Be Alert! (Or, Get Woke. Stay Woke.)

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.

A Christmas Sermon: Humility or Humiliation

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. [Luke 1:46-56]

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Photo credit: CJ Matulewicz

There are things that happen every single year: birthdays, taxes, the collapse of the Chicago Bears. These are normal things that will happen every year whether or not we’re paying attention. Christmas is one of those things that happen each year and, like anything else that occurs regularly, it can become normal.

It’s so normal that we can forget that there were once people who were the first to respond to Jesus’ birth. Of course there were plenty who knew the infant Jesus as simply that, the infant with a rather common name, born to a seemingly normal couple. But there were some who had more information, who knew that this infant’s birth was different, that in the birth of this baby they were seeing God’s long-awaited salvation. For them, this particular birth was in no way normal.

Given how ordinary – almost mundane – Christmas is for us, it is helpful to notice how these women and men responded to Jesus’ birth. What can the different responses by those who had some idea of the significance of this baby show us about our own predictable, ordinary, and tame responses?

Matthew and Luke tell the longest, most detailed accounts of Jesus’ birth and so from them we can quickly survey some of the responses. Right away we notice that some receive Jesus with joy, while others respond with doubt and rejection. This is not a simplistic observation; there are a variety of dynamic experiences within these two kinds of responses. For example, the joy Mary expresses in her song can’t be confused with temporary, superficial happiness. Her experience with the announcement of Jesus’ birth contains mystery, fear, and the promise of suffering. Or, to take an example from the other kind of response, Mary’s relative Zechariah the priest, when told of the birth of his own son who would prepare the way for Jesus, responds initially with cynical doubt. But later, at the birth of his son, he bursts into joyful song: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. [Luke 1:68]

So there are two primary responses to the birth of Jesus: joy & rejection. And the question for those of us who have become too accustomed to the Christmas story is this: What is the difference between those who receive Jesus with joy and those who reject him?

We hear the answer in Mary’s song. Here it is the humble whom God is gracious to: For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant; His mercy extends to those who fear him; He has lifted up the humble; He has filled the hungry with good things. On the other hand, in Mary’s song God opposes the proud: He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; He has brought down rulers from their thrones; He has sent the rich away empty.

This is what matters. Those who are humble receive God’s salvation with joy. Those who are proud reject God’s plan of salvation, especially when it comes in the form of a helpless baby. The logic behind these responses isn’t complicated and both Mathew and Luke give us a few opportunities to see it play out.

While Zechariah is humbled and changes his response, another prideful rejecter goes to his grave. King Herod, whose massive building campaigns and paranoid murders take pride to another level, opposes the news of the infant king. His violent response forces Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into Egypt as refugees. Matthew records his eventual death in passing, evidence that God’s plan will move forward despite a megalomaniac like Herod. Luke, in the book of Acts, similarly records the death of Herod’s son as mere passing background to the Gospel’s spread throughout the world.

Thankfully there are many more examples of humble women and men who received Jesus with joy. There is Anna and Simeon, faithful warriors of prayer who knew their God’s salvation when they encountered the just-born Jesus in the temple. There are the shepherds – young, ostracized, and barely visible in their society – who were granted pride of place at the stable in Bethlehem. Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. [Luke 2:15] And there are the Magi – possibly astronomers from Babylon – who, despite their wealth and status, traveled a vast distance to worship this new king. Their great humility overcame the temptations of their wealth and station; it overcame cultural and religious differences; their humility even overcame what must have been the great surprise that this new king was not at the palace in Jerusalem but in a small home in Galilee.

In these opposite responses we see why the humble receive the Lord: they know their great need. In their humility they know that it must be God who acts on their behalf. So Mary sings: For the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. And because they know their great and terrible need, these humble men and women receive their Savior with joy and so they are rescued by him. They are filled by him. They are lifted up by him.

But the proud oppose this infant king because his birth threatens to unseat their own authority and agendas. They see no need for a Savior. Not this kind at least. They would be ok with a bit of spirituality added to their lives, maybe some religious practices to legitimize their selfishness. But not a king whose birth is announced by angelic warriors, whose agenda is articulated as a cosmic reversal of the rich and the poor; whose mandate is the completion of Israel’s agenda to rescue the world. No, for the proud this is too much by far. This king will require too much and so must be ignored, discredited, and opposed.

How do you respond to birth of God’s son?

Here we have a helpless infant, born into poverty and imperial occupation. Despite the soft-focus filter we put onto the nativity, this child will grow into the one who calls our allegiance into sharp contrast: Follow me; Sell everything; Let the dead bury the dead; If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off; Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

Given the surprising and almost embarrassing way God enters our world, and given the completely alternative kingdom-of-heaven life that Jesus invites us into, it should be clear that only the humble could receive Jesus with joy. Only those who by experience or choice can see through this proud world’s lies can welcome the infant king. The proud will, of course, reject him. His arrival is undignified and his call is too costly. Mary’s song shows us who will welcome her son and why; who will reject her son and why. But her song also reveals what happens to the humble who accept their Savior with joy and the proud who reject him.

The humble find that their hope and faith have been well placed. They are lifted up. They are saved. Their lives are given meaning and dignity that cannot be coopted or stolen by this world. The proud, on the other hand, because they do not receive their Lord humbly will finally be humiliated by him. Zechariah is humiliated when is speech is taken from him; he’s left in silence to consider God’s surprising way of salvation. The Herods, despite all of their accomplishments, are remembered for their neurotic egos; they become the examples of all that is wrong in the world.

The humiliation experienced by those who reject Jesus is not the result of a petty, vindictive, and insecure God. It is, rather, the natural consequence experienced by those who oppose the very essence of God’s redemption in this world. Because, you see, it’s not that humility is some arbitrary perquisite for salvation. No, our humility places us within the very heart of God’s presence in this world. As Paul writes, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! [Philippians 2:8] Author Brennan Manning, in keeping with this season, puts it this way: On a wintry night, in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.

Our humility in response to the birth of Jesus is an imperfect but essential reflection of the humility of our God. The only one with the rationale for pride instead chose humility so that we could know and be known by God; that we could love and be loved by God. Do not let the birth of the world’s Savior be normal to you this year. Remember your great and desperate need for a Savior. Humble yourself with Mary, with the shepherds, and with the Magi. And if you find humiliating this old, strange, somewhat embarrassing story of God enfleshed as helpless, dependent infant… let even this turn you to the humble God, who for us and our salvation chose the humiliation of our humanity.

Protesting in Ferguson: Logical, Normal, & Christian

After the first protests (in person and online) emerged in response to Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson it was common to hear complaints and confusion about those who protested. I experienced a bit of this misunderstanding and disagreement for some of the things I wrote in the days following the young man’s death. Of course, misunderstandings and disagreements are inevitable and aren’t generally reason enough for me to (re)explain myself. In this case, however, the events in Ferguson along with the pushback provide an opportunity to clarify why I believe protesting the killing in Ferguson is a logical, normal, and Christian response.

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My reading of the Bible provides the understanding of what it means to live as God’s adopted people, including our responses to events like those in Ferguson. There’s nothing especially novel about this; people of faith look to their scriptures and traditions as the basis for their practical ethics. For example, I’ve recently spent time with some Jewish rabbis who have articulated a compelling Biblical rationale why they must advocate for undocumented immigrants. Drawing from their scriptures (the Christian Old Testament) they cannot avoid the mandate to show hospitality and seek justice for the foreigner within our nation’s boundaries.

Photo credit: Brett Myers/Youth Radio
Photo credit: Brett Myers/Youth Radio

But, to be fair, many Christians who highly esteem the Bible saw no need to speak against the events in Ferguson. I think I know why. In the (mostly) white Evangelical world with which I’m familiar it is typical to see the work of justice as peripheral to proclaiming the Gospel. One respected acquaintance recently cautioned that I should take care to keep my Christian priorities right, by which this person meant the clear articulation of the Gospel. Earlier this year another friend approvingly cited Billy Graham’s decision not to involve himself with the Civil Rights Movement because it would have distracted from his singular task of evangelism.

The problem with these separations between evangelism and justice is that the Bible makes no such divisions. The biblical assumption, rather, is that those who have known God’s love will in turn show God’s love, not simply in the individual ways we Americans tend to default toward but also in the corporate and systemic ways so much of the Old Testament is concerned with. So Billy Graham’s decision to avoid the Civil Rights Movement may have won him wider audiences, but his implied message that allegiance to Jesus required no reorienting of prejudices and systemic injustices was at odds with the biblical narrative. It’s hard to see from where in the Scripture one could make the case that such thin conversion is God’s desire or the Christian’s goal.

“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.'” So records Matthew at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the implication being that the has-come-near kingdom would provide the backdrop for his work and words. The kingdom of heaven is seen implicitly in Jesus’ many interactions with those on the margins and more explicitly in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the sheep and the goats. Jesus’ vision of justice will always contradict our own cultural assumptions of justices, but there is no denying that his kingdom is a just kingdom whose citizens express compassion, mercy, and justice even as they proclaim the kingdom’s nearness in Jesus.

All of this, it seems to me, leads Christians to pursue justice as a natural and normal expression of our location within God’s kingdom. Our work of justice will often flounder and many times be ignored by societies bent on efficiency, but we seek justice anyway as a sign to the kingdom that has come near.

Does the apostle Paul’s directive to obey governing authorities in the book of Romans weaken any of this? No. The vision Paul articulates is of governing authorities who exercise equitable judgements and serve the common good. When the governing authorities abuse their God-given power it becomes inevitable that Christians will have to choose Christ’s rule over that of their government. In such moments, Christians will still seek to submit to the authorities even while pushing against their corruption. The non-violent Civil Rights Movement is surely our nation’s clearest experience of this theological vision.

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But what of Ferguson specifically? How do the above convictions play out? Maybe it will be useful to rehearse two of the common complaints I’ve heard about those who protest Michael Brown’s death. The first has to do with the legal process; the second with where those who grieve and protest should instead direct their energies.

About the legal process, some have argued that no protests should have been registered until it is proven whether or not the police officer acted wrongly. It’s a sane point on the surface with a seemingly just logic: the judicial process in our country is the level ensuring that each of us is treated fairly. The problem is that this isn’t the logic of our judicial system. Those of us who don’t know this experientially need only to read a book like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, notice studies like this one about the racial inequities of police searches in Chicago, or push past the pundits to learn of the long history of police misconduct in Ferguson.

Photo credit: Brett Myers/Youth Radio
Photo credit: Brett Myers/Youth Radio

It only makes sense to wait and trust the judicial process if that process has been proven equitable in the past. But it hasn’t. And it isn’t. Consider then how a rebuke to wait sounds to someone who has been run over by a system that purports to serve and protect. When the protestors in Ferguson were told to wait, that justice would be served, it’s likely they were being lied to. Far too often justice has not been served to black and brown people in this country. Why should we assume differently in this case?

This is why, in a previous post, I referred to Michael Brown’s death as a murder. I don’t mean to say that I know that the officer murdered Brown as per a legal definition. But I do know that legal definitions only make sense when they’re applied equally and such equality has thus far eluded our country. And so it is that a young black man like Jordan Davis can be murdered but we can’t bring ourselves to call what the white man did to him murder. Saying that Michael Brown was murdered is a small attempt to tell the truth about a system that lies about the ways that certain groups of citizens suffer and die.

Within this atmosphere of deception and twisted logic it is entirely right for a Christian to protest the death of another unarmed African American man before the judicial process has run its course. When Christians spoke out quickly in Ferguson they were doing two theologically appropriate things. First, they were telling the truth about the ugly system which took Michael Brown’s life. Second, they were giving notice to those leading the legal response to Brown’s death that they were being watched carefully. The judicial system would be held to account, judged by it’s role to issue justice with fairness.

The second complaint about the protestors I’ll consider is the one that chides those protesting for focusing too much on the past. The rationale here, as I understand it, is that while inequalities may exist, it does little good to continue reviewing how these have been expressed in the past, even the very recent past. Rather, those who wish to change their circumstances should focus on their future and do their best despite the odds. This may sound callous, but it’s a sentiment I’ve heard expressed frequently in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.

There are some good reasons why downplaying history is always a bad idea and chief among them is how our present circumstances are unintelligible without a historical view. Ta-Nehesi Coates’ recent essay on housing discrimination is a perfect example of just how important this is. But setting aside such common sense reasons to look to the past, there are two Biblical precedents that should keep Christians from privileging the future over the past. We can first consider the Psalms, which over and over again give voice to a people who are looking to their history and crying to God for justice. These songs open passages of complaint to God, petitioning – even demanding – God’s righteous action on behalf of the suffering. On the other side of this backward look, we also find God’s people looking back to find their culpable role in history. From exile the people, even generations removed from the original sins against God, learn to lament, to identify themselves with those whose injustice and idolatry had mocked God.

In response to Michael Brown’s death, and the history that cannot be separated from it, it is entirely right for Christians of all races to look to the past. For some this look back will prompt the sorts of angry, fist-shaking prayers we find in the Psalms. God’s name will be invoked as protector and judge. Others of us will look back and, if we have eyes to see, will find much to lament. We’ll find ourselves back there and we won’t like what we see. For us the look back will prompt grief, repentance, and an identification with a story we’d previously held at arm’s length.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that generally it’s people from the majority culture who counsel against the historical perspective. We sense that if those who have known the oppressive heel of the society which has benefitted us look back – particularly if they are our Christian kin – we too may be compelled to look back. And maybe we know that when we do, we will be forced to put on new lenses through which to view Michael Brown and others like him.

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There are very understandable reasons, subtly whispered into our society’s ear, why the protestors in Ferguson were quickly discounted and called into question. But, as I hope I’ve reasonably articulated here, for the Christian, there are far better reasons to see past these uncreative and repetitive deceits and to respond to injustice boldly in light of the kingdom that is drawing near through Jesus.

Life in the City: Why not Give Up?

A lot of people were shot to death in Chicago this holiday weekend. A whole lot more were shot and survived. I won’t mention how many suffered because the numbers are obscene and the individuals who died deserve more than our passing obsession. Even a city that is accustomed to violence and death feels this weight. I sat in two different rooms yesterday with veteran community leaders who have lived with death for a long time. These women and men whom I respect and look to for direction sighed heavily and paused longer than normal as they mentioned the weekend’s shame.

There’s a question that comes up during these moments, sometimes spoken and often implied: Why not give up? The pastors, organizers, and neighborhood leaders I spend time with don’t have to give themselves to this work of compassion and justice. They could do other things. They could pursue jobs with observable metrics of success.

I don’t know how most of these folks would answer the question, but it’s been important that I have a way to answer- something that makes sense of these heavy and sad days while providing the rationale to stay present in the city.

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State St & 35th St, looking south.

In The Meaning of the City (1970) Jaques Ellul makes the theological point that the city is the systematized and entrenched sin and rebellion humanity experiences on an individual level. That is, the curse of sin that we each know is writ large in the city, something to which we contribute and by which we are destroyed. We may search for solutions for the city’s problems but, “while the search is going on, the vampire does its work and calls for more fresh blood. And new throngs of men take up residence under the rule of the curse.”

There has recently been a return to American cities by young people – white, mostly – who are reversing the migrations of their parents and grandparents. They are, as best I can tell, interested in what the city has to offer by way of experience and opportunity. The Christians among them often want to show compassion to those on the margins of the city. Both groups, according to Ellul, misread the city and its designs. The city is not neutral. “[W]e must admit that the city is not just a collection of houses with ramparts, but also a spiritual power.” The new urban dwellers can miss how cities intend to (de)form them.

Some of Ellul’s readers mistake him for being a pessimist, but that’s incorrect. Toward the end of the book, after showing again and again how the city opposes God’s intentions for the flourishing of all people, Ellul reminds the reader that the Bible ends not with a return to a garden in Eden but in a city.

God involves himself in an adventure completely different, for from this very city he is going to make the new Jerusalem. Thus we can observe God’s strange progress: Jerusalem becomes Babylon, Babel is restored to the status of a simple city, and this city becomes the city of the the living God. [Emphasis mine.]

This is, of course, the Gospel: rather than requiring humanity’s return to Eden, God inhabits our systems of rebellion and allows them to run their natural and violent course over his sinless body. His sacrifice makes real a future where our embodied collusion against God becomes God’s dwelling and ours.

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Mural across from Reavis Elementary School.

Why not give up? Depending on one’s starting point, the question may not make much sense. For the person who came to the city for an urban experience or to make a noticeable difference the question and its variants will eventually become unavoidable. It will also become increasing difficult to answer with anything resembling joy. But Ellul – for whom humor is one of the evidences of the Christian’s presence in the city – proposes a different vocation for the urban Christian. Our call is simply to represent Christ “in the heart of the city.” We are not builders and we do not judge our success by the work of our hands. We bear witness to the crucified and resurrected Christ who will one day make the city his home.

Would we consider giving up our witness to Christ? For this is what the city-dwelling Christian is called to.

There is freedom here from the city’s tyranny. First, we are free from they tyranny of success. Among people who only affirm that which is measurable, Christians can remain present in the city regardless of perceived successes. Success for us has only to do with our faithful witness to Jesus, a work that is, by its very nature, impossible and dripping with grace because of its impossibility. We succeed in this witness-bearing vocation inasmuch as we confess our failure at it. Second, we are free from the tyranny of time. The Christian holds together the seemingly opposite convictions that the city is beyond our abilities to save and will one day become the symbol of God’s salvation. Yet this is no reason for isolating resignation. Worshipping a God beyond time inculcates us with humility about the ways we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can remain faithfully present, submitted to God’s presence, without the need to judge the efficiency of our presence. Rather, we admit our ultimate inability to judge such efficiency.

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Promontory Point, looking north.

In his essay, The Harlem Ghetto (1949), James Baldwin wrote about the Biblical passages that oriented his father, a pastor, in a city that was bent on his destruction. “The favorite text of my father, among the most earnest of ministers, was not ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what the do,’ but ‘How can I sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?'” Baldwin’s father was echoing the question of Psalm 137 asked by a people in exile. The Christian who abides in the city who has not asked this question is, we can assume, still enchanted by the city’s many idols. But for those with eyes to see and to those who are the city’s special focus of destruction the question is inevitable. God, Ellul writes, has an answer to this question found in Jeremiah 29. “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you find your welfare…”

In these ways – simple but never simplistic and certainly never naive – we bear witness to Jesus in the city. We can speak truthfully of the city’s many horrors without being overcome. Though mobility is a societal value that can hardly be questioned, the Christian can and does question it, choosing to remain in this particular city unless the Spirit of God scatters us elsewhere- a call, we can assume, that will never be about our personal convenience though it will never be without joy.

A Sermon: Hope That Sustains

Last Sunday I preached from the lectionary passages for the second Sunday of Advent. A couple of days before preaching our church learned of a tragic car crash in Malawi that claimed the lives of three people. These three had become incredibly close with members of a youth group and leaders that we sent to Malawi this summer to help at a youth camp. This was at the forefront of my mind as I wrote this sermon.

We have said that Advent makes plain the gap between how things are and how they will be. After the tragic news this week from Malawi we remember how large the gap can seem.

In Romans 15:4-13 we hear three words repeatedly that we in-between people should pay attention to: endurance, encouragement, & hope. The passage begins, For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

This week Nelson Mandela was rightly remembered as a man who embodied these three words. He was a man who endured, who encouraged those around him, and who maintained hope. We rightly celebrate this man and these traits but, as we’ve seen, it can be easy to forget the extent of the hurt & wickedness that called forth these traits. In order to endure, there must be opposition. In order to be encouraged, there must be reason for discouragement. In order to hope, there must be despair in the atmosphere.

At first glance, our passage seems seems devoid of such opposition, discouragement, and despair.

 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

It’s an amazing claim Paul makes: Jesus Christ becomes a servant to God’s people. That is, he takes onto himself Israel’s vocation to bless the world as well as Israel’s sin, rebellion, and exile. By fulfilling Israel’s vocation, Jesus completes the promises made to Abraham that his children would be God’s way of rescuing the world. Paul says that, because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the Gentiles – the nations – have been included in God’s family. They too glorify God for his mercy. It’s an amazing summary of Christ’s accomplishment, worthy of the praise, rejoicing, and exultation Paul quotes from the Old Testament.

So why then does our passage begin with the focus on endurance, encouragement, and hope? And why does it end with a double reminder of our desperate need to hang onto hope?

For Paul the reason to press the Roman church toward endurance has to do with the very real stuff of life:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

It may be true that Jesus fulfilled God’s promises of rescue and redemption, but the women and men of the early church in Rome are in the middle of living out these promises. It’s a beautiful thing to talk about enemies being reconciled until you are faced with living alongside your former adversary. It’s nice to talk about cultural diversity until you can no longer assume that your culture is valued and accepted. It’s well and good to aspire to reconciled relationships until we experience what it’s like to give someone else a voice in our life.

So here it is: at the center of the passage is the glorious vision of God’s rescue of humanity; of the Son of God reconciling all things; of the sinless Savior becoming sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  And on the margins of the passage is the acknowledgement that we live in a world that pulls against God’s love; is an acknowledgement that we live in a city with division in its DNA; is an acknowledgement that relationships – every single one of our relationships – are sometimes hard, and bent toward separation; is an acknowledgement that opposition, discouragement, and despair are closer to us than we’d like to admit.

To come at this from another angle: Advent reminds us that we live between the Messiah’s victory and his vindication; we live between the resurrection and the return; we live between the empty grave and the end of all graves. We live in between; in the gap.

We, of all people, are in need of endurance, encouragement and hope. We have been rescued by a Savior who calls us to follow him. Our following – our discipleship – takes place within the real world- the real messy, confusing, beautiful, tiring, world. Ours is a Savior who went to the poor, to the sick, to the forgotten, to the oppressed, to his enemies.

So, following this Savior in this world means that Christians will regularly come face to face with corrupt government policies; with students with the least amount of support and resources; with hungry people, tired people, thirsty people. Following this Savior in this world means honoring all people as integrated image bearers of God regardless of how naïve a notion that sounds to our neighbors. Following this Savior in this world means choosing to stay in the neighborhood when others move out. Following this Savior in this world means identifying with the invisible members of our society: the child struggling to read; the sex worker; the widow in the apartment down the hall; the young man in prison; the newly arrived refugee family with no possessions and no English. Following this Savior in this world means stewarding our privilege and power for the good of others. Following this Savior in this world means choosing quiet generosity over identity-forming consumerism.

Following this Savior in this world might mean traveling to Malawi to serve young people only to be trapped on the other side of the world when you learn the worst possible news.

Do you need encouragement? Endurance? Hope? If you are a disciple of Jesus following him within a broken world the answer will always be yes. Yes!

We can’t be surprised when we feel tired, discouraged, or even on the edge of despair. There are those well-meaning people who will tell you that your faith in Jesus is meant to protect you from these hard experiences and emotions. I get this. In the face of the deaths in Malawi this week I am tempted this morning to say things that sound good. To say that tragedy is the exception. To say that bad things don’t generally happen to good people. To say that your lives moving forward will be marked mostly by happiness rather than the sadness that cloaks your hearts today.

These are the moments – death, layoffs, abandonment, and betrayal – that have us looking around for a soothing dose of spirituality. Something to numb the pain that has our stomach twisted. A mantra we can repeat when we can’t sleep. These moments have us looking for a distraction of some sort.

But let’s not get it twisted. Following this Savior in this world requires endurance not distraction. Following this Savior in this world requires hearts and minds that are en-couraged not numbed to reality. Following this Savior in this world requires robust and clear-eyed hope not wispy spiritual clichés.

If our Savior cried out from the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – than we must know and expect our faith to bring us to the very edge of the cracks and shadows of this world. Our Savior went to the depths of Hades for us and our salvation. Should we not expect our crucified Savior to lead us to the hells on this earth, bearing cups of cold water and words of life?

Here is a hard word: a Christian’s life will be characterized by pain, suffering, and tragedy. Not only these, of course. And not always. We worship a resurrected Savior who will return. There is faith, hope, and love running through our veins. But in these days, in this world, following this Savior, we must expect to confront and be confronted by the weight of a groaning and suffering world.

Do you need encouragement? Endurance? Hope? Like the early church in Rome, the answer is Yes. Of course. For the encouragement and endurance they desperately need, Paul points to the Scriptures.

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

More specifically, Paul points the Roman church to a well-known passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.

[Isaiah 11:1-10] 1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord— and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 10 In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious.

At first this passages sounds too fantastical for the real stuff of discipleship. Why does Paul point the Roman church here for endurance? What does a world where wolves and lambs get along have to do with our very real disappointments and grief?

We must remember that Isaiah is writing to a frightened people; Israel had fallen in 722; Judah stood vulnerable among competing superpowers; Jerusalem was besieged. In other words, Isaiah was writing to a people with no tolerance for fantasy or empty promises.

Our first clue of this is that Isaiah refers to the once proud Israelites as a stump: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse. Their former glory had been squandered; idols and nationalism had captured their hearts. The vocation to bless the world had been traded for self-interest. Referring to Israel as a stump is no metaphor for something that looks bad but is actually good. No- this is just bad. Where there had been life there was now death. A stump serves only as evidence of the past, of what once had been.

But the image quickly shifts. There is life here. A shoot rises; roots descend; a branch bears fruit. What had seemed to be the end proves to be a new beginning. There is salvation. Or, rather, there is a Savior.

This Savior will be marked by the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament the Spirit was given occasionally, for specific assignments. But here – 4 times – Isaiah makes plain that this Savior cannot be separated from God’s Spirit.

We begin to glimpse a Savior unlike any other the world has known. And then we hear that “he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will want what God wants. He will love what God loves. He will desire what God desires. He will be the one who one day would tell his disciples,

[John 5:19-20] Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.

He would face the suffering of the cross and abandon himself to the Father’s will. He would face the unthinkable choice of betrayal, abandonment, injustices, and suffering on the cross by relinquishing himself to the Father: Not my will but yours be done.

What sort of a Savior is this? Isaiah calls him a judge. But he will not judge by superficial evidence: not by what eyes see or ears here. He will not be swayed. He will fulfill the vocation of a just and righteous king. Like ancient kings were meant to do, he will represent the poor and needy. He will be free of politics and favors.

He will speak with power; a power that one day would cause the crowds to be “amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority.” He will be known for righteousness – doing right in all circumstances; and faithfulness- dependable and true.

Clearly this Savior could not be an ordinary king: He would be born by the Holy Spirit; new life in a barren wilderness. He would perfectly represent God the Father. If you could but see and know him you could know the transcendent Creator God. He would be a righteous judge; beholden to no special interest; no campaign contributions; no powerful lobbyists. The poor and needy would find dignity and relief under his rule.

His words would bring life. He would be the Word become flesh. In him would be righteousness and faithfulness come to life. His life would make righteousness possible for unrighteous people; faithfulness a characteristic of faithless and unfaithful people.

Isaiah shows us what this Savior is like; he shows us what he does; then – in this otherworldly poem – he shows us the results of this Savior’s arrival. Eugene Peterson translates the passage like this:

The wolf will romp with the lamb, the leopard sleep with the kid. Calf and lion will eat from the same trough, and a little child will tend them. Cow and bear will graze the same pasture, their calves and cubs grow up together, and the lion eat straw like the ox. The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens, the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent. Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill on my holy mountain. The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.

Here, under the righteous and faithful rule of Root of Jesse, is a world without fear: the wolf and lamb; leopard and goat; calf and lion; cow and bear together. Here is a world where you Come home alone at night without fear. You have that conversation with your dad without fear. You Look toward your children’s’ future without fear. You walk down that street to school without fear. You visit your aunt in the hospital without fear. You sit alone in silence without fear.

But there is a particular fear that Isaiah has in mind in these stanzas: The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. I viscerally recoil from this image because I know the result: death. The images of predator and prey and children play near poisonous snakes are images of death. Yet even this fear – humanity’s greatest fear – is neutralized under this Savior’s reign.

It comes down to this: As a result of this Savior’s victory, death will no longer have the final say. This is why Paul pointed the Roman church to Isaiah.

Here they were reminded of the time before their Messiah’s birth when the people longed for his arrival and liberation. They were reminded too of the one-day culmination of his victory on the cross- a day when death itself will be vanquished.

But maybe even this sounds lacking when we are facing opposition, discouragement, or despair. Are we meant to simply take comfort in the fact that one day things will be better? Is a one-day hope as good as it gets?

Listen to the last verse in our passage:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is not a one-day hope. The call is not to endure because eventually things will be better. We are not to be encouraged only because of what the future holds. Yes, our future is bright. Yes, we endure the present like our Savior did, for the joy set before us. Yes, we can hold onto courage knowing how the story ends. But the hope we see here is a present hope. A hope that overflows.

The almost unbelievable hope that is available to us now is that though we live in-between; though we live in the gap between how things are and how they will be; our audacious hope is that we can live now without fear, including the fear of death.

It is the hope that sustained Paul through all manner of opposition. It is the hope that has sustained the saints over the generations who lived outside the long shadow of death. It was the hope of those who died in Malawi.

It is our hope.

About this cruciform hope J. Heinrich Arnold wrote,

Jesus’s life began in a stable and ended on the cross between two criminals.  The Apostle Paul said he wanted to proclaim nothing but this crucified Christ.  We, too, have nothing to hold on to except this Christ.  We must ask ourselves again and again: Are we willing to go his way, from the stable to the cross?  As disciples we are not promised comfortable and good times.  Jesus says we must deny ourselves and suffer with him and for him.  That is the only way to follow him, but behind it lies the glory of life — the glowing love of God, which is so much greater than our hearts and our lives. 

Following this Savior in this world requires facing our greatest fears. But only by following this Savior can we live without fear.

Following this Savior in this world will lead us into tragedies and frights and disappointments. Following this Savior in this world will lead us to opposition, discouragement, and at times to the very edge of despair. Yet, it is only in following this Savior that we know freedom from fear, even the oldest and deepest fears, including death itself. We will follow Jesus through the tragedies and find that the tragedy cannot claim us. We will follow Jesus through the dry wilderness and find the river of life. We will follow Jesus through death itself and find that he has already gone before us, that there is abundant and eternal life on the other side.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.