Make Babylon Great Again

The delusion of mistaking our exile for home.

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Credit: Thomas Hawk

On Sunday I began a preaching series called Thriving in Exile. The premise is simple: Much of the time in Scripture God’s people are experiencing exile – having been sent or kept away from their homeland – and must wrestle with the inevitable theological and practical questions of an exilic experience. While the exile’s desire is always to return home – or, for the Christian, to experience finally what Paul calls our citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20) – often God promises not a quick exit from exile but a flourishing life in exile. Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon is probably the best-known example as seen in Jeremiah 29.

Preaching about the experience of exile in a multi-racial church provides an interesting challenge for the different ways members have experienced their place in this country. For many of us who are white, our general posture toward the USA has been hopeful. We have felt at home in the land of the free. Our experience of Christianity has usually done little to challenge our deep affinity with the country. If anything, certain types of white Christianity have, at different times, identified certain moral concerns as a means of describing our cultural marginalization. Public school desegregation, school prayer, and contraceptive mandates have each functioned as rallying cries for communities that perceive themselves to be besieged.

Then there are those in our congregation who’ve never once mistaken this country to be their homeland. More than once, mostly from black members but not only, I’ve heard laments about how this nation has communicated dangerous disdain toward certain of its citizens. The biblical description of exile – in the cries of the psalmists, the questions of the prophets, and the experiences of the early Christians – resonate with their own experiences in a land that has made of them permanent exiles in this world.

There’s a difference, then, in how we hear Jesus’ promise in John 15:18 that his followers will experience the same hate he knew. Those who’ve made this nation our home, despite its deadly treatment of those who share our faith but not our race, will be tempted to hear a vague spiritual threat to our individual rights or happiness. But to those who’ve known their exilic status in this place, Jesus’ warning holds the potential for great peace. The one who outlined our exile in this life was himself despised, rejected, and made to suffer. Those who’ve never been confused about their homeland are the guides to thriving in our exile, to identifying with the despised One who makes available to us the abundant life, even here and now.

Thinking this Babylon to be our home has led many of us to fight for power in ways that damage not only our Christian reputation but the very lives of our fellow Christians. Our long battle to Make America Great Again has been a mistake greater than many of us are willing to imagine much less one for which we will consider repenting. But time remains and friendship with the crucified Lord and his exiled children remains a possibility for all who will come to embrace exile.

When God Lingers

A sermon for the third Sunday in Advent.

Then the Lord replied: “Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it. For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay. [Habakkuk 2:2-3]

Habakkuk, a prophet in Judah, begins his book by complaining to God about the violence and injustice that was rampant among his fellow-Israelites. God replies that he will raise up the nation of Babylon to punish Judah’s unfaithfulness. This is not quite the response that Habakkuk was looking for; it seems far too harsh, one form of injustice in place of another: “Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves? “(2:13)

I think we can relate to Habakkuk’s complaint. We too grieve over the violence and injustice around us. With him we can say that in our nation “there is strife, and conflict abounds.” (1:3) But we can also relate to his reaction to God’s plan: Wait, you’re going to use Babylon? That’s not what I had in mind! If I’d had known that was going to be your plan, I’d have never brought this up in the first place!

Like Habakkuk, we want God to act. We need him to intervene in our troubled lives. But we also presume to know how God should act. Our ideas for how God should rescue us usually involve a miraculous intervention from heaven, a divine mediation where the break with violence and injustice is absolute. We want the before and after shot, the dramatically told testimony of the ugly we were trapped in before and the beauty of our lives now.

But then God speaks up: “I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.  I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.” (1:5-6) We’re looking for legions of heavenly angels to rescue us and God counters with… Babylon.

Habakkuk will eventually come to embrace God’s unexpected plan: “Lord, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy.” (3:2) The prophet comes to see that God’s merciful rescue will advance even through Babylonian captivity. And so despite the knowledge that conquest and occupation are around the corner, Habakkuk chooses to welcome God’s sovereign response to injustice and violence.  The reason his response to God’s Babylon-plan changes is what I want us to see on this third Sunday in Advent. What changed between Habakkuk’s first and second response to God’s Babylon-plan?

God says to his prophet: “For the revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” The revelation God speaks of is this: Though Babylon will conquer God’s wayward and sinful people; the Babylonians too sit under God’s judgment. Habakkuk learns that the foreign nation’s victory over Israel will be temporary, as violent victories always are. Though God will use Babylon’s power to chasten his people, his judgment will extend to them as well. Their destruction of both human and animal life as well as their desecration of the land will all come back to haunt them.

And through it all, God assures Habakkuk, “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (2:14) The revelation that changes Habakkuk’s perspective is that there is no sin, injustice, or violence that is so great as to obscure the glory of the Lord. Whatever Babylon-shadow seems to be creeping over Judah, God’s glory – the brilliance of his perfect character – will not be overcome. And so, by implication, Judah’s future does not lay in Babylon’s hands, but the Lord’s. And despite what they see around them, there is a good future for God’s faithful people, a future that gives them meaning and purpose as they await their liberation. So rather than resisting God’s response to his people’s sins, Habakkuk can sing: “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to tread on the heights.” (3:19)

Even now, surrounded by Judah’s wickedness and with Babylon’s violence knocking on the door, Habakkuk can sing of God’s strength and faithfulness. His hope has been reestablished; he is rooted in the unchanging God whose glory is beyond the reach of any conquering empire. He will wait on the Lord.

Generations later, a young woman would find herself at the fulfillment of Habakkuk’s faithful waiting. After Mary learns that she would give birth to the Son of the Most High, she responded in a joyful song about the God who keeps his promises.

The Mighty One has done great things for me—  holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:49-55)

God had kept his promises to Mary’s ancestors, ancestors like Habakkuk. The revelation that the prophet could only hint at was now fully expressed in Jesus. The glory of the Lord that Habakkuk so longed for would be born in a Bethlehem barn.  God’s answer to the treachery, conflict, injustice, and violence of our hearts and our world would be found in Judah’s unlikely descendent. And one day Habakkuk’s hope and Mary’s son would stand before his countrymen and in the words of Isaiah, another prophet of exile, would proclaim:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Luke 4:18-19] 

Peter wrote to the early church about the return of Mary’s son in a way that reminds us of God’s words to Habakkuk. These Christians found themselves, like Habakkuk, wondering about their future. Wondering when God would act with finality at the ultimate revelation, the return of their King Jesus.

 With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. (2 Peter 3:8-10) 

“Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” While we await the final revelation – the day of the Lord that will hearken the renewal of all things – while we wait we remember that though he may linger, God never delays. We remember that though God is patient, he is not slow.

In one week we will celebrate the fulfillment of God’s revelation to Habakkuk, Mary’s son born into circumstances that the prophet would have recognized from his own time: oppressive rulers, dominating empires, wickedness disguised as piety. This Advent, as we have fasted and prayed, we have remembered that we are a waiting people. We have experienced, I hope, the joy of knowing that our Lord’s glory cannot be overwhelmed by abusive men, deceptive presidents, or racist politicians. Neither can the glory of the Lord be obscured by our own wandering hearts; our sins, rebellions, and addictions pale when confronted with God’s all-encompassing glory, as waters cover the sea.

Even in seasons of wilderness we will find, like so many who’ve gone before us, that the Sovereign Lord is our strength; he makes our feet like the feet of a deer, he enables us to tread on the heights. The end of our waiting is our Lord’s return, so we wait with joy. And we are sustained in our waiting by the glory of the Lord, so we wait with joy.

So often it feels to me that God is delayed, that something has slowed him down. Sickness steals those we love. Inertia exerts its pull on our visions and dreams. Relationships spin wildly out of control.  We need to hear again and again what Habakkuk first heard so long ago: Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.

Babylon will lose. Sickness will die. Sons and daughters will prophesy, young men will see visions, old men will dream dreams. And the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

So wait on the Lord. Wait in the depression. Wait in the sickness. Wait in the unemployment. Though God may linger, he will not delay! Wait through the political turmoil. Wait through the racial inequity. Wait through the crass consumption that defines our days. Though God may linger, he will not delay!

Wait on the Lord. But let our waiting be courageous. The Psalmist exhorts us to “Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart, and wait for the Lord.” [Psalm 27:14] As God lingers, as he is patient with his rebellious people, we wait with courage.

Our waiting is not passive and it is not weak. Waiting for the on-time God looks like resistance to Babylon’s violence and lies. Waiting for the on-time God looks like solidarity with those who’ve been exploited by Babylon’s arrogance and greed. Waiting for the lingering-but-not-delayed-God looks like spending our lives on behalf of abused land and divested communities.

Wait for the Lord, but do not be passive. Wait for the Lord, but do not retreat. Wait for the Lord, but do not despair. Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Take heart. Though God lingers in patience he will never delay.

Photo credit: Eden Brackstone.

Be Alert! (Or, Get Woke. Stay Woke.)

A Sermon from Mark 13:1-37 after the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

What is this passage about? Some think it’s about Jesus’ return. This is a hugely important theme throughout the New Testament and fundamental for our faith. But I understand this passage as having something more immediate in mind. Jesus tells his disciples to flee the Jerusalem from the coming destruction. He tells them that this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. It sounds like Jesus has a particular, not-so-distant event in mind. This means the event this passage describes is a long way in the past. Yet we will find that the instructions Jesus gave his disciples about a specific time of traumatic suffering are relevant to us, especially in the midst of this season of very public trauma that we’re now experiencing.

Look Teacher!

The passage begins with the disciples pointing out the magnificent temple. Not long before, Jesus had forcibly cleared the temple. At his trial he will be accused of threatening to the destroy this temple made with human hands. When Jesus looks at the Temple he sees that the time has come for God to fulfill Israel’s vocation. He sees that his time has come, when his body will be the sacrifice; when he will be the bridge between heaven and earth. He sees the continuity of God’s promises through Israel to bless the world, a promise that God keeps through his crucified and resurrected body. But what do the disciples see when they look at the temple?

The disciples are impressed. Herod the Great began work on this building and it was the largest structure for hundreds of miles. Many considered it the most beautiful building in the world. The stones admired by the disciples were huge. The largest that has been found weighs roughly 600 tons. It makes sense for the disciples to focus on the temple. Except that Jesus has been telling them that when they arrive in Jerusalem he will be arrested and executed. Since they’ve been in Jerusalem the tension has been thick with attacks from the civil and religious authorities. The earlier events in the temple should have been enough to terrify the disciples, as Jesus confronted the powerful leaders.

But here there are, following their teacher who has repeatedly claimed to represent a new kingdom, surrounded by religious pilgrims – many of them zealots ready to go at it with the Romans at the drop of a hat, standing in the center of religious and political powers… and they’re talking about the size of the temple stones! They are completely distracted. But it’s worse than that. Herod’s temple is having its intended effect on the disciples.

The puppet king who was kept in place by Israel’s oppressor, who killed his Jewish subjects and defiled their religion, who sold their fields to foreign landowners making them tenant farmers, who used brutal and terrorizing tactics to keep people in line… this king built a huge temple – one of the wonders of the world – as an intentional tactic to keep his people distracted and occupied. And it worked. The disciples, despite everything Jesus taught them, fell for it.

What massive stones! What magnificent buildings! Do we do this?   What a great home! What a highly rated school district! What a well-paying job! What a status-creating grad school! What a beautiful downtown! What amazing high rise development! What fantastic cultural festivals! What a beautiful pair of shoes! What a perfectly designed car! What an amazing, binge-watch worthy show!

The Temple was beautiful and impressive. It makes sense that the disciples would notice it. And it makes perfect, logical sense that we give our time, energy, affections, and allegiances to the the things we do. But the disciples weren’t simply looking at the temple; they were distracted by it. And their distraction was by design. But Jesus has spent too much time with these disciples to let this slide.

Watch out that no one deceives you.

In this passage Jesus looks ahead 40 years to the fall of Jerusalem. During a time of great turmoil in the Roman Empire, Titus marched into Jerusalem to put down a rebellion. He burned the Temple, destroyed the city, and crucified thousands. If the language Jesus uses to describe this future event sounds hyperbolic, consider that secular historians of the time described parents resorting to cannibalizing their own children. Jesus tries to show the disciples that the thing that has grabbed their attention will not last. And if they’re not careful, they will be so distracted by Herod’s Temple that they will completely miss the coming destruction. It’s as though Jesus were saying, Your oppressors are using this Temple to distract you until they can destroy you.

On Tuesday, Alton Sterling was murdered by police officers in Baton Rouge. On Wednesday Philando Castile was murdered by police in Minneapolis. I won’t rehearse the demonic details of their deaths. If you don’t know already, it’s on you to go home and learn. But the truth is that many of you are very familiar with these stories and you don’t need me to rehearse the trauma again.

(Before we go on, let me mention two things parenthetically. First: we had time of lament on sharing on Thursday. If you were unable to attend, please reach out if you need to talk. Second: on Thursday night Dallas police officers Brent Thompson, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens were murdered during a protest. We have current and former officers in our church so this evil hit close to home for us. It is not hard for us to clearly state how horrible these murders were and to affirm the immensely challenging job our law enforcement officers have. This is basic for us. What gets more complicated is when our society equates the the murders of Sterling and Castile with the murders of these officers. They are both unequivocally wrong, but they are different. In this country and this city, the lives of police officers are highly valued. This is true whether or not the officers have integrity or are corrupt. There is not question about whether the lives of the Dallas officers matter? We know they do and they should. The murders of Sterling and Castile – and Sandra Bland, Laquan MacDonald, etc. – are categorically different for the simple reason that Black lives have not mattered to the perspective and practice of this country’s powers and authorities. So we will grieve the murders in Dallas, but we will also think and talk about them very differently than we do the endless stream of those Black and Brown women and men whose lives have been stolen by this country.)

Jesus turned his disciples’ gaze away from the Temple and toward the coming destruction.  Isn’t it likely that today Jesus would force our eyes off of all the glittering objects and desires placed in front of us by our society and turn our attention to these young men and their families? Can’t we safely assume that, like with the disciples, he would command us to: watch out! Be on your guard! Be alert! Keep watch!

Yesterday, Michelle Alexander wrote, I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. There’s always something each of us would rather be doing. The disciples would have rather marveled at the magnificent Temple, with it’s promise of glory and power. They’d have rather this than take seriously the way of discipleship as described by Jesus- a way that requires them to leave behind every empty but soothing promise made by those in power; a way that required them to give up their ambition for power; a way that was ambivalent about the Empire’s currency; a way that prioritized the marginalized and dispossessed; a way that will find the center of the universe not in the temple, not in Rome, but at the cross on Calvary.

Watch out that no one deceives you. How have we have been deceived? In the same way the disciples were susceptible to Herod’s lies, we struggle to see the way of Jesus within a nation whose self-described reason for existence is built on half-truths and offensive lies. And so, rather than giving ourselves to God’s work of shalom and justice, we are captivated by the shiny objects and glittering promises made by this nation and its many spokespeople.

Jesus told his disciples that a day would come that would be dreadful for pregnant women and nursing mothers. But in this country this has always been that day for Black women and mothers. Diamond Reynolds, recording her beloved’s death while comforting her 4-year-old daughter is only the latest, heart-rending evidence of this dreadful state of affairs.

But how long until we forget? How long until massive stones and magnificent buildings distract us, woo our attention away? How long until the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are crowded from our minds by the characters and storylines from Game of Thrones? How long until the conviction and commitment we felt this week are replaced with the energy required by the side hustle we need to pay for our addiction to consumer capitalism? We forget, because like the disciples, we succumb to Herod’s distractions.

We forget that our police forces descend from enforcers of the fugitive slave act. We forget that our prisons are traded on the stock market; their value rise as they find more reasons to plunder Black and Brown bodies, to warehouse men and women more cheaply. We forget that our cities are intentionally segregated; Black and Brown neighborhoods and schools are systematically defunded and isolated. We forget that our assimilation process forces immigrants to shed their history, the specifics of ethnicity; we will allow you honorary whiteness of a certain degree as long as you join agree to the anti-black racism that is this country’s currency. We forget that women of color are daily made to choose between the priorities of your people and your gender. We forget that white people who choose to tell the simple truths about this place are easily sidelined, made into a predictable punchline for this nation’s crude humor.

And let me says this gently but directly: None of us is immune to these deceptive ways. Watch out that no one deceives you. Jesus warned all of his disciples- some who had known the privileges of the empire and others who had known only its oppressions. Jesus seemed to think that all of them – perhaps for different reasons – were vulnerable to believing the empire’s lies; to become so infatuated with Herod’s temple that they missed the mustards seeds of God’s coming kingdom.

Harriet Tubman lamented that she could have freed more enslaved people had they only recognized their slavery. Despite their shared passion to end lynching, W. E. B. Dubois often ignored the work of his female counterpart, Ida B. Wells, writing her out of the founding of the NAACP. Watch out that no one deceives you! In his latest book, Ta-Nehesi Coates writes about white people as the dreamers, as those who have succumbed to this country’s racialized hallucination. But the fact that Jesus makes so emphatically clear is that the principalities and powers of this world will use the tools of this world to distract everyone of us from the truth.

Again, let me be gentle but direct: The fact that your race, ethnicity, or gender marks you for marginalization by our world does not mean you are not also susceptible to this country’s lies. The disciples were so enamored with the gold and brass of the temple that they forgot that it was their own oppression that made for it! For some of us – white people especially, Asian Americans at times – the deception will feel like freedom, like possibility, like blissful ignorance. For others of us, the deception will register as pronounced insecurity, anxiety, and self-hatred. The deception is spread like pollen in this country’s air, so that when you breath in the toxins you are made to think that something is wrong with you, rather than the one who is purposefully poisoning your lungs.

And our faith will make all of this seem harder at times. There is a belief that is common to hear from some Christian leaders and preachers, that our faith in Jesus will keep us from this deceptive world’s destruction. But such a belief would surely surprise the Jesus who said On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them, and, Everyone will hate you because of me.

Within these hard words are two incredibly important assumptions. First: Christians who represent Jesus and the ethics of his kingdom will necessarily find themselves opposed by a world that does not recognize our King or his justice agenda. This means that during weeks like this one, Christians should expect to suffer more than others because our allegiance to Jesus requires that we stand against state-sponsored violence and terror. And second: Christians will recognize this world’s lies and identify with those who suffer from them.This means that Christians should be the wokest people in this country. This means that we don’t debate blue lives VS black lives because blue is a job and black is an image-bearing, immortal, beloved by the Creator woman or man. This means that we know the issue isn’t so-called black on black crime, the issue is government policies of segregation, isolation, and enforced poverty; we know the issue isn’t an epidemic of fatherlessness, but a decision by our country and city to lock up our Black men at rates much higher than any demographic.

Our discipleship to Jesus make us more sensitive to this world’s deceptive violence and thus more susceptible to it.

At that time people will see the Son of Man.

This world’s impressive and imposing temples will do everything possible to capture our attention and affections. They will seek to distract us even as they work to destroy us. Into this reality Jesus commands us to be alert! To watch! He clarifies our gaze so that we see through the deceptive promises and to their destructive intentions.

But Jesus does not leave us here, staring at the source of our calamity and suffering. And even today, as we lament and grieve, as we get in touch with the trauma that has been once again inflicted upon us, even now we need our eyes to see beyond the source of our pain to the source of our salvation, our liberation, our restoration, and healing.

24 “But in those days, following that distress, “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 25 the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ 26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

To describe the painful days ahead, Jesus borrows language from the prophet Isaiah who used these sentences to prophesy the fall of Babylon, the empire which Israel was then in captivity to. In these verses Jesus takes nothing away from the actual suffering of his followers. He does not spiritualize it. Instead, he paints a picture where he, the Son of Man is coming to his throne. The crucified, supposedly-failed Messiah, now coming in great power and glory, attended to by angels and the saints, the entire universe at his command. It is as though Jesus were saying: This temple will fall, but I will still reign. Rome, like Babylon before it, will fall, but I will still reign.

I struggled to know how to end this sermon after the week we just had. What room is there for hope in the midst of such trauma? And then I thought of the saints who came before us. The suffering saints of generations past knew this traumatic reality. In the face of suffering and oppression they turned their gaze not to glittering temples but to the glorious Son of Man.

They could look to their Savior who came to his eternal glory and power by way of suffering and death and know that Rome would pass away, Babylon would pass away, America would pass away, but that Jesus and his Word would never pass away. In their suffering they could proclaim that their weeping would last but for a night and that their eternal joy would come in the everlasting morning. In their pain they could know that their suffering would not be in vain.

Do not misunderstand. By looking to the Son of Man in glory, we are not resigned to this evil world. No! By looking forward to God’s future and eternal justice our eyes re opened to his in-breaking Kingdom. By placing our faith in the one who conquered sin, death, and evil we were more alert not less. By being freed from the fear of death, we are more courageous; we tell the truth more clearly; we resist evil with more commitment; we build reconciled and just community we greater passion.

So with their eyes fixed on the glorious Son of Man, they sang: I have trials here below but I’m bound for Canaan land. They could stand in the pain, not deceived by this world and they sang: If you get there before I do; Babylon’s falling to rise no more; Tell all my friends I’m coming too. They could resist the impressive temples and their subtle oppressions and they sang: One of these mornings bright and fair; I want to cross over to see my Lord; Going to take my wings and fly the air; I want to cross over to see my Lord. They could look to the Son of Man in power and glory and see clearly the world around them, taking their stand against deception and injustice, and they sang: Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved; when my burden’s heavy, I shall not be moved; if my friends forsake me, I shall not be moved; don’t let the world deceive you, I shall not be moved.

May their alert minds, hopeful hearts, and strong voices then, be joined by ours now.

“Let there be a moratorium on such preaching!”

Legalists and antinomians are equally guilty of hermeneutical gerrymandering to annex New Testament texts to foreign modes of ethical discourse. Christian preachers, at least since the time of Clement of Alexandria, have preached hundreds of thousands of disastrous sermons that say, in effect, ‘Now the text says x, but of course it couldn’t really mean that, so we must see the underlying principle to which it points, which is y.’ Let there be a moratorium on such preaching! The New Testament’s ethical imperatives are either normative at the level of their own claim, or they are invalid.”

– Richard B. Hays in his classic The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

Weeping on Friday. Rejoicing on Sunday.

Over the next few days of this Holy Week I plan to reflect on two simple questions: What might keep me from weeping on Good Friday? What might keep me from rejoicing on Resurrection Sunday?  Weeping and rejoicing aren’t the only appropriate responses on these days, but the testimony of the Church has been that they are certainly primary responses as we consider the death and resurrection of Jesus in the most personal terms. So, contemplating the crucifixion this Friday without experiencing the grief of my complicity might indicate a heart that has been distracted from its own selfishness and sin. Likewise, if I don’t experience joy on Sunday – not, mind you, a manipulated happiness – then it’s likely that my heart has found its hope and meaning somewhere other than the empty tomb.

There is, thanks be to God, always time to repent. But maybe this last week of Lent, with the anticipation of tears and joy, provides a useful urgency to our prayer: Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

 

The Terror of the Lord

A Prayer on the Eve of Donald Trump’s Chicago Visit

Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.”

King Asa’s prayer in 2 Chronicles 14:11 as he prepared to defend the attack of Zerah the Cushite. Asa defeated Zerah and his armies, “for the terror of the Lord had fallen on them,” which would also be a happy answer to this prayer tomorrow.

A Sermon: Waking from the Dream

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1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of Godin order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” [Acts 6:1-4]

As the pastor of a multi-ethnic church, I’m regularly asked about the reasons our congregation regularly talks about race, racism, and reconciliation? I’ll do my best to answer this question today.

The Acts passage shows the early church facing some of its first divisions. At this time, it was common for converts to Christianity to be disowned by their families. The radical care shown by the early church that we read about in Acts was an expression of the church acting as a new family. This was especially important for widows who relied on family members for their wellbeing. Our passage reveals that a disparity was growing between the Hebraic Jewish widows and Hellenistic widows. The Hellenistic Jews had taken on much of the surrounding Greek culture while the Hebraic Jews had maintained much of the culture and tradition of their ancestors in Palestine. In Jerusalem, where our passage takes place, Hebraic Jews would have had a higher status than the Hellenistic Jews.

From our perspective maybe this division doesn’t seem so big. In a country like ours where a white officer can shoot a 12-year-old Black boy with impunity; in a country that singled out Chinese immigrants for legal exclusion; in a country that vilifies Latino women and men while depending on their labor; in this country a disparity based on culture between those with a common ethnic and religious background might not seem like a big deal. And maybe that’s true. We could find more obvious threats to the family of God later in the New Testament, but this is the first division faced by the church so it’s worth paying close attention to three things about how they faced potential divisions.

First, they expected justice. They expected equity within this new family that God was creating through Jesus. This might seem small, but do we expect justice in our churches? Don’t we expect that churches in wealthier communities will have budget surpluses while churches in poor communities struggle? Don’t we expect that predominately white churches will be ignorant of the struggles experienced by black, brown, and immigrant congregations? Don’t we accept as normal that those in our own church who have access to generational wealth and cultural acceptance will have greater wealth and health? But early church expected justice to be exhibited between its members. Which leads to the second thing we should notice.

They told the truth about injustice. When it was clear what was happening, people spoke up. They could tell the truth because they expected, within God’s family, that justice would be done.

And third, when injustice was revealed, they organized for justice. The injustice was identified and the church organized itself so that justice would be done. In this case, widows who had been abandoned by their families would be cared for with dignity regardless of their cultural background.

Hopefully all of this sounds very straightforward, simple: they expected justice, told the truth about injustice, and organized for justice when necessary. As the church grew and came to include not just Hellenistic Jews but actually Greeks, Romans, Africans, and Asians, this would only get more important. How is it that what seems like such a simple and effective strategy seems impossible for churches and Christians in America to grasp? Or, to put the question more positively: What allowed the early church pursue relational justice with such clarity and courage?

We could answer this from a variety of passages, but Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a helpful starting point.

16 If the part of the dough offered as first-fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. 22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! [Romans 11:16-24]

Gentiles Christians were wondering whether the Jews would have a place within Jesus’ kingdom. Paul begins with a sacrificial metaphor about first fruits- those Jews who have submitted to Jesus are proof that the way remains open to Israel. He then switches to an agricultural image of a cultivated olive branch being grafted into the root system of a wild olive tree. This was a common practice to increase the olive harvest; two distinct trees became one, but the grafted branch was dependent on the original roots.

Paul says a lot here, but one important thing for us is this: For Gentile Christians there must always be a visceral memory of our inclusion into God’s family through Jesus. The roots of this family are God’s election of Israel as his means of redeeming the world. Jesus stands in for Israel, receiving the consequences of her rebellion and fulfilling her vocation to bless the world, and through him makes possible Gentile inclusion into God’s family. To say it more simply: Unless you are a Jewish Christian, you were an outsider to God’s family who has been graciously and radically welcomed into the family by Jesus.

This is important because Paul explains and the church in Acts demonstrates that relational justice is not peripheral to the gospel, it’s not a distant implication of the gospel… relational justice & reconciliation are central to the gospel because they are evidence of what God has done through Jesus. Our being grafted into God’s family tree demonstrates the power of the gospel. The welcome we outsiders have received into the family of God is the immediate outworking of Christ’s atoning death and victorious resurrection. This reconciling gospel was at work among the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem as they pursued justice for their widows. This same reconciling gospel would be at work in the first multi-ethnic church in Antioch, a congregation made up of Jews, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and Asians.

Throughout the NT we see the Gospel grafting outsiders into God’s family tree: the Gospel overcomes divisions between ethnicities, cultures, and classes. And when relational injustice appears it is confronted by appealing to the logic & power of this gospel, this gospel that has made outsiders and enemies into members of God’s family.

Of course you won’t find any mention of the gospel overcoming racial divides. Race, as we think of it, hadn’t been invented when the NT was written. Tragically, race as a social construct, was birthed from heretical Christian theology. This theology replaced the Jewish roots of God’s family tree with European whiteness. There are theological terms for this heresy, but what matters for us is that when the powerful European church traded God’s specific redemptive movement through Israel for a racial construct that was built on privilege and oppression, the gospel itself was undermined.

With whiteness replacing Israel as the roots of God’s family tree, not only were racial divides impossible to overcome, they were actually created. And the cultural, class, and ethnic diversity that proved the gospel in the early church also became unbridgeable chasms. And from this heretical foundation was built an entire social science that categorized and divided people based on imposed racial categories, categories that were compared to whiteness to determine how entire cultures and ethnicities would be treated. No longer was it God’s grace that opened the door to God’s family, a family that expected relational justice within its diversity as evidence of the gospel. Now it was whiteness with its languages, cultures, social norms, and warped theologies that became the doorway to Christianity.

The ugly consequences of this heresy are all around us, from politicians who can, in one speech, proclaim their Christian credentials while articulating xenophobic and nationalistic policies to public schools that can safely be ignored and dismantled by the powers that be because the black & brown students they represent were never supposed to attain the American Dream in the first place. But most tragically is the way this heresy has immobilized so many churches from expressing the full power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For this reason we must regularly and intentionally make plain the beautiful truth that generations of warped theology and blind practice have obscured. We must wake from the dream that is in fact a nightmare; we must wake to the gospel with all of its implications.

This means that those of us who find our socially constructed race affirmed and normalized by a society built on white supremacy must come to church and hear the call to repentance. We must come to rejoice in our complete unworthiness and in God’s complete grace, that he would graft us into his family.

This means that those of us who find ourselves dehumanized and illigetamized on a daily basis must come to church and hear the old story about how, in Christ, there is no hierarchy, there is no privilege, there is no prejudice; we must hear how, in Christ, the beauty of our God-given humanity as expressed in the particularities of our bodies, languages, cultures, histories, and struggles is a reason to celebrate and take pride.

This means that those of us who have been made invisible by a black & white society must come to church and find the space to remember what has been forgotten, reclaim what has been stolen, and restore the memory of God’s presence to previous generations whose culture was tied not to deceitful racial constructs, but to the creation itself- to geographies and landscapes that bear witness to the Creator.

This is why racial righteousness & reconciliation are so important to us. One the one hand, a diverse and flourishing community that is rooted in the One who grafts us into God’s family, is repentance and resistance to the heresy that has wreaked so much havoc. And on the other hand, a reconciled community bears powerful witness to our segregated and devastated city that the living God will make all things well. More simply put, we care about racial righteousness and reconciliation because we are captivated by the gospel that has made strangers and aliens into family and friends.