Archives For Politics

I’ve invited some friends and colleagues to share their thoughts about Charlottesville, race, and our political discourse here on the blog over the coming days.

I thought I’d use the blog to create space for differing perspectives tempered by patience and hospitality- what I seldom see in our self-selected social media echo chambers, especially at this (rightly) heated cultural moment.

That my friend did not feel comfortable sharing his name with his reflection underscores, I think, the damage we so often do in our online fury.

This is from Ben Maddison:

I’ve seen this going around, a lot: “If you’ve wondered what you would’ve done during slavery, the Holocaust, or Civil Rights movement…you’re doing it now.”

Short, pithy, biting–the perfect smirk-response to today’s situation. For whatever reason it gets posted, the statement is “supposed” to rouse us from complacency; it’s supposed to spur us to action; it’s supposed to slap us across the face with the brunt realization that we are living history. But it does something else.

It accuses.

“Lex semper accusat; the law always accuses.”

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We could use standing accused to the reality that it’s not what goes in that defiles, but what comes out. “The heart is deceitful and wicked and who can know it.”

The reason the phrase stings is because we know that in each of us is a supporter of slavery, a Holocaust accomplice, or a silent Civil Rights observer.

This saying makes us stop and recognize that, when push comes to shove, we aren’t the agents and movers of change we wish we were–we are the silent majority, tacitly supporting systems of injustice because they don’t directly affect us or are easy to ignore or are inconvenient to combat. To put it in other words, the saying hurts because it reminds us that we are sinners, incapable of saving ourselves.

The only thing that will help is Jesus. But there is Good News; the same law that accuses, speaks to a larger truth.

The REASON it accuses is because God hates injustice, God despises hatred, and because God’s wrath will be poured out on those institutions and systems.

But even before that, God did intervene. God sent Jesus Christ to the world to bring us back to God. And as much as God hopes it would happen by listening and comprehending, it was brought to fruition by the death of His son…death at the hands of same forces and systems of injustice, oppression, bigotry, hatred, self-interest, and dehumanization that are exerting their final death gasps now.

We have a God, then, who doesn’t just hate what is going on in places like Charlottesville, but we have a God who knows what it means to lose a child to those systems. God stands with, and calls us to stand with, the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Grey, Sandra Bland, and countless others who are being killed and destroyed by these forces. God demands that we love justice and show mercy, because God knows what happens when we can’t. Because God is one of those parents.

And here’s the thing: we aren’t expected to do any of this alone. God knows that it’s hard work. For those like myself (white, cis, hetero, privileged), it’s going to hurt because we must say “I am a sinner; here is my sin; I repent and return to the Lord.” And do that…again and again and again. But our (nay, MY) uncomfortability, shame, or whatever we/I feel(s) pales in comparison to the pain experienced by our African-American, Latino, Native-American, [insert everyone abused by Whites ever] over the last 500 years (and much longer). And, even if this work seems impossible or too much or not enough or takes too long, we can be certain of two things:

Christ is already victorious.

God is working and inspiring this work.

Sometimes the work means marching. But often times it means praying, repenting, listening, and working. This means less Facebook rants from me, and more listening to others. This means learning more, seeking understanding, and having compassion and mercy and grace.

Because I’m not better off or further along or anything like that. I am a sinner in need of saving, and I cry out to the Lord:

Have mercy on me and save me. Forgive me of my tacit support for injustice. Cleanse me of my family’s sin of white supremacy and racial injustice. Use me to help others get to this place, that Your grace might flow like a river, you mercy like springs of water, and justice like the ceaseless ocean waves, from age to age. Amen.

    Stanley Hauerwas identifies the essence of Christianity thus:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bullshit.”

     If Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos and the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, it quickly becomes apparent that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

When the Risen Jesus commissions the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he tells them the way they will manifest his lordship is by baptizing and making disciples of all nations; that is, Jesus commissions them to plant communities of faith. The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call bulls@#$ on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge.

This is slippery work for Christians in America, more difficult for us than it was for the first Christians.

It’s easy to be shorn of any illusions about the goodness of your nation when it’s making you lion food for Rome’s entertainment.

The first Christians thus harbored no confusion that the Kingdom of Caesar was commensurate with the Kingdom of God so their calling to be an alternative community, a set-apart people within the polis, was more self-evident than it is to us who live in an allegedly Christian nation.

About that nation, presently led (I use that term with no small amount of irony) by The Donald.

Many Christians, primarily progressive Christians but not uniformly so (e.g. Catholic conservatives like Michael Gerson and Ross Douthat and even my muse and mentor, David Bentley Hart, who is Orthodox), view support for The Donald as outside the bounds of Christian endorsement. Rev. Willam Barber, understandably if mistakenly in my view, has characterized even prayer for The Donald as “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.”

The danger posed to America by The Donald, the thinking goes, is so grave Christians must meet it with protest, mockery, and resistance. Certainly all of those are valid forms of prophetic Christian witness, but i wonder if those are the only ways to resist, or, even, the first way to do so.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said the danger of patriotism is not love of one’s country but that very often patriotism does not allow for confession of collective sin nor expressions of repentance. Bonhoeffer writes in Ethics that to profess Jesus as Lord in the midst of this ‘religion’ of nationalism is to confess one’s own complicity in sustaining the very Powers the Church confronts. People forget- Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazis not to save the Jews but to protect his nation from the destruction the Nazis were wreaking upon it.

As a German Christian, Bonhoeffer’s first response to Hitler was to confess his Church’s own complicity in creating the conditions for the Nazism he now felt the Church was charged by God to resist.

Admittedly, the analogy to Hitler and Nazi Germany is an indelicate one. The takeaway from Bonhoeffer however is this one: perhaps resisting The Donald as the Enemy and his stubborn legion of supporters as the other is an insufficient Christian posture. Maybe like Bonhoeffer progressive Christians et al would do better to discern and confess the ways we’re guilty of creating the conditions ripe for The Donald’s demagoguery. What has the Church in America and the Left in America left neglected such that Americans felt only he could give them a voice ? And by what, I mean, of course, who. Who have we neglected?To what extend are we culpable such that those voters accepted The Donald’s (idolatrous) language of “Only I can help you…?”

Bottom line:

 Bonhoeffer provides a needful reminder in our current cultural climate.

Without confession, resistance only perpetuates the cultural antagonisms, which produced the very president progressives now feel compelled to combat.

In this respect, to call BS, as Hauerwas counsels Christians, entails a willingness for Christians to own and name their own BS; that is, their promiscuity with other lords.

For Episode #105, we talked with Brad Todd, a founding partner of the political consulting firm On Message

Brad talked with us about his new book, The Great Divide, about the Trump voter. Along the way he opines on gun rights, why United Methodist apportionments are bad, what Amazon portends about the future of both the Republican Party and the United Methodist Church, and why progressives need to pace their rage.

Brad earned his first paycheck as a writer at age 14 and he hasn’t shut up since. A refugee from journalism, Brad managed winning campaigns and led a state party before stumbling onto his future and present as an ad-maker.

Brad’s 2014 clients defeated three incumbent Democratic U.S. Senators in a single election cycle, a feat unmatched by any Republican media consultant in 34 years. Brad’s ads have been noted in the national media as “devastatingly effective” (Washington Post) and “jazzy, edgy, and hip – everything you don’t expect in politics” (USA Today).

A sixth-generation native of the rural Clax Gap community in East Tennessee, Brad is known for advertising that matches the cultural nuances of his clients’ districts and elevates their own unique personalities.

Brad’s candidate clients have included six U.S. Senators, three Governors, and more than two dozen congressmen. Todd’s firm, OnMessage Inc., is the only media firm to have beaten a House Democratic incumbent in each of the last four election cycles. In 2010, Todd was the lead consultant for the Republican takeover of the United States House under the leadership of Rep. Pete Sessions and the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Outside the candidate arena, Todd has earned national recognition for his advertising on the issue of school choice and he has provided strategic and brand building advice for professional sports organizations.

He has a B.A. from Rhodes College and an M.A. from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Brad frequently writes opinions columns. Many are published in POLITICO, CNN.com, Roll Call, FoxNews.com, and appears on the Meet the Press Daily with Chuck Todd.

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Since The Donald ascended to the oval office in January, I’ve heard progressive Christians yearning for a contemporary incarnation of Reinhold Niebuhr, a public theologian who can offer, with clarity and conviction, a Christian critique of the current regime. I’ve also heard fellow clergy ask- with not a little self-seriousness (myself included)- if the threat The Donald poses to America is sufficiently analogous to the threat posed to Germany by Hitler such that what the Church in America needs now is another Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a righteous voice to lead a confessing minority of Christians against a contagion of fascist ideology.  Increasingly, I’m convinced the Church in Trump’s America needs neither a Niebuhr nor a Bonhoeffer and that the longing for either may be self-righteous to the point of obscuring the Gospel which we’re called to proclaim in word and deed.

Last week the progressive pastor Rev. Dr. William Barber made news by arguing on MSNBC’s AM Joy that clergy who prayed for or with The Donald committed “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.” Conservative clergy responded in kind that Barber’s assertion did not project love for his Christian brothers and sisters. In response to the story, pro and con tweets followed by Christians all over social media, each abiding by the red or blue hue of their flavor of Christianity.

In a blog post earlier this week, I noted how both Rev. Barber’s critique of The Donald and Trump-loving Christians appeared to have little use for Jesus, who commanded us not only to pray for our enemies but to forgive them and, even, to love them.

More than a few readers messaged me to extol Rev. Barber’s “brave Christian witness against the Powers” and his “radical politics.” It’s possible I failed to articulate my point with sufficient clarity; it’s also possible that progressives have become so enmeshed in their own blue-hued, generic civil religion, too enthusiastic about their own State Church of the Left, that my point was too specifically Christian to be obvious to them.

Rev. Barber’s politics are not radical enough.

Christianly speaking.

I don’t think the Church in America needs a Niebuhr or a Bonhoeffer because I worry The Donald is a character of such exaggerated and self-evident flaws he’s exacerbated our very human and (sinful) tendency to draw lines between moral and immoral people, as though the line between good and evil dotted the borders of mutually exclusive ideologies rather than running through every human heart.

Christianly speaking-

You cannot have a truly radical politics without a radical doctrine of justification by grace.

As my friend Dr. Jeffrey Pugh mentioned in passing during our recent live podcast, what the Church in America needs is not a Bonhoeffer nor a Niebuhr nor does the progressive wing of the Church need a blue-hued version of what it detests on the Right.

Only an understanding that ALL are under the Power of Sin, all stand condemned, NONE is righteous, and that there is no distinction between any of us- only such an understanding can produce a radical politics.

What the Church in America needs Jeffrey observed is another Will Campbell.

And I couldn’t agree more.

For those of you who don’t know, “Brother Will,” who recently died, was a controversial figure- just note that fact, the “radical” Rev. Barber is not at all controversial among progressive Christians.

Originally from Mississippi, he returned to live there after graduating from Yale Divinity School, and he founded an organization called the Committee of Southern Churchmen. This organization published a journal called Katallagete, which means “be reconciled.” Brother Will was one of the very few white people who escorted the “Little Rock Nine” into Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was also there when Martin Luther King, Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Will Campbell believed with all his heart in the cause of Civil Rights. But he also believed, equally firmly, that Christ died for the racists as much as he died for the victims of racism.

Fleming Rutledge tells this story about Will:

“Will attend[ed] the trial of Sam Bowers, the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Bowers is believed to have ordered several killings, the most conspicuous of which was the assassination of the black civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer in his own home.

At the Mississippi trial held almost 40 years later, the large Dahmer family sat on one side of the courtroom. Sam Bowers sat alone on the other. As the trial proceeded, Will sat with the Dahmers some of the time and with Bowers some of the time.

A baffled reporter asked him why he did that.

Will growled:

“Because I’m a damn Christian.”

When his fellow activists got angry with Will for spending time with members of the Ku Klux Klan, he said:

“I’d identified with liberal sophistication, and had lost something of the meaning of grace that does include us all.

I would continue to be a social activist, but came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.”

It’s laudable, for example, that Christians and clergy near my alma mater in Charlottesville recently protested against the presence of the Klan, but- I wonder- was their witness radical? Christianly speaking? Might a more distinctive witness been offered, one made possibly only by faith in the Gospel of grace- had some Will Campbell Christians, protest signs in hand, also embraced those on the other side?

In his memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, Campbell writes of watching a documentary of the KKK with a group of like-minded progressive activists:

“I felt a sickening in my stomach [to the viewers’ response to the film.] Who were they? Most of them were from middle and upper class families…they were students or graduates of rich and leading universities. They were tough but somehow I sensed that there wasn’t a radical in the bunch.

For if they were radical how could they laugh at a poor ignorant farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right. If they had been radical they would have been weeping, asking what had produced him.

I began my speech to them, saying: “I’m Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansmen because I’m pro-human being.”

His “radical” audience all left, outraged, threatening him harm. Will concludes his memory saying:”

“A true radical would ask how do we humans get to be the sort of humans we are.

Just four words uttered- pro-Klansmen Mississippi Baptist Preacher, coupled with one image, White, had turned them into everything they thought the KKK to be- hostile, frustrated, angry, violent and irrational.

I was never able to explain to them that pro-Klansmen is not the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with the person, the other with an ideology.”

Not Niebuhr.

Nor Bonhoeffer.

I yearn for a truly radical voice like Will’s.

This past weekend Rev. Dr. William Barber described praying for Trump “theological malpractice bordering on heresy.” Certainly, if what Rev. Barber has in mind is the sort of QVC Christendom prayer captured in this picture above, then I agree.

Here’s a story from the Washington Post

Looking at the clergy gathered around the Donald, I can’t help but wonder if they’ve shut their eyes not out of piety but, like Indy and Marianne in Raiders of the Lost Ark, out of terror, afraid that the holiness of God will smote them for their idolatrous acts. Let’s not kid ourselves. This isn’t an image of God-fearers beseeching God for God’s providence or peace; it’s a picture of sycophantic partisans wanting Religion, like holiday bunting, to decorate, and so to bless, their culturally-derived agenda. It’s a still captured image of collective cognitive dissonance, seeing the Donald as either a Cyrus-like agent of God’s mysterious ways or just willfully ignoring the Donald’s manifest immorality, narcissism, and ineptitude.

Still, if what Rev. Barber condemns is instead the sort of prayer the Book of Common Prayer gives us, then I’d argue that it’s theological malpractice to judge even the Donald as so beyond the pale to be exempt from our practice prayer:

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States…and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear… Amen.

And if what Rev. Barber has in mind is this sort of prayer from the BCP, then he might be the one flirting with heresy:

O God, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you…Amen.

On MSNBC’s “AM Joy,” Barber added:

“When you can P-R-A-Y for a president and others while they are P-R-E-Y, preying on the most vulnerable, you’re violating the sacred principles of religion.”

Citing the Prophet Amos, Barber suggested:

“What leaders ought to be doing is challenging the president, challenging McConnell Ryan, and challenging these senators and others and not trying to appease them. Instead, they’re acting like priests of the empire rather than prophets of God.”

Never mind that some of God’s prophets (Isaiah, Nathan) were in fact priests and scribes of the King’s court and that the actual ultimate indictment of prophets like Amos- idolatry- would twist secular progressives’ sphincters into a knot.

I think it’s revealing who Rev. Barber does not mention in this discussion of the president and prayer:

Jesus.

Notice how Rev. Barber referenced the sacred principles of (generic and abstract) “religion” rather than (the inconveniently specific) Christianity.

While I sympathize with his antipathy, Barber commits the same crimes of civil religion perpetrated by his peers on the religious right; that is, his argument is insufficiently Christocentric.

Just as ‘God bless America’ cannot be so easily transmuted into ‘Jesus Bless America’ or ‘God hates fags’ cannot be rendered as ‘Jesus hates fags” it’s difficult to argue that Jesus would not want his followers to pray for a man who, for progressives- admit it- personifies the word enemy.

Given his first sermon in Nazareth, a shameless cribbing of Isaiah, I’ve no doubt Jesus concurred with Amos’ condemnations of the affluent and their consequent apathy and that Jesus would take a dim view of Paul Ryan’s Ayn Randian worldview. But when Jesus stands on the mount like Moses and gives his disciples, the New Israel, a New Law, one of the commandments he issues instructs his followers to forgive, love, and pray for their enemies.

In such a partisan, divided culture, where political ideology continues to prove such an attractive religious idol, it’s difficult to believe the Donald isn’t for progressive Christians exactly the sort of enemy Jesus had in mind. For that matter, Donald-loving partisans just might be the neighbors that Jesus also commands progressive Christians to love as much as they love themselves or pretend to love God.

It’s one thing to pray for an enemy comfortably overseas who will never impinge on anything in your life but the newsfeed on your iPhone; it’s another to beseech God for sufficient civility to love the ignorant, possibly racist, definitely xenophobic neighbor with whom you actually have to make a life.

Barber warns that it borders on heresy to pray for the president, an odd comment from a clergyman.

Surely Rev. Barber knows that 1 Peter instructs Christians “to honor and pray for the emperor” just as surely as Rev. Barber recalls from Church History 101 that when Peter issued that command for Christians to honor and pray for the emperor he had the Emperor Nero in mind, for whom the Book of Revelation marks with the number 666- not a very popular president.

Christians should not be chaplains of civil religion, praying for the president in the partisan sense of festooning his political agenda (to the extent he has a discernible agenda) with the appearance of divine blessing.

But neither should Christians be so captured by their own blue-hued civil religion that they are willing to qualify their allegiance to the Lord’s commands.

             Blessed are the poor. Check

             Pray for your enemies. _______

I agree with Rev. Barber that Americans should agitate against an agenda that would harm, callously so, the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

Unfortunately, Christianity has “sacred principles” in addition to the principle that we should care for the poor, welcome the stranger, and comfort the victims of our indifference- and caring for the poor, let’s face it, is a principle that is hardly unique to Christianity.

Another sacred principle, not of generic, generalized religion but of the offensively particular Christian Gospel, is that God loves not the good people who care for the poor and welcome the stranger (nor the ones who at least think the government should care for the poor and welcome the stranger for them) but the ungodly.

God loves not just the victims of our indifference but God loves the victimizers too. Indeed God loves them enough to die for them, especially for them. 

How can we not pray for someone like Donald Trump then when, Christians believe, Jesus prayed for someone just like him: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

To exempt someone like the Donald from the command upon us to love our enemies risks our forgetting that while we were enemies of God, God died for us.

Just as prayer should not be used as a strategy by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Richard Jeffress to advance their own independently derived agenda, praying for our enemies is not a strategy.

It is instead part of our own ongoing conversion to- which is to say, exorcism from the Red and Blue idols in our hearts- the Lordship of Jesus Christ who commanded us to do so. Scripture doesn’t teach that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. Rather, in a world of violence whose injustice, poverty, and loneliness is made possible by seeking to determine our enemies for us, the  Lord has called us to be his subjects who love enemies.

We do this not because it ‘works’ but because Christ is the Lord to whom we owe our allegiance.

Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist “Church” in Dallas is following up last Sunday’s worship idolatry “Patriotic Sunday” with a concert at the Kennedy Center this Saturday. I blogged about it here. Along with President Trump, Jeffress will debut the new “praise” song “Making America Great Again.”

Where’s Woody Guthrie when you need him?

‘Pastor’ Jeffress’ golden calf shenanigans this week got me thinking of Monty Python and Pliny, the Roman Governor, in that order.

I know everyone prefers the Holy Grail, but have you seen the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian?

It’s set in first-century Judaea when the Jewish opposition to the Romans is hopelessly split into factions.

There’s a scene where one of the splinter groups has a secret meeting where a vigilante soldier asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

One by one his fellow freedom-fighters grudgingly admit a host of benefits the Romans have brought the Jews. But Reggie, their leader, remains unconvinced.

Reggie finally demands, “All right … all right … but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … what have the Romans done for us?”

To which the reply comes, “Brought peace.”

And Reggie has no answer.

Not only did the Romans bring the world sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order and peace (by the sword), they also brought to the world a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian.

Rome not only knew how to dig a sewer and pitch an aqueduct, they knew better than many Christians today know the fundamental claim of Christianity.

Around 112, a Roman civil servant named Pliny, who was Governor of Bithynia  in what is modern Turkey, wrote a letter to the Roman Emperor, Trajan, offering explanation for how he’d decided to deal with these strangers and dissidents he’d encountered called Christians.

Some he punished. Some he tortured and executed. Still others, those who were like Paul, Roman citizens, he transferred back to Rome.

But what about those Christians who, in the face of persecution, offered to cease being a Christian?

You can tell how Rome understood the key conviction of Christianity from what Rome required as proof of its renunciation.

To prove to Roman authorities that you forsook your Christian faith the Empire required that you offer a sacrifice of meat and wine and incense before a statue of the Emperor while confessing “Caesar is Lord.”

And notice, Pliny didn’t invite renouncing Christians to confess ‘Caesar is Lord’ in private. Pliny didn’t ask them to make a personal profession. Pliny didn’t gather them all together, have them close their eyes and bow their heads, and ask them to raise their hands if they accepted the Lordship of Caesar.

No, he required a public display of loyalty.

He insisted upon a public pledge.

When so many Christians today think being a Christian is about inviting Jesus into their hearts to be a personal Lord and Savior (whatever that means) or having faith in him, and when so many others think it’s primarily about following Jesus’ teachings or, even worse, that it’s about belonging to an institution, Pliny saw that loyalty and obedience to Jesus as present-tense Sovereign Lord was the fundamental claim of Christianity.

What Rome required of Christians to renounce their faith points out exactly what Christians affirmed when they converted to their faith.

Christianity, Rome helps us see, is about choosing between rival and irreconcilable claims upon us.

If Pliny understood that to swear Caesar is ‘Lord’ was to forswear Jesus as Lord, then it follows that to repent and confess Jesus meant to reject and condemn the another’s lordship.

So it’s not just roads and sewers and medicine and peace, Rome has brought us; it’s also a clear-eyed understanding that the core of being a Christian is pledging allegiance to Jesus as Lord.

And allegiance, Pliny points out for us, cannot be offered in a vacuum. To be allegiant is always and at once to be against. Affirmation is a simultaneous renunciation. The very act of pledging allegiance presumes an other contending for your loyalty.

Most often defined as faith or belief, the pistis word group in the Greek New Testament can convey a range of meanings. It can mean belief, faith, confidence, trust, conviction, assurance, fidelity, commitment, faithfulness, reliability, or obedience.

But, as Matthew Bates argues in his new book, if the stage we occupy in the Creed and Gospel story is the present-tense reign of Jesus as Lord and King of heaven and earth against whose rule rival Powers contend, then the strongest and clearest definition of pistis/faith is allegiance.

Caesar didn’t care whether his subjects believed in him.

Caesar cared whether his subjects were loyal to him.

Likewise, if Jesus is Lord then we are his subjects and faithfulness to a King entails not trust so much as allegiance.

Defining faith in terms of allegiance makes clear that what’s expected of us as subjects of the Lord Jesus is an embodied faithfulness that renders the distinctions between ‘faith’ and ‘works,’ a personal Lord and a Cosmic Lord, moot, for a subject cannot be loyal to a King while not heeding the King’s commands.

Imagine what becomes possible when in recasting pistis in terms of allegiance.

For example, the Apostles Creed makes more obvious what is at stake in the profession:

“I pledge allegiance to God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth…and to Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…”

It works at Baptism too: “…do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior…pledge your allegiance to him…”

And at the Table: “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to give allegiance to him.”

Familiar scripture suddenly become like TNT when you redefine pistis: “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and become allegiant to me.” Just that verse becomes an altar call that calls for a lot more than your mental assent or an affectation in your heart.

Or Paul: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who gives allegiance.” 

If faith is a matter of believing in Jesus, then Christians can disagree about the relative importance of racism, immigration, or poverty, dismissing it as ‘political.’

If faith is a matter of allegiance to Jesus, then how we address those issues might be debatable but that they merit our attention is no longer negotiable.

Translating pistis as allegiance just might be the way to make the Christian faith great again.

Stanley Hauerwas asserts that the essence of Christianity is:

“Jesus is Lord and everything else is bull@#$%.”

Hauerwas can make that claim because if Jesus is the present-tense Lord of the cosmos then the response of faith Jesus demands is best understood as allegiance, an allegiance that requires a readiness to call BS when we see it.

You do not have to believe in Jesus’ Lordship to know that the world is filled with rival lords vying for our loyalty and allegiance.

Or, simply working to dilute, confuse, or qualify our allegiance.

Again, witness Dr. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist “Church” of Dallas

When the Risen Jesus commissions the disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel he tells them the way they will manifest his lordship is by baptizing and making disciples of all nations; that is, Jesus commissions to plant churches. The life and practices of the church therefore are the ways we call BS on the Powers and Principalities who would have us think they’re in charge.

The ordinary practices Jesus has given us are the ways we stand before all the golden calves, be they statues of Caesar or Robert Jeffress’ civil religion pageantry, and call BS.

My man-crush muse David Bentley Hart asked to return to the podcast so he could get some gripes off his chest about the new president, critics of Pope Francis, and the role Christianity in the public square. DBH’s essay on Donald Trump and the Devil which I quote at the beginning of this episode can be found here.

If you don’t know already from the blog, David Bentley Hart was my first theology teacher when I was a first year undergrad at UVA and a relatively new Christian. He is the author of significant books such as the Beauty of the Infinite, the Doors of the Sea, and the Experience of God.

Be on the lookout for the second part of this conversation where David discusses his forthcoming translation of the New Translation and what he learned by going back to the Greek text without the presumptions modern translations have given him.

From a little venture with Teer and Morgan to nurture my friendships with them, we’ve grown to be one of the top 3.5% of all podcasts on the interwebs. If podcasts were churches, we’d be one of the largest UMC’s out there- and it’s all because of you and your support!

Coming up on the podcast:

We’ve got a cross-over 4th of July podcast with Tripp Fuller of Home-brewed Christianity. 

Stay tuned.

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Feel the Bern

Jason Micheli —  June 19, 2017 — 1 Comment

 I continued our summer sermon series through Romans by preaching on Paul’s ‘mythological’ apocalyptic text in Romans 5.12-21.

     I know most of you don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit. As one of you commented in all-caps hysteria about one of our dialogue sermons this spring: “KEEP POLITICS OUT OF THE PULPIT. STICK TO THE GOSPEL!!! :(“

Look, I get it. But what the Hell am I supposed to do when Politics and the Gospel collide through no fault of my own?

For example, the otherwise low-profile confirmation hearing on Capital Hill last week for Russell Vought, President Trump’s nominee to be deputy director of something-something.

A sleepy session on CSPAN raised eyebrows and spawned social media memes when Sannders turned the Bern on Russell Vought and, literally wagging his finger, shouted: “Do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?

Sannders did not relent his inquisition: ”Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?” “What about Jews? Do they stand condemned, too?”

Russell Vought, repeatedly, responded: ”I’m a Christian.”

To which Bernie raised his voice and bellowed at the nominee: ”I understand you are a Christian, but there are other people who have different religions in this country and around the world. In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are condemned?”

Behind Bernie’s soapbox assault was a blog post Russell Vought wrote a year ago in support of his evangelical alma mater, Wheaton College.

Wheaton had suspended a tenured professor whose views contradicted the school’s statement of faith and, during the ensuing controversy, Vought weighed in that “all are condemned apart from Jesus Christ.”

After wagging his finger, Bernie threw up his hands at Vought’s professed belief in the centrality of Jesus Christ for salvation and declared that his faith claims disqualified him from serving his country through civil service.

Now I’d be a liar if I said the prospect of someone being disqualified from serving in the Trump administration because they were too Christian didn’t amuse me. I think it would be hilarious if more Christians were disqualified from serving the Donald because they were too Christian.

But my delight in that prospect aside, Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith isn’t substantively different than the confessions of any other Christian tradition.

Wheaton College might put differently than the United Methodist Church, but neither Wheaton nor Vought said anything contrary to what we say when we recite in the Apostles Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…who will come again to judge…”

Look, I admit I’m no fan of Bernie Sannders. When you’re a pastor in the United Methodist Church you’re already exposed to more self-righteousness than you can take.

     I’m not a Bernie fan; I only have room in my life for one socialist Jew.

I’m no Bernie fan but what caught my attention about this story wasn’t what Saunders said to Vought but what Christians said in response to Sanders, to Bernie’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention pointed to the Bible: “Christians don’t believe that we are constructing our faith. We believe that it’s been handed to us by God.”

Okay. That’s true.

Still Christians bypassed the creeds and pointed to the Constitution and the manner in which Bernie’s religious prejudice violated the Constitution’s religious protection.

Again, that’s true even if it’s a tepid Christian response.

Vought himself said he believes “that all individuals are made in the image of God and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their religious beliefs.”

That’s vanilla and generic but still, it’s correct.

But I’m surprised those were the only types of answers offered by Christians.

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     “Do you think that people who are not Christians stand condemned? I’m a Jew, do you believe I am condemned as well?”

Bernie asked.

And of course, the simple answer, the straight-up answer, the direct and unambiguous answer, the Gospel which Russell Vought and Russell Moore and Pope Francis and Mother Theresa and the Apostle Paul all proclaim-

the answer is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned. Yes, they stand condemned.

And so do I.

I stand condemned.

(And so do you.)

     These days there’s a lot of talk about the decline of churches in America.

But maybe we should be more concerned with the decline in church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel.

Or maybe the latter produces the former. Maybe the church has waned alongside church members’ ability to articulate the Gospel message that all of us- all of us- stand condemned.

All have sinned.

Not one of us is righteous- Jew, Muslim, Christian; Religious or Secular- not one of is right in God’s eyes by anything we do or believe.

No matter what Bernie thinks, that’s not an exclusive belief; you literally cannot get more inclusive than the Gospel message that all of us are sinners.

All stand condemned.

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The Apostle Paul continues his argument by widening his frame here in Romans 5.

In order to comprehend fully that your justification is not about anything you do, Paul needs you to understand that ‘sin’ is about more than something you do and accrue.

Sin, Paul wants you to see, is a Power with a capital P.

It’s Sin, Paul wants you to grasp, with a capital S.

Paul doesn’t use the word sin as a verb, as something we do.

Sin is instead the subject of verbs.

Paul speaks of Sin not as something we do but as a Something that does- not simply an act we commit but as an Agency that conscripts. and implicates every last one of us, religious and irreligious.

First, Paul personifies all of us, the entire human community, as Adam, but then notice how Paul mirrors that by personifying Sin and Death- personifying them as reigning monarchs:

Sin won lordship over all humanity and Death came through Sin, and so Death advanced through all the world like an invading army.

You see, Death for Paul is not natural nor is it the punishment that follows Adam’s sin.

Death, for Paul, is a partner with Sin- Sin with a capital S- and it’s not until the end of his letter to the Romans that you discover both Sin and Death are synonymous for him with the Power of Satan.

Sin, Death, Satan- they’re all interchangeable terms.

Death, for Paul, is a rival anti-god Power that snuck into God’s creation through Adam’s disobedience.

Sin and Death, for Paul, are Pharaohs that enslave us.

Actually instead of Pharaoh the word Paul uses is kurios.

It’s the same word Paul uses to refer to Jesus here in Romans 5:

Just as Sin exercised lordship in Death, so Grace might also exercise lordship through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Kurios.

The lordship of Sin and Death vs. the lordship of Jesus Christ: it’s an intentional contrast.

What Paul wants you to see is that the Gospel is about a battle between contending Powers, a Power that would bind us versus a Power that would set us free.

And if that language sounds primitive and mythological to you, then talk to an alcoholic or someone addicted to drugs or porn or racism.

Talk to someone whose family is stuck perpetuating generations of abuse and antagonism.

I’ve been here long enough to know there are folks like that all around you this morning.

They’ll tell you: Paul’s ‘mythological’ language matches real world experience.

You don’t even need to believe in a literal, historical ‘Adam’ to nod your head to Paul here because the truth of what Paul writes here in Romans 5 is all over the headlines: from Columbine to Sandy Hook to Steve Scalise this week.

What better way to explain it than to say, like Paul, Sin is an enslaving lord that holds all of us captive, such that we cannot improve ourselves much less deliver ourselves.

When Christ comes into the world, he comes into occupied territory, and when you come into the world you do too.

All of us are sinners because none of us can choose to live elsewhere.

We’re all slaves to the Power of Sin.

But we’re accomplices too.

We’re captives, that’s true, but we’re culpable as well.

We’re culpable too.

Again, the truth of that is all over the headlines:

Columbine – Sandy Hook – Monroe Avenue.

Michael Brown – Sandra Bland – Philando Castile.

Ground Zero – Paris – Orlando – Nice – London

A Power that is not God has got us.

But we’re guilty too.

All of us. All stand condemned.

Just so it sinks in, Paul repeats it 7 times in chapter 5.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over: one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all. 

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During Russell Vought’s Senate confirmation hearing, Bernie kept getting on his soapbox to ask Russell Vought what he believed about other religions, as though Christianity is but one religion among many in America.

But there’s where Bernie’s wrong because if you understand Paul’s message, then you understand that Christianity, at its core, is not religious at all.

Look it up in the dictionary. The definitions of religion are all about us. The definitions of religion are all about what we do to seek God: belief and prayer and practice.

Disciplines we use to connect to God.

But Paul’s message is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Paul’s whole irreligious point here is summed up in God’s first words after Adam’s sin: “Adam, where are you?”

The simple answer to Bernie’s question is ‘Yes.’

Yes, you stand condemned.

And so do I.

As all are in Adam, under the lordship of Sin and Death, all stand condemned.

But to leave the answer there is to mistake Paul’s message of justification for something we do.

Because of one man’s sin, all stand condemned…But, Paul says- Paul’s big buts always signal the good news- another man’s rectification of that sin means life for all. 

In Adam all stand condemned, but through the obedience that is the blood of the New Adam, God declares all of us ‘Not Guilty.’

That’s good news.

But it’s only part of it.

The Christian hope, Paul’s Gospel, the good news of justification is even bigger.

It’s the news that in Jesus Christ God has appeared in enemy territory not simply to forgive but to free.

Not only does this free gift of God in Jesus Christ make you no longer culpable, if you trust it- if you but put your faith in it- it can make you no longer captive as well.

     “Not guilty” are just the first two words of this good news.

     Because the righteous blood of Jesus Christ exchanged for your own not only acquits you of your culpability in the ultimate courtroom.

It can, if you put your trust in it, set you on the path to be freed.

Freed from the bonds of the Captor, whom Paul calls here: Sin and Death.

The Gospel isn’t just that in Jesus Christ you have been declared “Not Guilty.” The Gospel is that you can be declared Not You.

The Gospel is that in Jesus Christ, in Jesus Christ alone, in Jesus Christ our only Savior, you can become a New You.

By faith.

And that’s where Bernie might not like my answer, but I know it to be true, not only because the Bible tells me so but because I’ve seen it for myself.

You will never be a new you on your own.

On your own, every new you will turn out to be another old Adam.

Jesus Christ is the only New Adam able to create a new humanity, in his story your stories of guilt and shame, your cracks and your captivity can be re-narrated. Re-told.

Receive this free gift in faith and the other half of the Gospel is yours:

You can be re-made.

Not just forgiven but set free.

Not only justified but rectified.

     Bernie won’t like the rest of the answer.

     But there is only one Savior because there is only one- only one- who was not born into the dominion of Adam, into the lordship of Sin and Death.

Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I’ve repeated these last weeks, I believe the Gospel creates communities where there is neither Republican nor Democrat. The Church, however, is political in that it subverts the politics of the day by refusing the either/or dichotomy found in our politics. Like the community we call Trinity, the Church is a community of both difference and peace, which is an ongoing–and not always easy–process that Paul calls the discipline of reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a discipline that requires the habit of listening to those with whom you disagree.

To that end, I offer this challenging reflection from my friend David Fitch, professor at Northern Seminary in Chicago and a theological brother from another mother. David is the author of the new, damn fine book Faithful Presence: Seven Disciplines that Shape the Church for Mission. Get it here. No, really, get it now.

I think it’s a peculiarly relevant critique given that abortion is the particular issue on which many conservative Christians rationalized their vote for a candidate whose character would have otherwise disqualified him among those very people.

What if many Christians voted for Donald Trump hoping for a pro-life administration, yet Donald Trump will always be more pro abortion than President Obama?

Here’s David’s piece:

“To change behavior by law has never been the Christian way. A country may be preserved by laws but cannot be redeemed by them. The law has limited effect.

Even Luther and Calvin agreed on the law’s limits. Evangelical protestants (of which I am one) who claim we are saved by faith not by works would also seem to agree. Instead, people are challenged by culture, a way of life, by examples of a life well lived, not being told what they can and cannot do.

This we hope leads to a saving faith, not mere comformity to rules. There is nothing remotely pro-life/anti-abortion about a nation that legally prohibits abortion but promotes a culture that sexualizes and abuses women. It is this sexualizing misogynous culture that promotes abortion.

This is why I have never taken lightly the way the way a leader lives his/her life morally before a country (I couldn’t support Clinton).

Ultimately President Trump, even though he appoints a pro-life judge, is a pro-abortion president.

By his example (the locker room talk, the groping-and maybe assault, the sexualizing of women, the multiple divorces, the misogynous comments toward women, the multiple scandals) he promotes a sexualizing-of-women culture through his own example and the people around him.

The most pro-life thing Donald Trump could do is visibly repent of his behaviors before a listening nation.

You can have all the laws in the world, but if the (young) men of this culture see that these are the values that ‘successful men’ in USA live, the Trump presidency is a complete failure on the pro-life issue.

He is ultimately more pro-abortion, less pro-life, than President Obama ever was. And for this I grieve.”

With The Donald in the White House provoking moral outrage and righteous indignation in degrees that are both justified and knee-jerk partisan, I hear a lot of my clergy colleagues talking about how they plan to be prophetic in the pulpit.

Listeners to our podcast, particularly our Fridays with Fleming episodes, will know this to be a horse I’ve beaten to Walking Dead level evisceration, but, nonetheless, the fervor of the cultural moment demands repetition.

Stanley Hauerwas says when Methodists use the word ‘grace’ they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The word suffers from overuse (especially among pastors who like to think their battles with stubborn, unenlightened, wayward laity are somehow analogous with John the Baptist’s ministry).

The same could be said for the word ‘prophetic’ when it comes to preachers and their preaching.

Before The Donald provoked outrage at an hourly tweeted rate, in my own Christian tribe, United Methodism, I most often heard ‘the need to be prophetic’ in relation to the tradition’s language about sexuality.

Too many preachers, and I count myself among them, have felt the burden or compulsion to be prophetic in their preaching role.

So common is this compulsion it’s curious that those who God has actually called to be prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos et al) comprise a relatively small- and unpensioned- group of the human community.

If theology should be done on the slant from the pulpit, then I think prophetic preaching should be done on an even slighter slant.

The prophetic should be used sparingly in the pulpit, if at all.

The danger of confusing the preacher’s own hubris with God’s will is too great.

So is the danger of giving a particular issue greater attention than is warranted.

As is the risk of inflaming your congregation unnecessarily.

Very often, what seems to necessitate prophetic preaching in the moment recedes in urgency with the passage of time.

Just as often, the rough, unspoken translation of ‘being prophetic’ actually means ‘My congregation isn’t as theologically sophisticated as me.’

Still more often, preachers claim the mantle of ‘being prophetic’ when, in reality, they’re wrapping themselves in the red and blue dross of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Rather than a word received from the Lord and offered only grudgingly, it becomes a word derived from the preacher’s own worldview, which he or she is more than eager to put forward.

Back to Hauerwas (and I suppose Karl Barth): in a world that knows not God, the most prophetic thing we can do as Christians is to gather together in worship of God, to hear the Word read and proclaimed, and to be sent out in loyalty to a homeless, dead Jew we proclaim as raised from the dead. Our Risen Lord who resides on neither Penn Ave nor Wall Street.

In confusing ‘being prophetic’ for simply being political, we preachers forget that our confession of the Lordship of Christ is already and ultimately a political act more interesting than anything followed by a #resist hashtag. And because Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, it’s a more impactful political act as well.

It’s more real.

Back to Barth again, here’s the crux of the prophetic problem –

 The very grammar of choosing to be prophetic is to misspeak the language we call Christian.

The posture of prophetic conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense, rendering God passive (or dead) and the preacher the only active agent. 

Contrary to the pretense at “prophetic preaching” scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself.

To say that God is at work in the world is to say, for Christians,                       the Word of God is at work in the world.

Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. As followers of a Risen, Living Lord we as preachers can never *choose* to be prophetic. Rather, we can only find ourselves, by way of hindsight, to have been chosen by the Word of God, the Risen Christ to be used in a prophetic manner.

To say ‘I’m going to be prophetic this Sunday’ is to say, knowingly or not, that the Word is not Risen and the Living(?) God no longer elects to speak in freedom.

We can never choose to be prophetic, even for the most faithful of intentions, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive, encountering us, calling us, transforming us, and choosing to speak.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ upon which we can pitch our partisan tent. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us and from which the Risen Word elects to speak to us today. You can’t ‘choose’ to be prophetic in the pulpit. You can only see in hindsight and,  like Jeremiah, lament that God has so used you.

Like the community we call Trinity, I believe the Church is constituted by the sacraments in order to be a community of both difference and peace. I believe the Church is called not to make the world a better place but to be the better place God has already made in the world. I believe the Church is that better place when our differences about the kingdom we call America are transcended by the Kingdom to which we’re called in Christ, when we’re a place where there is neither Democrat nor Republican for we are all one in Christ.

It would be naive to suppose the local church can be a community of such character without intentionality.

Surely a requisite step to becoming a community of difference and peace is to (peaceably) listen to those who are different from you.

Last week here on the blog I posted a pastoral letter we emailed out to my congregation regarding the executive order on refugees. Nearly 1,000 people read the letter, almost a 50% read rate. Of those who responded to it, 81% were positive and affirming while 19% were negative or critical (or, to be no-bullshitting-honest, xenophobic).

Among the critical responses, I received the rebuttal below from someone I consider myself lucky to count a friend, someone who works in politics professionally.

As much as I think many Trump supporters need to get out of their echo chamber, I think progressive Christians right now would be well-served to hear how their cries of outrage are heard by conservative Christians.

In the spirit of aspiring to be that better place that is Christ’s fellowship of differents, I post it here so the cloud of witnesses on this issue has more than one blue hue:

1. Your letter to the congregation took a great deal of effort and perspective and risk and I appreciate that, not only from a detached theological perspective but from a personal one as well.

2.  I am of course pissed you wrote it now because we didn’t do this kind of thing when the previous President legitimized the most murderous regime in the world. Or when he put two supreme court justices who have a callous disregard for human life. Or when we allowed Christians and Yazidis to be slaughtered in Syria AND THEN REFUSED TO ADMIT THEM AS REFUGEES. (True story…you know how many Syrian Christians Obama admitted as refugees at the height of the crisis? Look it up. It’s under 500. And Christians are 10% of the population.)

Why do we now feel like this is the first time in this decade we need to weigh in? (this is a rhetorical question – I realize the pressure in your profession is immense, internal and external, and I truly do appreciate the risks you are taking, as is.)

3. I think a deeper pause is necessary than most protestant organizations, including Southern Baptists, have given on the refugee EO. There is no refugee “ban.” Read the EO itself. It is a 90 day pause, for seven countries – with “countries” being an incredibly generous use of the term to describe Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya since the term “country” would imply a functioning government.

Throughout our history political refugees have been people who were clearly fleeing oppression from a center of government power, but in none of those cases except Iran does any center of power exist on a consistent basis. IT IS POSSIBLE that after 90 days the President proposes something that is completely unacceptable.

But it is also possible that the “extreme vetting” his career state department bureaucrats will design will be a real improvement on the disastrous situation we have today, with not enough vetting, or the wretched European system of no vetting whatsoever to decipher refugee from jihadist.

WHY SHOULD WE, ALL DENOMINATIONS, HAVE VOMIT HATE TOWARD OUR NEIGHBORS DOWN THE STREET over a policy that is not even designed yet, much less implemented?

I realize that the issuance of an executive order on a Friday  night, with confusing language about green cards holders which was easily misunderstood by customs agents worldwide does not inspire confidence that these new procedures will be good. But they are not even yet in existence. And let’s all be honest that our current system is a disaster – with Yazidis and Christians slaughtered in Syria because they are too afraid of lax security in United Nations camps that they decided to stick it out and take their chances in their homes against ISIS than be raped under the auspices of UN protocols, waiting helplessly for an Obama administration that was doing nothing meaningful to get them out of harm’s way.

4. The failure to acknowledge that the pain and suffering and atrocities around the world due to US policies did not begin on January 20, 2017 is perhaps the most irritating thing about all these protests and whining and self-righteous calls to “stand for justice.”

Where have these people been? Why are they suddenly triggered? What makes the PhD students stuck in the Dusseldorf airport more sympathetic than the Yazidi woman raped because we wouldn’t enforce a redline we drew our own damn selves?

The idea of the novelty of the outrage is just too much to take. Plenty of us have been outraged for years and we did not take to the streets to try and tear our culture asunder as a result, or accuse those in the next pew of being unChristian.

The Left, and the professional clergy corporately, sure are not affording those of us on the Right the same presumption of purity of motive that many of us (most of the time) gave them – or at a minimum the same civility.

The glaring lack of that makes me appreciate your efforts at balance more.

The other day marked the Baptism of the Lord on the liturgical calendar, reminding me of how 10 Years ago I was at a funeral home in Lexington, Virginia for the visitation hours of a funeral I would celebrate the next day.  As I usually do at funeral homes, I wore my clergy collar, which costumes me, to Christians and non-Christians alike, as a Catholic priest. When you’re a pastor, visiting hours at a funeral home are nearly as painful as parties or wedding receptions. There you are, trapped in a room full of strangers who desperately do not want to talk to a professional Christian.

Even worse are the people who do, and you’re forced to plaster a fake smile on your face as someone tells you about the latest Joel Osteen book. So there I was, making the rounds, making small talk, when this middle-aged man in a too-tight polo shirt and a Dale Earnhardt belt buckle, shook my hand, called me ‘Padre’ and then proceeded to ask me if I had read Dan Brown’s latest bestseller, The Da Vinci Code.

“No, I haven’t read it” I lied. “What’s it about?”

He went on to tell me in breathless tones the now familiar fantasy that “the real Gospel message” was politically subversive and had been suppressed by the Church and by Caesar, that the Gospels as we know them are redactions, edited to support the status quo and consolidate the authority of the Empire.

“Sounds fascinating” I lied.

“Oh, it is- and the truth is kept from people today by a secret group called Opus Dei, ever heard of them?”

“Heard of them?” I whispered. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m actually a member.”

“Well, then you should definitely read it” he said without a trace of irony.

“Tell me,” I asked, “have you actually read the Gospels?”

He didn’t blush.

He just said: “I’ve seen the Mel Gibson movie.”

Nonetheless, he wasn’t entirely incorrect.

 

Jesus was/is political. Jesus was/is subversive. Jesus was/is revolutionary. You don’t get sent to a cross for being a spiritual teacher or saving souls for eternal life.

He was wrong though to imagine this subversive message is not to be found in the Gospels. It’s all over the Gospels, from beginning to end. That’s why Christians were persecuted for hundreds of years.

For example-

Take Mark 1, Jesus’ baptism the story on the liturgical calendar this week. As Jesus comes up out of the water, Mark says the sky tears violently apart and the Holy Spirit appears as a dove and descends into Jesus. Now remember, Mark’s writing to people who knew their scripture by memory. And so when Mark identifies the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects you to know that no where in the Old Testament is the Spirit ever depicted as such.

Instead Mark expects you to remember that the image of a dove is from the Book of Genesis, where God promises never to redeem his creation through violence. Mark expects you to know that applying the image of a dove to the Holy Spirit means something new and different. And keep in mind, Mark’s Gospel wasn’t composed for us but for the first Christians, still living right after Jesus’ death in the Empire.

 So when Mark depicts the Holy Spirit as a dove, he expects those first Christians to think immediately of another, different bird.

The Romans, Mark assumes you know, symbolized the strength and ferocity of their Kingdom with the King of the birds: the eagle.

     It’s right there: Dove vs Eagle.

A collision of kingdoms- that’s what Mark wants you to see. 

     And that’s not all.

Because the very next verse has God declaring: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well-pleased.’ 

That’s a direct quotation from Psalm 2, a psalm that looks forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, who would topple rulers from their thrones and be enthroned himself over all the kingdoms of this world.

Mark expects you to know Psalm 2.

Just as Mark assumes you know that the prophet Isaiah quotes it too when God reveals to him that the Messiah will upend kingdoms not through violence but through self-giving love.

Mark shows you a Dove.

And Mark tells you Beloved Son.

And then after his baptism, the very first words out of Jesus’ mouth are about the arrival of a new kingdom, God’s Kingdom.

And next, the very first thing Jesus does is what any revolutionary does, he enlists followers to that Kingdom. Not soldiers but the poor.

Skeptics will tell you that you can’t trust the gospels because the radical, revolutionary message of the “historical” Jesus isn’t there, that it’s been expunged. That the Gospels you have have been rendered safe and sanitized for the status quo.

But from the very first chapter of Mark all the way through to the first Christian confession of faith- ‘Jesus Christ is Lord (and Caesar is not)-’ the Gospel is politically subversive from beginning to end.

As Paul says, Jesus’ obedience to God’s Kingdom, all the way to a cross, unmasked the kingdoms of this world for what they really are and, in so doing, Christ disarmed them.

Those who choose to believe the political message of the gospels has been expunged or obscured make the mistake of assuming that the only revolution with the power to threaten the status quo and change the world is a violent one.

 

The Politics of Jesus

Jason Micheli —  November 14, 2016 — 1 Comment

6a00d8341fcbf753ef017ee4cfb7c0970dHere’s my sermon from our Saturday evening worship service. At the last minute, given the cultural climate post-election, I chose Mark 12.13-17 as my text. 

For the last 18 months, according to the Principalities and Powers, this Tuesday’s election was supposed to be the most important event in our lifetimes if not in history, an odd and hyperbolic claim for Christians to accept given that the only democratic election portrayed in the Gospels is when we choose Barrabbas over Jesus.

Christians are right to be passionate about the candidates and causes for whom they advocated; likewise, Christians are right to feel somewhere between fearful to righteously appalled over the rhetoric with which Tuesday’s results were purchased.

 Still, as divided as we are as a country, as euphoric as some are over Tuesday’s results and as distraught as others are over Tuesday’s results-

it’s hard to imagine Christians in the first century were so preoccupied as us with whether it would be Nero or Britannicus who would succeed the Emperor Claudius.

That’s because Christians in the first century already were shorn of the mythologies into which we as American Christians have been enculturated. Many of us have been conditioned by the liturgies of Civil Religion to believe that America is the Kingdom and to believe, as a matter of consequence, that the Republican and Democratic parties are mutually exclusive means to serve that Kingdom.

The first Christians knew, as a fundamental of their, what we do not. They knew as basic correlative of their confession that Rome was not the Kingdom.

And knowing that Rome was not the Kingdom, the first Christians knew better than we that the politics made available to them by Rome were not God’s politics.

But rather in world captive to the politics called empire, God had taken flesh and sent his Spirit in order to make a different politics possible- the politics we call Church.

     The Church doesn’t have a politics; as Stanley Hauerwas says, the Church is a politics. 

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    The way Jesus negotiates the question put to him in Mark 12 clarifies that statement: The Church doesn’t have a politics; the Church is a politics.

Before I continue, I should point out that Jesus gets crucified right after today’s passage. If I can just do better than Jesus, I’ll be happy.

Given our hyper-partisan culture, if we can all just take a deep breath, if you can just trust me for the next few minutes, and if we can make it, in Jesus’ name, to the end of the sermon together- if we can just do that then Aldersgate Church will be like a light to the nation, like a city shining on a hill.

To insure I don’t end up, like Jesus, on a cross at the end of this scripture, I want to be as simple and straightforward as I can today. No jokes, no inspiring stories and absolutely no personal opinions- you have my word on that.

I just want to open up today’s scripture passage, unpack it for you and then offer you one clear, bipartisan recommendation that I believe comes out of this scripture.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we or shouldn’t we? Yes or no?” 

The first thing this passage makes unavoidable is that Jesus is political. It’s not that he’s not.

I know some of you have a Joel Osteen notion of Christianity: that Christianity is a private religion of the heart, and Jesus is about spiritual things. The only problem with that kind of Christianity is that it requires a bible other than the one God has given us.

Mary’s pregnancy begins with her singing of how her in-utero Messiah will one day topple rulers from their thrones and send the rich away with nothing.

Jesus kicks off his ministry by declaring the Year of Jubilee: the forgiveness of all monetary debt.

And for 3 years, Jesus teaches about the Kingdom of God and, because Jesus was a Jew, he didn’t have pearly gates in mind. He was talking about the here and now.

Jesus is political.

The Gospel story begins by telling you about a tax levied by Caesar Augustus to make the Jews pay for their own subjugation. The Gospel story ends with Pilate killing Jesus- on what charges? On charges of claiming to be a rival king and telling his followers not to pay the tax to Caesar.

The tax in question was the Roman head tax, levied for the privilege of being a Roman citizen. The head tax could only be paid with the silver denarius from the imperial mint.

The denarius was the equivalent of a quarter.

So it’s not that the tax was onerous.

It was offensive.

One side of the coin bore the image of the emperor, Caesar Tiberius, and on the other side was the inscription: ‘Caesar Tiberius, Son of God, our Great, High Priest.’ Carrying the coin broke the first and most important commandment: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ 

And because it broke the commandments, the coin rendered anyone who carried it ritually unclean.

It couldn’t be carried into the Temple, which is why money changers set up shop on the Temple grounds to profit off the Jews who needed to exchange currency before they worshipped.

You see how it works?

      “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

     What they’re really asking, here, is about a whole lot more than taxes. But to see that, to see what they’re really asking, you’ve got to dig deeper in to the passage. Today’s passage takes place on the Tuesday before the Friday Jesus dies.

On the Sunday before this passage, Jesus rides into Jerusalem to a king’s welcome.

On Monday, the day before this passage, Jesus ‘cleanses’ the Temple. Jesus has a temper tantrum, crashing over all the cash registers of the money changers and animal sellers and driving them from the Temple grounds with a whip. And that’s when they decide to kill Jesus.

Why?

To answer that question, you need to know a little history.

200 years before today’s passage, Israel suffered under a different empire, a Greek one. And during that time, there was a guerrilla leader named Judas Maccabeus. He was known as the Sledgehammer. The Sledgehammer’s father had commissioned him to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to (pay attention) pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.” 

So Judas the Sledgehammer rode into Jerusalem with an army of followers to a king’s welcome. He promised to bring a new kingdom. He symbolically cleansed the Temple of Gentiles, and he told his followers not to pay taxes to their oppressors.

Judas Maccabeus, the Sledgehammer, got rid of the Greek Kingdom only to turn around and sign a treaty with Rome. He traded one kingdom for another just like it.

But not before Judas the Sledgehammer becomes the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.

That was 200 years before today’s passage.

About 25 years before today’s passage, when Jesus was just a kindergartner, another Judas, this one named after that first Sledgehammer, Judas the Galilean- he called on Jews to refuse paying the Roman head tax. With an armed band he rode into Jerusalem to shouts of ‘hosanna,’ he cleansed the Temple. And then he declared that he was going to bring a new kingdom with God as their King. Judas the Galilean was executed by Rome.

You see what’s going on?

Jesus the Galilean has been teaching about the Kingdom for 3 years. He’s ridden into Jerusalem to a Messiah’s welcome. He’s just cleansed the Temple and driven out the money changers. The only thing left for Jesus the Sledgehammer to do is declare a revolution. That’s why the Pharisees and Herodians trap Jesus with a question about this tax:

           Jesus, do you want a revolution or not? is the real question.

     Come down off the fence Jesus.

Which side are you on?

Politics makes for strange bedfellows.

For the Pharisees and the Herodians to cooperate on anything is like the Republicans nominating a lifelong Democrat to be their nominee. And that’s not even an exaggeration because the Pharisees and the Herodians were the two political parties of Jesus’ day.

The Sadducees were theological opponents of Jesus. But the Pharisees and the Herodians were first century political parties. The Pharisees and the Herodians were the Left and the Right political options.

And instead of Donkeys and Pachyderms, you can think Swords and Sledgehammers.

The Herodians were the party that supported the current administration. They thought government was good. Rome, after all, had brought roads, clean water, sanitation, and- even if it took a sword- Rome had brought stability to Israel. The last thing the Herodians wanted was a revolution, and if Jesus says that’s what he’s bringing, they’ll march straight off to Pilate and turn him in.

The Pharisees were the party that despised the current administration. The Pharisees were bible-believing observers of God’s commandments. They believed a coin with Caesar’s image and ‘Son of God’ printed on it was just one example of how the administration forced people of faith to compromise their convictions.

The Pharisees wanted regime change. They wanted another Sledgehammer. They wanted a revolution. They just didn’t want it being brought by a 3rd Party like Jesus, who’d made a habit of pushing their polls numbers down.

And so, if Jesus says he’s not bringing a revolution, the Pharisees will get what they want: because all of Jesus’ followers will think Jesus wasn’t really serious about this Kingdom of God stuff, and they’ll write him off and walk away.

That’s the trap.

     “Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Is it or isn’t it?’ 

     If Jesus says no, it will mean his death.

If Jesus says yes, it will mean the death of his movement.

Taxes to Caesar or not, Jesus?

Which is it going to be? The Sword or the Sledgehammer?

Which party do you belong to?

You’ve got to choose one or the other.

What are your politics Jesus?

Jesus asks for the coin.

And then he asks the two political parties: ‘Whose image is on this?’  And the Greek word Jesus uses for image is ‘eikon,’ the same word from the very beginning of the bible when it says that you and I were created to be ‘eikons of God.’ Eikons of Caesar. Eikons of God.

Jesus looks at the coin and he says ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but give to God what is God’s.’ 

But even then it’s not that simple or clear because the word Jesus uses for ‘give’ isn’t the same word the two parties used when they asked their question. When the Pharisees and Herodians asked their question, they’d used a word that means ‘give,’ as in ‘to present a gift.’ But when Jesus replies to their question, he changes the word.

Instead Jesus the very same word Judas the Sledgehammer had used 200 years earlier. Jesus says: ‘Pay back to Caesar what he deserves and pay back to God what God deserves.’ 

    You see how ambivalent Jesus’ answer is?

What does a tyrant deserve? His money? Sure, it’s got his picture on it. He paid for it. Give it back to him.

But what else does Caesar deserve? Resistance? You bet.

And what does God deserve from you?

Everything.

Everything.

Jesus is saying is: ‘You can give to Caesar what bears his image, but you can’t let Caesar stamp his image on you because you bear God’s image.’ 

Jesus is saying you can give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.

But you can’t give to Caesar, you can’t give to the Nation, you can’t give to your Politics, you can’t give to your Ideology, you can’t give to your Party Affiliation-

you can’t give to those things, what they ask of you:

ultimate allegiance.

You see, like a good press secretary, Jesus refuses the premise of their question. The Pharisees and the Herodians assume a 2-Party System.  They assume it’s a choice between the kingdom they have now. Or another kingdom not too different. They assume the only choice is between the Sledgehammer or the Sword.

But like a good politician, Jesus refuses their either/or premise. He won’t be put in one their boxes. He won’t choose sides. Because Jesus the Galilean was leading a different kind of revolution than Judas the Galilean.

A revolution not with a sword or a sledgehammer.

But with a cross.

Jesus refuses to accept their premise.

Because his movement wasn’t about defeating his opponents. His movement was about dying for his opponents.

And that’s a politics that qualifies and complicates every other politics.

—————-

     If you’re like me, social media has been a good and uplifting use of your time this week.

The Bible has a word for the red and blue rhetoric we’ve posted and tweeted and liked and shared this week.

Idolatry.

And for some of you, left and right, this is a serious spiritual problem.

So here’s my one, simple bipartisan post-election prescription. It’s one I think we can all agree upon and I think it’s one that might actually do some public good:

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself.

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

Don’t put Jesus in a box. Don’t make Jesus choose sides. Don’t put a sword or a sledgehammer, an elephant or a donkey, in Jesus’ hands.

Don’t say Jesus is for this Party. Don’t say this is the Christian position on this issue. Don’t say faithful Jesus followers must back this agenda or demonize those who disagree.

Because we all know it’s more complicated than that. Because we’re more complicated than 140 characters and 30 second soundbites. And so is the Gospel.

     Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

I mean, this might be an epiphany newsflash for some of you, but you can find good, faithful, sincere, bible-believing, Jesus-following Christians everywhere all along the political spectrum.

You know how I know that? You’re sitting in front of me.

But what you must not do is insist that Jesus is for this or that politics.

    Jesus wouldn’t do that to himself so why are you doing it to him? 

You’re mixing up God and Caesar.

You’re making Jesus fit your politics instead of conforming your politics to Jesus.

You’re committing idolatry, using your ultimate allegiance to bless and baptize your earthly opinions.

Don’t do to Jesus what Jesus wouldn’t do to himself. 

Because when you do-

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes too easy to believe that the problems in the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what the Gospel says: that the problem in the world is what’s in here (the heart) in all of us.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, it becomes harder and harder to like your neighbor and it becomes impossible to love your enemy.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection kicked off isn’t a Kingdom that any political party can ever create.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom launched by Jesus’ death and resurrection is a Kingdom:

where trespasses are forgiven, gratis;

where grace is offered, free of charge;

where enemies are prayed for on a weekly basis;

where peace isn’t a soundbite but a practice;

where money is shared without debate so that the poor would be filled; where our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this Table together.

When you do to Jesus what he wouldn’t do to himself, you forget that the Kingdom Jesus brings is you.

Us. The Church.

We’re Jesus’ politics.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

—————–

In case you missed it, here’s our Post Election Live Edition of Friday’s with Fleming (Rutledge):

The Gospel in Strings

Jason Micheli —  October 17, 2016 — 1 Comment

6a00d8341fcbf753ef017ee4cfb7c0970dFor the text this weekend from 2 Timothy 2.8-15, I invited a string quartet to participate in the sermon. It was a craptastic disaster in the Saturday evening service, but I think it could turned out nicely by Sunday morning.

I owe a debt to John Nugent for his podcast with me recently and for his new book Endangered Gospel. Both the categories the quartet helped me explicate as well the bite at the end I owe to him.

     I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation who was so kind and so thoughtful, so considerate, to add my name and my contact information to the mass email list of Donald J. Trump.

Thanks to you, ever since last Friday’s hot mic Access Hollywood video, I’ve received approximately 7 emails a day imploring me to do my Christian duty (in $50 installments) to bring America back from the apocalyptic precipice on which it stands and make it great again.

I’d like to dedicate this sermon to that special someone here in the congregation was kind enough and thoughtful enough, considerate really, to add my name and my contact information to the “Christians for Hillary” distribution list.

Thanks to you, ever since the convention, I’ve received approximately 12 emails per week rousing me to my Christian responsibility to protect the greatness of America from the apocalyptic specter of Donald Trump occupying the White House.

This sermon is for you too.

This sermon is for that precious parishioner here in the congregation who, every day, forwards me exhortations and editorials from Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, articles arguing that as a Christian I have an obligation to seek social justice, fight poverty and fight for a fair wage, combat racism and xenophobia, protect the rights of women and homosexuals, and reverse global warming.

This sermon is for all of you who’ve made it possible that not a day goes by in the life of your pastor that you don’t share something on my Facebook Timeline about Donald Trump, Michelle Obama, Chris Christie, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence, Jerry Falwell Jr., Planned Parenthood or the NRA urging me, as a faith leader, to fulfill my role to better society in blue or red hues.

This sermon is for that generous congregant who last fall, when I was still on medical leave, snagged me and my plus-one an invitation to an all-expenses-paid, clergy-only weekend retreat with Ted Cruz where, the invitation explained, we would strategize to restore God’s will for the nation.

And even though that sounds about as much fun as taking a bus full of 1st graders to Great Wolf Lodge for an alcohol free weekend- it was a thoughtful gesture. So this sermon’s for you too.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our democracy is hurting, our society is in danger, our nation in decline and believe that it’s our job as the Church to fix it.

This sermon is for all of you who think that our world is broken and think that it’s our responsibility as Christians to change it. To change the world, to make it a better place.

This sermon is for you.

Because when you think it’s our job as Christians to change the world, what’s really in danger isn’t the world, what’s in danger- what’s endangered- is the Gospel.

——————————

     Paul defines the Gospel in verse 8 of today’s text.

“Remember,” he says, “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David- that is my gospel.” 

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

Each of those elements in Paul’s definition of the Gospel they’re like instruments in a string quartet.

“Jesus” [Play Briefly]

     Jesus is the instrument that plays the salvation strand of the story; the name “Jesus” is shorthand for God takes flesh in Jesus and on the cross rescues us from captivity to the Sin of the world.

“Christ”  [Play Briefly]

     Christ means ‘Anointed One.’

In Hebrew, it’s Messiah. Rome used the word ‘Caesar.’ We translate it ‘King.’

“Christ” here in Paul’s definition of the Gospel is the instrument that plays the Kingdom strand of the scripture story, how God comes to us in Jesus as our rightful King and teaches his followers what it means to live as subjects of his Kingdom.

“Raised from the dead”  [Play Briefly]

     Raised from the dead is the instrument that plays the finale strand scripture, the New Age of which the New Testament says Christ’s resurrection is the first sign.

And the final instrument in Paul’s Gospel Music is“A descendant of David.”  [Play Briefly]

     David is the instrument that plays the Old Testament strand of the scripture story. David echoes how the Gospel is the outworking of God’s purposes first promised to the People called Israel.

Jesus.

Christ.

Resurrection.

David.

The Gospel is like a piece of music.

The reason there’s so much confusion over who we’re called to be and what we’re called to do is because for so long Christians have been fiddling with the music.

We turn some of the instruments way up and turn others way down, mute some and distort others to the point where we can no longer hear how, so often, the music we’re performing is something different from what the Author intends.

——————————

     One of the primary ways we distort the Gospel Music- we make it Heaven-Centered.

We turn the volume way, way up on Jesus and we turn the volume way down on Christ and David to the point that it throws Resurrection out of time with the others.

[Play]

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the Gospel Music is so loud it sounds like the entire composition is about nothing more than God taking flesh and taking our sin to the Cross.

The only notes anyone can hear from the David part of the music are the ones that show how Jesus’ death for sin fulfilled Old Testament prophecy.

But if that’s all you hear from David, you can no longer hear that even larger theme of how God desires to have a People here on Earth who would live with God as their Sovereign instead of following a king like all the other nations.

And you forget that that’s really what the 1st Commandment is all about: “You shall no other kings before me.”

And then you fail to notice that our rejection of Christ comes not on the Cross but when we declare to Pontus Pilate: “We have no king but Caesar.” 

When you turn Jesus way up and David way down, you no longer know why Jesus bothered to spend 3 years before his death and 50 days after it teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God.

In the Heaven-Centered Gospel, the Jesus part of the music blares so loudly, all you can hear is the noise about the world’s sinfulness. In such a world, what sense does it make to say that Jesus is King?

That’s why the Heaven-Centered Gospel turns the Christ part of the music so low it sounds like Jesus is just a King enthroned in our hearts.

Which distorts the fourth part of the music: Resurrection.

The Heaven-Centered Gospel so cranks up the volume on the fallenness of the world and so mutes God’s determination to rule this Earth, it makes the world sound disposable instead of a world where God is determined to have dominion.

And that distorts the Resurrection part of the music.

Because now, in the Heaven-Centered Gospel, what we hear isn’t that God will make this world a better place, body and soul. It’s the signal that God will take our souls from our earthly bodies and take them away to a better place.

This confused Gospel leads to confusion about who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this Gospel, who we are- we’re sinners redeemed by his death who will be rescued from this world upon our own.

We’re not called to fix society’s ills or change the world or make it a better place because the reality of Sin is such that only God can overcome Sin.

And, according to this distorted music, God’s way of overcoming the world’s Sin is to rescue the faithful from it to a better place.

All we’re called to do as Christians is to give people Jesus so that they too can go to a better place when they die.

——————————-

     Another way we distort the Gospel Music- instead of Heaven-Centered, we make it Human-Centered.

We keep David so it’s barely audible still, but we fiddle with the music so that now the volume on Jesus gets turned down low until all that noise about the sinfulness of humanity and the fallenness of the world fades away. And instead we ratchet up the Christ and Resurrection parts of the music.

[Play]

     in the Human-Centered Gospel, because you can barely hear the Jesus music, you forget that constant refrain of scripture: that our situation as sinners is such that only God can rectify what’s broken in us and in the world.

So Christ, in the Human-Centered Gospel, is no longer a King who triumphed over Evil, he’s a King who taught us how to eradicate evil in the world.

And with the Jesus music and all its noise about sinful humanity and a fallen world muted, it begins to sound as if we’re capable of making the world a better place.

Jesus’ Kingdom teaching begins to sound like a description of God’s politics, like it’s God’s blueprint for us to usher in the New Creation.

In the Human-Centered Gospel, the Kingdom, becomes our job. Christ began the work of the Kingdom and now it’s our task to bring it to completion.

Of course, you can’t fiddle with the Gospel Music this way without, again, neglecting the David part of the music. In the Human-Centered Gospel, the only audible notes from the David part of the music are those from the prophets, who preached about justice and mercy and learning war no more.

The problem with the Human-Centered Gospel is that it relies on an optimism about human progress that is contradicted by the violence of the last century and the first part of this one.

Again, confusion over the Gospel leads to a confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re agents of God’s Kingdom, partners with God.

And we’re called to fix the problems of the world, to make the world a better place according to God’s Kingdom vision.

——————————

     A third way we distort the Gospel music- we make it World-Centered.

In the World-Centered Gospel, we balance the Jesus and the Christ parts. But we turn the Resurrection part of the music so that it’s loudest of all and we make the David part of the music play only the first measure of its music over and over, the creation story.

[Play]

     In the World-Centered Gospel, you can finally properly hear about Christ’s Kingdom in tandem with the reality of Sin and how God is the only agent who can overcome it to fix this broken world.

In that regard, the World-Centered Gospel sounds better.

But because the World-Centered Gospel makes the Resurrection part of the music loudest of all, what we hear is that God made this world. God cares about this world. God will redeem this world and God’s People can play a role.

In the World-Centered Gospel, the Jesus music is loud enough that we don’t lose sight of our sinfulness or the world’s fallenness. So the World-Centered Gospel doesn’t tell us that it’s our job to build God’s Kingdom.

Only God can make this world a better place and that renewal began in Jesus Christ and God is, even now, bringing it to fruition.

We can’t bring the Kingdom of God or make this world a better place, but what we can do, according to the World-Centered Gospel, is go out into the world to join with God in what God is doing.

We can join movements and causes. We can work for justice and advocate for change, and wherever we participate in such work we point to the day when God will, once and for all, make this world a better place.

Confusion over the Gospel Music leads to confusion over who we are and what we’re called to do.

According to this distorted Gospel Music, who we are- we’re witnesses who point to what God is doing out there in the world.

And what we’re called to do is roll up our sleeves, get out from behind the walls of the Church and join God in making this world a better place.

The World-Centered Gospel sounds better, no doubt.

But there’s still too many dissonant notes.

For example-

Jesus never tells his disciples to venture beyond the walls of their community, Israel, and work to transform pagan society or make pagan governments more just.

And in Jesus’ Bible, the Old Testament, God commands Israel to care for the needy within Israel not outside of it.

Even in the Sermon on the Mount, with a crowd gathered to listen to him, Christ isn’t talking to the multitude. He’s speaking to his disciples. He’s not describing how the world is to live. He’s describing how they’re to live among the world.

Obviously, as good as the music sounds, it’s still not quite Gospel.

——————————

     The Gospel Music Paul wants you to hear is Kingdom-Centered.

David provides the music’s bottom.

[Play]

     David is the foundation but finally all four of the instruments play equally and together to create a single composition.

[Play]

     In the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, God created the world to be a very good place for his creatures but the sin of humanity corrupted God’s good creation.

So- this is the part you need to listen for- God’s solution to the Sin problem was to call a particular People.

God’s solution to Adam’s Fall was to raise up Abraham and to give him a family called Israel.

God called Israel to be an alternative in the world. God called his People to live a set apart way with God as their King.

And, through this particular People, God promised that the whole world would be blessed.

God didn’t explain how the world would be blessed through them.

God didn’t send them out into the world to bless it themselves.

God just promised that somehow through their life as God’s People would be a part of how God blesses the world.

What the Kingdom-Centered Gospel recovers that the other versions miss is that all along God’s plan to make this world a better place was by calling a People.

And according to the Kingdom-Centered Gospel, this is the plan God continues in Jesus. God sends Jesus to inaugurate a better place in and through a particular People.

Jesus takes on the sin of humanity not to judge humanity or to forgive humanity but to restore humanity because redeemed creatures are the first step in a renewed creation. As St. Paul says if anyone is in Jesus, he or she is part of a new creation.

Because the Kingdom-Centered Gospel remembers that those baptized into Jesus are new creatures for a new creation, it knows how to play the Christ part of the music correctly.

Because Christ isn’t King in Heaven nor in our hearts.

Christ’s Kingdom isn’t far off or in the not yet future.

Christ’s Kingdom teachings aren’t impossible ideals for an after life nor are they a blueprint for society and its civics.

No, what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel is able to hear in the music is that

from the beginning God’s plan to make this world a better place has always been through a particular People.

So if Christ is King then Christ’s People, his followers, the Church- they are his Kingdom.

The People of Christ- who are the children of Abraham- they are the Kingdom.

They are the Kingdom where lost sheep are sought and lost children welcomed and where sin is forgiven 70 x 7 times.

Like salt on food, like a pearl among swine, like a mustard seed on a mighty mountain, like a light among nations Christ’s People are in the wider world his Kingdom come on Earth, living as is in Heaven.

And that’s what the Kingdom-Centered Gospel gets right about the Resurrection part of the Gospel Music.

Because it’s not only that God raised Jesus from the dead to be a sign of God’s New Creation, it’s that Jesus raised up a Kingdom called Church who are themselves a sign.

New Creation isn’t something in the future for which we wait. New Creation isn’t something we work to achieve. And it’s not something God is doing out in the world that we must join outside of or apart from the People called Church.

The People called Church- they are what God is doing in the world.

The Church embodies, proclaims, and displays God’s future now, New Creation even within the Old, taking it on faith that, like yeast folded into dough, what God does in his People God will ultimately do for the world when Christ comes back in final victory.

——————————

      That’s the Gospel Music.

And today, I want to dedicate this song to all of you who forward me your political action emails, all of you who put Christian voter guides in my inbox, every one of you who make exhortative editorials on my Facebook Timeline, tweet me your take on the debate, and tell me in breathless tones that if we don’t support this agenda or back that candidate all hope for changing the world and making it a better place is lost.

This Gospel Music is for you.

Because if you listen close you’ll hear-

     As John Nugent says:

     The Gospel does not call us to change the world.

     The Gospel is how we are the change that God has already made in the world.

     The Gospel does not call us to fix the world’s problems.

     The Gospel is that we are God’s fix for the world.

Or we’re supposed to be.

But we can’t be who we’re called to be when we are more emotionally invested in our candidate than we are in our faith, know more about the issues than we do our scripture.

We can’t be who the Gospel say we are when we can recite the latest Real Clear Politics polling average but if someone called upon us to pray out loud we’d blush and stammer.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we can argue for or against the ins and outs of HR Bill 501, but we aren’t prepared to tell someone else what difference Jesus makes for how we live their lives.

We can’t be who we’re supposed to be when we’re willing to go door-to-door for Donald or Hillary but haven’t ever once invited someone to Church.

Now that I’m Executive Pastor and know what everyone gives, I know it’s a safe bet that the Democrats and Republicans get more of our money than does Christ’s Church.

And nothing reveals more where we think the stakes lie.

So I dedicate this Gospel Music today to you.

(And to me).

Because if, as the Gospel says, we are the change that God has already made in the world.

Then that means when we rush out into the world to fix the world’s problems, by joining this movement or supporting that cause, endorsing this candidate or that party, we actually risk getting in God’s way.

When we try to fix the world’s problems by other means- especially the red and blue means- we get in God’s way.

Because we’re supposed to be God’s fix for the world.

We are the change God has already made in the world.

Rather than legislating abortion, we’re supposed to be the People who adopt and foster children, who welcome and support mothers.

Rather than arguing about immigration and borders and walls, we’re supposed to be the People who welcome strangers and aliens.

While others fight over whether black lives matter or all lives matter, we’re supposed to be the Community where there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither white nor black nor blue.

Neither gay nor straight for that matter.

And, for that matter, rather than waging war for a seat on the Court we’re supposed to be the People who stay faithful to one another in marriage.

Instead of stalemating over economic policy, we should be the Community where none among us goes in need, where all that we have is shared with all whom we have in our community.

Let others debate our nation’s Defense policy and let us Christians be the People who refuse to kill other Christians because that would be a light to the nations.

I dedicate this Gospel Music to all of you who think we’re called to make this world a better place.

Listen to it again-

We’re not.

     We are called to be the better place that God as made in this world.

This song’s for you.

      [Play Whole Song]

 

fred-schmidt-h-copyWhy preachers ought not to be prophetic.

Why Election Day Communion services are a bad idea.

Fred Schmidt dishes on this and more in part one of our conversation.

Fred is the author of the Dave Test, Conversations with Scripture, and What God Wants for Your Life. He blogs at Patheos,  and is the professor of Spiritual Formation at Garrett Theological Seminary in Chicago.

Teer and I had a great time talking with Fred and I think it shows in our conversation.

Be on the lookout for future episodes that we’ve already got in the can: interviews with Fred Schmidt, Ian McFarland, Joseph Mangina, Kenneth Tanner, Fleming Rutledge, William Cavanaugh, Bishop Andy Doyle, and Poet/Undertake Thomas Lynch.

We’ve already got enough interviews lined up to take us into the new year.

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Original Sin

Jason Micheli —  September 23, 2016 — 2 Comments

160921160806-03-adam-rhew-charlotte-protests-large-169According to a congressman in North Carolina black protestors there in the South- in the South (in case you missed the emphasis: in the South) hate white people because white people are successful. That’s the real reason they’re angry. He’s since offered the boilerplate politico mea culpa that in the moment he said something he didn’t really mean, but we all know that it’s exactly in those moments, guard down and heart out, when we’re most likely to say what’s really on our mind.

According to police Keith Scott was carrying a gun and thus his shooting was justified because (dot, dot, dot) we all know a black man with a gun warrants suspicion.

According to social media, Terence Crutcher had his hands up and had his back to police to put his hands on his car when he was manslaughtered murdered so, Facebook friends testify, the officer involved must be a racist.

And then the many memes:

The Donald is a fraud. Hillary is a liar. Obama is a Manchurian President. Michelle hates America. Immigrants are rapists and Republicans are racist.

A third of us want to keep all Muslims out.

Another third want to flee to Canada if that third get their way, thinking about that third how the other third think about 3/3 of Muslims.

We’re everywhere projecting motives onto other people. Drawing lines. Culling into tribes. Rallying the righteous to our side. Pretending to know, by virtue of soundbites and campaign slogans and ticker tape summations and hot am air, who is good and who is evil.

The Christian reading of Genesis 1 is that original sin is occasioned by the tempter’s inducement for Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,* knowing good and evil.”

Christian interpretation typically fixes original sin onto the first clause in that last sentence: “You will be like God.” We fell then because of our desire to ascend. To be like God. To take God’s place. In essence, to not have God over us to whom we’re accountable.

But, lately, I wonder.

As any good writer knows, if you can work it, the main point should always fall last in your sentences (“knowing good evil”). And as any preacher knows, the emphasis should always be on the verbs (“knowing”).

So I wonder.

I wonder if original sin, the sin into which we’re all born, the sin which binds us in captivity and from which Jesus means to save once and for all, is our desire to appraise one another, to know good and evil, to be like God in Christ, separating who we take to be the goats from the sheep. That is, is our base sin our desire to know, like God, who is good and who is evil? Are the “All Lives Matter” memes, the “Blue Lives Matter” tweets, and “colorblind” FB rants just an updated form of picking the fruit from the tree?

I wonder because this morning my good friend Teer Hardy and I interviewed Ian McFarland, author of From Nothing, for our podcast. In it, Ian explained how the Christian belief in creation from nothing is shorthand for the confession that everything in existence owes its existence at every moment of its existence to God.

Everything. Always. Everywhere. At every moment.

Is from God.

Though he didn’t put it into original sin terms as I just did, Ian argued that creatio ex nihilo requires Christians to refrain from regarding anything in creation as nothing or no good or evil. It’s all from God. It’s all sacrament and none of it- no one– is slop or scrap.

If I’m right, then America still has a race problem and a problematic politics, but they’re no longer problems so much as they’re manifestations of original sin. And that’s good news because we (i.e. the Church) have an antidote to that disease: Jesus Christ.

He is the One by whom Adam and Eve and each of us and all that is- all that is- were created.

And through cross and resurrection all of us, good or and evil, are in him. To separate sheep from goats on social media like is to perpetuate a problem for which God has already provided a solution.

 

 

 

 

 

You Are What You Love

Jason Micheli —  July 29, 2016 — 1 Comment

political-conventionThese next two weeks I’m teaching a class for licensed pastors at Wesley Theological Seminary. While reading the participants’ papers in the evening, I’ve been listening to bits and pieces of both parties political conventions. Every now and then a social media notification from a Facebook Friend or Twitter Follower will flash across my laptop screen. When it’s not an invitation to play Candy Crush Saga, it’s most often yet another tweet or post perpetuating the culture war antagonisms in our country.

Convention season has me thinking not of The Donald or Hillary but Augustine.

St. Augustine of Hippo was the kind of dude whose pre-Christian biography The Donald and Bill Clinton could resonate. In other words, he was a narcissistic horn-dog. But that’s not why I’m thinking of Augustine.

I’m thinking of his long work of theology entitled The City of God, written in response to the fall of Rome.  In it, Augustine characterizes Rome’s fall as inevitable by drawing a contrast between the earthly city (Rome) and the heavenly city (God’s Kingdom).

What distinguishes citizens of the two cities, Augustine argues, is not beliefs but love.

The earthly city is necessarily finite, even doomed, because its citizens’ love is directed towards finite ends whereas what distinguishes the citizens of the heavenly city is a love aimed towards God.

For Augustine, our primordial orientation to the world as creatures is not knowledge or belief but love. We are not led in the world by our head. We instead feel our way in the world with our hands and our heart. As creatures we are not mere containers for ideas or beliefs.  As creatures our lives are dynamic, aimed outward from ourselves to the world.

Another way of putting this is that humans are not primarily rational creatures we are intentional creatures; that is, we are aimed towards an object other than ourselves.

For Augustine, we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love. And it’s what we love that defines who we are. Our ultimate love is what constitutes our identity. It’s not what I think that shapes me; it’s what I love.

Augustine’s way of putting this is that we are teleological creatures. ‘Telos’ means end. We are creatures directed towards an end: God and God’s Kindgom. That’s how we’re wired from the Day One of creation (and this is what Sin is: to have our loves directed towards something other than the Kingdom. Sin isn’t the absence of love it’s misdirected love).

We’re teleological, End-driven, creatures. We’re not pushed by beliefs; we are pulled by a desire. It’s not that we’re intellectually convinced and then we muster up the heart to follow Jesus. It’s that we’re attracted to a vision of the End that Christ gives us.

The ancient Christians had a way of stating what Augustine is after:  Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi.

It means, literally the ‘rule of prayer, the rule of belief.’ This was their of remembering that our worship- the practice, disciplines, and habits of worship- do not flow out of our beliefs and faith feelings but determine them. They shape them.

What we do forms what we think, believe, and feel. The way to our heart, recalls lex orandi, lex credendi, is through our bodies not through our heads. Our worship precedes our beliefs. What we think and believe about God flows from, not to, our love God.

For Christians at least, the caveat embedded in lex orandi, lex credendi is that our hearts aren’t just shaped by Christian liturgies they’re shaped by every sort of liturgy. All of our embodied practices and habits shape our hearts. What we do daily, in everything we do, shapes our desire. In other words, if our habits do not calibrate our hearts for God they will draw hearts towards something else.

Our hearts will worship, desire, want, and love.

Our heart, Augustine says, needs a lover.

But it doesn’t have to be, and most often is not, God.

Our habits determine who/what we worship, desire, want, and love. Correlatively, our habits reveals who/what we ultimately worship, desire, want, and love.

So listening to the conventions the past two weeks, I can’t help but wonder if what Christians should be concerned about is not The Donald vs. Hillary winning in November nor which issue is the issue over which Christians must distinguish one another. I wonder if the danger is how the practices of our U.S. politics, the habits of our election seasons, the pageantry of our political conventions shape our hearts more. Because, of course, if so then, as James KA Smight says, we just might not love God as much as we think we do.

embryo

I was told by a friend, whose views I respect, that my previous post on abortion was insufficiently robust. Here’s another pass through my thoughts on this matter that matters:

A paradigmatic text that can inform Christians’ approach to the question of abortion is found in Acts 4.32-35. In Acts, Luke tells us that the power of the resurrection was made manifest in the apostolic community in concrete ways: in common prayer and eucharist celebration, in mutual care and in the sharing of possessions.

For Luke and for the early church, Easter meant that believers had been freed to share their money and resources with one another. Easter had freed them to care for the needs of one another. A community that so shared their possessions was equipped then to care for the needy and for the needy within their faith community.

What does this have to do with abortion? Within the church at least, abortion should not be necessitated by economic hardship or the inability of the mother to care for a child. If an unwanted or an ill-advised pregnancy occurs in a Christian community, the Christian response, according to Luke’s paradigm of the Acts’ church, should not be abortion but the sharing of the community’s resources: the congregation’s money, time and nurture.

Stanley Hauerwas adds to this perspective by noting how Christians share not just our resources but one another. The sacrament of baptism, he points out, quite clearly makes us all the parents of one another’s children. Again, the church’s response to an unwanted or ill-advised pregnancy should not be abortion but a willingness to live into their baptismal identity and assume the role of parent. Hauerwas observes how such expectations for a Christian community often sound far- fetched and idealistic to white, upper and middle-class Christians, but just such an ethic is commonly practiced by African-American congregations.

In reflecting on the issue of abortion, the model of the early church reminds Christians that often our preoccupations with defining whether abortion is right or wrong and at what point life begins are distractions from a more primary calling. How Christians should advocate their abortion convictions in the public square is a separate question. Clearly, however, Luke reminds Christians that if our congregations more closely mirrored the early apostolic community in terms of sharing and mutual care, then there would, at the very least, be fewer abortions among Christians.

In addition, Richard Hays comments that the early church’s example reveals how Christians’ confusion over abortion is indicative of a greater unfaithfulness to the economic ethic of Jesus. If the Church were more faithful in witnessing against poverty and advocating for greater economic justice, then the tragic factors that lead to many abortions would decrease.

The paradigm offered by the early church also provides Christians another contour to guide our thoughts on abortion. The apostolic community was marked not only by sharing but by mutual- and moral- accountability. Too often the cultural and political debates regarding abortion stigmatize the mothers of the unborn. In doing so, opponents of abortion frequently make these women the bearers of the moral burden. Luke’s model of the early church, however, does not allow Christians to resort to this response. A community of genuine accountability and love will insist on holding Christian men accountable to the responsibilities and consequences of their relationships.

Many of these moral reflections suggest Christian-specific responses to the issue of abortion, but if Christians are meant to transform the world, then a necessary first step is for Christian communities to begin looking more transformed themselves. Before Christians can effectively persuade the public square to their ethical perspective, that ethical worldview should be embodied in their communities. The first measure of our faith in the power of the resurrection is not the legislation we advocate but the sharing and accountability we practice with one another.

embryo

Presumably, the complaint I received in my inbox had to do with the number of posts on the blog about homosexuality. Maybe the complainer was worried about the platform in Cleveland.

Well, here goes:

That Christians continue to call abortion “abortion” and not “termination of pregnancy” is itself to make a moral claim. Language matters and because language matters it’s also important to note:

Christians do not believe life is sacred in and of itself.

Such a singular reverence for life could too easily become a form of idolatry. Instead, for Christians, life is sacred not because it’s life but because it’s a gift from God. The value life has is alone the value God gives to it. Every life and every potential life is a sign of blessing because it is grace. Life need not be given. If God so chose, none of us would exist tomorrow.

It challenges many of our assumptions to think of every life, potential or real, as a blessing. Clearly many lives come into this world under difficult or tragic-seeming circumstances. Christianity’s reverence for life does not compel us to naiveté regarding the trying circumstances of much of reality. Rather Christianity’s reverence for life calls us to attend to and minster to those difficult conditions, believing that one day even the most despairing of circumstances will be yielded God’s blessing. Another way of stating this is that the Christian’s vocation is not to be an arbiter of life; the Christian’s vocation is to be a steward of something that is given to us conditionally.

An important dimension to this conviction is that, for Christians, life never ceases to be a gift from God. This means that Christians are foremost grateful people, thankful for the blessing that is given them. In addition, it means that Christians are called to exhibit equal measures of reverence for all stages and manifestations of life. This is the critical point at which a true biblical ethic departs from political platforms and posturing. A genuine Christian ethic on the issue of abortion fits comfortably in none of the categories made available to us by our politics. If life never ceases to be a gift, then a Christian’s passion for the unborn, for example, cannot be to the exclusion of others’ lives. The conditions of the poor, for instance, or the treatment of prisoners or the care of the disabled are all evidence of how we steward God’s gift of life as well.

The Roman Catholic tradition has referred to this consistent Christian reverence for life as “the seamless garment,” taking the image of Christ’s seamless tunic in the Gospel of John, stressing that Christians are called to show reverence for and protection of life ‘from the womb to the tomb.’

Christians who advocate exclusively for the issue of abortion give witness to an incomplete Gospel.

The convictions that cause Christians to welcome the life of the unborn also call Christians to show compassion for, for example, impoverished children, the elderly and the powerless. As the Letter of James notes, the fruit of our faith is evidenced by our treatment of society’s least. In many ways, the “seamless garment” harkens the Church to more closely mirror the communal ethic of the church of Acts.

It challenges many Christians’ political categories to discover that the same conviction that motivates the Church’s historic opposition to abortion- reverence for life as a gift from a sovereign God- also lies behind the Church’s traditional opposition to such issues as the death penalty or, more recently, the state practice of torture.

Our reverence for life also teaches Christians how to treat one another in this debate.

The life of the one who disagrees with me is also a gift from a gracious God.

How I treat that person, in other words, is but a form of worship. Even on an issue as emotional and divisive as abortion, Christians are called to practice love, humility and patience. A Christian ethic that respects the unborn but condemns the living is incomprehensible to the Gospel. This is why the tactics of so many abortion protesters are both off-putting and unpersuasive.

The Samaritan parable, last Sunday’s lectionary gospel, is paradigmatic. For the “liberal” Christian the abortion opponent never ceases to be a neighbor deserving of mercy and reverence. For the “conservative” Christian, the abortion-rights proponent is never not a gift given to the world by a gracious God. If Christians allow the Samaritan story to serve in this paradigmatic way, then much of how the culture engages this debate will be off-limits for followers of Jesus. For Christians, our position on the abortion issue is inseparable from the manner in which we engage it.

IMG_05932This Sunday is Palm Sunday, perhaps the most political Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Here’s a sermon from the vault from Luke’s account of the triumphal entry.

At the same time I was finishing up seminary, my best friend was winding up his studies at law school. When I was starting out at my first church, he was beginning his law career.

After clerking for an appeals court judge for a year, he got chosen to clerk for the Supreme Court, for Justice Scalia, a job which first required he to pass an extensive FBI background check.

Because I was his best friend and because we’d been roommates together at UVA and because we’d known each other a long while, the FBI needed to interview me about his character.

So one spring afternoon during Holy Week a fifty-something FBI agent came to my church to interview me about my friend.

He was tall and balding and was wearing a dark wrinkled suit. When my secretary showed him into my office, the first thing he said to me was “you don’t look much like a reverend.” Whether he was talking about my age or appearance wasn’t clear, but the contempt was crystal. I decided right then and there that I didn’t like him.

He offered me his business card but not his hand and sat down across from my desk. He glanced around my office looking amused. Then, with a dismissive tone of voice, he said: “So, why are you doing this?” 

He meant ministry. Why are you doing ministry.

It wasn’t really the sort of question I was expecting to have to answer from him. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I believe God’s called me to this.’ 

And he chuckled.

Like there must be some angle, like I’d just given him a throwaway line I couldn’t possibly believe.

He nodded towards my diplomas on the wall by the stained glass window and said: ‘You didn’t really have to go to school for this did you?’ 

Looking back, I’d have to say it was right about then that I became cranky.

He opened up a leather portfolio, took out a pen from his pocket, and said: ‘Let’s get to it.’ 

I’m sure he had all the answers already, but he asked me how I knew my friend, how long I’d known him, how well I knew him. Those sorts of questions, verifying dates and addresses.

Then he asked me if I knew whether or not he belonged to any international organizations whose beliefs or interests might conflict with those of the United States government.

And because I’d already decided I didn’t much care for this agent and because I was feeling kind of cranky, a question like that was just too good to pass up.

So I responded by saying: ‘Yes, yes of course.’ 

He stopped writing and looked up from his pad. ‘Care to explain that?’ he mumbled.

And with my voice oozing sincerity I said:

‘Well, he’s a committed Christian. He belongs to a Church- that’s an ancient, international organization that demands complete and primary allegiance and can be quite critical of the government.’ 

The agent sighed as if to wonder what he’d done to deserve having to listen to a crazy person like me. He scribbled something in his notepad- religious nut-job, probably- and muttered: ‘But Christianity’s personal not political. It’s just spiritual stuff.’ 

And because he’d rubbed me the wrong way, and because sarcasm is my particular cross to bear, I decided to mess with him a bit more. I put a concerned look on my face and in my best conspiratorial tone of voice I whispered to him: ‘The problem is that Christians don’t see a difference between the two.’

I noted with delight his bald scalp starting to flush red.

‘Everything in the Gospels is about personal transformation,’ I whispered, ‘but everything in the Gospels is also a dangerous political statement.’ 

He set his pen down. He looked really irritated with me and I was loving every moment of it.

‘Alright,’ he said, ‘what do you mean exactly?’ 

Again with mock sincerity I said:

‘Think about it. As soon as Jesus is born the government tries to kill him. When he’s fasting in the wilderness he implies the governments of the world already belong to the devil. For his first sermon, he advocates across the board forgiveness of debts, redistribution of wealth to the poor and convicts to be set free. He never gives a straight answer about whether his followers should be paying taxes to the empire or not. When he enters Jerusalem the week before he dies he does so by mocking military parades with donkeys, coats and palm leaves.” 

And then I lowered my voice to a whisper and said: ‘even though he refuses to resort to violence he’s killed by the empire as an enemy of the State, as a revolutionary. And we call him King.’ 

When I finished, he waited a moment, not saying anything, trying, I think, to get a read on me. Then he narrowed his eyes at me and said: ‘You think you’re pretty smart don’t you?’ 

And I feigned innocence and replied: ‘And just think- I didn’t even have to go to school.’ 

Every year during Passover week Jerusalem would be filled with approximately 200,000 Jewish pilgrims. Nearly all of them, like Jesus’ friends and family, would’ve been poor.

Throughout that Holy Week these thousands of pilgrims would remember how they’d once suffered under a different empire and how God had heard their cries and sent someone to save them.

So every year at the beginning of Passover week, Pontius Pilate would journey from his seaport home in the west to Jerusalem, escorted by a military triumph: a parade of horses and chariots and armed troops and bound prisoners, all led by imperial banners that declared ‘Caesar is Lord.’ 

     A gaudy but unmistakeable display of power.       

     At the beginning of that same week Jesus comes from the east.

His ‘parade’ starts at the Mt of Olives, 2 miles outside the city, the place where the prophet Zechariah had promised God’s Messiah would one day usher in a victory of God’s People over their enemies.

And establish peace.

The procession begins at the Mt of Olives, but Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem began all the way back in Luke 9.

For ten chapters Jesus has journeyed from one town to another, teaching his way to Jerusalem.

From Luke 9 to Luke 19, as Jesus has made his way to Jerusalem, it’s all been about teaching, his teaching, teaching about the Kingdom.

It hasn’t been healing after healing after healing. It hasn’t been miracle after miracle after miracle. Jesus has taught his way to Jerusalem, taught about the Kingdom here and now, and our lives in it.

But when they get to the Mt of Olives, this place that’s charged with prophetic meaning, it’s not his teaching they want to acclaim.

It’s his deeds.

The mighty deeds.

The deeds of the power.

The healings and the miracles.

As if to say: if Jesus can do that just imagine what he can do to our enemies.

 

There are no palm branches in Luke’s Palm Sunday scene, no shouts of ‘Hosanna.’ Not even any crowds.

It’s just the disciples and some naysaying Pharisees and this King who’s riding a colt instead of a chariot.

The disciples lay their clothes on the road in front him.

They sing about ‘peace’ just as the angels had at his birth.

And then they proclaim excitedly about his mighty deeds.

And just as the disciples begin voicing their expectations and the city comes into view, Jesus falls down and weeps: ‘If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace.’ 

He’s looking at the city but he’s speaking to his disciples.

And he’s talking about the Kingdom, his teaching about the Kingdom.

He’s talking about:

Good news being brought to the poor and the hungry being filled

Embracing society’s untouchables

Eating and drinking with outcasts

Loving enemies and turning the other cheek and doing good to those who hate you and refusing to judge lest you be judge and forgiving trespasses so you might be forgiven

Greatness redefined as service to the least

Love of God expressed as love of Neighbor

Hospitality so extravagant it’s like a Father who’s always ready to welcome a wayward home

A community of the called who are committed to being like light and salt and seed to the world

     He’s talking about the Kingdom.

 

Our life in the Kingdom in the here and now.

With the city in view and excited shouts of mighty deeds ringing in the air, Jesus falls down and he cries.

He weeps.

Because after every sermon, every beatitude and parable and teaching moment his disciples still don’t get it.

They still don’t see how his teaching about the Kingdom and how he will save them are one and the same.

 

‘Enough with the Sunday School lesson,’ the agent said. His bald head was a deep shade of red and I was gleeful for it.

‘You don’t have any reason to believe ___________ has subversive ideas about the government do you?’ 

Did I mention I was feeling cranky?

Well  I was. So I replied: ‘Like I said, he’s a Christian. I should hope he as some subversive ideas.’ 

The agent threw up his arms and pointed his finger at me: ‘This is about your friend’s job,’ he said, ‘so tell me straight what you’re saying.’ 

I nodded my head in concession.

‘Christians,” I said, “we don’t believe governments or empires or militaries really have the power to change the world. Christians have a different definition of Power. We believe its Jesus, his way of life, that makes for peace.’ 

That’s not the way the world works’ he said, the disrespect creeping back into his voice.

 ‘That’s what I was trying to tell you.’  

     In all four of the Gospels, there’s only two places where Jesus weeps.

     The first is over the grave of his friend Lazarus.

     The second time Jesus weeps it’s over us.

It’s like he knew.  It’s like Jesus knew we’d never get it, never grasp that it’s our living his Kingdom here and now that makes for peace.

And yet he doesn’t stop the Palm Sunday parade. He doesn’t get down off the colt. He doesn’t tell the Passover crowd to pick up their palm leaves. He doesn’t turn around and head back to Galilee.

He goes up.

To Jerusalem.

Knowing right then and there that we had no idea what he’d been trying to teach us, Jesus still goes up into Jerusalem.

As if the only way to show us, once and for all, would be-

for him to forgive those who trespass against him

and for him to turn the other cheek

and for him to bless those who curse him

and for him to give his robe to those who take his cloak

and for him to love his enemies

all the way to a Cross

just so we might finally see

the things that make for peace.

The Cross isn’t just a grim reminder that you’re a sinner and Jesus suffered and died in your place.

The Cross is proof that, no matter how we think the world works, his is a way and a truth and a life not even death can defeat.