The Church We Cannot Be, Part 4: The Church of Individualized Faith

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DELIVERED ONLINE 26 JULY 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 20TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE

This week, we are going to be talking about a topic that is perhaps nearer to my own heart than any other in this series: The Church of Individualized Faith. That title may seem a bit clunky, so it might be worth saying that in its earliest drafts, the title of this message was “The Church of a Personal Relationship with Jesus.” But…I decided that was a bit too spicy. It’s also not entirely accurate: although, as we will soon talk about, I think the idea of our faith being anchored in a “personal” relationship with Jesus has done quite a bit of harm to the church as a whole, there is real truth to it that I don’t want to minimize. I believe that I do have a “personal relationship” with God, in that I believe I am cherished by God and I am known by the risen Jesus. Which is a crazy thing to believe! I think God knows me and cares for me. Getting this idea through my head has been a major lesson for me this year! 

However, my religion is not and cannot be personal alone, and more importantly, my salvation (to use a very churchy word) is absolutely not individual or personal. Rather, my hope is found in the family I have been adopted into. If you’re a note-taking sort, that’s the thing to write down today:

My hope is found in the family I have been adopted into.

northamptonSo, to go back a bit and work our way forward to this point, the story I want to tell today is again an old one, and again an American one. It begins, in its own right, in the year 1734 in the town of Northampton, Massachusetts. But its roots actually go back a bit further and require some introduction.

The story of American Christianity in general and American evangelicalism in particular can only make sense in light of two competing worldviews, or sets of governing philosophical beliefs about the way the world is. You might be thinking, “Philosophy, Kenny?! Again?!” Yes! But trust me here:

puritanThe first of these worldviews is one we introduced last week, and it manifested in the Puritan communities of New England. As we talked about, American Puritanism is built around the belief that truly Godly, Christian communities can function as “lighthouses” of a sort for the rest of the world. If a town or city is able to genuinely and truly manifest the kind of government and life that Jesus teaches, those communities will be so distinct and so perfect that others will take notice. But the danger, as we saw, was that such communities had to be aggressively self-policing in order to maintain the appearance of purity even above its sincerity. Judgment, excommunication, and fear end up woven into the fabric of things. And in New England, this problem culminates some 70 years after the Pilgrims show up in the tragedy of the Salem Witch Trials. After the Trials end, the religious communities of the Puritans begin to collapse, and a generally-American, religiously-ambivalent spirit of pragmatic capitalism spreads throughout the colony in its place. So, worldview #1: the reason we are on this planet is to pursue purity…but this is really, really hard to do together.

witch

The second worldview begins to take root in America right around the same time the Puritan society is collapsing in the 1690s, and it is an offshoot of the European Enlightenment. You probably know that word, but to boil it down into a sentence, the Enlightenment is the spreading belief that the best way to live in the world is to put your trust primarily in your own capacity for reason. You are the only person or thing you can ever truly know or trust, and your mind can function in a logical and rational way which can lead you, eventually, to a full and trustworthy understanding of a natural world which is also logical and reasonable. The Enlightenment does wonderful things for science and medicine, but it does terrible things for us as individuals, because it changes the story of all of human history, which has previously revolved around communities where the ideal is for the individual’s interests to be secondary to that of their neighbors, to one where the individual comes first: if you are kind, it must be because such kindness ultimately benefits you. If you aren’t convinced something is true, you have a scientific obligation to disbelieve it. The Enlightenment works by teaching us that we are neutral observers, who choose intentionally to “step in” when we actually believe in something. 

Whew! That’s lots of backstory. But to recap: Worldview 1 comes from the Puritans, and it teaches that purity is what God wants most from us. Worldview 2 comes from the Enlightenment, and it teaches that the individual is the center of his or her own life. 

So, to go back to Northampton, Massachusetts in 1734: 

The people of New England have become complacent about religion. Church attendance is down. Folks are mainly interested in making money, raising families, and staying generally out of trouble. And pastors in the area have an epiphany about a new way to reframe Puritanism for a new and largely indifferent generation of New Englanders. This idea can be summed up like this: it marries the two worldviews to teach an individualized purity. What if the “city on a hill” is actually a sinking ship? And the most reasonable thing for you to do is get off it as fast as possible

edwardsInto this conversation steps a man named Jonathan Edwards, who will perhaps become the most important pastor in the history of this country. He’s a quiet man, and he’s somebody I can really relate to, as he famously manuscripted all of his sermons (like I do!) and read them in a deliberate, unemotional, monotone way (just like me!). He said he didn’t want to “play on emotions” and instead trusted the words to speak for themselves. I’ll let you be the judge. 

In 1741, 7 years into a revival movement which became known as The First Great Awakening, Edwards wrote,

The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but

to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn Rebel did his Prince: and yet ‘tis nothing but his Hand that holds you from falling into the Fire every Moment: ‘Tis to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to Hell the last Night; that you was suffer’d to awake again in this World, after you closed your Eyes to sleep: and there is no other Reason to be given why you have not dropped into Hell since you arose in the Morning, but that God’s Hand has held you up […] Therefore let everyone that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the Wrath to come. The Wrath of almighty GOD is now undoubtedly hanging over a great Part of this Congregation: Let everyone fly out of Sodom: Haste and escape for your Lives, look not behind you, escape to the Mountain, lest you be consumed. (Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” 1741)

So, what is Edwards’ approach to the problem of the decline of the New England church? He says that the New England Church isn’t actually what you should be worried about. You should be worried about you: you are currently in sin; you are facing the ever present danger of hell; you are the object of God’s judgment and wrath…and you have the opportunity to escape that wrath by clinging to Christ, who can carry you to safety. 

brimstone

These kinds of sermons become known as “fire and brimstone” sermons because of their focus on hell and their eagerness to stoke the fears of those who are listening. But it’s important to set them in their context: the ministers who wrote and delivered these words did so because they believed the only future for the church of New England was one which recentered salvation on the individual instead of on the community. And this strategy worked. Churches grew, Edwards spoke all over the 13 colonies, and American Christianity became a Christianity of a one-on-one, personal relationship with Jesus, whose purpose was to rescue us from Hell. 

So what was lost? Is this not a thing we also say, some 280 years later? Is it untrue that Jesus’s death on the cross pays the price for our sinfulness and rebellion? Is it not true that Jesus saves…and if not “from Hell,” then from what? 

I think the problem isn’t that Edwards and others’ theology was wrong–it wasn’t!–it was their worldview. Because the story the Bible tells isn’t one that centers on the individual. It centers on the community

paulInterestingly, the apostle Paul wrestled with similar confusions all the way back in the first century. As we have talked about many times, the chief issue facing the early church was the “adoption” of non-Jews or Gentiles into what was initially a Jewish order: Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, redeeming the Jews to their mission and purpose as God’s chosen people. Gentiles might be able to worship alongside Jews, and they might be able to profess the same beliefs about Jesus’s resurrection, but could they really be a part of the family of God? At stake here was where the community was centered: was it on the Jews themselves, who were God’s chosen people in the world? Or was the center–the worldview–now rooted instead in the Church, who were God’s messengers for the Gospel? To this controversy, Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Rome, 

Romans 8:14-17

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

In brief, Paul says the center isn’t Israel or the Church: it is the person of Jesus. What is happening here, when we become Christians, is that we are putting on the identity of Jesus himself. That’s what the word means: a “Christian” is a person whose identity is found in the life and example of Christ, in the same way that a “Canadian” is a person whose identity is found in their citizenship in Canada. And so, if “Christians” are sharing in Christ’s identity, who then is Christ? Paul says what Jesus said, which is that he was the son of God himself. So, by extension, Christians are not “new-Jews,” nor are they merely members of a Church: they are adopted sons of God. We can call him “Abba, Father”–an intimate title and name. And even more, our adoption has made us co-heirs with Jesus as well! And what is our inheritance? It is the same resurrected life Jesus lives. It is sharing in Jesus’s glory. 

To put this in conversation with Edwards and the First Great Awakening, Paul centers Christian identity not in what I need to do in order to keep out of the flames but in what Jesus has done and is now offering to share with me. I’m being drawn in to an identity as a member of God’s family. I’m being adopted.

As you all know, my family is intimately familiar with adoption. I don’t want to sensationalize that right now, or co-opt someone else’s story to serve my own. But I will say this, as I think it relates: adoption isn’t about anyone “giving anyone up.” It is about welcoming people in. 

As Christians, our identity–our hope–is found in the family we have been adopted into. It’s about where we are being freely invited to belong, and the values and loving generosity that belonging generates in us and which we then pour out for others. It’s about being so overwhelmingly grateful for what we are being given that it becomes important for us to make sure that everyone else knows it is being offered to them, too. Paul puts these ideas into the very same words Jonathan Edwards will later use ironically to emphasize individual salvation alone. Paul writes, 

Romans 9:22-25

What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea:

“I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one”

Paul heads Edwards off at the pass, so to speak, some 1700 years earlier: he says that God’s patience with sin isn’t about the individual but the desire–which has always been at the center of God’s heart–to expand the community. To call those “my people” who are “not my people.” To call her “my loved one” who is “not my loved one.” 

To nail this point down, here’s what I’m getting at: when you or I fixate on a relationship with Jesus that is not anchored to the broader community of God’s family, we are missing out. We are missing out on real relationships with our brothers and sisters. We are missing out on a chance to see and  experience the expansive reach of God’s love. And we are missing out on the fullness of our inheritance, which is experiencing and sharing the life God’s love makes possible for us. Don’t make that trade. Don’t choose a private faith over a communal one…as messy as community can be. 

If I can pivot here to ways we can live this out this week, I have a few ideas I want to share:

First, don’t detach from Revolution. Don’t take this seemingly never ending season of quarantine as a sign that you can or should be “doing your faith” on your own. God wants more than that for you. I want more than that for you! And I also want more from you: I want to hear your stories and read and study Scripture alongside you. I want to pray for you. And I want you to pour what you are learning back out into the lives of others here in our community. We need each other. So don’t detach: email me, call a friend, come to the Sunday picnic (if you feel safe), join an online group, and help lead this church!

Second, serve with somebody. Last week, I challenged you to listen to the stories of your neighbors, who live with you in the mission field of your neighborhood. I hope you did that. And if so, what did you learn? What needs are there? How can people help one another? This week, step in to meet a need…and refuse to do that alone. Invite someone to serve with you. Or, if you don’t know where to serve, come serve alongside us! We are still partnering with Heritage Baptist’s food pantry on Tuesday mornings and another pantry at Mills-Parole on Saturdays: come join with others and serve! 

And third, let’s be intentional about looking beyond Revolution, too. The Church is bigger than us! One way we can do that is by using the opportunities this season is providing for us to participate in joint services and activities with other congregations. I am participating in a multi-church service on Wednesday nights at Heritage Baptist, and my hope is that you will join me, and more and more churches will collaborate. It’s a different kind of service than what we might be used to, but it is God’s church, worshipping together. I want to be a part of that! So come out: let’s lean in to the community we belong to!

To close this morning, I want to sum things up like this: Christian faith is communal. It draws us together. And this isn’t an accidental byproduct: Jesus came to this world for just this purpose, embodying God’s own love for his creation and then dying on the cross so that the people God loves can see and feel and understand God’s compassion for them. The Good News of the Bible is that you don’t have to be alone. In a time when isolation is everywhere, I want you all to hear dthis–especially any of you who might be listening and who haven’t claimed an identity as a Christian yet: you are being pulled into a relationship with God through what Jesus has done. You are the 1 he has left the 99 to go find! But the point of that illustration is for the 99 to become the 100. So walk with us. Take that first, big leap of faith to trust that the God who is reaching out to you has your interest at heart. And then discover that that interest is belonging in a family of brothers and sisters who all share the same eternal inheritance. We are a church, together. Let us believe that…and then embody it in the season to come.

The Church We Cannot Be, Part 3: The Church Without Mission

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DELIVERED ONLINE 19 JULY 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 19TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE

This morning, we are continuing in the third week of our series The Church We Cannot Be by looking at “The Church Without Mission.” We’re going to follow much the same course as we have in the past two weeks, where we start with a story from the Church’s past when we have lost our way. The goal is not to criticize or to complain, though. Instead, the goal for this series is to use these stories from our past to ask hard questions about our present, and as we navigate this strange time together in our own church, to seize this moment to think carefully and intentionally about where we are going

bradford1

William Bradford

This week, we’re going to start quite some time ago, in the year 1607, with a man named William Bradford and the small but unimaginably impactful church he once led. Bradford was raised as a farmer in rural England, but as a young adult, he became caught up in a Christian reform movement which was then spreading across his country. The movement was an open challenge to the dominance of the Church of England and its manifestation in the English monarchy, and its members were resolved to break from that church and establish a new and, in their view, pure church of their own.

leiden

The “Pilgrims” in Leiden, Netherlands

 

As a result, they became known as “Puritans” (or more generally, “separatists”) and in 1607, Bradford led a small congregation of families in an exodus from England across the Channel to mainland Europe and a new life in the town of Leiden in the Netherlands. There, the community purchased 25 neighboring houses and established a set-apart commune for themselves in the middle of  a foreign culture. For a time, things went well: they were reasonably well-treated in the city, and they were modestly prosperous. However, according to Bradford’s writing in later years, there were problems under the surface: in particular, their children, who were being raised in Dutch culture, were starting to stray from the rigid, Puritan way of life. Bradford wrote,

That which was more lamentable, and of all sorrows most heavy to be borne, was that many of [our] children…were drawn away by evil examples into extravagant and dangerous courses…and departing from their parents…to the great grief of their parents and dishonor of God. [Their parents then] saw that their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted. (Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Book 1, Ch. 4)

In response, Bradford and the other leaders of the church petitioned their old foe, the King of England, for a charter for the so-called New World. They were granted one for what is now Virginia, but after a near-disastrous voyage in 1620, their ship–the Mayflower–landed further up the coast near Cape Cod in what is now Massachusetts. Too tired to correct course, they settled in that place instead, establishing what became known as “Plymouth Colony.” 

plymouth

Although Thanksgivings make for fun stories, what most stands out to me about the Pilgrims’ path isn’t their gratitude for surviving in a difficult environment but their rationale for sailing here in the first place: how does essentially stranding yourself in an inhospitable place solve the problem of your children assimilating into Dutch culture? And, if your mission as Christians is to embody and share and give witness to the good news of God’s coming Kingdom, how does running away from Leiden help you accomplish it? 

Fortunately, Bradford writes about this, too. He says that they arrived in a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” “what multitudes there might be of them they knew not.” He said that now, “separate from all the civil parts of the world,” they were in constant danger and would almost certainly die! Unless God intervened to keep them alive. And this is why they were there: to live in such difficult conditions that they might–and their children might–have no choice but to see the hand of God in their survival. He writes, 

May not the children of these fathers rightly say, “Our fathers were Englishmen [who] came over this great ocean and were ready to perish in this wilderness; but they cried unto the Lord, and He heard their voice, and looked on their adversity.” Let them therefore praise the Lord. (Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Book 4, Ch. 1)

The Pilgrims were in Massachusetts to experience God’s grace. They were single minded and radically committed to making this happen. But this mission, it seems, came at the cost of that other part of their mandate as Christians, which was to be people sharing the good news of God’s coming Kingdom. In the end, they knew what they wanted, as far as their faith and spiritual growth went…but what about what God wanted, not just for them, but for the world? 

As most of you know, I’m now a part-time seminary student, and this summer, I have been taking a class on what’s called “missiology,” or the study of church mission. We haven’t talked much about the Puritans, but we have talked about that second issue: about the “mission of God.” In fact, missiologists have a handy Latin phrase for this: the missio Dei

The big idea of the missio Dei begins when we consider the Bible as a whole. What is the overarching story that it tells, from Creation, through the prehistory of the Israelites, and the Exodus from Egypt, and the building up of the Israelites’ Kingdom in the Promised Land, and the fall of that kingdom, and Exile, and return…and then Jesus’s ministry, death, and resurrection, and the sending out of the Church: what is God up to

And the answer can only be this: God is patiently, faithfully, and perpetually at work bringing people back into relationship with himself so that his Creation–ALL of it–can be restored to his intentions for it. In the beginning, this is the work he gives Adam: to care for Creation (Gen. 2:15). And after Adam, this is the work God builds his people for: to be a blessing to all nations, testifying to them of God’s character and goodness, that God’s Creation might be restored (Gen. 22:18). And when Israel fails, this is what Jesus himself does: he accomplishes the miraculous work of forgiveness and resurrection, opening the path for that restoration…and then sends the Holy Spirit to fill the people of the Church that they might go back out there and be a blessing to all nations, testifying to them of God’s character and goodness, that God’s creation might be restored. This message moves–it must move!–beyond Israel, first to those on the margins of their own society, like women, tax collectors, and Samaritans…and then to the Gentiles…and on to the people of Europe, Asia, and the world. It’s all one big story, heading in one big direction, accomplished through God’s own effort and work. It is, in other words, God’s mission. And we, as a local church, are invited to participate in that mission. 

Which, of course, is where Bradford and the Pilgrims lose the plot, right? Way back in England, before they even went to the Netherlands, Bradford and others responded to brokenness in the church by trying to purify it. They wanted to get their religion right. I’m sure the “missional” part of that was still on the agenda somewhere (in fact, after listing his reasons for leaving Leiden in Of Plymouth Plantation, he adds a postscript where he says that he is also interested in seeing if the native populations of the “New World” might have the ability to understand and receive the Gospel). But the desire to postpone that work until after their “posterity,” as he calls it, is secure and assuredly righteous ends up leading them to skip out on it. In fact, it leads them to skip town, deliberately shipwrecking themselves instead in an unknown and hostile land just to teach their children a lesson about dependence. 

We might laugh when we think about it. Unless we pause long enough to take a close look at ourselves. And then read on to the end of the story.  

winthropTen years after the Puritans arrived in Plymouth, a second group of religious separatists–more than 400 in number–arrived just north of the settlement at the mouth of the Charles River. They established the town of Boston, and their own leader, John Winthrop, made the famous declaration which crystallized in an unforgettable metaphor the missional attitude of the first Pilgrims. Winthrop wrote, 

We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “the Lord make it like that of NEW ENGLAND.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God […] we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. (Winthrop, “A Model of Christian Charity”)

In time, the Pilgrims of Plymouth largely abandon the colony, choosing instead to sell their ten years of expertise (and their cows) to their neighbors in Boston. And those words–that “we shall be a city upon a hill”–ended up making their way into the fabric of American identity. 

cityonahill

So, what did they reveal about the Pilgrims’ missiology? The big picture here seems to be that God’s plans for the church are always twofold: First, we have a responsibility to grow in our faith; to be “discipled” as followers of Jesus and to learn how to look more and more like him. But that work is both intended for and worked out through our participation in that bigger mission of God. We are sent out to live humble and transparent and vulnerable and sacrificial and confessional and generous lives for the benefit of others, so they might see and experience the love of God through us. 

What the ‘city on a hill’ mythos reveals is that the Puritans became so focused on the first job–getting themselves right with God–that they lost the ability to see how it connects to the second job–loving and serving our neighbors. And what’s disastrous here is that a closer look reveals these jobs are mutually dependent: if you’re not loving others, you’re not actually getting more “pure” or righteous. You can’t be a ‘city on a hill,’ living so perfectly that others are drawn to imitating you. You have to be a city on the move.

And so, when we look at the Puritans’ vision of themselves, it exposes that the plan was never to look outwards as a church…but to convince everyone else to look inwards. Their “mission” was self-improvement alone. It was self-righteousness. Which means it was performance. When mistakes were made, they were hidden. When the neighboring indiginous tribes, wracked by disease, asked for help, they were conquered instead, their presence derided as a “blight” on the colony. When anything or anyone didn’t conform to the set standards, they weren’t cared for or forgiven; they were cast out. The mission of the Pilgrims was purity. While the mission of God was–and  has  always been–restoration. The “outside” was where the Pilgrims sent those who weren’t good enough to be “inside.” Whereas the “outside” has always been where God goes to find those he will bring “inside.” 

So, as I personally reflect on the Puritans’ story, I need to ask: when do I also get these things confused? When do I trade God’s mission for one of my own? When do I let a desire to look like things are going well steer me in the opposite direction from the kind of confession, humility, and grace which sets God’s Kingdom apart from our own?

These are hard questions, and I think they’ve been made harder in the time of coronavirus: you all ask me how I’m doing, and I hold back because I don’t want to burden you. And then you do the same. In the end, we keep smiling and waiting: we’re in a holding pattern, and someday, this will all be over, and we can get back to “work” in our city and on ourselves. The “mission” feels paused right now. I know that’s how I often feel about it! Schools are closed! We don’t have a space! We don’t have a vaccine! 

But this week, thinking about the well-intentioned, but ultimately heartbreaking, story of the Pilgrims’ experiment, I’m realizing that we can’t keep taking a break. We can’t stay paused. God’s mission is ongoing. It has operated through every disaster and pandemic we’ve ever faced. Every war. Every exile. Every persecution. Every period of complacency. So what is God  doing now, and how can I be a part of it? 

We can find a genuinely helpful model for what it means to be part of God’s mission in the world even in a season of trials in God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah, on the eve of Israel’s exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. When Jeremiah is writing, the last remnant of Israel is facing certain destruction at the hands of their enemies, and like the Puritans and us, they are worried about the future of God’s plans for them. Whatever their failings, Israel is meant to be a blessing to all nations, as God told Abraham; their future is a critical part of God’s Kingdom. So, what does it mean if they are destroyed? 

Their assumption is that it can only mean God will rescue them: somehow, they won’t be conquered. But that’s not what Jeremiah says. Instead, he says that defeat and exile are coming. And yet the mission of God will continue. He writes,

Jeremiah 29:4-14

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. […] When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the Lord.

The key thing here is that exile isn’t a detour from God’s plans to A) refine and purify Israel and B) to use Israel to bless the nations of the Earth. It is a part of that plan. Their exile and those hardships will teach them how to live humbly, obediently, and sacrificially towards outsiders. And as they are transformed into genuinely humble, obedient, and sacrificial people–seeking as Jeremiah says, “the flourishing of the city” of their exilethis will be the embodiment of God’s character that they are designed for. Their radical way of living in exile will say more about who God is and what God wants for all of creation than their isolated purity culture ever could. 

I know you’re probably expecting me to go on for another ten minutes about all of this, but honestly, I think saying this ten more times might diminish the power and challenge of it, just as it is:

The way we live now, when things are hard and everything is pushing us into isolation and self-centeredness, can say more about who God is and how much God loves the people of this Earth than building some kind of megachurch ever could. Which means the way you are living, in your neighborhood, in your relationships with your friends, in your Zoom calls for work, is more powerful and important to the life and health of this church than a million sermons from me. 

We are God’s church. We are his people, meant to be a blessing. Should we strive for purity? Of course! But the disciplines of Christian life–reading our Bibles, praying, worshipping together, gathering together in whatever ways we can–those disciplines aren’t about setting us apart as a “city on a hill” for others to see and emulate. They are ways of drawing us time and time again into sacrificial and generous patterns of living. I read my Bible everyday because if I don’t, the worries of daily life will rob me of my ability to stay focused on my small part in God’s bigger story. I pray everyday because I want God’s heart and his love for others to become my own heart and passion. I worship with you because being on mission together is something to celebrate and be thankful for. I gather with you because the stories of how God is moving in Annapolis are encouraging and worth sharing. 

The culture of our church must always be an outward-focused culture. The rituals and behaviors which deepen and purify our faith only matter if they are changing how we are living in exile! And right now, as so, so much about Revolution is “on hold,” we need to understand the bigger mission of God more than ever before…because the changes in our rhythms and practices are creating new opportunities for us to realize just how important the work of the church is beyond merely worrying about its survival. 

So, this week, here’s what I want to challenge you to do:

    1.  Listen. Get to know your mission field. Look at the “exile” the coronavirus has put you in as an opportunity to seek the flourishing of your neighbors. And that starts by looking around and seeing who is there and listening–really listening–to their stories.
    2. Pray. Don’t neglect the relationship between how we serve and how we grow, spiritually. It can be easy to reverse the Puritans’ mistake and trade practical generosity for prayerful humility! But you can and should do both: ask God to show you how he sees your neighbors, and also ask for wisdom about how to truly seek the flourishing of your community. 
    3. Serve. Build relationships with others to join you in doing good. Remember what God tells the Israelites about even families in exile: get married! Have kids! Plant gardens! Go find work! Connect to the culture you are in and work alongside folks from outside your faith community. We don’t have to slap Revolution’s branding on every service event we do, and you don’t have to do that in your neighborhood, either. Know your neighbors, ask what good needs to be done, and partner with them in the doing of it. This isn’t abstract! It’s a real challenge, you can really take on this week.

We CANNOT be a church without mission…because a church without mission isn’t a church! So, as we move through this difficult season, let’s stop waiting around and start living our lives in exile: let us seek the flourishing of neighbors and continue trusting that God’s got this. He will see his plans through, and if we let him, he will use us to do it. 

The Church We Cannot Be, Part 2: The Church of Political Power

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DELIVERED ONLINE 12 JULY 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 18TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE

Today, we are continuing in our series The Church We Cannot Be, and in it, we are talking each week about times when we, as Christians, have gotten things wrong. The point isn’t to be demoralizing or, as one person challenged me this past week, to minimize our hope as a church. But it is to use the moment when we are in, when we find ourselves imagining the Fall season for our church not as a “return to normal” but as an evolutionary relaunch of who and what Revolution Annapolis is, to take a careful look at the kinds of traps churches have historically fallen into so that we can avoid those mistakes and chart a clear course for who and what we will continue to be. 

And with all that in mind, we are turning this week to perhaps our greatest temptation as a church in such a moment of national reckoning and unrest:  

BOY, let me tell you: this has been a hard sermon to write. I have been wrestling all week with how to approach this message, and even now as I’m recording, I’m still not sure that this is the best way. My hope is that, no matter what, this message encourages you to think and to wrestle, and it is my belief that if we are a people who do those things–think and wrestle!–our church will be healthier for it.

Ultimately, I believe the best way for us to start today is at the beginning, because the history of the tension between God’s People and the desire for political power is an all-consuming one: we’ll begin with the Israelites. 

thelawAccording to the book of Samuel, which retells the story of Israel’s beginnings as a nation after their exodus from Egypt and their establishment in the Promised Land, God’s initial plan for their governance was a unique one: Israel was to be ruled, in no uncertain terms, by God. He was to be their king. Their “laws” were the Laws he gave to them during their desert wanderings a generation beforehand, and the priests of the Temple were responsible for helping the people keep their covenant with God. When they failed to do this, there were specific leaders God would appoint to help bring them back into relationship with himself (which, it is helpful to note, is something God always takes responsibility for: he will bring us back to himself. Put a pin in that!). In any case, the leaders God would raise were called “judges,” and their responsibilities were to deliver Israel from the harm their poor decisions had led them into, and to remind them of God’s authority and goodness. There were many such people, and many of them were pretty morally suspect on their own accord…but God used them to deliver Israel. 

However, in the time of Samuel, the people of Israel grew jealous of the kingdoms that surrounded them, and they became self-conscious about the strangeness of their own political system: how could they really be ruled by God, directly? Who were these judges, anyway, and how could they know they were God’s servants? And what about the times between judges, when it was just religion and ritual, worked out between the people and the priests? Wasn’t all of this a bit too hopeful, idealistic, and impractical? So, they go to Samuel the prophet and say to him, 

1 Samuel 8:5-9

“Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.”

But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt, even to this day—with which they have forsaken Me and served other gods—so they are doing to you also. Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.”

Samuel warns them that their pursuit of a politics that looks like their neighbors will lead to trouble. The kings will make themselves rich at the expense of the people; their judgment will be clouded by self-interest and confusion; they will not have God’s wisdom, nor God’s understanding of his larger plan to make Israel a “blessing to all the nations,” which is always the backdrop to Israel’s story. But

1 Samuel 8:19-20

Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, “No, but we will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.

Samuel then anoints Saul, the first king of Israel, who gives way to David, and then Solomon…and then Israel experiences civil war, the kingdom divides, and there is little left to distinguish their story from the stories of their neighbors for centuries. 

So, what does any of that have to do with us? First of all, I think we can relate to the temptation of the Israelites more than we might think at first. I doubt any of us have begged for a king necessarily–we are Americans, after all–but we have likely prayed for politicians, and so it’s worth considering what’s underneath the Israelites’ request. What do they want

Well, first of all, they don’t want to be different: the other nations around them have kings, and that political structure makes sense to them. So they are envious of it.

jericho But they also want to win: they want to be a powerful nation on their own, and although God provided many victories to Israel through the judges, those victories have a certain strangeness to them that must have been a bit embarrassing: when Joshua captures the city of Jericho, he does it by circling it with soldiers and blowing trumpets, until God makes the walls fall down.

deborahWhen Samson defeats the Philistines, he does it as a ridiculed and enslaved blind man who brings a house down on himself and all of their generals not for Israel but as an act of personal vengeance. Gideon’s army is a ragtag bunch who don’t even fight because God defeats their enemies for them. Ehud has a deformed hand. Deborah is–gasp!–a woman. Israel’s heroes don’t make Israel look strong, they make God look strong. And Israel wants to look strong. That’s the idolatry at the base of their request: they want their neighbors to see them as politically formidable. 

And if we look closely, we are pretty similar, as political creatures. The history of the evangelical church in America, as we saw last week in our discussion about abolitionism and slavery, is full of times when churches tried to use political means to meet church ends. From organizing on both sides of that issue, to the Temperance movements of the late 19th century, to fighting on both sides of the suffrage movement in the 1910s and then on both sides of  segregation in the 1960s, to seeking in our own lifetimes to ban abortions while at the same time opposing contraceptives, to the endless chase of “Christian” candidates and family values…we are prone to believing that the Kingdom of God is something we can vote or veto into existence. And whether these intentions or platforms are themselves good or not, we need to ask whether the heartbeat of them is a plan that makes God look strong…or one that makes us look strong. 

This thirst for political power for Israel, and our own thirst, creates three specific blind spots that we, as a church, need to expose if we are going to serve our community and live as testimonies of God’s strength instead of promoting our own:

 

  • In pursuing political power, what do we give up?
  • In relying on political power, what countercultural message do we forget?
  • In holding  political power, what mission do we abandon?

 

To discuss the first point, well, first, here’s a brief story: when I was living in South Carolina, we had a member of the House of Representatives who was largely unpopular, but each election cycle, in the weeks leading up to the vote, he would go on the radio and say that he was a Christian, and he was opposed to gay rights, and if he was elected, he would make sure gay people couldn’t work as schoolteachers in the state. It was an entirely illegal and unenforceable thing to say: are you just going to go around to each classroom and ask? But doing it wasn’t the point: the point was that saying it was a reliable way for him to get similarly-minded professing Christians to vote. The point wasn’t the action, it was the optics…and this politician knew how to exploit his base’s desire to look strong for his own ends. He knew they just wanted “their guy” in power…and if he put on the right dog-and-pony show, they would support him, no matter what his actual agenda was. 

But what was the cost of their conviction? What policies or practices did that congressman support beyond the issue that rallied behind…and was that trade-off worth it, especially given that he could not and did not do the thing they saw as a moral imperative? This isn’t the place to get into a voting record, but I can summarize things by saying that he did much in his tenure that was out of alignment with the Bible’s call for us to love our neighbor, to seek justice, and to love mercy. 

The same was, of course, true for the Israelites in Samuel’s day: as God warns them, having a “king of their own” will cloud what it means to be a God-trusting people. Instead, they are putting their trust in a person to legislate into being something that cannot be more than a pale and even ignorant imitation of God’s intentions.

There is, perhaps, another helpful example in a conversation between Jesus and his disciples recorded in Luke 22:

Luke 22:24-30

A dispute arose among [the disciples] as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table”

For Jesus and his disciples, the goal was not power but participation: the Kingdom of God is an upside-down politics, where the greatest serve and the least come first. This is why Jesus closes this passage by saying that the reward for standing by him during his ministry–the reward, in our terms today, for following him–isn’t authority over outsiders but a seat at Jesus’s table, where we can participate in the sacraments of Holy Communion and share in the faithful work we have been given to do. 

When we consider what it means to pursue power through politics, we must remember that this comes at the cost of the unique life, existence, and witness of being radically God-trusting people instead of self-trusting people. 

But what of the issue of being “political”? Are we saying this is “all bad”? Not at all! Jesus was certainly–and he was aggressively–political as a leader, and the early church was also political. But politics of Jesus are expressly and inescapably countercultural.

It is Jesus who heals a blind man on the Sabbath (John 9), as we talked about a few weeks ago; it is Jesus who intervenes for the woman accused of adultery in order to prevent her execution (John 8:1-11). It is Jesus who, in John’s gospel, claims the authority of God himself and Jesus who, in each of the gospels, does not refute the governor’s accusation that he is the “king of the Jews” before he is executed. But Jesus’s authority, as he says to that same governor in John 18:36, “is not of this world.”

Jesus’s actions are inescapably political. But his horizon is God’s Kingdom, not the kingdom of Rome. 

In his essay “A Brief History of Political Power and the Church,” American theologian Greg Boyd tells the story of Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in AD 312, and he tells it so succinctly and clearly, I’m going to quote from him at length here. He writes,

constantine“It’s difficult to overemphasize the change that occurred when the emperor Constantine was converted. Just prior to an important battle, legend has it that Constantine had a vision in which he was told to paint Chi Rho (the first two letters of the Greek word for ‘Christ’) on the shields of his soldiers. Allegedly, a voice in the vision announced, ‘By this sign you shall conquer.’

Constantine obeyed the vision and won the battle. The magic apparently worked, and so Constantine and his administration dedicated themselves to the Christians’ God. This was the first time anyone ever associated the Christian faith with violence, but its success stained the church from then on.

constantine2Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313, and because of its association with him, the religion immediately exploded in popularity. Within seventy years it was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman Empire. The first recorded instance of Christians killing pagans occurred shortly after. In short order, the militant church extended its power by conquering lands and peoples throughout Europe, compelling them to become baptized Christians or die.

The cross-centered kingdom became a violent kingdom that embraced the sword. The church had become ‘the church militant and triumphant,’ and the kingdom of God, manifested in the crucified Jesus, had become the empire of Christendom.

churchmilitant

The sacrificial love and humility that characterized Christ and the early church had to be reinterpreted at this time to accommodate the new power that the church leaders believed God had given to the church. The lifestyle of Jesus and the early church came to be understood as a provisional inconvenience that had to be tolerated until Christianity could gain status in the world. Jesus and the early disciples had to be humbled and suffer, it was argued, because they didn’t have the power to do otherwise.

christendomThey argued that since the church knows the truth and thus knows what is best for all people it would be positively immoral to lay this power aside. Rather, the church used its newfound power to compel (by force) heathens and heretics to agree with it and be saved.”

The question at the root of Boyd’s essay is, “in relying on political power, what countercultural message do we forget?” As Boyd points out, the “church militant and triumphant” could only exist if it saw itself as a kind of next step or evolution from the radical, humble, service-centered, and self-sacrificing ways of both Jesus and his earliest followers. But this is a temptation that must be avoided at all costs: the Christians of today are not greater than the God they worship. Instead, the power we sometimes wield stands in contrast and opposition to the very way of life we are called to as followers not of Constantine but of Christ. 

The church is meant to stand against that old trick the Israelites once fell for, which was that they could build a nation for God. But they can’t do that; God builds his own nation. By taking control away from him and trying to do it themselves, they are like the student who waves off his teacher half way through a lecture saying, “I got it, I got it; I’ll take things from here.” We aren’t meant to be the ones in charge; not now, and not ever. We are part of a countercultural Kingdom where service, not control, is the ideal.

Sometimes, we get this confused because we get hung up on the “counter” in “countercultural”: we figure out all the things the church should be against in American society, and we protest and boycott and connive to shut down what we believe to be immoral behavior. But in doing this, we could not look more like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day if we tried! And as we see endlessly when we study and talk about Jesus’s life in the first century, what the Pharisees miss is the cultural part of countercultural: it’s not what you oppose that builds God’s Kingdom, it’s what you embody. This is what the apostle James means when he writes that,

James 2:26

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

As a church, we need to be truly countercultural: we need to be known by the values we give human shape to. We need to radically love our neighbors, especially those we disagree with. That’s not American politics, but it’s Christian. We need to give ceaselessly and generously of what our society says we have “earned.” That’s not American self-interest, but it’s Christian. We need to commit ourselves to being routinely humbled, to questioning our confidences, to wrestling with our doubts. That’s not American self-confidence, but it’s Christian. Our culture is meant to provide a taste of a different kind of power and a different kind of Kingdom…and if we pass off that responsibility to policies and politicians, we cease to be what we are designed to be. 

Which leads to our final question: in holding political power, what mission do we ultimately abandon?

I’ll keep this point short because I think it’s important, and I don’t want to speak so much that I distract us from it: 

Our mission is to the margins and not the center. Period. The church exists for the outsider, for the angry, for the hurt, for the broken, for doubtful, for the frightened, and for the ignored. And the beauty–the miracle–of God’s church, which sets it in exact opposition to the heart of American politics, is that we stand for an eternal and infinitely-generous Kingdom. We don’t make ‘greater good’ arguments. We don’t weigh human lives against one another. We don’t boil things down to what people ‘deserve’ or ‘don’t deserve.’ We don’t judge. We don’t discriminate. We don’t live in a mindset of scarcity.

We love abundantly. We love universally. We leave the 99, to find the 1. And this mission is at odds with holding political power. It’s, in fact, political suicide! But it’s Christian. And we cannot, under any circumstances ever, lose sight of the overwhelming and abundant vision for God’s Kingdom. Its difference–its seeming impossibility!–is exactly what makes it attractive. And its embodiment in the church is what makes it believable.

It is good to vote. It is good to use your voice for the voiceless. It is good to seek to bring positive change to our community through political action. But our horizon must always be bigger than what is expedient, or what seems “reasonable.” When Christians become rationalists and utilitarians, weighing the “cost” of loving our neighbors, we turn our back on the very essence of a God who is arrested, beaten, and murdered by Empire for the sake of his creation. 

This IS a political message! But its means are not coercion; they are invitation, hope, generosity, and resilience. 

Revolution can be this kind of church: we can and have freed people in our city from the burden of debt; we have fed the hungry; we have advocated and protested and partnered. These are political acts, and we will continue to do these things. But we will also keep a Kingdom horizon in front of us: we will use our power to see others and treat others as God’s people first. We will testify to the upside-down politics of Jesus by overflowing in our generosity towards the margins, by being selfless in our service, by being radical in our sacrifices, and by being faithful in our love to all those who God loves, always.

The Church We Cannot Be, Part 1: The Church of Racial Injustice

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DELIVERED ONLINE 5 JULY 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 17TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE

This morning, we are starting a new series called The Church We Cannot Be. As we close out the first half of our year studying what it means to be a church On Mission (which is our theme for 2020) we need to begin to lay out the kind of church we actually hope for as we move into the future. As we all know, we are living through an incredibly volatile and unpredictable time. Although we have been able to sustain much of what makes us a church over the last 3 months, we also know that what we are currently doing, with online groups and these weekly church service videos, isn’t sustainable forever. The truth is that church is more than this: it’s more than just learning or even sharing ways we can stay connected to our community; it’s also corporate worship, and stories, and all the ways that we share in life together. The church is a family charged with a responsibility to bring God’s Kingdom here, to Earth, and to celebrate the ways Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection fundamentally transform all of creation. We are a part of God’s own mission in this world, which is to reconcile all things to himself and to redeem this entire universe to the design that has always been intended for it. 

God is now, and has always been, telling a story through this universe; one which testifies to who he is and who we can be. So, as we move into not only the second half of our year in terms of teaching but into a Fall that will see us reimagining our gatherings, our worship services, and our culture, we want to pause in this series and take a closer look at the history of the church. Our goal is to explore both where we have seen the mission of the church flourishing…and where we have seen it fall short. To do that, we will be exploring a handful of examples of ways the church has gotten things wrong in its past: times when we have allowed the mission of God to be lost in the politics of the moment, times when we have lost sight of discipleship in favor of the idols of independence or emotionalism, and times when even earnest churches have made costly mistakes. The point of all this isn’t to demonize the brothers and sisters from our past, nor is it to set ourselves apart as somehow beyond making mistakes. Rather, the hope is that at this pivotal point in our church’s (and our culture’s) history, we can learn from the mistakes of the past and chart a stronger and more truly Christian course for our future.

This week, we are going to start by looking at the first of the churches we cannot be: The Church of Racial Injustice. This is obviously a timely topic, as I’m sure all of your Facebook feeds have been flooded with posts and articles about how Christians–and especially white Christians–are navigating this moment of cultural reckoning on the subject of American racism. But it’s worth diving into more deeply because being the kind of church we hope to be–which is a church speaking and standing against the racism which still flourishes in American society–is harder than we think. 

To get at that story–and to set the tone for the next few weeks–we are going to do two things which are a bit unusual for this space in our service: 

  1. We are going to tell stories about how real churches in the past–Christians throughout time, more accurately–have gotten it wrong.
  2. We are going to use Scripture to both correct those mistakes and to help us chart a course forward. In doing this, I’m going to teach from the Bible in a slightly different way than I often do: instead of having a central passage that I will teach through, I’m going to both talk about and cite several verses and stories in the  Bible which apply. I generally don’t prefer to teach the Bible in this way, as you probably know: typically, we spend significant time establishing context and trying to get to the heart of a truth the Bible is communicating. But in this case, we will need to move a bit more quickly, and so there will be less contextual work. My hope is that you will trust me in this–you might not even notice the difference!–but I want to say here at the outset that you are encouraged to ask questions: I’m here to teach beyond just these weekly videos, and if you ever want to have a fuller conversation than this 25 or 30 minutes each week allows, I’m here!

So, with all of that said, what has historically made it so hard for predominantly white churches to escape the temptation to be “Churches of Racial Injustice”? 

Let’s begin with a few stories:

State and County Maps of Georgia | Georgia map, Georgia history ...In the year 1845, in the state of Georgia, a pastor named James E. Reeves was nominated by a local church committee to serve as a missionary. The committee’s application was sent to the American Baptist Home Mission Society at Boston, which oversaw such nominations, for approval and a small amount of financial support. There was little on the surface that was unusual about this request: state committees routinely asked for such support from the national leadership, rarely with any particular interest or controversy. However, the national conversation about slavery in 1845 ran more hot in the Northeast, where the national body was headquartered, and when it was discovered that Reverend Reeves was also a slaveowner, the ABHMS decided to reject Georgia’s application, for fear that it would seem like an endorsement of slavery.  It’s worth noting–for our conversation later–that the Society had never repudiated slavery, either! But supporting it seemed to them to be “taking sides.” 

When the Georgia Baptist State Convention found out, however, they decided to withdraw their support, and then went a step further, requesting that the national board refund all of their previous donations. In the fall of that year, the national board did so, and those funds were then used to start a new organization which would not discriminate against slaveowners: that organization was the Southern Baptist Convention, which remains the largest Protestant denomination in the United States today. 

sbc

My point here is not to say that Southern Baptist churches today are still supporters of slavery! Rather, it’s to say that issues of race are, more often than we might think, deeply embedded in the institutions of our lives…even when those institutions seem to be saying the “right” things. It’s also to say that fixing problems isn’t just about what we say now; it’s also about how we rectify what we said then. 

And it is also our problem: although Revolution is not a Southern Baptist church, it is still a predominantly white church, and that is a reality with a story behind it, too. It’s worth asking: how did evangelical churches in America, outside of denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, become so generally segregated?

As the Christian History Institute notes, more than 94% of Southern churches experienced denominational divisions over the issue of slavery, and the ways those churches explained and justified their attitudes on race continue to shape not only our denominational structures in the United States, but even our way of understanding our mission:

“[After the Civil War] Christianity in the South and its counterpart in the North headed in different directions. Southern believers, who had drawn on the literal words of the Bible to defend slavery, increasingly promoted the close, literal reading of scripture. Northerners, who had emphasized underlying principles of the Scriptures, such as God’s love for humanity, increasingly promoted social causes.” (Christian History, #33, 1992)

In other words, the out-of-context use of verses from the Bible to support slavery transformed, over time, into an entire framework for how we read Scripture, focusing not on the big ideas or narratives of the Bible, but the literal meaning of individual verses in translation. I grew up in a church that hung its hat on literalism and mocked churches concerned with “social justice”; at no point did that ever seem like an argument rooted in the legacy of racism…and yet it was. 

Literalism towards Scripture was (and still is) used to justify maintaining a “safe distance” from social issues. This became an entrenched part of white evangelical Christianity. Involvement in social justice causes became a coded way of saying that our priorities were backwards: instead of focusing on eternal souls, such Christians were getting hung up on the material world. “Who really cares about more affordable housing or unjust policing when heaven is at stake? Isn’t that the real priority?” And although it is good to take Scripture seriously and to treat it as sacred, and even though it is good to see the souls of our neighbors as well as their more material forms of suffering, we need to also recognize that we have been bamboozled by this kind of choice–between the Bible and our neighbors–into a state of inaction. And issues of race and prejudice are at the root of this dangerous divide. 

This past week, I read an article from a British missionary on the problem of believing in “cultural neutrality.” The author’s point was that every decision we make about things like a church service or a Sunday environment reflect a culture’s preferences: there is no “neutral” culture…and in fact, the tendency to think there is a symptom of white supremacy. I was struck by this because it leads to two observations, I think:

 

  • The myth of neutrality is almost always the way the church has gotten this story wrong. The Mission Board in Boston wasn’t opposed to slavery in 1845; they just didn’t want to seem like they were in favor of it. They stood for nothing, they insisted on nothing from their members, and their “neutrality” did nothing to stop division.

 

  • The belief in neutrality indicates that we are living in an unchallenged culture of discrimination: whose culture is the default? Whose values get to stand in as “normal”? This has been the legacy of “whiteness” in American society: it is allowed to simply be the “default” way of things.

 

 

So, what on Earth can we do about any of this? If we don’t want to be a “Church of Racial Injustice,” what steps can we take

I think we can begin by recognizing two “confusions” when it comes to racism and discrimination that are prominent in the Bible.

jonahThe first lesson comes from the Old Testament book of Jonah. The basic parts of this story are pretty familiar: Jonah is commanded by God to warn the neighboring Assyrians about God’s impending judgment on the city of Nineveh. Instead, Jonah runs away, saying he is afraid he would be killed. But while at sea, he is swallowed by a giant sea monster…and then spit up on the road to Nineveh. He does what God asks him to, telling the Ninevites they are doomed. And then, he does something strange: he finds a seat on a nearby hill and prepares to watch the city be destroyed. But unbeknownst to him, the Ninevites have been moved: they have repented, begged God for forgiveness, and God has relented. Jonah is furious. He says, 

Jonah 4:2-3

“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

jonah2

Here’s what I think we can see here: God’s mercy reveals the rotten truth behind Jonah’s actions. Jonah wasn’t afraid of the Ninevites, which is what he said at first. He hated them, and he wanted to see them destroyed. If he didn’t warn them, they wouldn’t repent…and a traditional enemy of Israel would be destroyed. Jonah’s fears were really excuses: in his heart, he hated them. And that meant that his heart was out of alignment with God’s heart. 

In the next verses, God makes a vine grow overnight where Jonah is sitting, giving him shelter and shade. Then, he causes it to wither and die. Jonah is again furious, saying he wishes he could just die. God  replies,

Jonah 4:10-11

“You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left?”

It is racism that leads to Jonah’s dehumanizing attitude towards the Ninevites. But it’s fear that he uses as an excuse to do nothing. God’s heart here is clear: he loves the people he has made–all of them. If our own hearts are like God’s heart, we will interrogate our fears in order to uncover what excuses they are making for us…and how those excuses lead to our silence when it comes to people who are precious to the God we say we follow.

The second lesson is an inversion of the first: it’s what happens when excuses cover over our fears. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he tells them about a recent time when he had to challenge the apostle Peter, who was not only his elder in the church, but a living disciple of Jesus. Even the disciple, in a sense! Paul recounts how,  

Galatians 2:12-14

Before certain men came from James [and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem], he [Peter] used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

It’s important to remember for this story who Paul is: he was a Pharisee, renowned for his prior persecution of Peter and the other Christians. But as a convert and missionary to the Gentiles–who the Jews often saw through a racist lens–he stands up for them here, even against his clear superior in the church. He writes,

Galatians 2:14

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to [Peter] in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”

paulpeter

He calls out Peter’s hypocrisy for dining with the Gentiles in private but shunning them when other Jews are around. So, what’s Peter’s explanation? According to Paul, Peter’s excuses were really fears: he could make legalistic arguments for why a Jew ought not eat at a table with non-Jews…but in truth, he was afraid of losing influence with his peers. 

The challenge for us, then, is to interrogate our excuses: when we find ourselves deferring or avoiding taking part in calls for change, or otherwise advocating for the gospel treatment of our Black brothers and sisters in this country, we need to ask ourselves are the excuses I am making merely justifications for my fears of losing status or privilege? If so, Paul ceaselessly reminds us that we ought to imitate Christ, who gave up everything–even in his life–for us.

These are the starting points for our action steps this morning. When we are confronting our own inaction–our neutrality

  1. Are we willing to look underneath our fears, to see the ways they excuse our prejudices and biases?
  2. Are we willing to look underneath our excuses, to see what ugly and anti-gospel fears they foster? 

But what about collective action? As we imagine the church we can be at Revolution, how can we actively resist the temptation to slide into inaction on issues of racial injustice? To borrow a popular and important phrase right now, how can we be an antiracist church?

The first thing we have to do is own our part in the story. Like modern day Southern Baptist churches, who have taken steps in recent years to repent of their roots in pro-slavery causes, we as a contemporary, mostly-white, evangelical church in America need to acknowledge that we have exploited the privilege of being passive. Because of who so many of us are, the trauma of America’s ongoing discriminatory practices doesn’t always land directly on our metaphorical doorstep. The grief of our neighbors doesn’t always seem like it is our grief, and our separation enables us to opt out of the problem. Like the Home Missionary Society in Boston, we don’t want to endorse systemic racism…but we also don’t feel much of a burden, most of the time, to resist or oppose it. But if we take our own Bible seriously when it says, in explicit terms, that we are to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ,” we have to acknowledge that we have failed and repent of that. Our story isn’t perfect. We are part of a broken and, ultimately, very human institution as an American church, and it is incumbent upon us to own the ways we have stepped out and change our practices by stepping in.

The second thing we have to do is refuse to normalize whiteness. This can be hard to do because we often slip into this without thinking about it. We can also often justify this by saying, “well, we’re just trying to operate in a way that resonates with the people who are already here.” But that’s not how an active, passionate, and missional church behaves! We exist as a place of hope, healing, and belonging for outsiders. So, when, in our regularly practices, are we guilty of treating white traditions as “the normal way of doing things”? And how can we be intentional about opening up our habits and patterns to other approaches and voices? You might think of this challenge as akin to what we do each Advent season, when we change our liturgy to participate in more traditional forms of service. I know that’s not always fun for everyone, but we do it because we don’t want to train ourselves to think that our way of doing church is the only or the best way. The discipline of doing something uncomfortable reminds us that the tent is bigger than Revolution. So, how can we challenge the default patterns of whiteness in the same ways we challenge the default patterns of contemporary evangelical churches? If this question resonates with you, reach out to me this week: we need help here!

And the final thing we have to do is actively work for transformation. Annapolis is a mostly friendly, mostly lovely town. But this image thrives on very real efforts on the part of those in power to conceal both poverty and people of color from its most popular and visible places. There is a long history of this, including the “downtown renewal” efforts of the 1970s and ongoing gentrification efforts. The city has long neglected the needs of its poorest neighborhoods, keeping them out of sight and aggressively policed. And as we seek to see this city flourish, we have to remember to have a God-sized imagination for what that means. In the book of Revelation, John writes of the Kingdom of God, 

Revelation 7:9

I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. 

Flourishing, in God’s Kingdom, is for everyone. If we are to be workers in that Kingdom, we must insist on the dignity and value of each and every one of our brothers and sisters. If we aren’t insisting on that, we’re not building God’s Kingdom. 

Martin Luther King Jr's Letter From a Birmingham Jail—Why He Was ...

This has been a long message, but I want to close with a challenge from Dr. Martin Luther King, who once wrote a famous letter in response to a group of white pastors in Alabama who found his protests too great a disturbance. He wrote,

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” […] Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” […] Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

This is the church we cannot be.

Open Hands & Moving Feet; or, How NOT to Fall on an Escalator

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DELIVERED ONLINE 28 JUNE 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 16TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE

The main task of this series has been to try and learn how what we know about God–which is that he is not only in a position of authority over his creation but also cares deeply about it–can shape how we each live our daily lives. At the beginning, we said that God’s nature is overwhelming, and that the life followers of Jesus are invited to live is meant to be overwhelming, too. But then we learned that we often get this wrong: because of a mindset of scarcity that can develop in us as a result of our own fears, anxieties, and prejudices, we often choose to live less-than-overwhelming lives, characterized by building metaphorical dams around the things that flow into our lives so that we can try to control them. Over the last few weeks, we have talked about what it means to take those dams down so that instead of being people who seek to hoard God’s generosity, we can become people who allow God’s overwhelming nature and kindness and love and power to flow through us, and into the lives of other people. We want to be people of overwhelming generosity ourselves, first so we can better imitate our God’s nature, and second so we can participate in the work God is doing right now, in the world around us. To put that in simple and actionable terms: we want to reject fear, anxiety, and a desire to control our own lives in order to be people who put others first, who serve our neighbors, who fight systems of oppression and injustice, and give generously of everything God pours into our lives. We want to be excited about an overwhelming life…not afraid of one. 

22.4.2010: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, RavennaSo, this week, we are going to step away from the more abstract conversations of the series in order to look more closely at how overwhelming and abundant living is modeled by the early church when it comes to the example of financially supporting the work of their ministry. Our goal is to see in the actions of the early church an example of our own need to “walk the talk,” so to speak; to live out the lessons of generosity we have been thinking about over the last month in the kinds of tangible, practical ways that can become an example of the overwhelming life and love of God for others.

To set the stage for this, I want to start with a quick, and perhaps embarrassing, story:

Once, when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, my mother took me to a department store. The store was in a mall not too far from where I grew up, but this one particular visit stands out to me because I believe it was the very first time I ever tried to use an escalator. As I’m sure I’ve said before, I was the oldest child in my family, and because of that, for most of my early life, my family’s choices would revolve around not me, but my younger brother: when he was an infant, we would only go places that could accommodate his stroller; when we would drive anywhere, my spot in the car would depend on which other seat could accommodate his carseat. You get the idea. The same principles, of course, would apply to trips to places like department stores, which often had more than one floor or level for shopping: if my brother Chris was with us, and he was in his stroller, we would go up and down not on the escalator, but in the elevator. So, the consequence of all this is that for much of my early childhood, an escalator was a kind of magical mystery: I saw people using them, they seemed exciting, but I had never actually gotten on one. 

escalator

So, on this one particular day, I believe my mother was carrying my brother on her hip, and so she decided we would give the escalator a go. I remember being very excited about this. And so, we walk up to it, and she steps on…and I watch her feet…and wait for a spot in between the yellow lines separating the steps…and step on. But as soon as I do this, I realize that I don’t know what to do with my hands. I’m still small, so instinctively, I reach out and grab what looks like a silver railing…and suddenly, my feet are moving up and my hand is stuck in place: I’ve grabbed the metal siding of the escalator instead of the black moving handrail. My body is instantly pulled in two directions, and I can vividly remember my panic: I start back-peddling, I stumble, I’m somehow on my back, being half-dragged up…and I scramble back to the ground, terrified. Meanwhile, my mom is now halfway up to the second level, and so in addition to being afraid, I am alone. A meltdown ensues. My mom has to go around, out of my sight, to find the down escalator, I’m crying and panicking. It’s a disaster. 

Here’s the point: the lesson I learned that day on the escalator is that if you want to move forward, your hands and feet have to be on the same page. And what happened to me when my feet started moving and my hand didn’t was that I clenched my hand on that metal railing like there was no tomorrow. I grabbed, and grabbed hard…and that meant that what my feet were trying to do didn’t matter: My body stayed where my hand was clenched. 

As we keep thinking about what it means to live an overwhelming life, I find myself being drawn back to that escalator, and to this big principle: if we keep holding tightly to what is in our hands, the direction our feet are trying to pull us in isn’t going to matter. We need to get our hands on something moving in the same direction we want our feet to move…and at the same speed! Which is to say: if we want to be overwhelming people, who are a real blessing to our neighbors and our communities, we have to bring all of ourselves along on that journey. No half-measures, no compromises: we have to be willing to pour all of ourselves out. 

Our main text this morning comes from the apostle Paul’s second letter to the church he had planted in the city of Corinth. The Corinthian church had a troubled history with Paul, and his letters to them are marked by significantly more rebukes and challenges than his letters to other churches, such as the church of the Philippians we explored earlier this year. But at the same time, the Corinthian church stayed in relationship with Paul, so even though his words for them were often challenging, they were committed to learning and growing. 

Excavating Ancient Greece

At the end of his second letter to them, Paul approaches a particularly important and difficult issue in the early church: the churches needed money in order to survive. That money was sometimes used to support missionaries who traveled between the churches and to new cities; it was more often used to ensure that the people of the church family could survive, especially since identification as a Christian could lead to persecution and a loss of work. And it was also used to care for the needy beyond the church’s borders in the broader community; it was this kind of generosity that most transformed the outside culture’s view of Christian faith, as Christians stepped in to care for people everyone else in the community was stepping away from. This was a key way for the church to show, in their actions, how overwhelming the God they worshipped was! 

But fundraising, both then and now, is tough. So, Paul writes to the Corinthians, who have material wealth, about the example of another, much poorer church in Macedonia. He says,

2 Corinthians 8:1-13

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people. And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us. So we urged Titus, just as he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

And here is my judgment about what is best for you in this matter. Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality

I think there are 4 basic principles we can draw from Paul’s letter here which can inform our own participation in God’s generosity:

The first is that Paul says the Corinthians should give in measure with their means. This is an essential point, and it echoes Clare’s teaching from last Sunday on Jesus’s words about the poor widow who put only two coins in the Temple offering while the wealthy elites made a show of their generosity. Like Clare said last week, what  stands out about the  widow’s generosity–in fact, what Jesus praises about it–is not the amount but the discipline of it: giving was a priority for her, for its own sake. It wasn’t about the amount or the performance, but the unforced rhythm of her behavior. 

Also as Clare said last week, one of the most powerful things about giving in “measure with our means” is that it can, in fact, lead to much greater generosity. When we make even modest gifts part of the pattern of our lives, the end results can often be overwhelming. In my own life, I am often thunderstruck by  the giving statements we receive from the church at the end of the year: week in and week out, Meredith and I prioritize giving a percentage of our income, and we rarely think about it as either a difficulty or as anything particularly meaningful…but when we see the number it has all added up to, we are amazed at what those rhythms of generosity were able to generate. There is no chance, no matter how emotionally excited we were, that we would ever be able to write a single check for that amount! But by living within our means, and building generosity in as a principle, we are both provided for week in and week out and something wonderful is generated. 

This is also a helpful principle for those of us who are shackled to things like debt: when paying bills is already difficult, it can be incredibly hurtful and oppressive to hear anyone talk about being more generous financially. But what I want to say is that the principle is worth putting into practice, no matter what the number is. If making a plan for giving $1 each month is what matches your means, I think you should do it! The point isn’t that Revolution needs your money any more than the first century Temple needed the widow’s two coins: the point is that living generously is how we put our hands on the escalator rail so our whole body can follow our feet. 

The second principle builds on the first: Paul points out that the Macedonians’ generosity–as well as Jesus’s generosity–welled up from “extreme poverty.” This is an incredibly strange thing to try and make sense of, so I want to give it a few minutes of our attention. My own sense of what Paul is saying is that truly overwhelming generosity can only flow from our lives when we have a humble understanding of what our lives require. Just like the roots of plants need water, all of us require some amount of material things to live safely. I cannot reasonably give everything that I ever receive away and still survive: I’m not made that way any more than the natural world around us is made that way. But my sense of what “poverty” means is rarely a reflection of what I actually need: I define poverty in all sorts of subjective ways, from my “need” for space in my house or a car to drive to my “need” to start a college fund for my children or to have “rainy day” money for a vacation. These things aren’t bad, that’s not what I’m saying! But I think the goal for me–the goal for all of us, who say we want to follow after the example of Jesus–is to unclinch our fists from around the things we want and to ask ourselves routinely, “where is my pride? Where is my idolatry? Where am I holding on to what I feel I am entitled to at the expense of sharing overwhelming hope with others?” 

This, I think, is what it means for our generosity to “well up from our extreme poverty”: how can we recalibrate our lives around what the resources we have been given can go on to do instead of how much of them we deserve to keep

And this, then, leads to our third principle, which moves out from us as individuals and into the kind of church we, as Christians, might build: our desire should be for equality. This, it is essential for us to say, is about more than money. For Paul here, it is about the burdens of existing as a church on the margins of Hellenistic society. Whereas some churches have found uneasy truces with their surrounding communities, others are experiencing intense hardship. For many such Christians, the prejudices of the day meant that they were passed over for jobs, avoided in the streets, harassed by authorities, and blamed for all sorts of social ills. The generosity extended by churches like the one in Corinth helped sustain the members of other churches who were struggling to provide for themselves. 

There are challenging parallels for us today. Are we similarly committed to not just seeing our neighbors, both inside the church and outside of it, as equals but giving until that equality is assured? As an institution, it would be easy to try and dodge this particular challenge: Revolution is far from being a wealthy church, and in the four years I have worked here, we have struggled to meet our own budgets, even as we have significantly reduced them each year. We could easily abstain and say, “when we are secure, then we will lift others up.” But that’s not a desire for equality! The question isn’t “what can we spare?” it’s “what do you need?” Whatever our hardships, there is no doubt others–other churches, other people in our communities!–are in trouble. Are  we–as a church, as individuals–really seeing each other, and making equality our goal? Where am I willing to step down in order to make that happen? 

This question leads to our final principle this morning, which is that overwhelming generosity keeps mission in mind. In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul writes, 

2 Corinthians 9:8-9

God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

“They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;

    their righteousness endures forever.”

Generosity is attached to good work, and good work is produced when we give freely…and in giving freely, imitate our own generous God. 

At the beginning today, I told a silly story about an escalator. But I hope it at least yields this one important point: as a church, we can make really good decisions about where we want to go and what steps we need to take to get there. We can have a great plan for growth and progress and loving our neighbors. But if we step onto the escalator stairs heading in that direction and keep clinging to where we think we can find our own security, we will fall down. The clinging hand wins, every time. 

So, if we want to be overwhelming people, living after the example of an overwhelming God, who refuse a mindset of scarcity, break down the dams of inequality, and instead live by the unforced rhythms of generosity and grace, we have to let go. We have to. In every area of our lives: we have to let go of our wealth. Our privilege. Our desire for control. Our arrogance. Our self-righteousness.

And we also have to let go of our fear. Our anxiety about the future. Our doubts about ourselves, and about others. Our doubts about God’s own openhandedness towards us. 

If we can do that, I know the abundance of God will be unmissable all around us. I know we will be filled to bursting with his totally unreasonable love for us and concern for us. And as we  increasingly accept these truths, that we are God’s beloved creation, we can discover that letting go and pouring out aren’t difficult decisions: in light of who he is, and what he can do, they only make sense. 

Can you imagine a life like this? A church like this? What changes in this town if we live overwhelmingly? What rivers of justice might flow through us and to this place? 

What if we tried, together, to find out? 

 

 

A Church of Dam Breakers: Overwhelming Generosity, Part 1

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DELIVERED ONLINE 14 JUNE 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 14TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE

hetchhetchybest

Hetch Hetchy Valley, circa 1910

This morning, I want to start by talking about a place in California called Hetch Hetchy. Hetch Hetchy is–or at least, once was–a valley ecosystem in the northern half of Yosemite National Park. For untold millennia, Hetch Hetchy was a geological rival to the more famous Yosemite Valley to its south: surrounded by enormous granite cliffs and fed by dozens of spectacular waterfalls, the Hetch Hetchy valley was home to the meandering Tuolumne River and a vast expanse of river grasslands which were home to countless species  of wildlife, including cougars, elk, and brown bears. You can see photos of the old Hetch Hetchy, and it was beautiful. 

sanfranBut in the early 1900s, the fast-growing city of San Francisco, which was downstream of both Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy valleys, set its sights on the park as a new source of hydroelectric power. Despite widespread opposition, including (and this is hard to imagine in this day and age) a unanimous protest from every AP newspaper in the United States, the Tuolumne River was dammed at the south end of the valley in 1913. The valley was flooded, and it remains flooded today.

hetchhetchy3

A “bathtub ring” of erosion now scars the granite cliffs, uncountable species have been displaced, and millennia of Native American archaeological sites have been destroyed. To make matters worse, in subsequent years, additional dams and powerhouses were built at lower points on the Tuolumne River in state-owned land that have rendered the Hetch Hetchy dam all-but-useless.

However, despite decades of widespread lobbying for the dam’s removal, the city of San Francisco has consistently blocked and frustrated all efforts. Removing the dam, the city has argued, would be costly, especially since it would mean hauling the same stones which were once dragged up the valley by teams of horses back down winding mountain roads to a disposal site. After 107 years, the dam persists because it would be, in the words of one-time San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein, “dumb, dumb, dumb” to tear it down for what she called “just an expanded campground.” 

amosThis might seem like a tangent, but last week, we talked about the book of Amos in the Old Testament, and I think there are similarities under the surface between what Amos talked about then and the fights surrounding Hetch Hetchy now. First of all, Amos is writing to the wealthy Israelites of the Northern Kingdom who were living lives of luxury secured by a system of economic abuse and slavery. Amos tells these Israelites that even though they didn’t build the systems that privilege them, they are responsible for unbuilding them. And until they do, Amos says that God rejects their prayers, their songs, and their worship. Amos uses a metaphor of a dam, saying,

Amos 5:24

But let justice roll on like a river,

    righteousness like a never-failing stream!

As we talked about last week, this verse was a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King, who incorporated it into countless sermons and speeches.

So, at the end of our time last week, we drew a parallel between Amos’s time and our own time. As we grapple once again with the undeniable reality of a systemically racist and oppressive culture, those of us who have inherited privilege–people like me–can see wisdom and find challenge in Amos’s words. I, too, have a responsibility to break down the dam that has benefited me and people like me, whether I built that dam or not. I, too, need to “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” Justice, as we have been talking about, isn’t a scarce resource, and there is no need to dam it up. I don’t need it to just flow to me…I need it to flow through me, until it reaches absolutely everyone. 

But here’s the lesson we learn from Hetch Hetchy, right? Taking down a dam is hard. Even if it’s unjust, and even if it’s no longer useful!, we resist the work. We come up with excuses. We defer and delay and kick the can down the road until someone else decides to pick it up. Like the anti-environmentalist groups who continue to oppose removing the dam today, we paint worst-case scenarios about what could happen if we let all that water flow freely: it could flood somewhere else! It could compound sediment on some other dam! Invasive species could come back to the valley instead of good, old-fashioned grizzly bears! It’s all garbage: it’s half-plausible stuff we make up to justify inaction. Or, like Mayor (and now Senator) Feinstein, we minimize the value of what could be accomplished: all that effort and money for a few measly campsites and hiking trails? Dumb, dumb, dumb.

So, how can we do it? How do we stay focused on the mission, keep trusting in God’s provision as our stockpiles go away, and resist these excuses we make up for why it’s okay to do nothing? 

To explore those questions, we’re going to zero in on a few illustrations that will stretch over the next two weeks. First, we’re going to look at what it means to be a dam breaker: how do those of us who benefit from the dam stay focused on removing it? And then, next week, we’re going to look at what it means to be downstream from the dam: how do those of us who are hurt by the dam discover and live lives of hope and abundance…when we don’t have much experience with either? 

To look more closely at the obstacles to being a dam breaker, we’re going to focus this morning on a story from Jesus’s ministry which brings him into direct conflict with the “privileged elites” of his own day, the Temple Pharisees. The Pharisees are routinely the subject of Jesus’s warnings and criticism, and it’s important to pause and get a sense for why this is. The Pharisees represented a dominant school of religious thought within Judaism in the first century. They resisted the philosophical and pantheistic influences of Greek and Roman culture, and they rooted themselves in the traditions of the Laws handed down through Moses (which, coincidentally, we talked about two weeks ago). In any case, the Pharisees held religious power in the Temple, and they took responsibility for the right interpretation of God’s story among the people. Whether for good reasons or bad ones, this is where they built their “dam”: they were custodians of the commandments. What God had communicated could be logically understood, and with their help, the Jews of could learn to live “rightly.”

But this approach also meant that the Pharisees’ hands were often tied by the logical structures they insisted the Law must fit into. Overconfidence in their understanding of the Law, combined with the need to strictly and uncompromisingly apply it, led to frustration and oppression under Pharisaical rule. It also meant that when Jesus–a carpenter’s son from nowhere–shows up and tries to teach a living and active understanding of the Law, he is a direct threat to their “dam”! 

So, as we read one characteristic story here today, I want us to try and think not about the perspective of Jesus or the perspective of the man he heals, but of the Pharisees’ perspective: what is the root of their frustration and resistance? And what would it take for them to “change sides” and work to take apart the dam they have built? 

The story comes from the ninth chapter of John’s gospel, and we’ll walk through it here together:

John 9:1-7

As [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam.” So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

But John goes on to say that this miracle causes quite a stir among the man’s friends, and eventually,

John 9:13-16

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”

But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided.

So, what has happened so far? At the beginning, Jesus sees a man who has been blind since birth, and then–as he is making a point about how he is here to serve as light, so all can see–he makes some mud, puts it on the blind man’s eyes, and restores his sight. The blind man’s healing thus serves two purposes: first, it illustrates that Jesus has power in this world, and second, it demonstrates that Jesus’s power is one of bringing sight to others. By him and through him, the symbolism suggests, people who are blind receive sight. Light, like justice, is not a scarce resource–it shines everywhere, with no limit or capacity. Therefore, all who are near it have the ability to see what it illuminates. Doesn’t matter if it’s one person or a thousand people: light enables sight.

So, here we have an undammed resource: light and understanding are pouring into the world. But this presents a conflict for those who are standing on a dam of understanding, and that conflict reveals their own blindspot. The story continues:

John 9:18-34

They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man [Jesus] is a sinner.”

He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?”

Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.

So, what do we see about the sources of the Pharisees’ blindness? Why do they insist on “damming things up” here, especially after something miraculous appears to have happened? There seem to be two problems:

First, the Pharisees assume that God can only work through the traditions of Moses, who received the Law, and since they are standing on the dam of legal understanding, Jesus cannot do the thing he seems to have clearly done. “We are disciples of Moses!” they say; “but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” To boil this problem down in a way that helps us see ourselves within it, the Pharisees are arrogant and overconfident: they assume God can only move through them

Second, they are stubborn in their assumptions about the man’s blindness. They believe it can only be the result of sin: either this man’s, or his parents’. “You were steeped in sin at birth,” they yell at the man; “how dare you lecture us!” It’s worth pointing out that Jesus’s disciples share this assumption at the very beginning of the story, too, right? They also want to know–as a matter of intellectual curiosity, it would seem, rather than any genuine empathy–whether this man or his parents sinned. Jesus isn’t being asked to heal–it’s not even treated as something he might be able to do. Instead, they just want to know in what way this man is undeserving of sight. And to boil this down into something relatable for us, I would suggest it is similar to asking, “why is this person poor? Because they are lazy or because their parents were lazy?” “Why was this person arrested? Bad choices or bad friends?” 

To draw the comparison to our opening illustration about an actual dam: both Jesus’s disciples and the Pharisees are suggesting that the reason the dam shouldn’t be torn down is because the people downstream aren’t fit to handle what comes after that. They assume the man doesn’t really deserve the overwhelming gifts of God; they assume he is defective in some way, and he can’t really be trusted with them.

When we look at ourselves in this mirror and ask what it means to take apart the dams our ancestors have made which prevent justice, or light, or generosity, or freedom from flowing freely, we also must guard ourselves against the kinds of prejudices we invent which are really motivated by a desire to do nothing. To avoid responsibility. To maintain privilege. 

A simple and practical example: when someone asks you for money–actually, let me make this illustration personal: when someone asks me for money–what are the reasons that go through my head for why I don’t really have to give anything away? They sound, I think, a lot like the assumptions of the disciples and Pharisees: “what defects in this person led them to this situation? What mistakes did they make? Did they sin, or did their parents?” And, assuming they are somehow “less than” or already guilty, why should I entrust them with something they probably won’t use the way I think they should? You say you want a few bucks for a bus ticket…but what do I think you’ll use it for? What do I think about whether or not that’s responsible?

My assumptions, from my spot up on that dam, are excuses I’m making for why I don’t need to take it apart. 

But Jesus dismantles my arrogance: 

John 9:3-4

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.”

You take down the dam “so that the works of God might be displayed.” You take it down because you don’t deserve to hoard it, either. It’s not yours: it is the “work of God,” the generosity of God, flowing freely into you, and flowing out from you. Don’t make excuses, and don’t permit arrogance about your own wisdom to build up resistance in your heart. That, in no uncertain terms, is sin.

And what about the man? What do we see in the story about what happens when his sight is restored? Does Jesus’s generosity lead to some incredible and tidy story of redemption? We have no idea. An interesting thing to think about, as you read the gospels: does anyone Jesus heals ever become one of his disciples? The answer is no. So, what then? Was Jesus misguided in healing them?

One of the things I really love about this particular story is the humanity on display in the man’s argument with the Pharisees. They ask him directly if he is saying Jesus is a prophet or a heretic, and he simply says, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” Later, they accuse him of being a disciple…and the man only walks through what he has experienced, and he concludes that whatever else Jesus is, he must at least be doing the will of God. 

The point is that the right response–the expected response–when we experience God’s overwhelming care for us is openness. The man in this story takes things one step at a time. We don’t know the end of his story. That’s not the point. The point is that taking down the dams leads to experiences with overwhelming generosity, and those experiences are a first step in listening and learning more. 

When we hoard, we deny other people a chance to experience something that might open their hearts up to who God is. We deny them a chance to see God’s nature in our own behaviors, and to let that miracle create opportunities for more miracles in their lives. In other words, we live in exact opposition to the way we are meant to live. 

So, how do we become dam breakers? In two ways: Stop letting our negative assumptions about others stall us out, and trust that demonstrating God’s character in our lives will bear the same fruit in the lives of others that it is bearing–with any luck!–in us. Stop. Trust. Don’t grasp; give. Give your money away. Give your privilege away. Give your time away. Give your heart away. Give. 

dam

And what about Hetch Hetchy? There’s one other thing I think that illustration can teach us: it can teach us about the cost of doing nothing. That dam, built 107 years ago on the Tuolumne River, destroyed the valley, not the river. The damage was done upstream, where the water piled up. That’s what eroded the rocks, cut off the waterfalls, killed the wildlife. The abundance you are grasping takes something that could change the lives of others…and poisons you with it. We don’t have to live this way, not for another minute. 

As individuals, we can pray this week for eyes to see what we are hoarding and courage to give it away. Even joy as we give it away. Even excitement, as we see the doors generosity opens in the lives of other people. 

And as a church, we can stand together as dam-breaking people. This is who we have tried to be and will continue to be. This is why we came together to forgive almost 2 million dollars in local medical debt last year. It’s why we serve with food pantries. It’s why many of us have marched in the last few weeks.our church must model generosity together, and rejoice as the dammed and drowned valleys of our hearts are restored. 

The goal is allowing the generosity of God to fill all of our lives with abundance, and to go on to cover the earth with it. For God’s Kingdom to come here, now. Don’t grasp, give.

The Overwhelming Need for Justice

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DELIVERED ONLINE 7 JUNE 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 13TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE AND 13 DAYS AFTER THE MURDER OF GEORGE FLOYD

This morning, I want to start by acknowledging, as humbly as I can, where we are today. The past two weeks have been a time of profound, and even national, grief. As we mourn George Floyd, yet another victim of racist, institutional violence, we find ourselves in a place we have been in before; one which is beginning to feel inescapable. Many of us have raged against this feeling of helplessness this past week, and as co-citizens and siblings in this country, we have a responsibility to do so. And as we are not only citizens of the United States but more urgently citizens of God’s Kingdom, we are called to do more than rage.

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As we talked about last year, one of our most important responsibilities as Christians is to sit with one another in grief, too, and we do this by listening, by maintaining presence, and by embodying hope, even when it can feel naive or useless to do so. We can, in these moments, become a physical manifestation of what we believe about our God, who also listens, and who also maintains presence, and who also extends hope to us. Our God overturns the tables in the temple courts…and he also goes to the cross. It is a complex Being we serve, who himself embodies the wide range of our own human experiences, and the hard work of living as he lived matters. This work is continuing, today and in the weeks ahead. 

pandemic

Of course, the fear of this moment is deeper even than the fight for justice currently raging. This fight comes in the third month of a pandemic which has seen us separated and isolated, battling against sickness and death. The enemy, in this case, is invisible, which can make the fear all the more overwhelming. 

 

closedAnd, in the wake of that fear, many of us have also experienced tremendous change in our employment. Jobs have been lost by the millions, people’s livelihoods have been deeply unsettled or even destroyed, and with no clear answers about when or how or if things will ever get back to normal, or to the way things were.

Which is, of course, its own fear: if “normal” is racial violence, systemic injustice, a broken healthcare system, and a country where our financial livelihood is a house of cards, is it something we really want to get back to? If not…where are we heading? What could possibly be our hope

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Over the last few weeks, we have been talking about the overwhelming life God intends for his creation and the fears that keep us from participating in it. In some ways, what we have been talking about has a pretty direct bearing on where we are in our world this morning. But even so, this week has been different. And so today is going to be different, too.

Last Sunday, the big point I was trying to make was that a scarcity mindset is what robs us of overwhelming life. I said that this kind of mindset forms not when we have too little but when we have too much: it’s a mindset of self-reliance, of hoarding, of defensiveness, and of fear. And the way out of this trap is giving everything away. Giving freely. Living generously. Because such a life reminds us, in practice, of the Truth, which is that God is in control. Death has been defeated. The future is secure. When we remember that love is an unlimited resource, we no longer have to build walls around it. It pours out…and overwhelms.

As I said last week, the Israelites learned this–they were enabled to learn this–during their Exodus from Egypt, when their future was most insecure. At that moment, God stepped in to not only provide for them, but to give them the Law, which was intended to help them resist the temptation to rely on themselves after they were established in the Promised Land. The great hope of our current moment is that perhaps we, like the Israelites, can learn this in our insecurity, too. 

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57 years ago, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, Dr. Martin Luther King famously quoted Amos 5:24, which reads, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” His use of the prophet’s voice was meant to do more than just evoke a poetic sentiment; he expected his hearers to go on and read the book. So, that’s where we’re going to be looking today, as we seek out lessons in our moment of uncertainty: we’re going to look at another moment in the story of Israel, long after they are established in the Promised Land and hundreds of years after they received the Law that was intended to protect them from a mindset of scarcity, which would prevent them living a life of abundance. 

amos

The prophet Amos was an actual historical figure who lived in the middle of the 8th century BCE in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The united kingdom of Israel–the one those wandering refugees once settled–had been divided by civil war two hundred years earlier, and the northern kingdom, where Amos lived, was in the middle of a season of apparent prosperity. Their trade economy was flourishing, but it did so on the backs of slaves and the poor. Their wealth disparity was significant, and Amos spends a great deal of time exposing this in his writing in order to warn the Israelites–particularly, those who enjoy such privilege–that God is not blind to their injustices or to the economy of scarcity they have created, and he will bring judgment upon them. His writing is poetic, and it works by first stating an allegation against the wealthy, and then reminding them exactly who the God is they are ignoring. We can see the same themes and images from our last few Sundays here: Amos is saying God is overwhelming…and yet, the Israelite elites are choosing to rely only on themselves. Amos 5:7-13 is an example:

Amos 5:7-13

There are those who turn justice into bitterness
and cast righteousness to the ground.

He who made the Pleiades and Orion,
who turns midnight into dawn
and darkens day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea
and pours them out over the face of the land—
the Lord is his name.
With a blinding flash he destroys the stronghold
and brings the fortified city to ruin.

There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court
and detest the one who tells the truth.

You levy a straw tax on the poor
and impose a tax on their grain.
Therefore, though you have built stone mansions,
you will not live in them;
though you have planted lush vineyards,
you will not drink their wine.
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.

This is the pattern throughout Amos: you are oppressing the poor in your foolish, fearful economy… in doing this, you are ignoring an overwhelming God…and you will not escape justice forever. 

This, Amos keeps pointing out, is a betrayal of their ancestors who God delivered from Egypt and preserved for a generation as they wandered in the wilderness. Whereas those Israelites learned to trust God even when they had nothing, the Israelites now trust only in themselves, and have made themselves into idols. God, Amos says, will not let this stand. He tells Amos to tell the arrogant,

Amos 5:25-27

“Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
You have lifted up the shrine of your king,
the pedestal of your idols,
the star of your god—
which you made for yourselves.
Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,”
says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty.

And then, capping all of this off, these wealthy Israelites–who are benefitting from a system of oppression and injustice, who lean on their privilege and refuse to see the wickedness of their own arrogant culture–these people point their own distrust outwards at other nations.

jonahThey hate the neighboring kingdoms, and as we see in other prophetic books like Jonah, they have become xenophobes and religious nationalists, routinely praying for God to destroy the primitive, godless pagan nations that surround them. They beg God, in their prayers, to bring the “Day of the Lord,” when God will stop waiting patiently on people to turn towards him and will instead bring down judgment and punishment on sinners. 

This, Amos warns them, is the height of their arrogance and a tremendous mistake. He writes, 

Amos 5:18-20

Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

What the privileged Israelites have forgotten is that God wants lives of abundance for all of his people. He is endless and overwhelming; there is no limit to his love, or his blessing, or his goodness. When the Israelites, who are meant to be his example to all the nations, live lives of arrogance, of fear, of oppression, and of scarcity, they are testifying to nothing at all. They reveal that they have forgotten their God, that they have no righteousness in them. They trust only in themselves, and they are betraying the story of their own overwhelming God. 

It is as if they dammed up a river, turned it from a torrent into a trickle, and then diverted that tiny stream to flow only into their own mansions. What story does such behavior tell…especially if those who are responsible also claim to be God’s people? What begins as a story of overwhelming love and generosity becomes a story of exclusion and favoritism. God’s blessing, intended to flow freely to everyone, has become a status symbol and a tool of oppression. What almost unimaginable wickedness this is! Amos’s words are intended to be a mirror for his readers. They can also be a mirror for many of us:

I am a white man in America. I cannot and should not speak for everyone. But this mirror is essential for me to look into: what story is my life telling about the reach of God’s love? What have I hoarded? What have I given?

Are you willing to ask those questions of yourself, too? What story do your actions–do your inactions–tell?

And as a church together, what story are we telling? What have we done with the blessings of God? 

In the next verses, God speaks through Amos to the Israelites. His words should also convict us:

Amos 5:21-24

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

God’s justice is not a scarce resource. It is not something that can only apply to some. It is not something to dam up or to control. It should not be made into a tool of oppression, wielded against those I fear, in order to maintain power and privilege for myself. When any of us allow this way of thinking about justice to enter into our minds or our hearts or even our culture, we participate in the same wickedness and the same betrayal of what we are meant to represent to others that the Israelites fell victim to. We reveal that we have fallen for the lie of scarcity again: we have forgotten that what we have has been given freely, that we are not in control of our lives, and that God is still active and working in our world. 

To put this in our own terms–which, sadly, are still the terms in which Martin Luther King framed this verse almost 60 years ago–are we fighting to protect the dam that benefits us alone, or are we advocating for that dam to be unmade, so what God intends for us can belong, as it is meant to belong, to all of us? 

Here’s the thing: that can sound overly metaphorical, or vague, or idealistic…but it describes real, practical, and hard work. We might ask: what did God want from the Israelites? What was Amos’s hope as he spoke these warnings to the elites of Israel? Certainly, he would have wanted them to acknowledge that they were benefiting from the oppression of others. That they had inherited this system, yes, but that it was corrupt. He would have wanted them to give up the self-righteous arrogance and racism that was behind their prayers for the “Day of the Lord” to come. We can perhaps see our own image in this picture when we consider our attitudes towards “Law and Order” in our current moment. And he would have wanted them to both cease their oppression of the poor and honor them as co-citizens in God’s Kingdom. All of that is challenging enough for us, as we map it onto our own lives. 

But–and this is always the good news!–we have more than just these hunches to go on. We have the example of Jesus himself. Just a few weeks ago, we talked about Paul’s letter to the Philippians, where he writes that although Jesus was

Philippians 2:6-8

in very nature God,
[he] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

What better model of how to surrender privilege and power in order to undam the floodwaters of God’s overwhelming love can we ask for? Jesus’s power wasn’t ill-gained; he was in very nature God! And yet, even he chose a path that begins in humility, walks in generosity, and culminates in self-sacrifice. This is the way to overwhelming life. Don’t grasp; give. Because it is always God’s story. It is always God’s “river.” We can try to control it for our own gain (and eventually, to our own destruction)…or we can rejoice with others in its abundance.

Let me be as practical as I can be. Don’t grasp; give. Give up five things, which I’ll organize here from the easiest thing to part with to the hardest:

  1. Money. Give it away. Give it where it is needed. No matter what you believe about God, you can support just causes. And if you are a Christian, you are encouraged and called to support the work of ministry, too. Find a ministry you trust, one that is striving to be an example of God’s Kingdom in our world, and give to it. That ministry can be Revolution; I hope with all I am that we are such an example. But it doesn’t have to be: give, because you want generosity to take root and flourish in your life. This is the easiest thing to do. 
  2. Attention. Listen to those who are hurting. Listen especially to those you don’t understand right now. If the unfiltered sounds of pain and frustration are confusing for you to hear, seek out things to read, where people have been able to give more form and structure to their thoughts through writing. But turn off your go-to news feed, take out your headphones, and give your attention away.
  3. Arrogance. Give up your arrogance. Ask God to show you where you are prideful, where you are self-satisfied, where you are over-confident in what you believe or how you live, and then ask him to smash the idols you have made there. Israel was doomed not by its actions or even by its systems, but by the arrogance that prevented the words of Amos or the other prophets from turning them back towards the lessons God tried to teach them centuries before when they were wandering in the desert. Right now, we have the privilege of insecurity in our lives, and we cannot waste the opportunity this gives us to be rid of our arrogance and to relearn real faith. Give up your arrogance.
  4. Privilege. Give up your privilege. For the second and pthird and fourth generations of wealthy Israelites, who had nothing to do with the establishment of the systems that benefited them while oppressing the poor, God’s complaints must have seemed unfair. But they were not: it is our job to take account of the world and the culture we stand in and then work to either remake it more justly or add another layer of complicit injustice. Lift others above yourselves. Remember the example of Jesus himself, who not only lived among us, but washed our feet as well.
  5. Fear. Fear is what fuels a mindset of scarcity: fear that there isn’t enough; fear that you’re going to lose what you have; fear that things will only get worse. But that is not God’s economy. The three words God speaks the most in the Bible are do not fear. The good news of Jesus–the good news in which we, as Christians, place our eternal hope–is that Jesus’s resurrection proves beyond all doubt that God is victorious, he is a God of life, and he is a God overwhelmingly in love with his creation. That’s you. That’s me. Our hope is not in jobs or money or law or nation: it is in God. Him only. If we understood that down to the soles of our feet, what hold could fear have on us? We need to let it go.

Amos says in the midst of those passages we read earlier,

Amos 5:14-15

Seek good, not evil,
that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,
just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph.

In a time of apparent scarcity, a time of insecurity, a time of horror and injustice and violence…may we learn now, in this moment to hate evil, to love good, to maintain justice. Let us build the rhythms and rituals of generosity into our lives and systems now which can protect us from arrogance and pride later. May we learn from God how to give everything up, that others may be valued above ourselves…and in doing so, testify to a love deep enough for all of us to be cherished by it. 

 

How God Transforms a Mindset of Scarcity

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DELIVERED ONLINE 31 MAY 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 12TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE

This morning, we are continuing in the second week of our series “Overwhelming.” Last week, we said that the big idea of this series is that the evidence we have of such an overwhelming God exists in direct tension with the underwhelming and often fearful ways we tend to live. I made the case that what sets the God of Judeo-Christianity apart is the scope of his attention and love, which stretches, as we saw in our look at the story of Job last week, from the almost unimaginable scale of the universe to, as we saw in Psalm 139, the almost unimaginable intimacy of his concern for us. We concluded that God’s character must be understood as overwhelmingly generous, and as Christians, we give praise to a God of both total authority and perfect and passionate love. 

But of course that is only part of the equation for this series because, as we move forward, we must also address the big problem such an overwhelming God presents for us as individuals: if God has authority over so much, why are our lives often filled with so little? Where does our fear come from? And why is it we often think of being “overwhelmed” not as our goal but as something to try and prevent from happening?

I want to begin today with the “big idea,” which is this: our essential problem is that we have become trapped by a scarcity mindset which only overwhelmingly good news has the power to undo.

Here, in a nutshell, is what I mean: at some point in most of our lives, and for a whole host of complicated social and cultural reasons, we become convinced that everything we need in order to live a good life is eventually going to run out. And once we let that idea inside of us, it multiplies and spreads like a virus until we lose any real faith in the existence of an overwhelming God. At this point, when we stop believing in anything that might actually be bottomless or endless in its supply, our lives become dominated by problems of scarcity, and we become slaves to believing that the reason we exist is to make sure we keep on existing.

It’s a silly example, but in order to make this point, I want you to think about something truly scarce in your life right now. Something that you need, but you are genuinely worried you can’t get enough of it. Actually do this: take a second, and hold a picture of that thing in your mind… 

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Okay, so we’re all thinking about toilet paper? Good! This metaphor is going to work out then. 

So, let’s ask the big question we have all been wondering about for the last 3 months: why, in light of the existence of a God who stretches from the vast reaches of space to the places of my innermost thoughts, is there suddenly not enough toilet paper in the world? Are there suddenly more people? Are they suddenly going to the bathroom more frequently? Since when did toilet paper become a commodity more precious than gold? 

Well, what happened was that, regardless of the fact that there was no clear reason for us to suddenly need more toilet paper in the world, we collectively allowed a scarcity mindset to creep into our culture. And once it did, we became incapable of resisting the selfishness that scarcity mindsets create. Specifically, we fell into 3 very human traps of thinking:

First, we began to fear that there isn’t currently enough of it. This is a problem in the way we see the past. Many of us began to think: “Charmin never could have anticipated a pandemic and the possibility of being locked down in our homes…there just aren’t enough rolls in the world for all of us to have a month’s worth on hand!” It didn’t matter to us that this wasn’t actually true–there was plenty of supply! What mattered is that we told ourselves that supply would run out.

castaway

It was pretty much like this.

The second trap has to do with the present: once we decided supplies couldn’t last, it became our responsibility to fight for ourselves. We needed to go find toilet paper now. We went on hunts for it. I once went to 5 stores in a single morning myself, finally finding a single package in the wrong aisle at a CVS, and when I took it home, I slammed it on the kitchen table like it was the freshly killed carcass of a deer I had hunted with bow and arrow and basked in the adoration of my family. I! Had! Provided! But the point is that once I believed it was scarce, I no longer trusted my grocery store to stock it: it was time for ME to take charge.

And the third trap has to do with the future: as we all bought up the rolls, cleaning out store after store, many of us started to live in fear that things would never change. That CVS run probably led to a supply of toilet paper in our home two or three times the amount we usually keep on hand…but did we use all of that up before shopping again? No! We kept stocking up, every time we got a chance. This trap is the trap of hoarding, and it’s what happens when we believe something is scarce and that survival is up to us alone

So, I hear you: “Kenny, I know you are a bit of a strange guy, and I generally trust that these tangents are going somewhere. But honestly, I’m just here because I want to learn a little bit about the Bible, and I’m starting to have doubts.” But we are heading somewhere, I promise! 

But before we move on, I want to make sure we’re tracking this together…even if it’s being filtered through a silly metaphor: 

My point is that what keeps us from enjoying the overwhelming life God intends for us is a scarcity mindset which develops when we get 3 key things wrong about the past, the present, and the future: We believe the supply can run out. We believe it is our responsibility to have enough. We believe the situation won’t change. 

So, what does the Bible say about any of this? What can we do to avoid falling into this kind of a mindset? And–it’s also worth asking!–why are we so sure this isn’t how things really are? What if we live in fear because there is actually something to be afraid of? 

To explore these questions, I want us to look this morning at a particular moment in the history of the Israelites. The Israelites are the authors of what we refer to as the “Old Testament” of the Bible, but it’s important to note that these books aren’t archived reports from their history; they are deliberate and creative retellings from hundreds of years after the events they discuss took place. Which means they are written by people trying to make sense of the difficult journey their God has led them on through history, and they use these retellings to remind themselves of who their God is and who he intends for them to be. None of this is a problem! But it does mean that when we read, we’re not just looking at stuff that happened, we’re looking at stories that communicate truths about who God is and who we are to him. They aren’t incidentally instructive, they are deliberately instructive. 

exodus1

So, this week, I want us to focus in on a specific moment in what the Israelites understood to be the central event in their own history: their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, their wanderings in the desert of Sinai, and their eventual conquest of the Promised Land. This is the story: it’s the one where God performs miracles, preserves his people, and establishes them Israel. And it’s also the story where Israelites receive the Torah, or the Law, which governs them. This happens at the summit of Mt. Sinai, when Moses is given the Ten Commandments, as well as a comprehensive book of all the rules and guidelines for Israelite society. 

Moses and the ten commandmentsBut what we don’t always think about when we read this story is how strange it is for those rules to come then, at that specific moment. After all, the Israelites are kind of in the middle of something: they have left their “home” in Egypt, they are lost in an inhospitable desert, and they have truly nothing to their name. They are destitute, afraid, and always on the edge of revolt. They routinely ask Moses during this time to take them back to be slaves again. And yet, in that context, God decides that now is the time to give them 613 rules for polite and righteous living, including guidelines for how to make priestly garments, how often to plow fields, and even whether or not it is okay to mate different kinds of animals. What is God talking about? What priests? What fields? What animals? These rules come when Israel has nothing

And yet, as we said, this isn’t an historical report: this is how the Israelites choose to remember a story about God’s character. What, then, does it reveal? 

I would contend that God’s gift of the Law on Mt. Sinai teaches us that scarcity mindsets don’t develop when we don’t have enough of things–they develop when we have too much

Let’s look at some of the actual guidelines God gives Israel in the Torah:

In Leviticus 19:33, God says to the Israelites gathered near the mountain and–significantly–still without a land of their own,

Leviticus 19:33-34

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.

Hospitality, even to those who are not from your own community, is required, as is the reminder that they themselves have been outsiders. This rule–especially coming at this point in the Israelites’ story–is a concrete reminder that this will always be enough in God’s Kingdom. The supply is safe, and you don’t need to box others out.

In Exodus 16, God promises to feed his people, even though they are in a desolate wilderness. He says to Moses, 

Exodus 16:4

“I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.”

This bread–which the Israelites call “manna”–lasts only for a day, and the Israelites are only to gather what they need. Imagine the lesson God is trying to teach his people here! Wandering in a wilderness, food is miraculously provided…but even in that moment, your responsibility is only to gather what you need for that moment. No hoarding! God is addressing the issue of scarcity in the present by creating a scenario where the Israelites are relieved of the responsibility to fend for themselves: instead, God is saying he is responsible. No need to hunt the aisles at CVS!

And then, implicit in all of these rules about how to one day harvest or how to one day raise livestock, there is also God’s equal and overwhelming concern for the Israelites’ future. God is not finished with their deliverance. In Exodus 23, God says,

Exodus 23:20

See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. 

Their future is also secure! God is preparing a place for them, and God is keeping them safe along the way there. There is simply no cause to develop a mindset of scarcity!

And that, of course, is the point, right? In this moment when the Israelites have nothing, God steps in to head off the very worries which might lead them to turn away from the overwhelming life he is offering them and instead choose a life of self-centeredness and fear. He is trying to prevent them from being a people who are slaves to scarcity, and he is doing that by reminding them of the full scope of his overwhelming love, of his overwhelming Being: he is the God of the billions of stars in the sky and the God of our innermost thoughts. He is all of it. And trusting in him instead of trusting in ourselves is the key to recovering an overwhelming life. The enemy is us, and our insecurity about a past we can’t control, a present we feel like we have to control, and a future we don’t trust. And, in this moment, not of plenty but of poverty, God is saying: “now is the time to set in place the guidelines and the rituals you will need to remember that it isn’t up to you, and it never has been; it’s up to me. And I both love you infinitely…and have the power and authority to take care of you.”

So, what happens when we miss out on these lessons in the moment when we might have learned them? After all, for the most part, we aren’t wandering in the wilderness. We aren’t really dependent on God for our survival. We have mountains of toilet paper! 

Well, for us, the question is the same today as it was last week: is all that self-reliance actually making us feel secure? Is being “overwhelmed” something we look forward to, because we want to experience the kind of “abundant life” Jesus says we are made for, or is being “overwhelmed” something we are afraid of, because the walls we have put up to keep ourselves safe always seem like they are about to cave in? 

At the beginning today, I said that we become trapped by a scarcity mindset that only overwhelmingly good news has the power to undo. I meant that: we’re not just at a “decision” point–at least, most of us aren’t–we are trapped. We are anxious. We are in debt. We feel powerless most of the time. It’s not like we can just say, “Today, I’m going to stop being afraid!” Like the Israelites, we need to be delivered if we are going to have a chance to re-learn this lesson we have missed out on. So, what “overwhelmingly good news” has the power to undo all of this?

goodnewsIn his book Simply Good News, N.T. Wright makes the case that we often get the Gospel–the “good news” about Jesus–wrong. He says that we think of it as something we are supposed to believe or accept. But Wright’s point is that it isn’t really that kind of thing anymore than any other kind of news is that thing. After all, think about the way we usually react to news, right? If you read a headline that says, “Scientists Discover Saber-Toothed Anchovy Fossil” (that’s a real headline from this week), you don’t generally respond by thinking, “You know what, I believe that story, and it will now change my life!” or “I see your evidence, CNN, but I just don’t know if I can accept this story in my life.” You usually think, “something has happened. This is that thing.” Whether it affects you personally is typically a matter not of your belief or acceptance but of the reach of the news: the existence of saber-toothed anchovies, for example, is less likely to impact your life than changes in our current virus prevention measures will. You aren’t the point, in other words; the news is.

anchovyAnd so, N.T. Wright’s position is that the best way to talk about the “good news” of Jesus is to treat it as news. This, he says, is what the first apostles and the early church did. They didn’t actually go around asking people to accept the Jesus story; they went around saying this man, Jesus, was dead and then he was alive again. The power of death is undone. There is no scarcity. God’s creation is being restored, and God’s Kingdom is on its way here. This is news of the highest sort, and it changes and impacts everything:

  1. Something HAS happened: Jesus rose from the dead. Life doesn’t run out!
  2. Something IS happening: That power of overwhelming life is active in his followers, and it is at work transforming them. They aren’t responsible for this; God is. 
  3. Something WILL happen: God is restoring his creation and bringing his Kingdom here, to earth.

None of that is about what we believe or don’t believe; it’s news. And when we hear it, it changes everything for us because it reaches us, and now we can celebrate it and participate in it. We can–and this is the central point today–be freed by it. We don’t have to live in a scarcity mindset. We don’t have to believe that the supply will run out, or that we are responsible for everything, or that our situation will never change. We don’t have to hoard. We don’t have to live in fear. We don’t have to put up walls, or be afraid of being overwhelmed: death is defeated. God’s Kingdom is coming. We can be a part of it. 

That is overwhelming life. That is what it means for Jesus to be the “gate” to the sheep pen we talked about last week, who leads us not only in to safety but out to abundance. 

This abundance then touches every part of our lives: because God provides for us, we can give freely and generously. Because death is defeated, we can live without fear. Because we are loved, we can love others without fearing that love, too, is a scarce resource. In fact, that’s really the perfect way to close, right? Love is not like toilet paper: there is no limit to its supply! Okay, that was actually a terrible way to end. 

lovetp

FYI, it took way too long to figure out how to make this stupid image.

So, let me try again: I know that living in abundance isn’t something that comes easy. I know that many of our fears are reasonable: our jobs are insecure, we are in financial debt, we are afraid of getting sick. I am not saying that experiencing “overwhelming life” means running wildly into coughing crowds or maxing out a credit card in order to give to a mission or ministry or church. But what I am saying is that the goal is abundant life, and abundant life is incompatible with a scarcity mindset. Let the good news change the way you see the limits of God’s intentions for you. If the reason you are unable to be financially generous is because of debt, step in to your community and find help among people who care about you and want you to be free. If you are wrestling with an addiction, stop trying to hold the walls up and invite God–and others!–to help. A church community, if it is fueled by the genuine experience of God’s overwhelming love for us, exists to be a beacon of trust, of generosity, and of abundance in the world. We can model what it means to give everything…because everything we have is a gift we have been given. So, let’s be about that, as a church, right? Let’s be overwhelming…for a world that needs good news. 

 

From the Oort Cloud to Sprained Ankles: How to Make Sense of an Overwhelming God

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DELIVERED ONLINE 24 MAY 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 11TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE

This morning, we are going to be starting a new series called “Overwhelming,” and the big idea of this series is that the evidence we have of such an unfathomably overwhelming God exists in direct tension with the underwhelming and often quite fearful ways we tend to live. When we look around us, we can see that–like so many of the self-help books out there like to say–we are made for more. So what keeps us from that? How does our sense of our lives, and even our sense of ourselves, shrink down so tightly around us? And what hope can we find in the beliefs of our faith for re-discovering this overwhelming and abundant life God seems to have set out for us to experience? 

It’s a bit of a heady topic, I’ll admit, but in the last two weeks, this has actually become very real for me. I mentioned last week that I recently sprained my ankle pretty badly, and although I know that’s not the worst thing in the world, it has really gotten me down lately. If you know me well, you know that I am a walker: I walk everywhere I can as often as I can, and I depend on getting out and exploring to clear my head and focus and, really, just enjoy life. So it has been hard to accept that I can’t do those things now, and I can feel myself sinking into a deep funk about it: I have been moody and full of self-pity; nothing seems fun to do. And I think–if we want to play armchair psychologist this morning–that my ankle is really forcing me to reckon with a lot of the feelings we are all probably having in the current season, and which I’ve been pushing down: I feel stuck. I feel sad. I feel like things will never be back to normal. And my world feels small.

But here’s the thing: as I’ve been sulking, there’s something else I’ve been thinking about a lot, too; something big: I’ve been thinking about the Oort Cloud. What is the Oort Cloud, you may be asking? Not you, Matt Shacka–I know you already know. But for the rest of the class, the Oort Cloud is a thick, spherical shell surrounding our solar system far beyond the Kuiper Belt and beyond Pluto that is home to uncountable icy objects and is the source, astronomers believe, of many of the comets that swing in and out of the night sky. It is, we think, the farthest extent–the very edge–of our solar system. And it is, to put it mildly, very big and very far away. Here’s a picture:

oort1

So, “why, Kenny, are we suddenly talking about the Oort Cloud?” Well, first of all, because since being hobbled, I’ve resumed watching every episode of NOVA about space ever made, which is a go-to hobby of mine. And second, because the Oort Cloud is, frankly, too much. When I think about things that are “overwhelming,” it is the first thing to come to mind. Here’s what I mean:

 

voyager1

Voyager 1, as seen before becoming the MacGuffin in the worst of the Star Trek movies.

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 spacecraft on a mission to explore the outer worlds of our solar system. In 1979 it passed Jupiter and sent us the first up-close photos of that big red spot. In 1980, it flew by Saturn, and then it headed out for deep space.

32 years later, in 2012, Voyager 1 entered “interstellar space” for the first time…and at its current speed of 38,000 m.p.h., the spacecraft will enter the Oort Cloud in about 300 years. Oh, but there’s more! After entering, Voyager 1 won’t exit the Oort Cloud for another 30,000 years. And then…it will be one quarter of the way to the nearest star to our sun. Which, of course, is just one star of the 200 billion stars in our galaxy. Which is one of the hundred billion galaxies in the universe. And as I think about the Oort Cloud, and these vast distances…I look down at my stupid ankle, and I realize that I can’t walk to the mailbox. And that is when I feel overwhelmed.

oort2

TL;DR: The universe is very big.

And it’s also when I feel a little confused. After all, I believe in the God of the Bible; I’ve surrendered my life to him. I believe all of this–every bit of what we just described–is something that God intentionally made. And when I think about how small my life is…and how big the universe I’m living in is…I wonder why? Why is there so much that we can never see? Why are we hobbled…even when we’re not “hobbled”? How can we make any sense of it all? 

All of this leads (I hope) to the core question we want to explore for the next 4 weeks, which is: how can we participate in the overwhelming life God seems to have made for us? What can bridge this gap between our tiny bubbles…and the enormous scope of creation? 

There are three sections of the Bible that I want to look at with you all today, and I’ll introduce them by saying that I think they can walk us through this paradox by showing us that we are not alone in wrestling with it. That, in fact, the need to rediscover an overwhelming life is at the very center of what Jesus, when he walked this earth, was here to do. 

job2The first section I want us to look at comes from perhaps the oldest and most difficult book in all of the Bible, which is the book of Job in the Old Testament. In this ancient story of the Israelites, the man Job suffers endless calamities for no apparent reason. For the bulk of the book, his friends try to argue that justice must be in his recent bad fortunes, even if Job can’t see it: he must have some secret sins he is not confessing; he must be clinging to some pride or arrogance which has angered God. Clearly, his suffering must be because God is angry. But Job is steadfast: he says he has not sinned, and he has done nothing to displease God. Once his friends leave, he cries out: “God, grant me a trial, that I might confront my accuser!” And then, in the closing chapters of the book, God speaks to Job…but he does not say what Job expects him to. Instead of laying out his charges against Job, he reminds Job of who he is. He says,

Job 38:2-3

“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.”

He goes on like this for a very long time, asking Job what Job could possibly know about the grandeur of the universe God has made, the scope of it. One of the things God says is,

Job 38:31-33

“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades?
Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear with its cubs?
Do you know the laws of the heavens?
Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?”

The Pleiades, Orion, and the Bear are, of course, constellations. And God’s point is that Job is out of his depth. Here, the “comfort” God gives to Job as Job laments the apparently unjust losses of his life, is that Job doesn’t see the big picture. God is, in every sense, overwhelming. And the great expanses of this universe exist, at least in part, to remind us that we are small. That God is big. That he is, in fact, too much for us. In the end, Job says to God,

Job 42:2-3

“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
        things too wonderful for me to know.

So, Point #1 today is this: God’s POWER is overwhelming. He’s the God of the constellations, the God of the Oort Cloud. We, on the other hand, are the people of the sprained ankles. 

But there is another side to the overwhelming nature of God among the wisdom literature of the Old Testament that sits next to God’s power, because the God of Israel is also a God who chooses a people for himself, who listens to them, who delivers them from harm, and who even binds himself in covenantal relationships with human beings! It matters that God answers Job: the God of the Bible is not only a God of overwhelming power, who made an unfathomable universe; he is also a God of unimaginable intimacy and love. We have read it together before, but for me, the quintessential verses about this are found in Psalm 139, which is a song the Israelites included in their worship. The poet writes, 

Psalm 139-13-18

For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
        I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
       all the days ordained for me were written in your book
       before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
      they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.

I want to encourage you to look back at verse 14, where the poet writes “your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” There is an echo here of Job’s closing words to God, when he says, “I spoke of things too wonderful for me to know.” Here, though, the focus is God’s overwhelming nature is directed inwards as well as outwards: the “wonder” is in the ways we are stitched together in the womb, in the ordaining of our days before we are even born. Meredith has these words tattooed on her arm, and once upon a time, she and I used them to close the book we wrote for our daughter’s birthmother as we waited for an adoption placement: “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand.” God’s power is personal.

The overwhelming nature of God’s creation isn’t only the big things, it is the small and intimate things. The attention of God is unbelievable. His concerns for us…each one of us…are as unfathomable as his splendor. 

So, this suggests we have a God of both the BIG and the INTIMATE. But so what? Knowing that GOD can cover the space from the Oort Cloud to the chair where I’m resting my ankle doesn’t necessarily mean that I–that any of us–can share in such an overwhelming existence, right? 

This leads us to our third text this morning, which comes from the account of Jesus’s ministry in John’s gospel. In Chapter 10, Jesus is talking publicly in Jerusalem, and as is often the case, he is being questioned and doubted by the Pharisees. They are hoping to catch him in a lie about God they can use to discredit him. And he begins talking to them about sheep and shepherds. He says that anyone who enters the “sheep pen” by any other way than the pen’s gate is a thief or a robber, come to destroy. And then he says that that gate is, in fact, him: everyone who enters through him belongs there in the pen, and they will be “saved.” But the metaphor isn’t only about finding safety inside the pen! In verses 7 through 10, Jesus says this, too:

John 10:7-10

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Many versions translate that last part as “having life abundantly.” This, Jesus says, is what he is here on this earth in order to make possible for those who follow him: life abundant. The sheep, he says, will not just be confined to the pasture, but will be able to come in, go out, and find pasture. Because of what Jesus says he is doing, they are not only being protected from the dangers and threats that surround them…they are also finding freedom, and a chance to taste a more “overwhelming” life, through him.

So, here’s where I think these stories from Scripture lead us: first, God is a god of the “big things,” the scope of the universe, the Oort Cloud. And second, God is also a god of the “small things,” the intimate ones; he is as interested in the quiet hearts of our lives as he is the galaxies spinning out in space. And third, God’s desire for us to have abundant and overwhelming life. We see this over and over in the teachings of Jesus: we are made for participation in the vast expanses of things, and the penetrating intimacy of things, and the wild beauty of everything in between. 

Which means–and forgive me for how trite this metaphor may seem!–I am not wrong to feel so frustrated by my bum ankle. The confinement and limitation I’m experiencing is chafing against the participation in overwhelming life that I’m made for. That we are made for. And I am betting that you, too, have your own version of an ankle sprain in your life: something that keeps you from experiencing the fullness of your life. It could be something physical. It could be societal, like the restrictions we are all experiencing right now. It could be financial, as you struggle with a job loss, or even the stress of debt. The truth is that there are always things that hold us back from overwhelming life. 

And what I’m learning is most dangerous about these things is that, over time, they have the ability to change the ways we think about what it means to be ‘overwhelmed’ altogether. As we settle into a kind of “truce” with the things that hold us back, we can begin to at least accept an “underwhelming” life. And in time, stuck as we get in our small bubbles, we begin to be afraid of being “overwhelmed” by the world around us. 

This is how we usually think about that word, right? If I say to you, “I’m feeling overwhelmed,” your mind is going to go to the typical culprits that threaten us, the thieves who sneak into the sheep pen to steal and kill: am I in financial trouble? Is my marriage in trouble? Is work stressing me out? Are my kids acting out? Life can often feel not only small but threatened; like we spend a lot of our time trying to keep the walls up as stress and worry keep trying to knock them down and flood us out. 

sheeppenBut what if we go back to what Jesus says in John 10? What if we go back to that metaphor he uses about the sheep pen and remember that he is the gate who not only lets us in to places of safety but lets us out to graze in the larger pasture? Who gives us freedom as well as salvation? Isn’t our overwhelming God in charge of all of it? Isn’t the kind of God who didn’t just put one star in the sky, but billions; who placed us on a planet of unfathomable depths in its oceans and unlivable peaks for its mountains; who filled that earth with uncountable forms of life and designed each one with incredible, even unimaginable, beauty…isn’t that kind of overwhelming God one who wants more for us than an underwhelming life? And wouldn’t a God who knows our every thought from the time we were still in the womb, and who loves us, give us a door to walk through to get out into all of this? 

I think the answer to those questions has to be yes. And if the “gate” in this metaphor is Jesus, I think the challenge we are being called to accept is to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by him. To “pass through” that gate by not just resigning ourselves to a life of religious rules or expectations, but to actually seize a chance to live more fully in alignment with our design. To trust God’s sovereignty over the big stuff and the little stuff, and to accept the overwhelming love that is being offered to us. To surrender, not in the sense that we give up what little we have, but in the sense that we accept what more is being given. It’s not always easy, and it doesn’t happen all at once…but, speaking for myself, I would rather go through that gate into the pasture the shepherd has found for me than continue waiting cooped up here with my worries and my fears. I may feel like I’m more in control…but I’m not so sure that’s really living. 

That’s really the heart of what I want to say to you today: what if being overwhelmed became the goal and not the fear? That’s the question to wrestle with this week, and it’s the one we’ll pick back up in next week’s message. And in fact, if you’re just visiting with us today, or if you’re not someone who would say that you are a “Christian” exactly, I want to encourage you to go ahead and skip ahead to the worship time this morning. 

But if you are a Christian, and Revolution is your church home, I want to say one more thing to you. My hope is that this series provides challenge and encouragement in your life not only in terms of surrender, but also in terms of living out the call to mirror the overwhelming generosity of God in our own actions. As a church, it’s our responsibility to keep the disciplines of our faith in front of us, and to cultivate deep understanding, accountability, and even inspiration for them. That’s why we spent time on lament last year: so we could remember that sitting in grief alongside one another is part of our job as a church family. It’s why are talking about mission in 2020: because the church has a responsibility to fight for justice in our world. And it’s also why, in this series, we are going to be talking about generosity in our time, our love, and our finances. Generosity is a vital part of church life, and it’s a crucial subject for everyone who is taking steps to follow the path Jesus lays out for those who trust him. In the weeks to come, we’ll talk more about how we can accept challenges to live more generously in every aspect of our lives, and I’m excited to bring real attention and seriousness to a topic that can be uncomfortable for us in our materialistic culture. 

But for me, it’s foolish to have a conversation about what we can give to others unless it is framed by what God has given to us. By his overwhelming generosity, which extends from the Oort Cloud, to my stupid ankle, and then opens a door through all of that to a life of participation and abundance. That abundance, at the end of the day, comes from trust. It comes from the release of discovering that the reason you can trust God with all of yourself is because the world around you testifies to his attention and his love and his power and his goodness towards his creation. 

I’m feeling confined these days. But I want to feel “overwhelmed”: by God, by intimacy, by hope. My challenge for you this week is to take some time to map out what you are feeling: where are you trapped? What keeps you from letting go of the desire for control? Do you believe that God wants us to experience a more “abundant” life? And–as vague as this might seem!–what do you think it means for Jesus to be the “gate” to that? If you would say you have a relationship with him, do you tend to think about that more in terms of what he delivers you from or what he delivers you to? Let us move closer this week to life more overwhelming and abundant. Thank you for being a part of this family.

Made to Care?: The Joy of Sharing Others’ Burdens

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DELIVERED ONLINE 17 MAY 2020 FOR REVOLUTION ANNAPOLIS, IN THE 10TH WEEK OF COVID-19 QUARANTINE

This week, we are wrapping up our series on Philippians, which is sometimes referred to as Paul’s “letter of joy.” It carries this nickname in large part because it is one of the only city-based letters we have from Paul which is focused more on encouragement than correction. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Philippians didn’t have their problems! As we have seen in this series, real trouble was always nearby: the Philippian church was prone to external persecution, and even within the community, there was in-fighting and disagreement about a number of doctrinal issues. Things were not entirely perfect for them! 

But even in the midst of this turmoil, what stands out about the Philippian correspondence is that both Paul and his readers seemed mutually invested in one another. Paul worries about his friends, and his friends worry about him, too. And the emotion that ends up resonating throughout this letter is joy. Somehow, despite all of their respective hardships, Paul and the Philippians find delight in one another. And so, as readers eavesdropping on this letter almost 2000 years later, we have a real opportunity here to learn more about where this kind of joy can come from. This is why the letter gets the nickname that it has. And it’s also why, in a moment of real hardship and uncertainty in our own lives, reading Philippians together can be a truly rewarding thing to do. We can also find joy, even when we are separated, and even when we are suffering. And this letter can help us know where to look.

So, in the last 4 weeks, we have talked this through. We have explored the way joy flows from our harmony with the example of Jesus, and how it springs up in sometimes surprising ways when we 1) celebrate others, 2) let go of our own self-righteousness, and 3) trust in God’s promise to keep working on us, no matter what. And now, as we wrap up in week 5, I’ll put the big idea right here at the start: 

Joy comes* from carrying others’ burdens.

The discerning reader has already noticed that asterisk in the middle there, and it’s really important…so hang on to it! But for now, we’re actually going to set this idea up by taking a quick detour in another direction. 

Many years ago, when I first began teaching at Revolution, I created a sermon one Sunday from the outline of a chapel talk I had done a year or so before at Annapolis Area Christian School. It had been one of my all-time favorite lessons, and I got really excited about the chance to share a reworked version of it with some of you back then.

The talk was ultimately on the subject of surrendering control over our lives to God, but it started with a real bang–probably my best opening ever, as a pastor or a teacher. It went like this: there was silence, the room was dark…and then, with no explanation, a video appeared on a screen. The image was in black and white, and fairly quickly, as you were watching, you realize that it is security camera footage. A moment later, you put the pieces together to discover that you are looking at the distinctive form of a giraffe. And, within a second or two, you make another realization: you are watching a video of a giraffe giving birth.

giraffe

Right as you are processing this, the ‘event’ happens: the baby comes out, and then there is some scrambling around as the mother situates herself to lick the (thankfully, color-less) afterbirth off the newborn. Then, at about the two minute mark and right around the time you started wondering what on earth you are watching this for, an apparent miracle takes place before your eyes: the baby plants each of his four feet, one at a time…stands up on those long, wobbly legs…and walks. The entire video is just over four minutes long.

The point of this cold open, both for you and for those students once upon a time, was to set up a central problem for us, as evolved beings: unlike every other living creature on this planet, human beings do not appear to be designed for staying alive. Whereas a giraffe (like most mammals) is able to walk within minutes of its birth and to fend for itself in the wild in a span of weeks, human infants are absolutely helpless not for minutes but for years. Our society, at present, calculates that a human can’t be trusted to ensure its own survival until it is at least 18 years old. That’s roughly a quarter of the way through our entire lifespan! We are, by any measure, uniquely bad at living. 

So, what does that mean? In that old chapel talk/sermon, I used this to talk about the myth of self-reliance in our culture: this idea that we’re all supposed to make it on our own, and leaning on others is a sign of weakness. How can it be, I asked, that creatures who are clearly so dependent on others for survival exist in order to achieve the opposite of that? Isn’t it more likely–or at least worth considering–that the evidence of our dependence is itself the clue we should be following? What if we’re made for relationships, at a foundational level? And what if the reason for that, cosmically, is because we have been made by a God who desires relationship with us?

It was a good message, and I’m actually still moved by it. 

But this week, it was on my mind because our topic made me see there is another angle to this story that I had not considered before. In this old anecdote, I framed things from the perspective of the individual, choosing to either accept or reject relationships with God and with others. But the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians poses the opposite question: what if we aren’t just recipients of care? What if we are also made to be caregivers, too? 

Paul tells the Philippians that he is glad they have continued to express genuine care for his well being, not just because it warms his heart to know that he is loved, but because it is a sign of health and growth in them. They are made, Paul says, to share in the suffering of others; to (as Paul will write in a letter to the Galatians) “bear one another’s burdens.” So, as we read, that’s the lens I want us to look through: what if caring for others is good for both of us, as both the recipients and the givers of help? How in the world could choosing to suffer alongside our friends actually produce more joy in our lives? 

Here’s how Paul’s letter to the Philippians ends:

Philippians 4:10, 14-19

 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me […] Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

There are three points I think we can see in these closing verses which can tie us back to our big idea for this morning and help us better understand how joy can be produced by stepping in to the hardships of others’ lives. The first of these is in verse 14, which lays out the claim itself here. Paul writes,

Philippians 4:14

Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles

Although the “meaning” of this verse might be fairly obvious to us, it’s worth pausing to appreciate just how unusual a thing it is that Paul is saying. A quick illustration: this past week, I rolled my ankle pretty severely while racing Graham down the sidewalk near our house. Ever since, it has been pretty swollen and tender, and even going up and down the steps in our house has been relatively difficult. As a result, Meredith and the kids have been doing a bit more of the “legwork” around our home as I’ve been able to do less and less. They have gone to the top floor to close a window I would usually have closed, and walked the dog during times when I would have usually walked the dog. It hasn’t been a huge deal, but it’s fair to say they have been “sharing in my troubles,” and without any doubt, this has been a gift for me

But there is no planet where I would ever say to them that doing some of my chores has been good for them! I can imagine exactly which of my two feet Meredith would step on if I tried to say that, and it wouldn’t speed my recovery! So, when Paul is saying to the Philippians that their partnership in his difficulties pays dividends for them, too–and, in the verses before this, that his participation in their difficulties has already paid dividends for him–it should give us pause! In what way does sharing in the suffering of others benefit the “sharer”? 

To this, Paul says in verse 17, 

Philippians 4:17

Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. 

In essence, Paul is saying that the real benefit of sharing in the suffering of others are the “credits to your account” such an action stores up, spiritually-speaking. In other words, caring for others by sharing in their suffering both evidences and encourages your own spiritual growth. It is, in that holistic sense, “good”: it is like-God to do something like this, and so when you do it, you are living in closer attunement to how you are meant to live.

Meredith and the kids might not think in these spiritual terms, but it is still part of why they have been kind and helpful to me this week. It’s not just about doing me a kindness in case one day they need a kindness back from me! It’s about doing what is, well, right to do…even if it means things are harder for you. 

Not unlike the giraffe story at the beginning, this is one of those areas of life where how humans are doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in comparison to the rest of our evolving animal brethren: why be kind? Why help me out, when my own foolishness led to this ankle sprain? After all, if I’m the kind of person to sprain their ankle racing a five year old, are we really sure we want my genes in the genepool? 

The conventional anthropological answer would be that it’s not about me, really; it’s about the future benefit of present kindness. The logic holds that each generation cares for the generation behind it so that the younger generation will extend reciprocal care when the older one becomes infirm. This is the basis for the classic “Boomer” jokes about how a big birthday gift or help with rent will lead to being put in a “nicer home” one day. It’s a “naturalistic” economy in lots of ways. But it’s not a Christian economy: here, giving generously isn’t about “payback,” it’s about imitation of an all-in, all-generous God. 

This, then, leads to our third observation this morning: if we decide to share in the burdens of others, and it’s possible this is good not only for them but also for us, what does this “good” look like? What is the reassurance we have that this willingness to suffer alongside someone else really works out? WHAT WAS THAT ASTERISK ABOUT, WAY BACK AT THE BEGINNING?

Paul says in verse 19, 

Philippians 4:19

And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

At the outset, I said that the big idea today was that “Joy comes* from carrying others’ burdens.” Which is, I think, what Paul is saying here when he lays out this spiritual equation: we are compelled to be caretakers because we are made in the image of a God who takes care, and so, even though it is a hardship for us, we take  care of others, too. But when things get hard, and we begin to second guess what the point of it all is, Paul says the guarantee we can look to for the goodness and worthwhile-ness of it all is what he calls “the glory of Jesus.” 

But what does that mean? What is the “glory of Jesus,” and why would we want it? 

The answer to this question goes back to our first week of the series, when we looked at the “Christ Poem” in Philippians Chapter 2. In that poem, Paul tells the story of Jesus by reminding his readers that Jesus was with God–that he was God–and yet, his love for us was so great he became flesh in order to serve his creation, even to the point of death. And then, because of that love, he was raised to life and restored to his position of glory. The “glory of Jesus,” then, is the new life that God gives to those who follow Jesus’s example of servanthood. It is–not to put too fine a point on it–joy. 

So, when we carry someone else’s burdens–when we shepherd that pitiful human baby not just for five minutes, not just for a few weeks, but for decades, even though it is so embarrassingly dependent!–we, like Jesus, are following in the example of a God who has shepherded his people across not just centuries but millennia of self-destructive rebellion and foolishness. When we do the chores for a foolish family member, we, like Jesus, give up what is fair in order to do what is generous. And although it might be objectively “good” to behave like this, it’s okay to say that it doesn’t always feel very good: sometimes, the ones we care for exploit us or use us or ignore us. Sometimes they don’t even see what we are doing. And when this happens, again we are like Jesus, whose love for others led him to great humiliation and even death. 

But then–then!–the Jesus story takes over in this metaphor and becomes more than an example to follow: it becomes a promise for our future. Because, like Jesus, our willingness to share in the burdens of others leads not only to their benefit or to our material reward, but to real resurrection: it leads to new life, in which we can have confidence because Jesus has gone there before us. 

That gets pretty abstract, so let me try to phrase this in a way that is more personal: I believe that I am not only “not a giraffe” in the sense that I’m not made to be independent…I’m also “not a giraffe” because I believe bearing the burdens of my brothers and sisters is actually part of what I am made for. And I believe this because that’s what Jesus did, according to the stories we have about him…and at the center of my faith is a belief that Jesus is a living picture of who God is. So the selflessness and generosity of Jesus is a reflection of a God who is–miraculously–selfless. So I can try to be, too.

But what about that asterisk? What’s the catch here? 

The catch is that carrying others’ burdens isn’t, on its own, a recipe for joy. The joy is actually produced by our delight in God’s character, and our trust in the promises of Jesus’s life. If I just try to manufacture joy in my life by simply doing everything I can for people around me, there will be some happiness that comes from that–it is, after all, human to care for each other!–but it won’t quite be joy. And at some point, I’ll wear out. 

I know–I do this kind of thing myself. 

To get to the joy, it has to be about more than just helping for me, and what I can get out of it. It has to be about more than even them, and what will make them smile. The joy comes from seeing the ways this benefits me and the ways it benefits you and realizing that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. That the God who created such helpless creatures never meant that as a negative; he meant it to be an arrow, pointing us to his own goodness and generosity and love. We’re made for love: for receiving it when we need it…and for giving it when others do. That’s the big picture. That’s the joy.

So lean on me. Lean on each other. And I’ll lean on you, too! Because to trust and be cared for is to know love…and to experience love is to be introduced, I believe, to the source of real joy.