Courageous Discipleship in an Idolatrous Nation

What follows is the last part of yesterday’s sermon from 1 Thessalonians 1.

What are you known for? What is our reputation? Our Lord Jesus wants his gospel to so thoroughly transform us that we cannot control our reputations. He desires for us to have been so completely rearranged, so completely put back together, so completely rescued from sin, saved from death, and liberated from the devil’s deceptions that the message of the gospel leaps out of us.

I need to be direct about this. Some of us, myself included, risk mistaking our association with someone else’s reputation for the gospel as our own reputation for the gospel. What do I mean?

We have among us women and men whose discipleship to Jesus has led them to costly sacrifice and suffering in the face of this nation’s idols and ideologies. Their love for and allegiance to Jesus has allowed the message of the gospel to spring forth from their lives as a beautiful witness to Jesus’ saving lordship.

Others of us, shielded by layers of privilege, have avoided sacrifice and suffering. We  content ourselves with private beliefs about Jesus rather than whole-life discipleship to Jesus. Worse, we have mistaken our proximity to those men and women who have sacrificed, who are suffering as evidence of our own faithfulness. But proximity is not faithfulness and some of us are guilty this morning of appropriating somebody’s else’s reputation for the gospel as our own.

We must not be content with living a vicarious life of discipleship. Turn away from your idols. Serve God alone. Wait on the Lord Jesus. God wants his gospel to leap out of your life. Don’t be content with anything less.

When the gospel transforms you at the levels of your motivations, priorities, and reputation it will no longer be possible for you to be a passive citizen of this idolatrous nation. The miscarriages of justice we saw from the Cook County Courthouse this week are the rancid fruits of a nation that has longed worshiped the god of white supremacy.

You’d be hard pressed to find a temple to white supremacy or carved statues to the god of racial superiority. But look a little closer and our deceptive gods begin to reveal themselves. We see our idols when we look closely at who fills our prisons. We see our idols when we listen to how our border is debated and how those who cross it in desperation are publicly debased. We see our idols when we listen to how Laquan McDonald – murdered and gone for four years – was put on trial again and again in that courtroom, his character assassinated long after his body had been shot down, the particularities of his image-of-God-bearing-body used as justification for his extrajudicial killing by a man whose racism was renowned.

5ac26ecd1e00003b137b058fFifty-two years ago Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Riverside Church in New York City and said, “we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” We see the devastating impact of our idols a half-century later when we observe that rather than transforming the Jericho Road or dismantling it, we have paved it over, made it more efficient. Rather than restructuring the edifice, we have made it larger: more prisons, more immigrant detention centers, more wars.

Our idols are bloodthirsty. Some of you know this all too well. The travesties of justice we watched this week are not theoretical to you. You cannot help but see your sons and your daughters in Laquan, Rekiya, Sandra, Philando, and Tamir. You felt the news on Thursday and then again on Friday in your bodies, reverberating like death knells, simultaneously shocking and not at all. Your discipleship to Jesus has led you to stay awake. To choose the way of love and reconciliation. Even to forgive. And some of us are tired today. Because you are living this story, have only lived this story in this idolatrous nation.

Today I say to you the words in 1 Thessalonians 1:4. We know brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you. Despite its malicious intentions, this nation has not destroyed you. The devil cannot have you and death has no claim on your life. You are loved by God. He has chosen you. You may be tired this morning. You may be afraid or angry this morning. Depression and despair may be nipping at your spirit this morning. But God… has chosen you.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ has transformed you at the deepest level of your being. Our culture’s idols will one day go the way of Thessalonica’s temples and cults. Racism will die. White supremacy will die. Injustice will die. Courtroom injustice will die. Every idol  which seems to hold endless power will go the way of all things, will crumble and disintegrate. But you, brothers and sisters loved by God, will live. You may be tired, but today you live. You may be angry, but today you move and breathe and have your being held together by the Lord Jesus.

God sees you. God loves you. God has chosen you.  What does it mean for God to choose you? It means, that the same Jesus who is Lord of the universe has drawn near to you. Not in some theoretical, merely theological sense. No, God took on your flesh and came close. God took on hungry flesh. He took on thirsty flesh. God clothed himself as a stranger. God took on naked and vulnerable flesh. God took onto himself imprisoned flesh. God took onto himself the flesh that made him a despised and dangerous target to the Empire. And on October 20, 2014, God took on Laquan McDonald’s bullet-ridden flesh.

God has chosen you. He has drawn near to you. And no matter the lies from the Cook County Courthouse or the White House, you are being transformed in such a manner that nothing will stop the testimony that God has for you. No matter how your heart betrays you, the devil tries to deceive you, or this world rises up with the rage of hell to oppose you- the Holy Spirit of the Living God will fill you power, conviction, and the joy of your salvation. So today we speak life over all who are tired. We speak courage over all you are afraid. We speak endurance over anyone who is ready to give up. We loose every spiritual gift for those who are marching into battle with our enemy. We loose work produced by faith, labor prompted by love, and endurance inspired by hope. We bind racism and racial supremacy. We bind materialism and consumerism. We bind false comfort and blinding privilege. We proclaim today, in this city, in these circumstances, that there is only one Lord. Jesus. God with us. God for us.

Uncommon Sense

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Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Thankful Poor”

Here is Jerry Falwell Jr. answering a question about whether it’s hypocritical for evangelical leaders like himself to “support a leader who has advocated violence and who has committed adultery and lies often.”

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

Thankfully there have been plenty of evangelical leaders who have pointed out the silliness of Falwell’s reasoning and shallowness of this expression of a two kingdoms theology. I’m more interested in how those of us who rightly decry this blatantly deficient vision of Christianity succumb to less obvious versions of it ourselves.

Falwell believes that America’s wealth is responsible for accomplishing more good around the globe “than any other country in history.” Setting aside the question of how such a thing could be measured or, more significantly, the exports of suffering and destruction for which we are also responsible, his claim reveals an understanding of the wealthy rather different than the one Jesus repeatedly taught. In Falwell’s theology, the wealthy are important for what their wealth does, including how it meets the needs of the poor. Jesus, of course, warns of the hazards of wealth as a massive – thought not impassable  – barrier to the kingdom of heaven. The problem with wealth is what ultimate good works to keeps us from.

On the other hand, the poor are merely an afterthought to Falwell, dispensable for what they cannot do.  In contrast to the rich whose money makes things happen, those who suffer poverty can be set aside exactly because their impoverishment weakens their ability to accomplish anything of “real volume.”

Falwell says that his hierarchy of the wealthy over the poor is merely common sense and I can’t disagree with him. In fact, though we may be subtler about it, I have to wonder if the vast majority of American Christians don’t also trade Jesus’ teachings about wealth and poverty for something closer to Falwell’s logic. We measure our ministries by the metrics of the marketplace. Our well-known leaders and their churches are not poor, not even by vocation.  Middle-class Christians are quick to give to those suffering poverty but we’d be hard-pressed to find any of those same people submitting to the spiritual authority or ministry priorities of their less-resourced kin.

It’s not hard to point out the absurdity of Falwell’s justification for supporting the president. But what about when the absurdity fades into something more like our own, acceptable, version of common sense? It seems likely that many more of us may be further from Jesus’ uncommon kingdom than we’d want to admit.

Photo by Plum leaves.

 

Scaredy-Cats

Last night our old cat jumped onto the couch next to the four-year-old as he sat with Maggie, listening as she read his bedtime story. This cat, the epitome of scaredy-cat, has never done this before. In the dozen or so years that we’ve had her, she has spent about 90% of her time in hiding: under beds, buried under blankets, disappeared into the darkest corner of a closet. For a while we owned one of those oversized recliners and she figured out how to crawl inside one of its wide – and, we came to learn – mostly hollow arms. It was only when one of us dropped into that chair and leaned back that we’d discover her there, the frantic wiggling and clawing the unmistakable signal that we’d again disturbed her peace.

fullsizeoutput_29fbIt took a few years before Gabby the cat would venture onto the couch with us on an evening when we sat quietly, reading or watching TV. When we adopted our first son she seemed to revert and for his first few years E must have wondered about this imaginary animal his parents mentioned occasionally.  Most of our guests over the years couldn’t be faulted for thinking the same; occasionally someone will do a double-take while sitting at our dining room table, “I didn’t know you had a cat,” they’ll exclaim with that certain tone that indicates whether or not they’re a cat person.

Anyway, as E learned to be quiet around our sensitive cat she slowly warmed to him, eventually even seeking him out to be scratched behind her ears. The four-year-old has always been a bit more rambunctious. Frankly, I thought it’d be a few more years before she’d let him get close. But tonight, to the surprise of both Maggie and W, she hopped right up.

I only mention our cat and her skittish ways because I sometimes think I’ve learned as much about being a pastor from her as I have from most of the books I’ve read and classes I’ve taken on the subject.

When we adopted the cat who’d become Gabby – the shelter had named her Fleur which is a good French word for flower but, in our opinions, not so good for a cat – the woman who had cared for her warned us that she was pretty shy. An understatement! At six months old she’d been found near death, shivering under a pile of frozen leaves. It took a few months to revive her to the point where she was strong enough to be adopted. On top of being so easily frightened, she’s always remained skinny. No matter what we feed her she still carries evidence of those first cruel days in her body.

It’s been close to fifteen years that we’ve lived with this cat. She is the same animal now as she was when we first drove her home. But she’s also different, braver. She’ll never be one of those cuddly, social cats but almost every morning now, before everyone else gets up, she’ll jump into my lap while I read. Instead of burying herself in our furniture, she perches on one of the couch’s armrests, hoping to be pet while we watch reruns of The West Wing or The Simpsons.

People can change and heal is what I’m getting at I guess. But we can’t be forced. And if you want to be there when it starts to happen, you’ve got to stick around long enough so that when they’re finally ready to be seen you’ll be around to see.