Liberty and Justice for All?

Blessed be the nation that gets what it wants, at the time of its choosing, and at whatever cost; and by this, you will know that this nation is uniquely blessed above all others. I fear that this is the sentiment that will inevitably be portrayed in obvious and in subtle ways this weekend in churches around the US. In fact, we are so defensive over our patriotism that this weekend tends to bring more emotion and more passion than most other weekends in the Church throughout the year. Is that passion and emotion warranted? There are a few questions I beg to ask. How can we look at the past injustices of our “glorious” founding, as Christians, and be so quick to defend America’s so-called “blessedness”? Why, as the Church in America, do we isolate ourselves in a way that we declare our superiority over image-bearing humanity in other parts of the world? Are we so much better? A few friends have shared this quote from Frederick Douglass recently that has truly convicted me to the core, and I pray that it affirms a sense of justice and humility in the Church.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

You see, the great sin in America is to challenge the empire it has become, to question the “blessedness” upon which it stands. A moment of blunt honesty: as a Christian, I don’t understand pledging allegiance to the flag. Not least because it represents a shallow freedom that has thrived at the expense of many people. Yet also it beckons me to wonder how I can declare that Jesus is Lord and then give my allegiance to another nation. The way the Bible portrays the kingdom of God, the universal reign of the Creator, hardly looks like the way America ran things in the past and how it still operates. As the people of the crucified Messiah (who let evil do its worst to him and who sealed his victory over sin and injustice in his resurrection), our allegiance belongs to one kingdom and to one Lord. This King rules with justice, with mercy, and certainly in love. His victory was achieved not in human conquest, in arrogance, or military zeal, but in sacrifice and self-giving. If we are this King’s people, should we not reflect the same? Please understand, I write this not to cause controversy, but to think critically and more importantly, to listen to the voices of people who usually aren’t heard. Lastly, I’ll leave this with a beautiful piece of Scripture, showing who really is the entire world’s rightful Lord.

“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice saying, ‘Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’ And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.'” ~Revelation 7:9-12

 

For the Frederick Douglass speech quoted above, check this link to find more information.

“What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

 

 

The Kingdom of God and 21st Century Politics

Every four years, we arrive once again to this arena of election season. This is one of the most chaotic times in this part of the world. In this brief post, I hope to simply capture what’s at stake for the Church. How should politics be done? Let’s consider how the apostle Paul responded to the political movements of his day.

In the first century world of Paul, it was Caesar’s empire that took charge and ruled. From shrines and images of the emperor cult itself to the rhetoric used by the empire’s ruler to persuade compliance to the dominant order, it was evident that only one ruler possessed power in that world: Caesar. In the middle of this empire, there was a herald, a messenger, of a kingdom other than Rome, and this messenger was a man named Paul. In one instance, Paul and his friends are accused of speaking against the decrees of the emperor, “saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). Paul is even reported have preached regarding this kingdom and its ruler with boldness (e.g. Acts 19:8). To take this one step further still, Paul writes to the Corinthians that in the end, Jesus, who currently rules the world, will hand the kingdom over to the Father “after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:24-25). We look at these passages and we might label them “politically subversive.” Yet in another situation, Paul writes to believers telling them to submit to governing authorities, claiming that there is “no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1). How do we solve this dilemma? Is Paul speaking against all forms of politics? Is he telling us that governments demand our endorsement because they are ordained by God?

This particular dilemma was a very Jewish outlook on the world. Whenever we read Paul in particular, we would be wise to consider this. In this perspective, the nations were under the rule of the creator God, who allowed pagan rule in the present time, but who would also cause a great reversal in which his people would rule the world instead (see Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 1280). In other words, though other nations rule currently, God is ultimately the world’s true ruler, and he will cause a significant change in which his people will be the sub-rulers under God (fulfilling the original vocation of humanity). Of course, this was reimagined in light of the death and resurrection of the Christ, Jesus. We can thus start to see the pieces sliding together, how Jesus fulfills the picture painted in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 and Psalm 8 (especially verse 6). With this larger framework in mind, we can ask the question of how we ought to respond as the Church in the 21st century.

The big picture portrayed here is that God is ultimately the world’s rightful ruler; that the nations, powers and systems that offer peace and security presently are but a mere parody of the true kingdom that belongs to Jesus. Yes, the New Testament deals with politics in a significant way. What this doesn’t mean is that we endorse every form of power flowing from our government with the assumption that those power structures must be “divinely appointed.” Yet this also doesn’t mean that we are politically absent, living a strictly monastic life. The political aims of the Church should be to reflect the rule that belongs to Jesus through the power of his Spirit, not altogether avoiding politics, but not becoming enamored with the power structures of the world either. Our politics, in other words, should be active in caring for our neighbors across every barrier, ultimately pointing to the world’s true Lord.

Prayer for Voting Season

Lord, today many Americans are voting for women and men to take office in this country and to lead it well.
We know that somehow you establish governing authorities, “For there is no authority except from God.”
We also know that somehow Jesus the Christ is already reigning as Lord of all, bringing your kingdom to its full realization.
In this tension between what is present and what is future, may your Church seek to exercise wisdom and discernment.

May we not seek to propel the narrative of American exceptionalism, but to have other nations in mind.
May we not strive for selfish gain, but seek the interests of our neighbors as well.

Remind us that other nations exist in the world besides America.
Humble us before people who speak other languages, who have different experiences, and who can show us what it truly means to be blessed.
Have we all but forgotten that power is found in weakness, that the poor are blessed, and that it is better to give than to receive?
For those of us who do vote today, remind us of these things as we seek to bring justice, mercy, and peace, even if it doesn’t come directly from us.

Your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
In the name of Jesus we pray, amen.

Lent

Everybody knew this guy. The guy I’m talking about is the one who hosted Open-Mic Nights at a Cincinnati coffee shop. His job description was relatively simple: make everyone feel welcome to share whatever they desired on stage, though the job was hardly easy. Some people shared music, others tried stand-up comedy, and still others used those nights as a platform for political activism. The garden variety showed up on a Thursday night, once a month, to share their creative talents. I was one of those people, but it took me a few months to gain courage to do anything. After 3 months of going to these nights with my musically-gifted friend, I decided to share some music of my own. The host continued making everyone understand that they were welcome to contribute to the atmosphere of that coffee shop: chill, yet alive. By the end of the night after hearing numerous rounds of applause, the loudest applause always coming from the host, I found myself on the stage with a guitar. I finished out the event that night with my bit, and waited to exit the stage. Before I was allowed to pack up my belongings, the host whispered in my ear that he wanted me to continue playing the same simple progression on my guitar. Thinking he wanted some atmospheric tunes to fill in the background while he completed his hostly responsibilities, I agreed. Out of nowhere, this guy fulfills his job as a host in a completely unexpected way. He actually starts freestyle rapping to my song. In no way did I expect him to do this nor did he have to, but he went above and beyond to send the message: you are welcome to share on this stage. In that way, this guy extended the description of a host beyond its normal range, while still maintaining the fact that he was the host.

Call it what you will, but many during the season of Lent have awarded Jesus with certain titles and tasks he fulfilled without recalling their significance. I used to think that the way in which the authors of the Gospels used Old Testament texts only served to prove that Jesus was the Christ. If Jesus was the Christ, then my sins could be forgiven and I could go to heaven and possibly have a major Hollywood film in my honor (not a major fan of these types of movies). Thus, it was easy to read “It is finished” (John 19:30) as an epic way of saying that every sin is washed away. I was wrong. This picture is fragmented at best. I believe that Jesus is the Christ. I believe that he brings the forgiveness of sins. I also believe that there is a lot more to this story.

One of the most understated qualities of Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels is the way in which he is presented as the Messiah. Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It functions as a reference to the “anointed one,” the long-awaited Davidic King who would restore Israel. Jesus, as the Messiah, brings the story of Israel to its proper place. The same God in the pages of Israel’s Scriptures is the same one portrayed in the Gospels as the one becoming king over the entire creation in and through Jesus of Nazareth (I owe this understanding to Dr. Jon Weatherly). This is the story that the Gospels are eager to tell their readers.

With regards to Lent, let us not merely see the cross as a means to reach a pleasant afterlife. Instead, let us recall the atmosphere in which the story takes place. This is a story in which the Messiah being crucified arrives as a horrifying shock and one where the resurrection bursts onto the scene as an awesome and unexpected fulfillment. Instead, let’s view the cross as the tragic moment of the death of an innocent man, but when evil and its devices are condemned and the effects of sin are reversed. Let’s also remember the resurrection as the joyous moment affirming that the God of Israel has become king in and through Jesus. Since Jesus has accomplished the mission of Israel, human beings can be the kind of people they were created to be, image-bearers of the one true God.

If you’re interested in further reading about the Gospels in particular, I recommend checking out How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels by N.T. Wright.

The Bible: Our Instruction Guide?

In the past several years, I’ve witnessed the Bible being equated to many things. When talking to different people, I learned a variety of perspectives that they believe about this book. Some were inclined to think it was just that: a book. Others thought it contained interesting bits of history. Still some believed it was fiction at best. Those were all intriguing in their own right considering the people who held those views, but the most interesting view came from many Christians. A good number of Christians are under the impression that the primary role of the Bible is to be our instruction guide. I’ll never forget someone jokingly telling me of the ever-so-cringe-worthy acronym BIBLE (Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth), as if we were all astronauts trying to discover how to live out the plot of “Interstellar.” I can honestly say I’ve never been to a church that has this acronym displayed in the auditorium, but the idea of the Bible being a rulebook for a good life or instructions to reach heaven still permeates a lot of the discussions in Christianity. Perhaps the most striking problem with this is the hyper-focus on personal salvation or personal gain in general (I emphasize hyper-focus here). When we keep the rules not out of obedience to the faithful God, but as a means of validation that our spot in heaven is secure, we’ve missed it. The Bible tells the story of God and his creation, how creation subjected itself to futility in rebellion, and how Jesus has claimed the victory over sin, death, and the world, bringing about redemption and new life. Upon the true king’s royal arrival, all things will be set right once and for all. The Bible is not primarily a story about our personal salvation and it’s definitely not about “living your best life now.” The story is about something much better.

Luke 10 recalls Jesus sending out many of his disciples into surrounding towns to make an announcement. He says the famous line, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10:2). I’ve heard this line used in many sermons before. More often than not, this story has been applied to the idea of finding people to go out and “save souls.” Yet the shocking thing about this story is that the disciples aren’t commanded to tell these towns the “5-step plan of salvation.” He doesn’t even encourage his disciples to distribute papyri on how the people can lead a successful life! It’s so strange, but Jesus tells his disciples to stay in the town if they are received and leave if they are not welcome. Regardless of that outcome, Jesus tells his disciples to announce the same message in both scenarios: “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:9, 11). The kingdom wasn’t a fancy word for “getting to heaven.” The kingdom was the realization of the promises of God to restore and redeem his creation. To announce that the “kingdom of God has come near to you” was to announce that God was and is bringing salvation to a world plagued by sin at last. This is the story the Old Testament builds up towards, this is the story fulfilled in the New Testament, and it is the story we have the chance to join now. If you ask me, that’s far better than a rulebook for a good, moral life, or an instruction manual for how to get to heaven.

Must We Be Like Other Nations

If you’re anything like me, you’re ready for election season to finally wind down. Sadly, the season has only just started with heated debates and bad hair, though I’m one to talk, right? The reason I wanted to write about this tonight has to do with the nature of what it means to follow Jesus and how we should potentially handle politics. What I want to do is raise a question to the traditional ways of viewing politics in the Church. For example, the past few years I’ve primarily been surrounded by people who believe that the correct candidate for POTUS is the “lesser of two evils.” I’ve seen this line of thinking expand to encompass all of politics and it has been portrayed as the Christian way of viewing politics. That’s all fine and good, I suppose, but at this point I do want to raise what I believe to be an important question regarding Christians and politics in the twenty first century.

There was actually a time in the history of Israel where they only had YHWH as their king. They didn’t have a monarch like other nations, but only God. We could either look at this group of people as un-enlightened for thinking they could sustain such a nation, or that they actually had something truly special in the way of having God alone as their ruler. In 1 Samuel 8 (and one could argue for earlier than this), Israel gets their way and they receive a king just like the surrounding nations and to this God says, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). What can we gather from this exchange? I think we walk away understanding that God’s people were meant to be under God’s reign and to live satisfied in that kind of relationship (one could make the case that this is really the story of all humanity, but that’s for another time). Yet God allows his people to essentially reject him from being king and to receive a king like the other nations. As you might begin to see, having a king just like everyone else as opposed to living under the reign of YHWH is less than ideal as portrayed by Scripture. There is a whole spiral downwards for God’s people through the time of the kings eventually leading to exile. Israel eagerly awaited God to take them out of exile and to restore their fortunes as the people through whom redemption would come. In fact, this happens, just not the way that they expected.

   Even after God’s people return from exile in Babylon, there is still a sense of exile as they become conquered by the Roman empire. As a result by the first century, some of these people imagined a militaristic revolt and overthrow of Rome by God’s messiah. However, Jesus does not meet these expectations, but he surprisingly exceeds them. Instead of leading a militaristic revolt to become king like others did at this time, he willingly dies on behalf of many. Tragically and ironically, this is essentially Jesus’ inauguration as king. Yet this doesn’t happen without the other surprising and critical element, which is resurrection. What we see here is that God’s way of ruling is far different from a lot of what we imagine. The story continues in Revelation with a picture of what the age to come holds.

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3).

   The idea we really ought to investigate is how much should we really invest in a leader of our country. Of course we should pray for leaders of nations. Yet sometimes, I can’t help but get this idea that we do in fact place way too much value on who will be POTUS. My question in relation to all of this is this: Are we satisfied with God alone being king, or do we need someone to enforce a certain set of values in America? I want to be clear that I’m not condemning the concept of voting, but I also want that question to challenge the idea that if things don’t go your way in terms of politics, that everything in the world is a disaster. That is so far from the truth because regardless of election outcomes (which most people in the world don’t get a say in who their authorities are), God is still ultimately the good and faithful ruler over all. Jesus took all of the evil of the world upon himself on the cross and rose to new life to grant us new and eternal life in a kingdom where he faithfully reigns forever. Must we be like the other nations?

Practicality and Sermons

A few years ago, I was told something that sticks with me even now. In Bible college, I took a few preaching courses. I received some tips on how to engage an audience and how I should go about drawing people towards action. Essentially, I heard the same thing from many sources that every sermon needs to have, more or less, a sentence calling everyone there to some sort of response. Passive verbs won’t do either. Everything about this take-home, take-away, action-encouraging sentence must draw response for the following day, week, month, or year. Many times, this looked like three main points that ultimately point to one thing that we as God’s people need to do during the week. In fact, I used to think this was the way preaching ought to happen. To be fair, I’ve heard it done very well and I remain convinced that God is at work in those sermons. On the other hand, I want to offer pushback that this is the golden standard for preaching. Not only this, but perhaps this stretch for practicality isn’t as efficient as we sometimes portray it to be. All of this changes when we read the Gospels.

I’ll be the first to admit that I find it odd that many sermons deal with advice for God’s people (which isn’t a bad thing) under the label that it is practical for spiritual living. However, when I look at the way Jesus spoke, he often told stories, or parables. Of course he related to everyday life and had practical things to say, but the things he said certainly weren’t lists of “to-do’s.” Jesus told stories that sometimes left people perplexed, sad on occasion, and upset more often than not. What we do know is that in most cases, the people to whom Jesus spoke left changed. Sometimes they were angry and wanted to arrest him (Matthew 21:45-46) and other times they left sad and insecure (Matthew 19:22). We also know that people were definitely changed by their encounters with Jesus, who is the great story-teller (we’ll save that for another post). So if response is what we believe should result from a sermon, shouldn’t we be telling the story of Scripture more often?

So the question becomes this: do we need a purpose statement every time we give a sermon? The thing I want to point out is that our desire to have a 3-point sermon with a nice, tidy take-away statement is a very Western way of preaching. Is it a bad thing? Not necessarily. What I want to raise is that preparations for our sermons should absolutely be spent seeking to know God more, but the “finished product” doesn’t need to be a shiny, media-ready presentation. I’m not advocating a lack of preparation, but sharing the sermon in ways we have possibly neglected or forgotten. Sometimes, the message actually can be a little messy, dealing with matters that aren’t easy to talk about. Not only that, but it can be simple. It can be as simple as telling a story. What I don’t mean is an anecdote for the sake of an illustration in the classic 3-point sermon. What I do mean is telling freshly the story with which we are all involved. This is the story of the Creator God, his good creation, and how he is going to restore and renew that creation and set things right once and for all. Perhaps at this point we can start to see a different kind of response. I believe what we primarily need to hear is the grand story of the Bible and not give that up, labeling it as “impractical.”

“Tell someone to do something, and you change their life- for a day; tell someone a story and you change their life.” ~NT Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 40.