plan we are pursuing is that each of the 6 Lay Leader positions we will be looking to fill has a specific area of oversight, or focus, that the Leader will be focused on. This means that our team won’t just be a group of 7 “leaders” getting together to make decisions…each “leader” will have a department, of sorts, that they will be responsible for praying for, developing, and representing in the group. These 6 focus areas are going to be a tremendous help for our church because they are going to help break up a lot of the planning that has traditionally fallen on the Lead Pastor and staff in a way that will help the body of our church have tremendously improved level of access to what we are doing. To say that a bit more clearly: if the old model was one that ended up putting a lot of the planning and vision for the church on the shoulders of the staff, the new model is going to bring a lot of that work out front here, for the people of the church as a whole. 

So, what are the 6 positions we are going to be filling in the next few months? 

  1. Discipleship
  2. Financial Oversight
  3. Church Life
  4. Community Engagement
  5. Sunday Services
  6. Benevolence/Generosity

The 6 Lay Leaders filling these 6 roles will help give our church energy and focus as we plan for the years ahead. 

So, who will the Lay Leaders be? 

That’s the second big part of this announcement. Lay Leader positions can be held by anyone in our church, male or female, who is a committed part of our community, passionate about the particular area the role covers, and is approved by the existing Team after submitting an application and being successfully interviewed. These are roles that are open, in other words, to many of the people in this room. 

Over the next few weeks, the team and I will begin meeting and talking with folks, and I want to encourage all of you, even if you’ve never quite thought of yourself as a “leader,” to ask yourself: am I passionate about one of these areas? Would I be interested in stepping in to a responsibility to pray for this, to work with team leaders on existing teams on this, and to represent this area in our church’s governance? If that’s something you are considering, I want to ask you to talk with me, or to talk with any member of the current Management Team, about it. 

Our plan right now is to gather applicants for these roles through the end of November, meet with and interview candidates in December, and introduce the new Leadership Team in January or February of 2020, where members will serve terms of up to 3 years. Each fall, in our annual family meeting, we will discuss upcoming vacancies on the team–after building the team this year, we will rotate two folks off each winter–and work through this process again. 

My big hope for our meeting today is that each and every one of us leaves here asking ourselves: what am I passionate about? How has God gifted me to serve in my church? What can I offer or bring to the life and health of Revolution? Because here’s the big point: this church is made up of the people in this room. There isn’t something else, or somebody else, somewhere else making Revolution happen: it’s us.

And as we’ve been talking about over the last few Sundays, the Bible teaches us that the church is a body. We are, each and every one of us, members of that body. And for the body to be healthy, we all have to do our best to play the roles God has given us. What part are you? What role do you have to play?

I want to close by framing things up like this: 

My hope for all of us is that each and every person who calls Revolution their church home will one day find ourselves fully plugged into this church community in 4 ways:

  • We will find a way to connect to the church outside of Sundays, through a small group or through some other personal relationships
  • We will find a way to serve our church on Sundays, by joining an existing team or even inventing something totally new that is just the right fit for us.
  • We will be supporting Revolution by giving financially, at a rhythm and amount that is comfortable for us, but also hopefully always stretching us to live more generously.
  • We will be investing in relationships both inside and outside of our church. Some of you might remember the “fishbowl project” we did last January: are we continuing to do things like this? Are we being intentional about making friends with one another, and strengthening our connections with one another, as parts of the same church body?

These are the 4 ways we can play our essential part in this church. It’s how we can find and embrace our roles here. And more than that: it’s what we need as a church if we want our church to grow and to be healthy. You are Revolution; Revolution is this church family. 

I love this community. I am “all-in” here. I am honored–continually–to be here, as your lead pastor. And I am so, so eager to see all of us take these next steps towards an even healthier church. I am so excited to see what God can and will do through this church in the year and years ahead. I am for this, in every way I can be. Will you be “all in” with me? 

 

Acts 13-15: The Horror of Group Projects; or, Lessons in Expanding a Circle

sermongraphic-01-01 (14)

DELIVERED 20 OCTOBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

This morning, we are starting a new series which is really a continuation of an old series. Back in February of this year, we started reading through the book of Acts, which details the first years of the Christian church in Jerusalem, and the expansion of the network of Jesus followers out from that city and throughout the Roman world. For the purposes of a recap, the first half of Acts focuses on the fallout from the miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit among the disciples at Pentecost. After the Spirit is made manifest among them when they speak to a crowd simultaneously in a multitude of languages, the ministry of the church Jesus commissioned is established: visitors to Jerusalem who had known nothing of Jesus were amazed by what they saw and heard, and they committed–right there on the spot–to staying with the disciples and learning more about this man they followed and worshipped. The numbers of the church grew, and the essential tension at the heart of the book of Acts emerged. 

What is that tension? Put simply, it is the challenge of holding fast to the Truth you have witnessed when the size of your circle is expanding. 

For the rest of the first half of Acts, we saw the disciples wrestle with the tensions of an expanding ministry and movement as the “Jesus cult”–or “the Way,” as it began to be called–spread throughout the Jewish community of Jerusalem and came time and time again into conflict with the leaders of the Jewish temple and the Roman authorities who sat in power over the region. As the followers of Jesus went about the work of sharing their story and performing miraculous acts of kindness and healing throughout the city, the drama they stirred up for those in power led to their perpetual arrest, interrogation, and mistreatment. It even led to their murder. And yet, nothing seemed to be able to stop the spread of Jesus’s ministry of love, repentance, forgiveness, and generosity. 

saulBut the second half of the book of Acts branches off from this story to tell an even bigger tale. In the 8th chapter of the book, we are introduced to a new figure, a man named Saul, who was a devout Jew from a priestly sect known as the Pharisees, and who initially despises Jesus’s teachings and Jesus’s followers. In fact, Saul is a leader among those who persecute and even kill early Christians. But in Acts Chapter 9, while on his way from Jerusalem to the city of Damascus to bring to trial a group of Christians who were preaching there, Saul has a direct encounter with Jesus himself, who tells Saul he is persecuting those who follow the real messiah, and that he not only wants Saul to turn and follow him but also that he has a special mission for Saul to share the story of the “Way” not only with the Jews throughout the region but even to the Gentiles, or non-Jews, from Jerusalem and to the very ends of the earth. To condense a long story into as short a story as possible, Saul–whose name becomes Paul–accepts Jesus’s commission, repents to Peter, James, and the other Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, and after learning more about Jesus’s life and death, sets out to share the Jesus story with the rest of the Roman world. And this is where we pick things back up.

Whew! That was a heckuva recap! So, what in the world are we talking about today? And how are we going to study the stories of Paul’s three missionary journeys as discussed in the second half of the book of Acts over the course of this series? And perhaps most importantly to some of us, why is any of this worth talking about on Sunday mornings? What are we learning here? And how does any of this affect how or why we do church the way that we do it in America in 2019?

To answer that last question first, throughout this year, our teaching time on Sundays has been centered around an essential theme question, and that question has been WHY CHURCH?

sermongraphic-01-01 (8)Why do we do this? What does this thing called the church exist for? And what would Revolution look like if we took a step back, tried to answer those first two questions carefully, and then reimagined our own church with the question “why?” at the center of it? 

Over the last 10 months, we have talked all around this question, and we have looked at the importance of investigating our doubts together, seeking wholeness in community, sharing our stories with one another, keeping ancient stories alive, and even learning to lament with one another as we suffer grief. Now, as we turn back to the book of Acts, we want to start to shift our perspective from what the church does for those inside of it to how the circle of the church can grow to offer new hope and new belonging to those who might not think they have any place here. I know that has been a long set up this morning, and I promise I won’t keep rehashing all of this each week! But truly, I think we need to lay all of that out here at the beginning as clearly as we can, because I think the value for us of everything we are going to talk about in the next 6 weeks flows out of that important shift in what we are talking about: WHY CHURCH? isn’t just a question for Christians…it’s a question for everyone. And I’ll get on my high horse for just one quick second here and say the future of the church in this country absolutely depends on our ability to both say clearly what the church is here for and mean it. We have to learn to back it up. The days of depending on a culture that just sort of assumes the church is here to make our city and our state and our country a better place are over. We have–to be blunt–betrayed that trust. And so we need to figure out together what makes Revolution important to people, both inside these walls and outside of them. Or else we won’t be. 

So, what do we do with these two things this morning? First, that the essential tension in the early church had to with how to stay committed to Truth while also expanding their circle…and second, that rediscovering why we do church is so important to us as a community? 

antiochTo get at an answer, I want us to look at a critical moment in the second half of Acts when the work of the main church in Jerusalem collides with the work of Paul among the Gentiles. The setup here comes after Paul’s first missionary journey, when he traveled as far as Antioch in modern-day Turkey and established the first real church beyond the borders of the Jewish world. In that church, Paul taught that the hope for new life Jesus promised was a hope not only for Jews but for anyone who repented, was baptized, and committed to following Jesus’s example in the world. For the record, this is what we also teach today. But as Paul returns home from his journey to Jerusalem, word of what has been done goes ahead of him, and some of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are incensed. 

To explain why they are so angry, we have to offer a brief bit of backstory: one of the key rituals in Jewish culture–perhaps the key marker of Jewish identity, going all the way back to their patriarch, Abraham–is circumcision of male infants.

circumcision

Let’s just say that this is not the first image to come up when you do a Google search for “circumcision.” I…have been on a journey. 

This act permanently marked Jews as being set apart, and it was deeply connected to their identity as a people who were unique among the nations. But since Christianity is, at its root, a Jewish religion, this tradition created real tension once Paul started baptizing non-Jews into the faith. Why? Well, because non-Jewish men would not have been circumcised. So, the question becomes: what do we do about this? Do we insist that they be circumcised as adults? Or do we skip that…and if we skip it, are we taking a first step towards abandoning the entire Law? Initially, the church’s answer is clear:

Acts 15:5

Some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” 

But Paul disagrees: he says that when he was actually among the Gentiles, he had no reason to believe their conversion was incomplete. Peter agrees and says, 

Acts 15:8-10

“And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?”

I want to pause now on this point, in part because I want to make sure we think it through, and in part because I can sense that this whole message today has gotten pretty darn academic, and I want us to take a moment to make sure it can feel grounded to us as we try to draw lessons for ourselves from it today. So, what is at stake here, really?

Over the last month or so, I have been reminded that perhaps the sneakiest of all sins is envy. Its roots seem to be in justice and self-care, but it can do so, so much harm to us. To illustrate:

Education Students People Knowledge Concept

“YAY!!!”

A few weeks ago, my oldest daughter, Evangeline, who is in fifth grade, was working on one of her first group projects. Right now, in this rdom, I want you all to look around: did you hear someone near you groan? That is because group projects are the first great separator of sheep and goats in most of our lives. Every single one of you who groaned knows what it means when someone says “group project”: it means somebody is about to do somebody else’s work. And I’m going to stir the pot this morning: if you didn’t groan, I bet it’s because that work that got did was yours. Group projects are the absolute worst. And Evangeline’s was no different: she and her friend were supposed to be staging a scripted interview, where one of them would play the part of Susan B. Anthony and the other would ask questions. They were supposed to work on the questions together, and then perform in front of the class. Evangeline was Susan B. Anthony. But it was the day before the presentation, and Evey was frustrated because her partner had been working for days on an artistic backdrop for the interview, and she hadn’t been helping with the questions. Furthermore, she had batted the questions Evey had written aside and said they weren’t good enough. Evey was panicking. 

susanbSo–and if you know either me or Meredith, this will come as absolutely no surprise to you–we gave her some advice: just suck it up and write all the questions and answers yourself. Share them tomorrow with your friend. If she has done the work too without telling you, you can pick the best ones and do a mix of them. If she hasn’t, you’ll still feel confident in your grade. 

Any guesses as to Evey’s reaction? Bingo: that’s not fair. Why should I do all the work and let her get a good grade? She was distraught. And so–because I am a pastor now, and that means I have a professional obligation to solve all problems with a Bible story–I told her a parable Jesus once told about some workers.

vineyard

In the story, a worker is hired at the beginning of the day to work all day for a particular payment. Then, in mid-morning, the man who hired him goes out and hires a second worker to work for the same wage. He does this again at noon. And again in the afternoon. And then again, at the very end of the day: each worker gets the same payment of a penny. It did not take Evey long to get the point of this story, and to be ticked about it: “that’s not fair! The first worker worked all day!” But of course I asked her: did that worker get the payment he agreed to work for? Did each worker? So, what makes it unfair?

The reason we fall victim to envy is because we tend to care more about other people’s pasts than their futures. 

And the same was true among the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem: what was really at stake in this issue of circumcision wasn’t what was best for the Gentiles…it was their own sense of envy that the Gentiles were being paid the same wages even though they were hired at the end of the day. There wasn’t much that was easy about being a Jew in the first century, or in the centuries before it: they had been conquered and re-conquered, exiled and persecuted and enslaved. Circumcision was a token of that suffering; a marker. The Gentiles seemed to them to be freeloaders on the Jesus story. 

So, what does the early church do? The apostles and Paul meet and Peter says the evidence of the Holy Spirit–the evidence that they received the wages–is there. Why give them another burden to make yourselves feel better? Especially a burden that we have not carried in an unimpeachable way? He adds, 

Acts 15:11

“On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will”

In the end, the leader of the church, Jesus’s brother James, speaks and says that they will write to the Gentiles and say circumcision is unnecessary and they are

Acts 15:20

“to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” 

Which is to say, they are instructed to follow the Law moving forward. Moreover, the whole council decides to send the letter back to Antioch in the company of two other apostles, Judas and Barsabbas, in order to make sure the Gentiles know that the whole of the Jerusalem church is with them. 

I know this has been an odd sermon this morning, and I apologize for that! There has been a lot of storytelling and summarizing, and it’s a far cry from the personal stories of lament we have been sharing over the last few weeks. But if you can come along with me just a little bit further, I think we can make a few observations here about how the early church functions that can teach us about how we, too, should be and live. 

Here’s what the church is. And also why the church is:

The church is people who, in their own times and for their own reasons and at their own paces, have decided they want to live lives more like Jesus. 

That’s it. That’s what and who we are. But the catch is in the footsteps of the man we are trying to follow: that guy gives everyone the same wages, no matter when they start the day’s labor. That guy isn’t exactly fair, at least not in the way we understand. Instead, he’s generous. He pays too much. Which means the church is supposed to pay too much, too. That, at least in part, is the why: the church is here because a world that looks more like Jesus is a world where people pay too much. Where people are generous. Where people are welcomed, whether they deserve it or not. Which means it’s a world where people are valued, and valued deeply. It’s not fair. But I think it’s better

What can we learn from the way the first church walks through this issue of circumcision among the Gentiles? We can learn: 

First: Paul, Peter, and the other apostles are focused on the trajectory of the church. They aren’t looking to create one perfect pocket of Christian community in their small world of Jerusalem. They want the church to grow, to bring others in. Do we want the same? I love that Revolution is a small church, I love that I feel like I can know everybody here. If we are a small church forever, that’s absolutely fine with me. But it can’t be because we didn’t invite others in. It can’t be because we only want the workers who started at the beginning of the day to be paid. It can’t be because we are envious. If you love what this church is for you, share it. Tell your friends they are welcome here. Show them they are wanted.

Second: the early church focuses on the experiences of those who are new to the community. Paul and Peter silence the critics of the Gentiles by focusing on the Gentiles. The legalistic arguments about what these people should or shouldn’t do; the politics of what the impact will be for the Jerusalem church…those things are cast aside because their past isn’t the Gentiles’ present problem. What real good would circumcising grown men do? What could it add to their conversion that baptism and the Holy Spirit hadn’t already given them? The church leaders remembered and empathized with the experience of their new converts, and that led them to a generous decision. 

Again, what about us? If you have been here for years, are your eyes open on a Sunday morning for folks who are new? Are you caring for others in the way you were cared for, or in the way you wish you had been cared for? And what burdens are we placing on one another? Is there any burden from the past that still belongs on a person’s shoulders, or are we sharing and celebrating real freedom? Are we forgiving? Don’t place a burden on the neck of your neighbor that you haven’t been able to carry. Love, and love radically.

Third: the church reads Scripture with humility. The Pharisees aren’t wrong about what they are asking for: they have chapters and verses to back them up! But they are callous in the spirit of what they are calling for, and the early church models a concern for the whole of Scripture, as much as for the letter of it. James quotes the prophets in his defense of the Gentiles, keeping his eye on the doors Scripture opens and not the doors it closes. Are we the same? Can we follow their example of living in the tension of our commitment to the truth of Scripture and our calling to expand our community? So often, churches fall on one side of this debate or the other: they have an answer for everything, and they condemn, condemn, condemn…or they want so much to be liked that they crumple up and throw away every part of the Bible that makes them uneasy. Do we have the courage to live in the middle? To say “yes” to both sides? To love, no matter what…and to hold that Scripture is true, too? 

I’ll tell you what, the secret to this isn’t complicated, but it is incredibly hard: the secret is humility. The ability to say, yes, I know the Bible is true…but I don’t understand all of it perfectly. And I want to. James shows us that the way to do this is to keep digging, to know the Bible…and when it makes us uncomfortable, to keep digging still, and look for the harmony in it. Talk to each other. Wrestle. Live in the tensions of our belief, but in humility, love above all. 

Fourth: the church lives out what they teach. That’s the proof of the thing. The Jerusalem Council doesn’t end with a bunch of guys in Jerusalem sending a signed and sealed letter, for others to enforce. They go to Antioch with the letter in hand. They read it to the Gentiles in person. They deliver the news in a way that is human. And they commit to walking through things with the Gentiles, as long as they are needed. 

Oh man, this point stuck with me all week. Do we do this? Do we take the things we believe and walk them out in real life with people? Or do we hide behind belief statements on our website or, perhaps, in things we yell at one another on social media? Are we willing to walk things all the way through with one another? 

Years ago, Meredith and I attended a church that talked a lot about adoption. That church is the reason we pursued adoption ourselves, 9 years ago. And do you want to know why we felt we couldn’t wriggle our way out of this responsibility we see in Scripture to “care for widows and orphans in their distress”? Because every single leader in that church adopted a child. Every one. They knew it was complicated. They knew it was hard. They didn’t lie to us about that! But they lived it out, right there for everyone to see. They struggled together. They walked their beliefs through, all the way to the end of the road with one another. 

This is going to be a hard series, in a lot of ways. But I hope it’s also a series that helps us to feel free and even joyful. I hope it helps us avoid the trap of envy, and find excitement in the challenges of not only being a family, but growing one. We fell in love with Jesus because he freed us from having to exist only for ourselves. He taught us to exist for others instead. Are we willing to fall in love with the Church for the same reason? 

 

Personal Psalms of Lament

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THESE PSALMS WERE WRITTEN BY CONGREGANTS AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS AND SHARED ANONYMOUSLY, 13 OCTOBER 2019.

Psalm 1

Lord, creator and sustainer of all,
Of stars and mountains,
Of love and grace,
Of people and community,
Inhabit this space here with me now,
May your wisdom direct my thoughts
For you alone hold the power of all.

Why, Lord, is relationship so complicated and nurturing so hard?
How do I let the progression of time,
the change of interrelation rightly happen?
The loosening of control,
Brings fear to my mind and ache to my heart.
The desire to be the one who protects and shelters and keeps is strong,
To hold in tight hands these people you’ve given me.

But, your example of love, Lord, is not one of forced control,
But freedom and grace.
History of your people proves that hardship and conflict are not for nothing.
Help my love to look like yours, Lord,
To trust, to support,
To encourage, to comfort,
To let go and welcome with open arms.
Grant me courage and compassion,
Expectation, not fear.
Teach me to love strong while holding loose.

Lord, your blessing and love are endless.
I cannot escape your faithfulness.
May time be a teacher.
Bring wisdom to my days.

 

Psalm 2

Timeless God,
Why do the days drag on and on,
One after another, in endless parade?
Why did you make one so like another?
The sun rises and sets; clouds come and go;
Light and dark appear and disappear and yet
All I see is fog and frustration.
Why does nothing change?
Same people making the same mistakes
And the same apologies.
The words come and go like the clouds
And mean nothing.
Just more fog and frustration.
Please, God of all eternity, tell me that the world to come will be different!
Tell me that I will not suffer this heavy monotony for all time.
I put my hope in You who never changes and yet
Always surprises me.
Lord of my every moment,
Please show me what is sacred in the sameness.
Help me to hear You in the rhythm of the everyday.
I know You are here with me.
I know You have been here, suffering through time,
Shaping my time,
Loving me all the time.
Thank You, God, for every minute of blessing.
Thank You, for being one constant true thing.
Psalm 3

How many times, O Lord?
How many times will I have to return to the same place
and hear the same rationalizations and the same apologies?
How many times am I supposed to forgive?
You say to forgive seven times seventy times; but is it not foolish to stay
and be wounded so many times?
I am afraid of these cycles of dread and hurt and disappointment.
I feel helpless and invisible in them.

And at the same time, I know I drag you through the same muck:
The same cycles of promise and carelessness,
of regret and apology and more promises.
I make the same rationalizations and apologies to you.
I treat you as if you are invisible.
And I am afraid of these cycles, too.

Is this what we are?
Are we incomplete creatures, always trying to make our edges
fit with one another, even when they shouldn’t?
Are we mismatched puzzle pieces pounded together and
ruining each other?
If we are meant to be whole, why have you made wholeness
so hard to find and keep?

Why can’t I rest, even when I should?
How many times, O Lord, can I do this?

I will trust in your patience with me.
I will remember the moments of wholeness you have brought me,
and I will be more grateful for them.
Show me how to rest. Show me how to forgive.
Show me how to be grateful, for I am not alone.
I am not alone.

 

Psalm 4

Lord God,
The hurting and brokenness of the people I love is too big to hold.
Where are you?
You’re supposed to hold your children close.
You’re supposed to heal us.
Is this love that you have for your people big enough?
Does it matter at all?
I want healing for my friends, for me,
For a world that seems broken in ways that will never be mended.

You are a God who brings dead things back to life.
You know us, you see us, you hurt with us when we’re hurting.
You are there in the depths of our despair.
I believe in you.
Help my unbelief.

Sitting With My Own Grief: A Case for Personal Lament

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DELIVERED 29 SEPTEMBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

This week, we are continuing in the second week of our series on lament, which we introduced last week as the ancient Biblical practice of walking through grief alongside one another. Last week, we also talked about the basic practices of lament, which are drawn from Scripture and can train us to support one another as we experience pain and grief in our lives together. 

Today, we are going to take the next step by shifting our focus from the grief of others to our own personal grief. So, if our big questions in this series are about what lament means and how we can be a church that is faithful to our responsibility to lament, this morning we want to look more closely at what it means to carry personal grief and how we can learn to carry it in a way that is healthy.

I want to start off by challenging the imaginary version of myself I often try to pretend is sitting in one of these benches next to you because he is already starting to check out. The reason is because when it comes to grief, I often feel like an outsider. I have lived a life to this point of extraordinary grace and privilege. I have never lost anyone in my closest circle of relationships to death, and so I don’t tend to think much about my own grief. But I want to say to that version of me–I want to say to myself–that there is more to grief than death…and maybe that’s something that you need to hear, too.

Let me offer a quick illustration which might help us with this first point:

As most of you know, in my former life, I was a high school teacher. One of the “occupational hazards” of that kind of a job is that you end up walking alongside many, many young people during one of the most emotionally chaotic seasons of their lives. There are break-ups, betrayals, disillusionment with the adult world…all kinds of heavy things. But when you work in an environment where these things are happening all the time, you can quickly become desensitized and cynical about these “teenager problems.” It’s easy, when a student comes in crying over the end of a three-week romance, to feel like saying, “kid…you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Tough up.” 

Stretching rubber bandBut one of the lessons I learned in managing some of these situations is that the emotions of people are like rubber bands. When each one of us comes into the world, we have this emotional “range” we are capable of, with excruciating psychological pain on one end and exultant joy on the other. But when we are born, the distance between them isn’t much at all. We are unstretched rubber bands. This is why kids wail over pangs of hunger and laugh crazily at peekaboo. But as we go through life, new (and more extreme) experiences stretch out that rubber band, and feelings that were once extreme become normalized in the middle. So, you and I don’t have tantrums over a late lunch anymore, and it takes more to make us smile. 

But here’s the thing: you can’t judge somebody else’s rubber band by the standards of your own life experiences. Just because you have suffered in ways that make a teenage break-up seem small doesn’t mean they have yet: for them, this is the new worst thing to have ever happened. 

So, to return to the first point I need to make for myself, and maybe the first point some of you need to hear, too: I cannot define my own grief based on the amount of suffering I have seen other people experience. My grief–my suffering–is simply what it is. My rubber band has been stretched only as much as it has been stretched…and I need to–WE NEED TO–resist the temptation to ignore our grief because someone else might not think it’s a big deal. Which is a way of saying that we need to have the courage to maintain presence with our own suffering. Sometimes, this is hard because the pain is so extreme we don’t want to look at it. And sometimes, this is hard because we feel a social pressure to look strong that keeps us from ever dealing with stuff that, for us and our rubber band, is truly painful. 

So, what can be defined as grief? How can we define and categorize types of suffering in a way that doesn’t box people with less-stretched rubber bands out…but can still hold people who might feel like their rubber band has been broken? I want to contend that we can think about grief in 3 basic areas: 

  1. The grief of loss, including the grief of death, but also other kinds of permanent relational loss, such as the end of an important friendship, relationship, or even a community. I have experienced this grief in the form of losing several apparent career paths; I have experienced this grief in moving from one state to another.
  2. The grief of trauma, which includes both physical and psychological wounding. Here, I think about some of the crises I have witnessed in the lives of my friends. I think about a time, when I was a teacher, when I was wrongfully accused of something truly heinous and upsetting, and it was like someone rolled a hand grenade into the middle of my life. I also think–to be transparent and honest–of my experience two summers ago when I found out that Josh would be leaving Revolution. 
  3. The grief of disappointment, including disappointment in ourselves, in others, and in God. I know this grief well: it comes to me when I can’t shake a negative and compulsive behavior, or when I have been vulnerable with others and they have let me down.

We all carry at least some of these forms of grief. Last week, when Robbert shared his story with us, he talked to us about the depth of grief he has felt as a result of losing his dream of being a pilot. He also talked about the damage that flowed out from his decision, when he was facing that loss, to just bottle his grief up and pretend to move on: avoiding his grief and minimizing his grief had real consequences…and then those consequences themselves became new sources of disappointment in himself and disappointment with God. This disappointment led him into more cycles of grief. What I think we can all learn from hearing Robbert’s story is that our first step of personal lament must be finding and facing our own grief. This is hard, but it is critically important: we have to look for and see and name what is causing us pain.

But, once we identify these places, what can we do next? The answer I want to share with you is that we do the work of maintaining presence with our own suffering by facing and sharing the truths of our grief 1) with ourselves, 2) with others, and 3) with God. 

For the rest of our time this morning, I want us to look at two specific examples from Scripture of this kind of work happening: examples of people practicing personal lament by maintaining presence with their own suffering and bringing the truths of that experience into the light

As Clare mentioned awhile ago, we are inviting everyone to join us in writing a personal psalm of lament over the course of this series. But what does that word “psalm” mean? Where does it come from, and how are these things connected?

psalmsThe word “psalm” is a synonym for a “song.” Generally, it comes up in church conversations because the ancient Israelites collected many of their own songs together in the “Book of Psalms,” which is a compilation of 150 of them and–by word count–the longest book in all of the Bible. And what were these songs about?

The answer, overwhelmingly, is grief. The writers of the psalms use an incredible range of poetic styles and devices to lament their suffering, their anger, their sorrow, and even their frustrations with God in a way that is on one level personal, but by virtue of being shared and cherished, also extraordinarily community-focused. The psalms were tools that human beings could use to describe, confess, and process their grief together, and they were (and are) a powerful and important part of how we understand what it means to live faithful lives with our God. 

So, what do those psalms have in common? What did effective and Biblical processing look like? To talk that through, we are going to look at some pieces of one psalm in particular: Psalm 77. It begins:

Psalm 77:3-9

    …my soul refuses to be comforted.

When I remember God, I moan;

    when I meditate, my spirit faints. 

You hold my eyelids open;

    I am so troubled that I cannot speak.

I consider the days of old,

    the years long ago.

I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;

    let me meditate in my heart.”

    Then my spirit made a diligent search:

“Will the Lord spurn forever,

    and never again be favorable?

Has his steadfast love forever ceased?

    Are his promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious?

    Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” 

 

The psalmist begins by identifying his current emotional and spiritual states of affairs. He does not tell us what the drama of the day was that led him here; he starts with how he feels. This can be an important thing for some of us to remember: when we are sharing how things are going, that can be different from sharing what things are going. We can and should look at our feelings and see them as real and important things themselves…which might not always follow logically from what is actually happening. If we step back from really admitting how we feel because we are already telling ourselves, “well, that won’t really make sense,” we are skipping one of those critical practices for this series: we are censoring ourselves preemptively…even in a private song! Please don’t let yourself fall into that trap on purpose!

So, the psalmist begins with his feelings: his soul refuses to be comforted. What is bothering his soul? It’s that he has no delight in his spiritual life: when he is reminded of God, he moans. When he sits to meditate, he falls asleep! When he wakes up, he can’t speak to pray. He finds no delight or desire in spending time with God. 

This is 3000 years old, but I imagine many of us can relate.  

So what does he confess next? He says, God, I want to “remember my song in my night”…I want to meditate on you. And when he starts to think about God–to really think about him–what is on his mind? He writes,  

Psalm 77:7-9

Will the Lord spurn forever,

    and never again be favorable?

Has his steadfast love forever ceased?

    Are his promises at an end for all time?

Has God forgotten to be gracious?

This is in our Bible as Scripture…and what does it say? The psalmist wonders: “is God cruel?” “Has God stopped loving me?” “Has he abandoned me?” “Is he even there?”

Psalm 77 shows us–and teaches us–that we have to begin with what is True. Not what is reasonable. Not what should be true. Not what we know is the right answer on the test of our faith or religion: the true Truth. What we are thinking and feeling. And for the psalmist, he is saying, “God, I don’t care about praying to you. I don’t care about reading your words. I fall asleep when I try. And if I were to stay awake, do you know what I’d be thinking about? How disappointed I am in you for not showing up in my life.” That’s a hard thing to say. But–and here’s a key thing, I think–it was probably an even harder thing for the scribes and priests to keep copying down, generation after generation. So, why did they do it? Why include these complaints? 

Because they model telling ourselves the truth about the Truth. They start with feelings. The psalmist follows our guidelines: even when he is sleepy, he maintains presence with his thoughts, and even though they are dark, he speaks them without censorship.

So, then what happens? 

Psalms 77:10-20 (abridged)

Then I said, “I will appeal to this,

    to the years of the right hand of the Most High.”

[…]

I will remember the deeds of the Lord…

I will ponder all your work

[…]

When the waters saw you, O God,

    when the waters saw you, they were afraid;

    indeed, the deep trembled.

The clouds poured out water;

    the skies gave forth thunder;

   […]

Your way was through the sea,

    your path through the great waters;

    yet your footprints were unseen.

You led your people like a flock

    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

The psalmist does not try to rationalize what they are feeling. They continue to say what is true, but now not about themselves, but about God: God has been at work. God has made a miraculous world. And in those last verses, God’s path has often been like a person walking through water, where their footprints are invisible. And finally, the psalmist looks at their own history, and God’s deliverance of their ancestors from slavery by the hands of Moses and Aaron. God delivers

What can we see here? We can see: a psalmist maintaining presence with their grief, being honest with themselves about what they’re feeling, being honest with others about what they’re feeling, and being honest with God about what they’re feeling, all without censoring themselves. And then reminding themselves about God’s character, recognizing that sometimes God’s steps are invisible, but the evidence of his love and care can still be found. 

about 1458-60

The second example of personal lament I want us to look at from Scripture this morning comes from the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s an account of the night Jesus was arrested and sentenced to death. Jesus had told his disciples repeatedly that this night was coming: he knew he would be crucified. But after sharing a final meal with his followers, he took the three disciples who were his closest friends and went to a garden to pray. Once there,  

Matthew 26:37-45

he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.”

There is much to see in this passage, as there is in most all of the stories we know about Jesus, but I want us to stay focused for a moment on this issue of personal lament and grief. One of the most moving things, I think, about the Jesus story is how human he consistently is…and how important remembering Jesus’s humanity was to his early followers. Jesus’s sadness here is not the fear of someone who doesn’t know what is happening. He knows: he has been telling them, and even here, when he gets up to leave the garden he says, “Rise, my betrayer draws near.” And even more than this, Jesus knows that what he is about to suffer is important and even necessary for salvation and love to “win” in this world! But even so, Jesus grieves…and in the way he grieves, he sets an example for us still. What can we see?

First, we see Jesus’s willingness to be vulnerable and name what he is feeling. He says, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” He is saying that he does not want to face what is coming to him. Second, he is willing to say that he does not want to suffer death out loud, to others: he has brought his closest friends to sit near him in his grief, and he does not hide himself from them. And third, he shares all of this with God, while also submitting to what God is going to do. 

It’s worth noting, I think, that God does not seem to answer him. If he does, those words aren’t recorded here for us to read. This is a profound thing, I think: if ever there were a moment when the reassuring voice of God was warranted, surely it must have been in the frightened prayers of Jesus himself just prior to his arrest, torture, and murder, right? If ever there were a moment when a clear “Be strong; I will carry you through this” from the heavens would have been helpful, it must have been that night in the garden! And yet, God at least appears to be silent.

Yet Jesus models submission to God anyway…and not as part of a quid pro quo for God doing what Jesus wants. Jesus accepts here that he may nonetheless have to walk a terrible road. But accepting it and resigning himself to it are two different things

This is the last major point I want us to look at this morning, because I think we can really struggle with that distinction: accepting that God may lead us through extraordinarily painful places is not the same as resigning ourselves to our fate. 

Ten years ago, before I moved to Maryland, I had a friend named James who was also the pastor of my church. More than any other person in my adult life, James served as a mentor to me. He was older and smarter and wiser than me, and I counted on him to be invested in my health and my growth. But when I moved to Maryland, we mostly fell out of touch, and once I was here, I remember feeling the loss of that “mentor-figure” and taking it pretty hard. Over time, I found new friends and a new church family, and with that, I found new, meaningful, and deeply caring relationships. But I never filled that hole that my relationship with James had left. As time has passed, I have felt my attitude towards that grief shift, and I have come to realize–in thinking about this series–that I was blocking it out, and even resigning myself to my current state: as of this morning, I feel like this is just something I’ve lost, I won’t get it back, and there’s no use worrying about it. That, I want to suggest, is what it means to feel resigned to something: you just have to get over it. 

But Jesus’s example in the garden pushes me towards acceptance over resignation. Here’s the difference: acceptance means recognizing that the road you are walking is hard and God is God. He may not fix it; he may not change it. But he is here, and he is sovereign, and I believe he is good. Resignation was a form of bitterness for me that allowed me to see a hard road and hold onto anger about whether or not God even cared that I was walking it. I was so focused on the failure of things that I tried to just hustle and move past it. But accepting the loss of someone in a mentor role in my life allows me to grieve, to ask, “How Long, O Lord?” and to wait with patience on an answer. 

As we close today, these are the things I want to challenge you to think about this week: I want you to ask yourself:

  • Am I hiding my grief from myself?
  • What is the true Truth of my feelings, unfiltered and uncensored?
  • Who would be a safe person to talk to about what I am feeling?
  • What else do I think is true about God? 

These questions will not, on their own, bring you comfort. But they may help you move from resignation to acceptance, and in acceptance, grant you the patience to wait on God.

 

********

 

Now, every week, I pray at this point in our service before we transition either into a personal story or a time to receive communion together. Typically, I let these prayers come unscripted: they are a moment when I try to speak to God in the moment, and from the heart. But this week, I want to try something different. I’ve written out a prayer for us this morning, and I want to read it to you carefully. We’re not going to put it on the screen–if you are comfortable with it, I want to encourage you to close your eyes, and I will read it slowly. I would ask that, if you are open to prayer, that you try to open yourself up to these words and make them your own as we pray together. 

Oh God, our Father in Heaven,

Give us eyes to see ourselves clearly. Give us courage to face what is difficult to face within us.

Help us to see the hurt we are carrying from loss, from trauma, and from disappointment in  ourselves, in others, and even in you. Give us the boldness we need to speak these things out and to share them with ourselves, with others, and even with you. Help us to speak without fear.

God, as we look inside ourselves and name the hurt we are carrying, let us also remember that you see us and know us, too. That you are present with us. That you care for us. That you are faithful to your promises to us. And that you are mighty, and your character is good.

Bring hope to us when there seems to be no hope. Bring courage to us when we are afraid.

Bring comfort to us, in your own time. Forgive our impatience with you. Give us patience beyond ourselves. Let our grief bear fruit in our lives, and in the lives of others. 

In Jesus’s name we pray, amen.

The Insufficiency of Christian Platitudes and a Case for Lament

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DELIVERED 22 SEPTEMBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

Today, we are starting a new series on the role the church plays in processing suffering and grief titled “How Long, O Lord?” and I think we need to say right now at the start of things that Christians are typically terrible at providing comfort. It’s an unpleasant thing for me, as a Christian, to admit, but when it comes to doing grief wrong, I have come to believe that we are first team All-Americans. 

The reason for this is because Christians love these things called platitudes. Are you familiar with this word? By definition, a platitude is: 

PLATITUDE: a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.

That…is a wonderful definition. Some examples of common platitudes would be “money can’t buy happiness” or “no good deeds go unpunished” or “nice guys finish last.” The idea is that these little turns of phrase are so overused that they cease to have any value as sources of wisdom. They are cliches; they have turned into just…things to say. And when it comes to grief, Christians have tons of them.

By way of example: when I was growing up, one of my very best friends was a boy named Jason who suffered from a hereditary and uncurable degenerative nerve condition. As a child, his life and health were like anyone else’s, but by the time he became a teenager, he struggled to maintain any muscle tone, which caused significant damage to his bones. By 15, he could no longer run; by 17, he had had several bone fusion surgeries to prolong the amount of time he would be able to walk on his own. He was also the drummer in the band I was in in high school, and often, he would have so much trouble holding onto his drum sticks that we would tape them into his hands before we played. 

Meanwhile, because his condition was hereditary, he was watching his grandmother die from it, as well as his mother’s health worsen. And as a young adult who was beginning to date seriously, he was also starting to worry about what it would mean if he were to one day pass the condition on to his own children. 

Now, Jason and I were friends through our local church, and his condition was a routine topic of conversation in that community. People would frequently pray for him and for his family; on multiple occasions, special meetings were called for people to perform the biblical practice of laying on hands and praying for miraculous healing in his body. All of these things were done in earnest care for Jason, but eventually, the emotional ups and downs of these prayer sessions eventually led him to refuse them. He stopped asking for prayer. In many ways, he became despondent and, at times, depressed. 

And what would we, as his Christian friends, typically say to him? 

“God works in mysterious ways.”

“Let go and let God.”

“God never gives people more than they can handle.”

You can imagine how helpful that was. And here’s the thing: it was also so ignorant. What Bible were we reading? What in the world did we mean when we said, “God never gives people more than they can handle?” If there is a single consistent message in all of Scripture, it is that people are always in over their heads. Adam and Eve couldn’t handle the temptation of a single piece of fruit; no one is ever successful in keeping a covenant for more than ten minutes; God tries to help by condensing the rules for living into just 10 Commandments, and those prove to be too much for us…the story of Israel is one long story of intertribal warfare, most of which the Israelites lose…and when Jesus shows up, the people who have theoretically been waiting on him have him killed. So I would contend that we perpetually have more than we can handle. That, in a pretty important sense, is the whole point: if we were able to handle things on our own, what need would we have for God? 

So why do we say things like this to people like Jason? Or to other people in our life faced with painful and difficult situations? Why are our most common responses to the sight of other people’s suffering so painfully…hollow? 

I think the answer is because we’re afraid of the alternative. We’re afraid of the possibility that we might not be able to make sense of things…that things might not, in truth, be sensible. And an unreasonable world is, one, incredibly scary, and two, something that challenges our faith in who we need God to be. 

There’s a story in the Bible that gets at this tension, and because it is fairly long, I’m going to summarize it here instead of reading it through. I would encourage you to read it sometime on your own. It’s the story of Job, and evidence suggests it is in fact the oldest story in all of Scripture. 

job1

The story of Job begins with a conversation between God and Satan about God’s servant, Job, who is a man famous for his righteousness and faithfulness. Satan says to God that Job’s goodness is merely a kind of “thank you” for God’s favor: Job’s life is too comfortable and easy, and that’s why he loves God. He says that if God’s blessings over Job’s life were removed, and Job was permitted to suffer, he would surely curse God’s name. So, Satan attacks Job, and in the span of two days, Job’s wealth is destroyed, his children die when a building collapses on them, and Job’s very body is covered with painful lesions. He tears his clothes and cuts his own skin with shards of broken pottery, weeping inconsolably in the dust. And then three of his friends–men named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar–come to visit him. The Bible says when they

Job 2:11-13

heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.

There was a term and a custom for what Job’s friends did that is still an important practice in Judaism today: they “sat shiva,” which is a seven-day process of commiseration and company. The purpose of “sitting shiva” is to allow a person to remove himself or herself from the day-to-day life of the community while still maintaining presence with caring friends. It was–and is–a Biblical way of grieving with others, and one of the essential requirements of sitting shiva is silence: it’s not a time for advice or platitudes; it is a time for allowing a person to simply be where they are, and committing to presence with them in the midst of suffering. I don’t mean to spoil where we are going this morning, but it is a practice we need to recover in the Christian church. 

jobfriends

But in any case, the story of Job turns in an interesting way–and in a way that can help to explain why my friends and I once offered such harmful advice to our friend–after the seven days are over…and Job’s friends begin speaking. Because these 3 men, in perhaps the oldest story in all of Scripture!, do precisely what we so often find ourselves trying to do today: they can’t help but try to square the circle of Job’s grief. What I mean by “squaring the circle” is that they can’t stop themselves from trying to make one thing–Job’s suffering–something it simply cannot be from where they are sitting, which is “good and reasonable.” So, what do they say?

First, Job’s friend Eliphaz says

Job 4:7-8

“Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed? As I have observed, those who plow evil and those who sow trouble reap it.”

In other words, he says that Job’s suffering can only be the just result of Job’s sins. Bildad and Zophar agree, and Bildad adds that

Job 8:4

When your children sinned against him, he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.

He tries to mitigate Job’s grief over his children by saying their deaths were their own fault for being at a party when the roof collapsed. Lastly, Zophar adds that, 

Job 11:4-6

You say to God, ‘My beliefs are flawless and I am pure in your sight.’ Oh, how I wish that God would speak, that he would open his lips against you and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom, for true wisdom has two sides. Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.

In other words, Job’s punishment would be even more severe, if the full inventory of his sins had been considered. Perhaps it is unnecessary to say that Job is not comforted by his friends’ words. So, why do they speak them? 

job2

The common thread in all 3 men’s responses is a desire for things to make sense in the here and now. And what, I think, is most revealing for us as we listen to their conversation is how much this is really all about them and not about Job. They have lost sight of what is–of what has happened to their friend, and what he is going through–in order to try and figure out why it is okay for these terrible things to have happened. It has, in other words, become about them and their fears about whether the world makes sense or not. And this contrasts with their response when they first saw Job sitting in his grief, when he looked so different to them they could barely recognize him and in sympathy, they tore their own clothes and sat with him in his despair. After seven days, they are ready for the grieving to end, and so they try to apply rationality to it…and then drag Job up with them from the depths of his pain. But healing Job isn’t their responsibility. That’s not what communal grief is for. Communal grief is about presence, because another person has been given more than they are able to bear alone. 

After Job and his friends argue back and forth for awhile, they leave him, and he again cries out to God 

Job 31:35-36

Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing. Surely I would wear it on my shoulder, I would put it on like a crown.

In the end, Job asks God to explain what only God can explain, which is why this is happening to him. And, in one of the great enigmatic passages in all of the Bible, God finally replies. He says, amongst other similar things, 

Job 38:4

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

Which is no comfort to Job, at least in any immediate sense! God doesn’t say, “well, you committed Sin A, which carries with it penalties 1, 2, and 3.” He doesn’t apologize to Job, or even grieve with him, which was the job his friends were intended to do. Instead, what God says is that there is more going on than Job knows. The answer to God’s question–“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”–is…nowhere. I don’t know. 

But the assurance behind this verse and the verses that follow it is that God knows. He was there. He is at work in ways that are, by all human definitions, unexplainable. And the root of the problem we have with grief, I think, is that when faced with things we can’t explain, we begin to fear there is no explanation. And so, in our own somewhat stupid and platitudinous ways, we try to invent those explanations. But the secret to grieving well–the secret to what the Bible calls lament–is letting go of the need to be the one who explains. And what enables us to do that–to let go–is a trust that the things that are beyond our understanding might not be beyond God’s understanding. That what is more than we can bear might not be more than God can bear…in his own time and in his own choosing. The circle isn’t ours to square. 

So, if that is true, then how can we learn from the mistakes of Job’s friends and practice lament well as a church? How do we build a culture here at Revolution that avoids platitudes and easy explanations and embraces our responsibility to dwell in grief with one another? 

I want to contend that there are 3 practices we can learn as a community that will help us in this task. We are going to outline them here this morning, but over the course of the next 2 weeks, we are also going to revisit them as they apply to specific contexts of grief in which we might find ourselves, and then in the last week of this series, we are going to have a unique Sunday service that will be restructured to give us an opportunity to practice lament together

But on to our practices this morning. The first practice, surprisingly, comes from the book of Job, and in particular, in the way Job’s friends initially respond to the sight of their friend’s misery: When faced with grief, we can maintain presence with those who are hurting. The point of this presence is not encouragement or obvious comfort; it is, simply, presence. When observant Jews sit shiva with those who are grieving, it is customary that they do nothing unless it is either part of the customary set of rituals or the grieving person initiates it. They don’t speak unless spoken to. They don’t get food unless the person grieving says they are hungry. They simply sit, and by doing this, they are a physical reminder that their friend is not alone

When people in our own lives experience grief, we cannot expect them to reach out and say, “Hey, I’m lonely today. Can you come over?” We need to be proactive in our willingness to be present. It is okay to say instead, “Can I pick up dinner and come watch TV with you tonight?” Or “I’m working remotely today; can I bring my laptop over and stay with you?” It is our responsibility to maintain presence.

Second, we can reject the urge to censor anger and doubt. The title of this series–”How Long, O Lord?”–comes from a line common in many of the Psalms and laments of the Old Testament, where the writers–in the midst of pouring out their anger and hurt and frustration to God–cry out those words, asking God how long their suffering must endure before God shows himself and brings any comfort or hope to them. The words are an expression of anguish, communicating both the depth of pain the writer finds himself or herself in, as well as the desperation they feel for any relief. 

This idea that a prayer to God can be the right place to be angry, or hurt, or confused is one we often shy away from, but it’s one the Bible reiterates over and over again. This is going to be controversial, but let me just say it: I think it is okay to swear at God. Maybe that’s something best done privately…but I don’t think it’s out of line. Consider that Jesus himself–who we believe to be literally the Son of God, eternal and coequal with God the Father and present at the creation of the Universe–cries out to God on the cross, “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?” What Jesus says isn’t, on its face, true: God is no less with him in his suffering than he is with any of us. But Jesus prays out honestly in his anguish. This is okay to do. 

Third, we can trust God to bring hope in his own time. Last week Travis spoke, and one of my favorite things that he often says is that the most important thing about Jesus’s resurrection from the dead is not the idea of atonement or sacrifice but that it means human beings are not finite things. If it is true that Jesus was a  real person who was really dead and buried for three days before he got up and walked around again, it must mean that there is more to human life than all of this. And the incredible hope of that is that it opens a door for God’s justice. One of the great paradoxes of all religious faith is that we need God to be two seemingly-contradictory things at the same time: we believe God is merciful–meaning that he forgives–and that he is just–meaning that he, ultimately, squares all of the circles! This is a very hard set of beliefs to hold onto in the world because so much of what we experience is unjust: natural disasters strike; people inherit terminal illnesses; crime and exploitation are rampant. And if all we have is this world, it can be hard to see how both God’s mercy and his justice can ever come to be. 

But if human beings are not finite things, then there is space for justice beyond this world. There is even hope for it. 

All of that to say: when we offer people who are suffering hollow platitudes, we are doing this because we need things to make sense to us. But practicing real lament with one another means remembering that God laid the foundations of the earth. That human beings are more than this life. We can be people who live in trust that what is unreasonable here may yet be reasonable. That what is unjust here may be made just. God heals and brings hope in his own time. And our confidence in who God is is exactly what allows us to sit with others in the depths of their suffering. It is what allows us to be silent. To grieve. To cry out in anguish. 

Our faith in a God who is more gives us room to lament without taking on the responsibility of trying to heal one another. It’s what allows us to truly wait with one another. It’s how and why we can ask, “How long, O Lord?” and know that, in his own time, God will answer us.

On the Meekness of Wisdom

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DELIVERED ON 1 SEPTEMBER 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

This morning, we are continuing in the third week of our series on the book of James called Working Out. If you have been here over the last few weeks, you have heard the big idea of this series, which is that who we are intended to be, as followers of Jesus, is something God is working out in our lives through trials and testing. Specifically, James teaches us that what we believe–about God, about Truth, about Jesus, and about ourselves–is meant to shape and direct the ways we act in the world…and that once we act, we are meant to look back at the fruit of those actions–or, if you are more scientifically minded, the results of these experiments–and allow them to reshape, revise, and refine your beliefs. James talks about a cycle of faith and action the end result of which is our completion and perfection, and he says this is a process fueled by God’s own involvement through the person of the Holy Spirit, who the Bible says dwells within those who commit themselves to following Jesus. 

Last week, we looked at how this cycle works in the specific area of partiality, or our tendency to judge people not against the example of Jesus, but as they compare to one another. This, James says, is a tremendous and costly mistake because it ignores that Jesus’s death on the cross purchases each one of us for a price none of us can ever earn. If we can remember this truth–and what it teaches us about how much GOD values us–we can be “rewired” to see and treat one another as people who are precious. This, James tells us, can radically transform what a Christian community looks and feels and acts like in a way that the entire world needs to experience.

This morning, we are going to take a look at another area where James challenges all us to be “rewired”: our habits of speech. As we get started, I want to set the stage with a quick illustration:

ONCE UPON A TIME, the Camachos had a yard. If you have visited our current home, you know this is no longer the case: we live in a cross between a townhouse and a condo now, and where a tiny patch of grass might be, we have a small deck.

house1

But once long ago, when we were still living in South Carolina, we had a real yard. It was huge: the house we were renting sat probably twenty yards or so off the street, and we had a big grassy space covering probably six or seven hundred square feet.

house2

Thanks, Google Maps!

Anyway, it was big enough that we needed a real lawnmower, and this, of course, is where the trouble began: I like to work; I really do. I like being outside. I like doing things with my hands. But I hate mowing grass. It’s my absolute least favorite chore. But when you’re 25 and “adulting” and you have a yard, you mow the grass. So, I did. But as I committed myself to this chore, I started to notice things that got under my skin: the yard I was mowing wasn’t just grass; in fact, it had several large trees in it, and underneath the canopies of those trees, it turned out not much grass could grow. The soil was particularly sandy, and everywhere there was a tree, there were these spotty, ugly, weed-filled patches that look terrible. “This will not abide,” I would say to myself. “If I’m going to be out here, doing something I hate like mowing grass, there will darn well be grass here to mow!” So, I called my landlord: “Jim!” I said. “What can we do about these dead spots in the yard?” And he said, “well, if you put some seed down, you can take the cost of it out of your rent.” “Deal!” I said. So, I bought grass seed and went crazy. 

This did not work. Not even a little bit.

So, I tried it a second time. And a third. I borrowed an aerator and tried again: no dice. “Jim!” I said, calling my landlord again. “The problem isn’t the grass, it’s the trees! Can you get rid of them?” Have you ever had a conversation where someone laughs at you without actually laughing? But you can tell they are laughing? That’s what happened with Jim: he was not ripping up the trees. So, I kept trying. For years I tried: I seeded, I watered, I mowed…and at no point ever did our yard start to look like a real yard. It remained a patchy bit of weedy sadness. After awhile, I lost the heart to even mow: I just let it grow. I sat in my house and stared out at it, defeated. It broke me.

And from that moment forward, I committed myself: I will never try to have a real yard again. Forget yards. When we moved here, I harbored a secret desire inside myself: no yards. It took awhile, but now, where a tiny patch of grass might be in front of my house…there’s a deck. And I’m glad.

Get to the Point, Kenny!

Here’s where I’m going with this: one of the problems facing us–and facing James–when we talk about what God is working out in our lives is that sometimes, sandy ground is sandy ground. No matter how hard we might work at it, we can’t, under our own power, make it something else. And half measures just aren’t good enough: a sandy patch with a few stray shoots of grass seed in it is just an attempt to push off the inevitable. If you want something living, you need real change not just for the thing you’re working on, but for the whole environment.

As we turn our attention to James chapter 3 today, we are going to be looking at a situation that seems similarly hopeless, and as odd as it might sound, I want you to hold onto that hopelessness as we read in a moment. The reason for that is because these are verses we tend to take too lightly: we are so afraid of feeling hopeless that we cling to little silver-linings all throughout this passage and we trick ourselves into thinking we can do this. But I want to say right here at the front that we, no matter who we are, can’t. 

James writes this: 

James 3:2-12

For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness […] no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

These verses lead us to a paradox about the power of our words: on the one hand, the tongue is a “venomous” and dangerous threat that must be controlled. James says that it’s the spark that sets “great forests” on fire! This can lead us to a pretty clear application this morning, right? We need to be careful with our words and never use them to hurt others! But then James reminds us of how this passage starts: in verse 2, he says “for we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man.” And now, at the end, he says, “It is not possible…for a fig tree to produce olives, or a grapevine figs; neither for a bitter spring to produce water that is sweet.” So, if what we produce (including our speech) is just an outpouring of what we are…what hope do we really have for being able to improve on our own? 

The answer is none. We are sandy ground. 

We should pause here for a moment and truly consider that: James tells us that all people stumble. Everybody. Me. You. All of us. He tells us that even small stumbles, like using our words carelessly, can lead to enormous and harmful problems: our tongue is the bit in an animal’s mouth or the rudder of a ship or a spark in a forest; even seemingly small actions have tremendous consequences. And then at the end, James tells us that a spring cannot pour forth fresh water and salt water from the same source. So, if salt water has ever come out of you…what kind of a spring must you be? Would a farmer ever keep a tree around that mostly grew figs…but sometimes grew olives? Would he even believe such a tree could exist?

So when I started by saying that we need to hold onto the hopelessness of these verses, this is what I was getting at: it’s not enough to be “less salty” or better than you were before…the fruit that comes out of you reveals what you are. It reveals what you are. And that…is terrifying for me. Because I’m not perfect.

This past week, I was slowly awakened from a dream in the middle of the night by a repeated and sharp pain in my side. It was as if a giant woodpecker was going to town on me in my sleep. As I came out of my sleep, I realized it wasn’t a giant bird but a child’s foot that was to blame: my 4 year old, Graham, had gotten out of his bed, come up the stairs to Mom and Dad’s room, and climbed in between us. He was half-asleep himself, and his foot was just jackhammering out, right into my ribs. What did I do, you ask? Did I pause to consider questions that started outside of myself and my own understanding, perhaps wondering what might have frightened him enough to leave his bed, or what dream he might be having now that was causing him so much anxiety he was kicking his leg out over and over again?

No. I yelled at him so loud it woke Meredith up: “STOP KICKING ME!”

Where there ought to have been fresh water, salt water came out. And whether I like it or not, that tells me ultimately what kind of well I am…and where I am finding my source.

The point isn’t to say that yelling at Graham in a half-asleep stupor is unforgivable. It’s to say that it’s not righteous. And it challenged me, once he started to cry, to challenge you to hold onto the hopelessness of those verses from before: we are not perfect. We can’t be perfect under our own power. We have a “source” problem! So what can be done?

In verse 13, James writes this, and I have to believe he writes it knowing how devastating a thing it is he has just told us:

James 3:13

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 

For the rest of our time this morning, I want to explore that last part about the meekness of wisdom. This is the hope James extends to us in this passage, and it is worth trying to understand what it means as best we can.

So what is the “meekness of wisdom”? What do these words mean, and how can they lead us to another round of trial and testing in our faith?

The concept of “wisdom” is one we often allow to blur together with other, apparently similar, concepts like “intelligence” and “discernment.” But it is, in fact, quite different: “wisdom” is a word that refers specifically to the ability to identify the correct path based on experience and understanding. We can be “intelligent” about things we have learned or read about, but “wisdom” comes from a knowledge rooted in the accumulated results of countless tests of the situations we find ourselves in. To return to the dilemma of my first front yard, “intelligence” and learning were what led me to aerate and plant seeds: those are the things you do when you want grass to grow in a place where it isn’t growing. Wisdom is what I arrived at years later when I came to understand that the absence of grass wasn’t about seeds or water but the environment I was trying to put them in. Wisdom, in other words, takes time

And yet it is also always pointing into the future: we don’t talk about the accumulated “wisdom” of the past in a vacuum; wisdom is always supposed to be applied as a guide for making better decisions as we move ahead. So, short of reaching the ends of long lives, where can we reasonably seek wisdom from? How can we have it…if it takes a lifetime to gain? And then, if we only have it at the end of things, how can it do its job and guide us into the future

Here, I think, is where meekness comes in: what is “meekness”? It’s a near-synonym for humility, often paired with something that James will later refer to as the quality of being teachable. Being meek…means knowing you don’t know everything yet. And, at the same time, being willing to ask for it. 

So, what is the “meekness of wisdom”? It’s having the humility to know that you don’t know…and seeking anyway. And where can we seek it? Well, you have to seek it from somewhere outside yourself. 

According to James, we find wisdom when we ask for it…from the One source in all the universe whose experience can actually lead to it: we ask for it as a gift from God. James writes, 

James 1:5

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

What’s the answer to the “meekness of wisdom” paradox? How can we hope to have something now that it takes a lifetime to discover? We recognize that true wisdom comes from God and is a gift to us…and that meekness is not weakness: it’s recognition of our limitations and trust in the memory of others, in part, and of God, in full. Or, to put it in the terms James uses in chapter 3, it’s how we seek a better source

If we can tie all the threads together this morning, we began by saying that sandy soil is sandy soil. We have to recognize that under our own effort, we won’t be able to draw fresh water from a salty well. We won’t be able to make a grapevine bear fresh figs. We won’t be able to speak with real wisdom if we’re only trusting in ourselves and our own experiences. So if we want fresh water to be produced in our lives, we have to find a better source. We have to be open to a radical change in who we are. We have to accept that real wisdom is something that passes to and passes through us…not something we can control or claim.

Which means we have to look at this entire equation in a different way. Our tendency is to believe that everything starts inside of us and then works its way out: I want to be good, so I will discipline myself to do good things with my words. But the big idea James keeps trying to introduce us to is that we have it backwards: how we behave and what we say reveals who we actually are. It’s not about trying harder…it’s about having the humility to trust in someone else’s wisdom. It’s about surrender. Our actions–in this case, our words–are the lag indicators; they are the fruit the tree produces that can tell us everything we need to know about what kind of tree it is. 

So, if we are looking at the behaviors in our lives and wondering how in the world we can fix them, the answer isn’t “try harder.” It is to trust another source. One you hope is trustworthy. And hey, it’s okay to be skeptical or unsure! And that is exactly why you want to keep your eye on the fruit it produces: what does how you act teach you about where you are drawing wisdom

So, what are the practical challenges for us this morning? I think if our goal is to pursue the meekness of wisdom, they must be challenges that begin with questions and push us to open up each corner of our life to what God might have to say about it. And then, we need to consider what the relationships we have with others, and the words we speak in those relationships, suggest to us about where we are drawing our water from

Part 1 of this application is something it would be irresponsible and manipulative for us to try and do sitting here together in this room. If you’re going to do a real investigation of your beliefs, you need time to do that well. So, to try and encourage this work–and, hopefully, healthy conversations about it–we wrote up a few focus questions for you to reflect on and included them with the handouts this morning [copied below]. This is not a comprehensive list…but I hope it is helpful and instructive nonetheless. The challenge here is to allow these questions to help you focus on what you really believe about this world and your life in it. They are designed to make you think, and I would encourage you to share your answers first with God and also with others: have the courage to pursue the meekness of wisdom which begins when you look outside of yourself and ask for help.

And then Part 2 of our application time this morning is built around how we can look for the fruit that comes from being connected to a healthier source. Here, we are going to return to this issue of “right” and healthy speech. There are a few specific trends we might see in our lives which can tell us that we are using our words in the ways God intends for us. To begin, all of these trends are things that show up in our relationships with others, which makes sense, since those are the relationships where speaking is most important! This means that asking others about whether or not your speech reflects the qualities we are about to go over is a good idea, too: spend time this week talking with someone who knows you well about what they hear in the way you use your words…and if there are challenges and corrections in their responses, try to put into practice the thoughtfulness and trust the first exercise is hoping to encourage in you: begin with prayer, asking God to show you what is true, and then take the bold step of allowing what God shows you to reshape how you behave!

So, what does speaking rightly look like? According to James, 

James 3:17-18

wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, teachable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

If we are wondering whether or not we are operating out of a “wise source,” we should look at: 

  1. Whether or not our words honor the value of others (“pure,” “impartial”). When I talk with others, do I make eye contact with them? Do I rush to judgment, or cut them off when they are speaking? Do I give them the “benefit of the doubt” and refuse to assume they have negative intentions towards me? Do I care enough to fight for my relationship with them?
  2. We should look at whether or not we listen for the wisdom of others (“teachable,” “sincere”). Do I ask questions when I am with other people, or do I tend to talk about myself? Do I expose myself to other viewpoints than my own? Are there people I trust for advice, and how honest am I with them about my life?
  3. We should look at whether or not we are quick to extend forgiveness and mercy (“peaceable,” “full of mercy and good fruits”). When was the last time I apologized to anyone? Do I tend to “keep score” in my relationships, allowing bitterness to fester? Are there relationships I have given up on? How do I talk about those relationships (and those people) to others? 
  4. Lastly, we should look at whether or not we use our words to speak truth in kindness and with grace (“pure,” “gentle”). Am I quick to share credit? If I tend to avoid conflicts, how can I be challenged to speak more directly to someone I care for about their behavior? If I tend to relish conflicts, how can I be challenged to be more loving and gentle, even when confronting someone? 

These are the kinds of fruit or “fresh water” we should be hoping to see as an outflow of a more perfect source in our lives. If we’re not seeing them, the answer isn’t–and can’t be–to simply try harder. It has to be finding a fresh source. It has to be seeking wisdom outside ourselves with the humility that comes from honestly confronting our mistakes.

At the beginning today, when I was going on and on about my shabby South Carolina yard, I can understand if you were beginning to feel frustrated. After all, an ugly yard is a solvable problem! “The trees!” you might have been shouting in your head. “Get rid of the trees! The problem is that you’re not willing to make a radical change in your environment in order to get the outcome you want!” If you were thinking that, you were–of course–totally right. I could blame my landlord, but even so: if I had been willing to make a radical change to the environment of my yard, things could have been different. But now it’s my turn to ask you: if your words reveal that you’re dealing with “sandy soil,” what kinds of changes are you really willing to make for a better outcome? How radical are you willing to be? What I know is that half-measures aren’t transformative and people don’t work well in isolation. So how can you go further, with more help? What would that look like? Or if not “what”…then who? Let’s pray.

 

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:

What do I believe about work?

  • Do I believe work itself is important in my life? Is my work something I allow to build me up into being who I am designed to be? Or does it get in the way of that?
  • Is your attitude about work in need of correction? Is the work itself? How could you do that?

What do I believe about relationships?

  • Do I believe that other people are vital in my life? If they are, what would a life-giving relationship look like? What committed relationships am I in that might need attention, forgiveness, counseling, and repair? What relationships am I seeking, and if I want those relationships to be healthy, where and how should I be looking? Am I looking…or am I waiting on healthy friendships to find me?

What do I believe about myself?

  • Do I believe I am a person God loves? If God loves me, how has he shown that to me? 
  • Do I also believe that I am a person who, even when I try my best, still falls short of perfection? How can I seek forgiveness from my mistakes? How can I be a better listener, to others and to God? How can I live more humbly with others and with God? 
  • If I believe in the Jesus story, how can I commit to this more boldly? What does the Bible tell me I can expect in my life? Am I looking for this? Is my faith growing?

What do I believe about church?

  • Why might a faith community be important to my growth? How can I participate more fully in that community? Am I allowing myself to be known? What might I have to contribute? Do I believe a faith community is important to others? If so, what can I do to help them discover one?

On Baseball Cards, Social Media, and the Problem of Partiality

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DELIVERED 25 AUGUST 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

As most of you know, I am the father of 3 children. Recently, my oldest two–Evangeline (11) and Cecilia (9)–have started collecting things. It began with Pokemon cards…but it is beginning to grow. So, not too long ago, they asked me if collected anything when I was their age. I, of course, replied that I did: if you know me well, you know that I have a “collecting” nature: my house is full of knick-knacks; when we visit National Parks, I get the “stamps” from the visitors’ centers for my little National Park book; I don’t even delete photos from my phone. So, yes: I was and am a collector…and when I was a preteen, I collected baseball cards and then, a bit later, comic books. So, knowing that they were about to spend a few weeks with my parents this summer in my childhood home, my kids asked the big question: “Dad…where is all that stuff?” And then, a few weeks ago, my children became the proud owners of some complete Topps and Donruss sets from the early ‘90s as well as a few binders full of X-Men and Amazing Spiderman issues from the same period of time.

This is all somehow simultaneously exciting and terribly boring to them.

But watching them go through these old binders has had me thinking back to when I was their age collecting all of these things in the first place, and it’s led me back to a central story in my life. It goes like this:

ONCE UPON A TIME…I bought a Beckett’s.

becketts

Do you know what this was? For any of you under 35, allow me to explain: in a time before the internet, if you were a collector of a thing and you wanted to know its value, you needed some way to know what a standard price for it might be. A “Beckett’s” was a guide to the standard prices for baseball cards, and it was published (at that time) annually. So, long ago, 10-year-old-me would eagerly await the newest Beckett’s, buy it, and then spend hours in my room tallying up what all of my cards were worth.

(There are people right now looking at me like I’m talking about making dominos out of animal bones in a log cabin. But I digress.)

So, one day, I’m going through my cards and my Beckett’s–ten cents, twenty cents, a quarter!–and I discover that I have a card that is worth 8 bucks. It is a Darryl Strawberry Topps rookie card. 8 bucks! 1 card! So, I take this card out of my binder, run to my mom in the living room, and proudly announce: “this card is worth 8 bucks!” And my mother–who is generally a wonderful, Godly, and endlessly supportive woman–on this day said to me, without looking up from the magazine she was reading,

“that card’s worth what somebody’ll pay for it.”

– My Mom, c. 1993

I was devastated. 8 bucks my foot.

Here’s where I’m going with this story: we human beings have a profound and truly troubling value problem. We see this all the time in this crazy paradox we are all living through. On the one hand, we have more sources of affirmation and approval than ever before: for many of us, our lives are absolutely full of times we can share what we think, what we are seeing, what we are good at, where we are traveling with one another and get near-instant gratification from people giving our lives a virtual “thumbs up” or “heart.” But on the other hand, we are living in a time where loneliness, depression, and even violence springing up from feelings of social rejection and isolation are plaguing our society like never before. So…how is this possible? Why is it we tend to feel simultaneously special and unique and precious…and also worthless?

To get at an answer to that question, I’d like us to look at two specific passages from James’s letter, both of which have to do with what wealth looks like in the context of the early church. The first comes from James chapter 2, and it says this:

James 2:1-7

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If I’m honest with you, this is a passage I would usually skim through. The reason for that is that it feels initially unrelatable to me: I don’t know that I have ever offered a favorable seat at church to a rich man with a fine robe and many rings.

richman

“Would you like to see my batcave?”

And honestly, even if I try to expand how it applies and ask myself, “Kenny, but have you shown more attention to a person whose wealth you thought might be helpful to you?” Well, even then…I know on some level the answer is yes, but I still kind of want to say, “not really.”

 

Of course, I am not the same person as all of you, and we are all susceptible to different challenges, so I don’t want to belittle the power of this point: clearly, James believes that showing favoritism is both a present and a serious threat in the early church. It is also a threat to us: we should not do it. But I do want to challenge us to dig a bit deeper into the whys here, because I know that at least for me personally, they start to root out something that I don’t initially see. I think what James says in this passage exposes that showing favor to people who are wealthy actually does 2 harms:

First, it communicates to the poor that you see them as less than they are. So James says, if you show favoritism, “have you not dishonored the poor man?”

But second, partiality communicates to the rich person that their sins–the ways they fall short–are less important, too. This is why he reminds his readers that the wealthy people they know aren’t perfect: they oppress the poor, and they even drag people who are of a lower social standing than them into court so they can extract even more suffering from them. James reminds the early church of the sins of the rich…and why would he do that, unless what he is really concerned with is that the leaders of the church are forgetting them? And that, I think, starts to hit home, at least for me: do I also sometimes look at people who are successful and think to myself: sure, they aren’t perfect, but they must be doing some things right! And if so, what does that expose about what I think about value?

Let me be practical for a second to try and help this point stick with us. What I’m getting at is that I think we sometimes convince ourselves that wealth might not be the whole story when it comes to how good or bad we are…we might even be especially skeptical of rich people…but we convince ourselves it’s part of the story: that a wealthy person is doing something right if they are wealthy; that wealth is in some way a sign of divine or cosmic blessing. And as a result, we allow the reverse of this logic to find a quiet, secret space in our brain: we begin to believe that a poor person, because they are poor, might not be doing anything right at all. Or, in other words, that their poverty is their fault…it reflects their value.

It reflects their value.

I came into this week thinking that of all the sins I am tempted by, partiality isn’t really one of them. But I’m coming into this moment now saying that oh man, partiality is everywhere…and it’s maybe less about favoring the wealthy than it is discriminating against the poor…because I tell myself–we tell ourselves–they deserve it.

If you don’t think this is a real concern in the world we live in right now, look around: at the ways we are telling ourselves in this country that wealthy people have more value in the world than poor people. At the ways we are allowing and overlooking the subhuman treatment of poor people, as if such treatment should be allowed because of mistakes they might or might not have made. At the ways we perpetuate the idea that wealthy people must have some sort of divine blessing or righteousness behind them, as proven by their material success. If these stories aren’t familiar to you, keep your eyes open for them this week, not so you can feel self-righteous…but so you can feel challenged by how easy it is to slip into this. And so you can learn to resist it.

So how did we get here, to this profound confusion? And what can we do about it?

I think the root problem is the result of a misunderstanding in our world about value. To return for a moment to my mom’s point about baseball cards, a thing is only worth what someone will pay for it.

strawberry

That’s frustrating–especially to 11 year old me, who knows no one will give him 8 bucks for a Darryl Strawberry!–but it’s also, on some level, profoundly true. If all my best friend will give me for that card is a buck twenty-five, what Beckett’s says doesn’t matter: the card is worth a buck twenty-five. After all, what is a baseball card, really? It’s a rectangle of cardboard with some ink on it. It holds some basic information…that you could find in countless other places. Does it have some value, just as an object in the world? Sure. But that value is not 8 bucks. It’s not even what my friend pays for it. So, in a sense, card collectors are always fighting against a deep fear which is also a deep and upsetting truth: cards aren’t really worth much of anything at all. But by managing this little miniature economy, where this card must be worth a bit more or less than another one, they can convince themselves that’s not true and create a kind of micro-economy, where the worth of a thing can be determined by its comparative value.

lonelyman

Our lives are much the same: the thing many of us fear, and which is driving the loneliness and even the anger of our age, is that our essential value as living, breathing things on a planet with 7 billion other versions of us is almost nothing. And so we begin to obsess over our comparative value–what we are worth in comparison to other people–in the hopes that this will give us satisfaction and happiness. This is the fundamental hunger that social media taps into: it’s a way of comparing our value to others. And so much of our world–of our marketplaces and our work environments and our digital lives and even our homes and our relationships with our siblings or our relationships with our spouses or even the relationships between one church and another church–so much of our world is fixated on these comparisons of value!

argument

“I’m a better worker than so-and-so…why do they make more?”

“Oh no! My sister is going to med school! What’s that going to mean for grandma’s will?!”

“Why is it that all the dishes and the laundry are always something I’m responsible for? When was the last time you did anything?”

“How did that photo get 200 likes when mine only got 50?”

And for me sometimes: “Why do 1000 people show up to listen to his sermon?”

We obsess over our value as it compares to other people.

But here’s the flip-side of what my mom was trying to tell me: sure, that card is only worth what someone will pay for it…but then again, it is worth what someone will pay for it. So, what happens if someone pays more? What does that do to the card’s value?

At the very beginning of that passage from James, James writes,

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.”

He reminds his readers, then, of who they are: they are brothers…holding to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” What “glory” is he referring to? Well, based on what we read last week in chapter 1, it would seem it’s the “glory” of being made perfect and complete through steadfastness in our faith. In other words, it’s the glory Jesus is bringing you into. Which is to say: his glory.

You have been purchased for waaaay more than your comparative value.  While you–while we–were quibbling about which of us is worth a quarter and which is worth fifty cents, Jesus metaphorically bought us for a king’s ransom. He paid not in coins but with his actual life. So what, then, are we worth?

At root in the dangers James is pointing out about showing partiality to the wealthy in the early church is this issue of forgetting 1) what you are worth and 2) how you became so valuable. What are you worth, brothers and sisters? You are worth exactly one Jesus. A person sinless and divine and righteous. Your value is incalculable. But how did you become so valuable? Not because of something innate in you, or some talent or skill or shrewdness or beauty…that’s Beckett’s talk! That’s arguing over pennies! You became infinitely valuable because Jesus paid infinitely.

And I think at the bottom of what James is saying to the people in the early church is if you have entered into a community where every single person is valuable beyond measure, don’t give that up to go back to shallow comparisons. Treat everyone–everyone–according to how God values them. Don’t accept that your rich neighbor has “better stats” than your poor neighbor and differentiate in your treatment of them! And don’t assume that your value is something that moves up or down based on the stuff you do or don’t do! That was the Pharisees’ problem, not so long ago. But instead start by remembering what price Jesus paid for you, and where he is taking you now that he’s got you! You are in the process of being made perfect and complete; you are “holding faith” with the “Lord of glory.” So the point isn’t to stop treating rich people well; it’s to treat everyone as you would treat Christ.

The anonymous author of the book of Hebrews puts it this way:

Hebrews 13:2

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.

We value each other rightly when we let go of our comparisons and act towards each other as we would act towards Jesus himself. If it were Jesus who came to you for help, having nothing…how far would you go in helping him? What would you do for a person of immeasurable worth?

James closes this section of chapter 2 by writing,

James 2:12-13

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Which is a way of saying: you have received something you did not deserve–not just forgiveness of your sins, but worth beyond comprehension–so carry that sense of generosity forward and apply it to your relationships with others. Speak and act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty, with mercy…and don’t allow the petty judgments of comparisons and rivalry and envy to get in the way. If you’ve been purchased for a million dollars, don’t go back to quibbling about whether or not this thing you’ve done wrong or someone else has done wrong has lessened your value by a nickel…or, vice versa: don’t assume that someone’s material wealth or professional success makes any real difference in how God sees them! Adding a dollar of value or taking a dollar away…judgment…misses the point of what God has done and how God sees you.

So, if all of this is true, how can we be steadfast in our pursuit of seeing others and seeing ourselves as God sees us? How can we keep from falling back into this old pit of comparative value?

Well, we could all quit Instagram, I suppose. It wouldn’t be the worst thing to do, especially if you find it to be a real distraction or a real harm in your life. But James suggests we actually take a different approach…or at least go a few steps further. In chapter 5 of his letter, he writes,

James 5:1-6

Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.

On its surface, this is certainly a harsh set of verses, especially since all of us are at least comparatively rich people! We should all take to heart what James says here about placing our hope in material possessions–our houses, our bank accounts, our retirement plans. But I actually want to close this morning by zeroing in on what he says at the end. After telling us that we have defrauded and robbed and taken advantage of our neighbors–all of whom are precious to God–he says, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.”

I’m going to offer a personal reading of this passage. I know it’s not the only thing the passage says…but I think it’s one thing: I think the righteous person you condemn and murder by greed and partiality…is you. Think about it this way: James’s letter begins by talking about what we are being made into. God is transforming us into people who are like Jesus. That process starts when we are bought at the price of Jesus’s life. But it doesn’t finish until we also are trained in righteousness. The dangers James spends most of his letter warning us about are the things that get in the way of this process: our arrogance, our pride…and our tendency to abuse the people we think we are better than. When we are partial, it doesn’t keep other people from being trained to be righteous. But it does keep us from being trained in that way. When we choose judgment over mercy…we lose mercy. And, I think, when we compare ourselves to others instead of to Christ, we condemn ourselves and effectively kill the righteous person God is rewiring us to be.

So, how to resist this? Well, I think part of that answer is choosing the disciplines of mercy and generosity. We love. We give. We find ways to remind ourselves that our material wealth and privilege aren’t the things that make us valuable to God. We serve our neighbors. We volunteer–we work without expecting payment for it!–to help others. We give charitably to people, to churches, to non-profit organizations because this is good for us to do. It helps us short circuit the pride that always threatens to convince us we deserve blessings because we are worth it. And it helps us remember something true: we are becoming like Jesus the more we follow him…and that means the end of the road for us is living sacrificially. When we are merciful, when we are generous, we are putting to the test the things we believe about who God says we are. There is nothing we should be more eager to do than that.

Love Works Out: An Introduction to the Epistle of James

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DELIVERED 18 AUGUST 2019 AT REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS

Today, we’re starting a new series called Working Out on the book of James, which is one of the letters to the early church collected in the New Testament of the Bible. But before we dive in to the history and subject of that letter–and kick the series off!–I want to set the stage with a bit of an illustration.

The illustration centers on a man named Gustave Whitehead. Gustave was from Connecticut, and he lived through the turn of the 20th century…ever heard of him? Perhaps this picture will help:

whitehead

 No? Well, we will get to why Gustave is not quite famous in just a moment. But first, we need to travel even further back in time in order to check in with this guy:

davinciportrait

More recognizable? Maybe? If it helps, it has always been rumored that he hid a self-portrait in this drawing he once did:

vitruvianman

Right! Leonardo Da Vinci! Da Vinci died exactly 500 years ago this year. Since his death, he has become known as one of the greatest artists and inventors of all time. Works like the Mona Lisa and Last Supper are his, as well as such inventions as the parachute, the giant crossbow, and even scuba gear. Da Vinci also famously sketched out the designs for a series of flying machines during his lifetime, including the ancestor of the modern helicopter.davinci You have probably seen some of these designs before.But here’s the thing I found myself thinking about this week–and it’s what’s going to lead me back to our new friend, Gustave Whitehead: I’ve been thinking, if Da Vinci is so smart, and if his ideas about flying machines are so great…why does it take more than 400 years for us to get to airplanes? 

The answer, as it turns out, is more simple than you might expect: it’s because Da Vinci never built them. As it turns out, his legacy during his lifetime, and even up until the middle of the 19th century, was almost exclusively that of a painter. The reason for this is that his notebooks, which include more than 300 sketches of his “flying machines,” were locked up and left unstudied in private collections. It was centuries before they saw the light of day…but once they did, they seem to have caught the imaginations of inventors across the globe. 

Which leads us, of course, to Gustave Whitehead: in the late 19th century, Gustave became obsessed with the prospect of powered flight, and throughout the 1890s, he worked incessantly out of his Connecticut home building and testing dozens of potential aircraft…many of which were based on Da Vinci’s designs. All of this culminated, according to legend and the local paper, on August 14, 1901, when Whitehead’s airplane, the creatively-named “No. 21,”, flew a distance of half a mile at a height of 50 feet before landing safely…more than 2 years before the Wright Brothers would fly half that distance, at half that height, in Kittyhawk, North Carolina. 

whiteheadplane

Like I said: isn’t it odd that we don’t recognize Gustave Whitehead?

Here’s where I’m going with all of this: as we dig into the book of James over the next month, we are going to find ourselves submerged in an ancient controversy in the Christian church which is all about whether or not our actions or our faith are the thing that saves our eternal souls. But I want to contend that what James actually suggests throughout his letter is this: trials produce transformation. But that means you gotta try. Our “works” aren’t things we do in order to earn God’s favor or to prove we are righteous enough for eternal heavenly life. But they are the means by which God refines us into who we are designed to be. The “blueprint”–the Da Vinci sketch–of what a person should be is something that comes to life not just out of the blue, but through a process of, first, believing in what God says, second, trusting him to see it through, and third, acting on those beliefs in our lives. Through this process, God is working out who are designed to be…and who we are designed to be is working out in and for the lives of those around us. 

So, how do we get here? How can we live more responsibly in this process? And what does James have to say about any or all of this?

Well, we can start by quickly reminding ourselves of who James is and why he is writing

jamesTo begin, James is the half-brother of Jesus, who was a skeptic throughout most of Jesus’s earthly ministry–after all, what little brother wouldn’t have a few doubts about their sibling being the son of God?–but after Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, James becomes a true believer and emerges as a leader in the early church. He lives in Jerusalem, where he ministers alongside the other early apostles. But towards the end of his life, and under intense persecution, he writes a letter collecting his most personal and important teachings in a series of proverbs to be distributed to the churches outside Jerusalem, or in the “diaspora.” That’s what the book of James–really, the letter of James–is: it is a collection of James’s theological understanding, organized not as a story or even as an address to a particular audience but as a compilation of wise teachings. 

So, what are those teachings, and how are we going to organize our study of them over the next month? 

After a quick greeting, James opens his letter by writing,

James 1:2-4

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

Here’s where the illustration of Da Vinci’s and Gustave Whitehead’s flying machines finds its source: what James begins by saying is that we tend to think about perfection in the wrong way. Whereas we often view perfection as our ability to avoid mistakes and remain in an ideal initial state–perhaps thinking about ourselves in the way a collector of baseball cards or comic books might think: our hope is to remain in mint condition–what James is suggesting is that perfection is something God is producing in us. So, if we don’t start off perfect but are supposed to end up there, what does that say about what “perfect” really means? 

Well, my hunch is that it means working out: the goal for my life, for your life, for anyone’s life is to become a person who can fully live in the ways a person is intended to live. It means living rightly. And to get there, James says we need to cling to something he describes as steadfastness.

Steadfastness is, by definition, a word that refers to our ability to be unwavering in our commitment to a path. It means sticking to something, or sticking with something. And it also is a word that communicates not movement necessarily, but action.

anemoneTwo weeks ago, while Meredith and I were on vacation, we had the opportunity to go tidepooling in Olympic National Park. While we were doing this, we saw thousands upon thousands of sea anemones fixed all over the rocks along the shoreline. These guys, in their own ways, model a kind of steadfastness: on the one hand, they don’t move–they aren’t going from rock to rock, looking for the best place–but they do actively stay put. 

anemone2They have a kind of “foot” or “base” that fixes itself in place, and as the tides try to slam them around and even as the water rises and lowers, they do the work of being committed to where they are. It’s that ongoing work that gives them the quality of being “steadfast.”So, how does that help us here with James? James tells the early church that steadfastness is, one, necessary for us to be “made perfect and complete”–he says that’s steadfastness’s “full effect.” But he also says that steadfastness is produced by the “testing of our faith.” In other words, although it might seem like what we are called to, as Christians, is to decide on a core set of beliefs, commit to them, and then protect them, what will actually benefit us and help us to mature in our faith is for those beliefs to be subjected to trials. Here’s the paradox at the root of how James begins his teaching: our confidence in our beliefs is strengthened the more it is stressed

So, when what we believe manifests itself in the ways we live…and when the ways we live lead us into periods of challenge and difficulty…the endurance of our faith–the way it works out–can make us even more confident in what we believe

A light-hearted example: there is a world of difference between looking at a chair and deciding that, yeah, it looks like a good chair; it looks like it can support your weight…you can believe in that chair all day…and actually putting your weight on it. If you do–and if you don’t fall–your belief has been strengthened by being tested. But the flipside of this is also true: if you sit in it and you fall on your butt, that is good for you, too. Because it exposes you shouldn’t have believed in the chair. 

An untested faith can never mature. And even testing our faith shouldn’t be a one-time, or even once-a-week!, proposition…it should be part of how we live. This is “steadfastness.” And without it…we can’t be made whole or complete.

So, what are the dangers of this process? How can we make sure, first, that we are doing this…and second, that we are doing it well

James talks about this next by saying, first, we should be diligent in asking God for wisdom, since God loves us and gives generously to those who ask for good things from him. And second, he draws a distinction between questions–which are those things we ask–and doubts. He writes,

James 1:5-8

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

I once heard it said that the difference between “questions” and “doubts” could be summarized like this: questions are what we ask when we want to find an answer; doubts are what we have when we believe there isn’t one. That might sound trite, but I would encourage you to give it a second look: I think it’s right. Here at Revolution, we use this language all the time: on your way in today, you might have noticed the three banners in the hallway. The middle one–the one that says “BELIEVE”–reads, “We want to treat beliefs as things that grow as we wrestle with them. Questions are always welcome here, and we want to be people who test our beliefs by truly putting them into practice in our lives.” This language gets at the same distinction James is talking about: it is always okay to ask questions…and it also okay to admit when you don’t have confident answers! But doubts–which come from a place of cynicism–are a problem specifically because they replace the HUMILITY and CURIOSITY that motivates a productive question with a FEARFUL CYNICISM that is already beginning to make up its mind.

This gets into the major “danger” James introduces for us as our faith is “working out”: becoming settled in our opinions. 

At the end of the first chapter of James, as James is concluding a series of proverbs about being “tested,” he returns to the issue of “steadfastness” and connects it once again to this larger process of maturation. He writes,

James 1:12-15

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

At first glance, there seem to be 3 distinct teachings here: 

  1. If we remain steadfast, who we are meant to be will eventually be “worked out” in us, and we will receive a “crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”
  2. It is against God’s nature to “tempt” us, and we are wrong to blame him when we are tempted.
  3. The root of our temptation is selfish desire, which leads first to sin and finally to death.

But if we return to our initial illustration about Da Vinci, Gustave Whitehead, and the first airplanes, I think we can uncover a way in which these three teachings in fact build on one another in a clarifying way. Imagine, for a moment, what it is like to go through the process of testing an invention: you dream it, design it, build it, and as you give it a try in the real world, you must be so full of confidence that it will work. But the vast, vast majority of the time…it doesn’t. Some defect or error is exposed, and it’s “back to the drawing board.” This is, as painful as it might be, a healthy process, and the end result of a working invention is worth it. 

So, what messes this process up? Well, I think it’s when we try to run our experiments after we have already decided on their results.

sciencefair

*volcanoes.

Quick show of hands: how many of you either remember making a science fair experiment as a kid, or have helped a child make one as an adult? This is the worst. And one of the things that makes it the worst is that it seems like there are only two paths forward with science fairs, and both are miserable for a family.  Path 1: you begin the experiment when it is first assigned, dreaming up some wonderful idea like inventing a new fertilizer or seeing if you clean up the world’s oceans, and then the tests for the experiment take over your house for months. Or Path 2: you procrastinate, and then, at the last second, you have to come up with something you can design and pull of on a Sunday afternoon, so you end up figuring out which kind of ball bounces the highest or building a baking soda volcano. But with either path, the really dangerous part–the really tempting part–comes when you have to “face the music” of your actual, final results. Because here’s the thing, right? More often than you want to admit, the results don’t go the way you expected them to. Or…the way you need them to, to have a successful experiment. And whether you spent forever on the experiment, or you’re throwing it together at the last minute, once you get to bad results, you end up being faced with a really, really hard choice: do I do the hard thing and try it again? Or…do I maybe move a decimal point and get the results I expected? Was this really my fault…or is there something else I can blame

If Gustave Whitehead had fallen so in love with “Airplane No. 20” that he blamed every failed test on something that wasn’t his fault–the wind was wrong; there was too much humidity that day–he would never have gotten to the design that worked. Progress, it turns out, means accepting when failure happens because you got something wrong. When we refuse to admit this, we dig our heels in on our own self righteousness, and this, it turns out, leads us away from useful testing and towards arrogance, sin, and death. Or, as James puts it,

James 1:13-14

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 

Self-satisfaction, settling in our own opinions, trading earnest questions for cynical doubts…these are the things that sabotage what God is doing in our lives. 

So, how do we resist them? How do we remain steadfast? The answer is another paradox: we hold our beliefs in an open hand. We accept that testing–real testing–means they might not make it. We might lose them. They might not endure. But we also accept that this might not mean tossing out the entire idea: we commit to the hard work of testing, correcting, and testing again. This is how we grow. James says it like this:

James 2:14-18

What good is it, my brothers, if a man says he has faith, but has no works? Can faith save him? And if a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”; and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Here, James gives a quick illustration of how trying out our beliefs can ultimately lead to their refinement and perfection. He asks his readers to imagine a real-world scenario where what they believe about Jesus can impact the way they live. He says, “if a brother or sister is naked in lack of daily food,” what should you do? Well, as followers of Jesus, they–and we!–would begin by asking, “how would Jesus feel about this?” And in this imaginary scenario, James has his subjects think “Jesus” thoughts: they say, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled.” On its face, this isn’t a terrible answer: it would be good for this hungry and naked and insecure person to have more peace in his or her life! And the desire being expressed here is good, too: “be warmed and filled.” But, of course, thinking like Jesus–or even believing in the same values that Jesus teaches–isn’t a perfect and complete version of who we are meant to be! Because being really Christian is about more than the right ideas: it’s about sacrificial action! Jesus teaches that part, too: he doesn’t just come to Earth, wish us all peace and good tidings, wave his hands around, and tell us to sin no more. He dies on a cross in order to take the sins of all the world onto himself and pay the price that is due for them. His “mantras” about loving our neighbors and giving ourselves up for one another slam right into his material and physical person, with each hit of the hammer nailing his body to planks of wood. I know that’s a visceral and even grotesque thing to describe, but it gets at what James is suggesting here about our need for revision and new iterations and progress: it’s great to think like Jesus…but steadfastness in our pursuit of him can’t help but lead us to act more like him, too! So, what does James say?

James 2:15-18

 If a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and one of you tells them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled”; and yet you didn’t give them the things the body needs, what good is it? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead in itself. Yes, a man will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

Take the beliefs you have about Jesus…put them into practice in your life…hold the results of those practices in an open hand, so you can receive correction…and grow through your steadfast commitment to being made perfect and complete

Show me your faith through your works. And in that testing, allow your faith to work out

I know that can be a bit abstract, so I’d like to close with a small, practical, and personal example of the role open-handedness plays in this process. Three weeks ago, as Meredith and I were heading out on that vacation I mentioned earlier, we made a last-minute flight change which landed us in the very last boarding positions for a Southwest flight. About ⅓ of the people in this room right now just felt the bottoms fall out of their stomachs, because they know exactly what hellish thing is about to happen to us!

So, in any case, we accepted that at minimum this meant we wouldn’t be sitting together. But no matter! We were about to spend 2 solid weeks together, so a few hours on an airplane wouldn’t be a big deal. And it would give each of us a chance to listen to some podcasts or, in my case, plow through at least 100 pages of a book I have been crawling through on the political history of Britain, from the Vikings to Brexit. 

I…don’t think I can really explain myself here. 

In any case: I was excited about the next 5 solitary hours. So, as the last person boarding the plane, I made my way down the aisle and found my way to the only open seat: between a guy who was already sleeping next to the window, and a woman who seemed to be in her late 50s or so. I sat down…and the pilot immediately announced that the flight would be delayed for an hour due to lightning in the area. I sighed; I started to get out The Story of Britain…and the woman beside me launched into a tirade about Southwest. I nodded in agreement and went for the earbuds…and she wanted to read my tattoos. “Okay,” I said, and she began pulling at my arms and turning them around. “What do you do?” she wanted to know. “I’m a pastor,” I said. 

Annnnd everything fell apart. All my plans came crashing down: a pastor…with tattoos?! What denomination? Where? For how long? And on and on and on. 

Here’s the turning point in this story, right? Because I had a healthy and righteous plan! I was on vacation from my job as a pastor. I was on break! It was supposed to be okay for some “me time”! I WANT TO LEARN ABOUT THE POLITICAL HISTORY OF BRITAIN, FROM THE VIKINGS TO BREXIT! And it was really tempting to close my hand around my plans and my life and to feel confident that I was doing the right thing. And it wouldn’t have been an awful or unreasonable thing to do. But there was a more right thing to do, too. There was a person, made in the image of God, but in her own words living really far away from him. And something about me opened something up in her with earnest questions to ask. She was choosing openhandedness…she was also running a certain kind of experiment…and it was more right to answer and to talk. We talked–well, mostly she talked–for the entire six hours we were on that plane. I learned her entire life story, from teenage pregnancy, to single motherhood, to 12 years of a peaceful if boring second marriage, to an affair that ended it, to moving across the country to live with a former boyfriend and be stepmom to his 12 year old triplets…and at the end of this long story, she had the courage to ask a stranger: “I know my marriage is over and I don’t want it back, but I need to know how to tell my ex-husband I’m sorry.” 

One thing “open-handedness” means is letting go of your plans to be a person to someone else. Steadfastness, and our growth as people, isn’t something we get to by doing what we want. We get there by looking for–and trying to do–what is more right. We will make mistakes. We will behave selfishly. We will fail to love with the perfect love of Jesus! But what God has promised to do in us will work out…if we will keep ourselves open to it.