Reclaiming Jesus: Affirmations 5 and 6 – “MAGA,” “America First,” and “Jesus is Lord”i

21 07 2018

Reclaiming(These are the shortened versions of my last two sermons in this series.)

“Are we smoking what we’re selling!”

That’s how the young pastor tried to get us thinking about whether or not we were . . . practicing what we preach.  He was leading one of the sessions at a conference I attended back at Princeton Seminary a few months ago, and still today, when I reflect on what he said, I have to laugh.

“Are we smoking, what we’re selling!”

When he said it, I looked at the friend sitting next to me, smiled, and thought “Wow, things sure have changed . . . even at Princeton Seminary.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to his topic – namely, Evangelism – I don’t think ANYthing has changed.  We Presbyterians still struggle with one of the most basic elements of our faith – sharing it!  We all know it’s important, and that doing so is central to taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  But actually doing it – living that out – well, that’s another story.

Now if you’ve actually read the text of “Reclaiming Jesus: A confession of faith in a time of crisis”, which we’ve been studying for the past several weeks now, then you’re probably saying to yourself, “Wait a minute Bob, I don’t remember seeing anything in there about evangelism.”  But I am more and more convinced that is precisely what affirmation number five is all about: “We believe that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination.”

The entire statement is actually a little longer, but this portion sums it all up very nicely; and I’m realizing more and more that really is where evangelism begins . . . with our learning what it means to be a servant.

You see, too many of us think that evangelism is all about telling people what they need to believe. We approached them with this “I’ve got something you need, that I’m going to tell you all about, so that you can have it too.”  That is the nature of much of today’s evangelistic world – it’s a top-down, over-and-above, I-know-it-all, western-savior, way of approaching others.  And that kind of evangelistic fervor tends to make our faith into little more than an intellectual exercise: a head thing, that involves knowledge, and mental ascent to a certain set of Biblical or theological truths, but that in the long run really fails to help people to connect to the God in which we live and move and have our being, or to the Spirit that is burning within each human heart.

But what if this morning’s 5th affirmation can show us another way to be about our evangelistic activity?  What if we replaced the ‘let me tell you what I know’ . . . or ‘let me give you what I already have’ way of approaching others, with something else . . . something a little less offensive?  What if we  replaced what is a very western and American ‘domination’ style of evangelism, with something a little different?

You see the way of Jesus was never about domination; rather it was about servanthood.  And these days in particular, serving others seems to have given way to the powers of domination in ways that are doing tremendous damage, and in all kinds of tragic ways!  And so it is critical for us in the Church to once again, revisit the subject of servanthood, and particularly as it relates to evangelism.

I have to believe that if James and John knew that this story about their encounter with Jesus read this morning, was still being told today, they would be completely embarrassed.  Because there’s no way to tell it, or interpret it, in a manner that doesn’t make them look extremely arrogant and egotistical.  Scripture tells us in other places that they, along with Peter, were perhaps a little closer to Jesus than the other 9 disciples . . . and here, by asking for the two most important places of honor in the coming kindom, it’s like they’re just trying rub the faces of their friends in that reality.  They’re trying to upstage them, and confirm how close they really are to Jesus . . . how much better they are than everyone else.  And those feelings are exposed for all the world to see, which is kinda’ embarassing.

In fact, interestingly, when Matthew copies this story, and tells it in his version of the Gospel, he doesn’t have James and John asking for these seats of honor.  He has their mother, Salome, do it.  Mom is the one who is made to look a little arrogant, and pushy.

But what is particularly awkward in Mark is that this encounter with the Zebedee brothers comes right after Jesus had been talking about humility, and his impending death.  So having this kind of a conversation had to have been a little disheartening for him.  First, there was not even the slightest bit of humility in their request; and second, the disciples still didn’t appear to be even remotely interested in talking with Jesus about his dying.  So Jesus had to have wondered when his friends were going to catch on.  They were so painfully clueless, and for so long, that he had to have wondered when they were going to realize that in God’s kindom, greatness was not measured the way it’s measured in the world!

And the same is true today.  Greatness is not determined by how high one is exalted above everyone else; by audacious displays of wealth and power.  Being great is not measured by our ability to oppress of others; name-calling, and putting others down, so that we might be lifted up.  Being great is not about haughty demands for loyalty, or respect; and certainly it is never built on the persecution or demonization of others.  Being great, at least according to Jesus, begins with humility and ends with servanthood.

And when we think about this in terms of a new model of evangelism, I think it might become not just a little easier, but a little more like the way of Jesus.

So what if, rather than thinking of sharing our faith as telling people about Jesus, or even inviting them to worship . . . what if rather than trying to tactfully broach the subject of God, or Jesus; or thinking that we have to be ready to answer all of peoples’ questions about the Bible, and since we’re Presbyterian, predestination . . . what if in place of all that we just understood evangelism as learning to serve others?

We live in a culture where domination is encouraged, admired, and rewarded.  Everyone seems to be about gaining power, and lauding it over everyone else.  But that was never the way of the Christ.  And still today, it should never be the way of Christ followers.

Affirmation 6 is perhaps the hardest portion of this new confession for me to deal with, primarily because it speaks so bluntly to the political situation in which we find ourselves today.  It reads as follows:  We believe Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations and make disciples.  Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. (So) we in turn should (then) love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.  Therefore, we reject “America First” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ; (for) while we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that place one nation over others as a political goal.

 Those are hard words for me to utter from this pulpit!  Not because I don’t believe them, or because it is in any way inappropriate for them to spoken here in a place of Christian worship; but because they point to the countercultural aspect of the Gospel that makes many of us extremely uncomfortable.  Most of you I think know that I am quick to say all the time that we are citizens of heaven before we are ever citizens of the United States of America; but rejecting the idea of “America First” – and actually saying that out loud – so sounds so harsh, and a week after we just celebrated the 4th of July, so . . . unpatriotic.

So let me point out this confession of faith is not born in any kind of disrespect, or resentment towards, our country, a country that we ALL love.  Rather, it comes from a place of honest discernment, as people of faith attempt to wrestle with what it means to truly confess that Jesus is Lord!  Because that statement challenges the patriotic allegiances of citizens of every country, and it is far more political than we sometimes realize or want to admit.

You see, that title, Lord, is a political title.  I know that today we want to think of it as being spiritual; but 2000 years ago, that was simply not the case.  In fact throughout the Bible as a whole, the concept of ‘Lord’ is extremely political.  The title King, was, and remains, a political title!  And those titles, and a few others like them, were given to Jesus because they were the faith community’s attempt to say that their allegiance was to God, before any Emperor that might be sitting on any earthly throne . . . in Rome, or anywhere else.  And that was a concept important to any profession of faith.  Empire theology was so prevalent, and the call to an allegiance to Rome was so strong, that Jesus’ message was all about shifting peoples’ attention from the state, to God.  And so whether we like it or not, Gospel was, and remains, extremely political.

Now interestingly, there are two words that we have to consider this morning, that actually have a great deal in common: and they are religion and politics.  The Latin word ‘religio’ means to reconnect: that’s what religion, and spirituality, seek to do – they reconnect us to someone more, something greater, something beyond us!  The word ‘polis’, from which we get the world politics, means city or public forum where people come together and     . . . reconnect.  You see religion and politics are BOTH about people connecting, and how we actually do that! They address our life together, life in community, and thus in so many ways are really inseparable.

While we in this country advocate the separation of church and state, we do not, we cannot, ever, advocate a separation between faith and politics.  And there’s a huge difference. You see, if we truly believe that our faith is at the very heart of who we are, then it must impact and affect everything about it, including our politics.

So while we may not want to push our Church traditions, rituals, or practices on others, there are basic beliefs that people of all faith hold in common, and that when agreed upon, can rightly become law.  And that is not forbidden by any American concept of the separation of Church and State.  That separation was designed NOT to keep people from exercising moral or ethical propositions, but rather it was designed to safeguard religious freedom, and to ensure that our government would never be dominated by a single religion’s practices or traditions.  But as far as out faith goes, that MUST impact our politics.  Because both are all about how we do life together; and for Christ-followers, both must be about the way of Jesus.

So while we need to vehemently avoid partisanship in the Body of Christ, politics is something else altogether: for the Gospel is nothing, if it’s not political.  And that’s the first thing that needs to be acknowledged as we consider affirmation number six this morning.  Scripture’s use of political titles for Jesus, and the symbiotic relationship between religion and politics, means that as people of faith and followers of Jesus, we MUST be dealing with the issues surrounding our life together.  How we treat others is at the heart of both what it means to religious, and what it means to be political.

Second, let’s take this a little further.  The ‘life together’, about which we are called to be concerned, both religiously and politically, knows no boundaries.  Jesus tells his disciples to go to ALL the nations, not just to Israel.  Why?  Because God’s concern is everyone – all people, everywhere.  Our faith impacts not just how we treat Americans, but how we treat everyone . . . because . . . we are citizens of God’s kindom before we are citizens of America.

So that means that we’re not just concerned about the kids over in our nursery this morning; but we’re also concerned about the kids who have yet to be united with their parents down on our southern border, and the kids who were just miraculously rescued from that cave in Thailand. We’re not just interested in alleviating homelessness in America’s inner cities or the unemployment impacting rural America.  We also want to address the homelessness on the streets of Moscow, Mumbai, and Manila; and the 95% unemployment rate in Zimbabwe, and the 77% unemployment rate in Burkina Faso.  We are not just concerned about American women saying “Me too” and standing up to the sexism here in this country; but we’re also called to stand with the women being oppressed in so much of Arab world, and any place where women are still being marginalized and not allowed to have control over their own lives.

You see, we are not just members of the Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church family.  We’re part of the larger community of Alexandria.  We’re part of National Capital Presbytery, and a denomination, that exists all around this country . . . and the world.  And because Presbyterians are just part of the Church . . . because there are Southern Baptists in Texas, and Mennonites in Pennsylvania;  and because there are Coptic Christians in Egypt, and Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Ukraine . . . AND, perhaps more importantly, because a person’s faith is really irrelevant when it comes to the way we treat them . . . we need to be thinking all people, everywhere!  Because we are part of the human family, that exists in every corner of the globe, we have no choice but to see beyond our national borders.  So any action or behavior that in any way does harm to ANYONE, ANYWHERE, even when some would have us believe it is in our ‘national interest’, must be challenged by the Body of Christ.  For our concern is not just for America, but for the world – not just for Americans, but for all of God’s children, everywhere!

Friends, our family . . . our siblings in Christ . . . the human family . . . takes us way beyond the redwood forests and the Gulf stream waters.  National boarders mean little, if anything, when it comes to the Kindom of God.  And that doesn’t mean that Christ-followers shouldn’t be good Americans, or good citizens of whatever country we may call home; but it does mean that we are citizens of God’s kindom before we are citizens anywhere else.

When it comes to the Gospel, and Jesus’ call to go to ALL nations, the root of that challenge is the reality that all people matter to our God.  American’s?  Yes!  But also Nigerians and Cameroonians, Ecuadorians and Brazilians, Palestinians and Jordanians, Iraqis and Afghanis.  And as far as whose first?  Well, before we attempt to answer that, we would do well to these words of Jesus: “many who are first will be last, and many who are last, will be first.”

So let’s go to all the nations, and not with the message “America First,” but with a different message . . . one more in line with the message of the one we call Lord.

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Reclaiming Jesus: Affirmation #4

20 07 2018

Reclaiming

I hate the feeling of being constrained.  Clothes that are too clingy and tight, and small, confined spaces: they feel like strait jackets to me, and at times bring me to the brink of what I imagine a panic attack to be like?

Well in this morning’s Scripture reading from the Gospel of John we discover that sin is kinda’ like that.  Like a strait jacket, it enslaves us; binding our hearts and minds, souls and spirits, in ways we don’t even realize.  The lies it tells cages our very beings, and negatively impact everything about us: which is why the 9th commandment is so important for us – not bearing false witness, not lying, or being untruthful – because to live according to that which is simply not true hurts us and those around us.

By contrast, truth frees us; and as the people of God we are called to honor and respect facts, and honesty; and not doing so is like living life in a strait jacket.

Biblical scholar Walter Bruggeman, in speaking on the 4th affirmation in “Reclaiming Jesus: A confession of faith in a time of crisis” several weeks ago, said that what this commandment means is that we shall not create fake worlds in which to dwell, simple because it may appear convenient . . . and, that on a national level, ”as long as we dwell in a culture of lies, we will never be the land of the free and the home of the brave, but rather the land of the frightened and the home of the anxious.”

Friends this is our new confession’s fourth affirmation: We believe that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives.  Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  (John 8:32)  Therefore, we reject the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life . . . (for it’s normalization) presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society.”

Now this particular affirmation was obviously included because everyone seems to think that everyone else is lying these days.  A while we all might have different ideas about who is or isn’t telling the truth – I hope we can all agree that lying . . . is simply not a healthy way for anyone to live.  And the Gospel according to John, as well as several other passages throughout our Scripture, make it very clear truthful living is right living; and a culture of lies violates that.  It is nothing less than sinful, and this is the great concern being lifted up in the 8th chapter of John’s Gospel.

Clearly, the writers of this creedal statement that we’re looking at are very concerned with the spoken lies that are so freely coming from all segments of our public life today; but this particular passage goes deeper than that.  The words read this morning are not so much about the kinds of lies public officials tell when they’re trying to get away with something they know is wrong, or when they don’t want anyone to know what they’re really doing. That’s what bearing false witness is all about, addressed in the ninth commandment.  And while that is most certainly a valid concern today; John is pushing us even further.

The Greek word “ale’thia” is more about ideas, and a deeper sense of moral rightness – that’s the truth that the writer of John has Jesus addressing in this morning’s passage.  And for us Presbyterians, settling on what this truth is doesn’t need to be as hard as we might think.  Because our Confessional Statements and our denomination’s constitution tell us that there really is only one truth around which we seek to build our lives; and it is evident in the most basic question that is asked of anyone joining a PCUSA congregation: “Who is your Lord and Savior?”

That’s the only question our constitution says we need to ask of new and potential members.  Who is your Lord and Savior?  Because for us, Jesus is our truth!  And it is that truth that can, and should, unite us.  And the when that is our reality, we find freedom.  But when it’s not, and when we allow other things to govern the way we live our lives; that is when lies and untruth wrap their sinful and claustrophobic tentacles around us, binding and enslaving us in falsehoods that harm, and kill, and destroy.

Unlike the other three affirmations that we’ve considered over the past few weeks, this concept is so very basic that I can’t help but wonder why it’s so difficult.  You see the truth that sets us free is that simple truth that Jesus is Lord – and when we seek to live that out, when we seek to make Jesus Lord, when we seek to walk in his way . . . we find freedom.

So what has happened to us?  What has happened to our understanding of the way of Jesus?  How can there be so much conflict about what that means, or what it looks like?  How much further apart can we get from one another?  How much more polarized can we become when it comes to something that is really so very simple?

We all know that in some instances, truth is indeed a matter of perspective.  And we see this in the political world all the time.  Statistics are offered, and statements are made that are indeed true, but that can sometimes lead us to conclusions that are not!  The truth is skewed in ways that lead us and others to untruths. Never the less, is it really that hard for us to put our lives alongside of the life of Jesus, and see where things match up, and where they don’t?  Is that really all that difficult to do?

If what we’re doing is not loving, it is not of God.  Period.  That’s his way.  “The greatest of these is love . . .” – have we not heard that enough . . . that is Jesus’ way . . . and that is the only thing that can unite such a polarized world?

A friend of mine recently shared this statement: “Earth isn’t heaven.  So lower your expectations!”

And when I read it, I thought . . . what?  Are you kidding me?  Because I’m not sure it’s possible to get any further away from Jesus’ desire for creation?

When he walked this earth he himself told us to pray that . . . God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Jesus never would have wanted anyone, to ever, lower their expectations of heaven on earth!  It’s what our Presbyterian understanding of something called “participatory eschatology” is all about.  However one understands heaven, it involves a new earth here and now; and we, the people of God, believe that we have been called to partner with all that the Spirit is already doing to make that a reality.  This is what it means to say that Jesus is Lord.  In such a statement we’re declaring that this is God’s world, and so we need to live accordingly . . . never lowering our expectations but raising them, always seeking God’s greater desires for this world.  And any theology that regards faithful living that is in any way lowering our expectations, and making salvation into a mere escape plan from the brokenness of earth so that we can get somewhere else, up in the heavens . . . well that line of thinking simply lacks theological integrity.

Howard Thurman, a Black man raised in the south early in the 20th century, and today one of America’s finest theologians, talks about Jesus message and ministry being all about the transformation of this world: never lowering our expectations, but always seeking greater obedience and faithfulness, justice and love.  His life was all about siding with and caring for the poor, and seeking to lift up all people, but particularly those on the margins.  Because that’s what Jesus did.

Thurman writes in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited” that “Christianity, as it was born in the mind of (Jesus, a) Jewish teacher and thinker, appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.”  And what he means is that Jesus knew that the world could change if people were willing to change.  But think about the implications of change.

Change may sound good to the “have-nots.”  But that “haves”?  For them, for us, change risks our becoming a “have-not.”  So for us, it’s far safer to talk about change, and the rewards of heaven, as being somewhere in the afterlife!  THAT’S the place where things will change.  Not here!

And so it begins – the Church’s attempt to hang onto power and control and privilege and wealth.  Heaven becomes a promise for life in the here-after; and all those powerful Biblical images of justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness becoming an everlasting stream . . . here: they are all moved from this world, and placed in the next.

Which is why, friends, you have so much talk in oppressed communities about crossing the Jordan, and chariots swinging low to carry people home.  Until oppressed people began recapturing Jesus’ theology of liberation, salvation was about going to heaven.  But the truth of our faith, and the freedom that is at the heart of the Gospel: they are for all people, here and now.  And that is the truth to which all of us need to be giving our lives.

People like my friend will continue to try and keep us thinking that this is the best we can do; and that we need to just lower our expectations until we get to heaven.  They will continue to preach a privileged Gospel, that allows those in power to remain in power, and those with wealth to keep their wealth; assuring everyone else that the depth of their struggle in this life will one day be matched by the freedom . . . of heaven.  So just wait, be patient.  Wife, being abused by your husband, just wait!  Father, burying your young black son, way too soon, be patient!  Immigrant, fleeing gang-violence that s threatening your life and the life of your family . . . just hang on and be patient.  Patience is a virtue, a gift that we all need to learn to cultivate.  Have we forgotten that blessed are the persecuted?  Did we forget that suffering produces endurance, and endurance character?

Friends, the truth of the Gospel that sets us free, and that has the capacity to restore the moral fabric of not just of our nation, but of the world, is that Jesus alone is Lord!  He alone is our firm foundation, and the only truth worth embracing; and anything and everything else that in anyway denies that, is a lie!

This morning’s closing hymn is all about twisted values; and when I reflect on the days in which we’re living, I’m not sure there is a more relevant hymn in our hymnal.  As I indicated last week, our government, made up of leaders we’ve elected, from both political parties, is failing us.  So send  thoughts and prayers, resist and protest if that your calling, but most importantly . . . lets seek and proclaim the truth that sets us free!  Let’s live out what many of us believe to be the very first creed of Christianity, that “Jesus is Lord”.  And let’s do that by pursuing holy justice, by seeking righteous peace, by displaying extravagant love, and by just . . . telling the truth . . . for God’s sake, Amen.

 





Reclaiming Jesus: Affirmation #3

15 07 2018

Reclaiming

This is the third modified version of a sermon preached at MVPC on “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a time of Crisis” and the third affirmation could not be more relevant:  the treatment of immigrants.  It reads:

“We believe how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal”, is a test of our relationship to God.  Therefore, we reject . . . language and policies (that) debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God.  (And) we strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees, who are being made into cultural and political targets . . .”

This affirmation, along with the countless other creedal statements, hymns, and Scripture passages, remind us that what we do to others . . . we do to Jesus.  And they’re all in agreement: the way we treat the immigrant, the foreigner, and the refugee, is a signpost of our faith.

While there are a variety of issues that divide the Church – everything from abortion rights to gun control, from the meaning of the sacraments to efficacy of prayer – when it comes to the issue before us this morning, the treatment of immigrants, there is simply no wiggle room.  Our faith is very clear.

Exodus tells us – you shall not oppress an immigrant.  Leviticus says – the immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you.  In Deuteronomy we read – cursed be anyone who deprives the immigrant of justice; and in Jeremiah – do no wrong or violence to the immigrant.  So put these passages of Scripture alongside of Jesus’ own experiences as an immigrant and with immigrants, and the 92 times he tells us to love our neighbor, and it becomes very clear that there is only one way to understand our faith’s teachings about the treatment of immigrants.

Is it any wonder that so many faith communities here in American and around the world have been outraged by all that is currently going on our southern border in recent weeks?  And if taking children away from their parents is not enough to offend our sense of discipleship, and basic human decency, then surely using the Bible to try and justify such action, should.  The proof texting that has been used by so many professing Christ-followers, with the very same verses of Scripture employed by the Church 200 years ago to justify slavery and 75 years ago as a means to encourage the support of Nazism, is just one more reason why so many are walking away from the institutional church today.  Because people know, that holy words, read and applied in a manner that lead to actions which deny or betray the love, grace, and mercy of God, must always be rejected.

Perhaps, like some of you, I would love a Scripture that put some parameters on the way we’re supposed to treat the stranger and alien among us.  But it just doesn’t!  As with most issues related to our caring for the lost and the least, God doesn’t offer any qualifiers.  Jesus never says, “Feed the hungry, unless . . . they’re lazy.”  He never says, “Clothe the naked, unless . . . they keep having kids that they can’t really afford to take care of.”  He never says “care for the immigrant, and the refugee, unless . . . they cross your borders illegally.”

No!  As hard as it makes things, Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook that way . . . ever!  And so this morning’s creeds, hymns, and Scripture are all calling US to take the lead when it comes to all that is going on in our country today.  And by ‘us’, please know I’m not talking about one particular party over and above the other.  When I walk about “us” I’m talking about the faith community.  Because frankly, neither the Republicans NOR the Democrats have displayed any kind of an ability to get anything done on this issue.  That too is what we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks; which is why the Church is finally speaking out the way it is.  For when a government fails to exhibit God’s grace, mercy, and love, then the Church, as the moral conscience of the State, must speak out.  For we, are citizens of God’s kindom, and Jesus alone is our Lord!

And that’s really the point isn’t it?  No one wants to abandon laws.  But even laws need to be enforced in ways that respect a person’s humanity!  None of us, ever, has the right to treat anyone, with anything less than love and grace and mercy than we’d show Jesus.  That’s the whole point of this morning’s passage.  We need to be treating everyone, with dignity and respect. Because the way we treat one another, is the way we are treating Jesus. This morning’s passage is NOT about OUR separating the sheep from the goats, even though that we love to do that, right?  Don’t we love to separate people, into different camps . . . the good ones and the bad ones; the ones we like and the ones we don’t like; the ones with whom we agree and the ones with whom we don’t agree.  We love doing that – separating and dividing people in a way that allows us to determine who are sheep, and who are goats.

In today’s reading Jesus is NOT saying that he wants US to start doing the separating.  He is telling the story because he wants us to understand that all of us, both sheep and goats, will be judged by how we treat others.  And not just those we like, or those we agree with, but everyone.  However we understanding judgement, goodness and Godliness are determined by how we treat . . . everyone, especially the least among us!

As we approach the 4th of July, I am reminded of the one of the things that has made this country so special: and that is that we have sought to stand on the side of good, and that our laws have been enforced with grace.  Now that doesn’t mean we haven’t made mistakes, and fallen short!  For we have.  And in profound ways.  I will be the first to admit that!

But in most instances we are seeking to acknowledge our deficiencies – not hide, or deny them.  And when we have recognized them, we usually try to correct them.  For the most part our history is one of having tried to stand on the side of goodness, and righteousness.  We have tried to value truth and honesty.  We have tried to honor integrity and justice.  But that has become extremely hard these days.  And if we in the Body of Christ cannot, and do not, stand up to moves that would direct us away from that day when justice flows down like waters, and righteousness like an ever rolling stream . . . if WE don’t stand again such trends, together. . . then who will?

So may that be our goal: in spite of the negative examples being set all around us.  May we never forget that Jesus alone is our Lord, and that what we do unto the least among us, we do unto him.





Reclaiming Jesus: Affirmation #2

12 07 2018

Reclaiming

THERE IS TO BE NO OPPRESSION BASED UPON SEXUAL IDENTITY!

This morning we are continuing our study of a recent statement of Christian belief, born in the hearts and minds of an extremely diverse group of American Church leaders.  In light of all that is going in our country today, these saints have called Christ-followers to “humbly reconsider what it means to proclaim that Jesus, and no one else, is Lord!”

Their statement is titled “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis”; and the second affirmation reads: “We believe that we are one body in Christ, and therefore there is to be no oppression based upon race, gender, identity, or class.”

So today, in the middle of what has become known “Pride Month”, we’re going to tackle the subject which, after abortion, may be one of the most divisive issues facing some churches today: and that is the treatment of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters.

Now interestingly, society at large has been far more receptive to the Spirit’s movement in this area than we in the Church have: which I must say is a sad statement on the state of the faith community in our country.  Never the less there is a growing chorus of Biblical Scholars, theologians, and average Christ-followers just like many of you, who believe that as the Spirit continues to shed more light on this issue, the Church and the world will one day recognize that, as the saying goes . . . God is less concerned with who a person loves, and more concerned with THAT a person loves.  And so when it comes to the many LGBTQ+ issues facing us today, the faith community needs to be far more supportive than we have been.  And not IN SPITE of our faith, but BECAUSE of our faith.

In his book “God vs. Gay”, author Jay Michaelson points out that a close reading of both the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, along with the latest data on the science of sexual orientation, all reveal that diversity in all its forms, including sexual diversity, is part of the beauty of creation; and there is no reason for anyone to feel threatened by that.

Scripture actually has nothing at all to say about committed, same-gender relationships; and while there are passages that condemn both hetero and or homosexual promiscuity and oppression, Jesus himself never addresses the subject of homosexuality.  Unfortunately, for too many in the Church today, “othering” has become the norm; and that has been the response to the LGBTQ+ community.  Too often, we meet people who are not like us: people who look, live, or love differently than we do, and we “other” them!  We treat them as if they are less, simply because they are different.  And that behavior is precisely what is being challenged in the New Testament Letter to the Church at Galatia.

The author of those words is telling the Church then, as well as the Church today, that in the Body no one is superior to anyone else.  Jews aren’t better than Gentiles.  Men aren’t more valuable than women.  Slaves aren’t inferior to their masters.  Worldly labels simply don’t matter to God, and we in the Church MUST remain united around this belief, regardless of what is going on in the culture around us.

Now sadly we’ve not always done this.  The Church has been telling women for centuries – and in some instances is still sending the same message today – that they are the weaker sex, created to be nothing more than ‘helpers.’  We’ve exalted Whiteness, and White ways; and then equating Black and Brown bodies with darkness and sin, we’ve built nations, governments, and religions on teachings that are nothing short of evil.  And when it comes to homosexuality, here too Scripture has been used over and over again to oppress countless women and men who were likely already struggling with their identity, adding needless fuel to the fires of their self-hatred.

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain two weeks ago have brought to all of our attention the growing mental health epidemic that suicide is becoming in this country; but it’s especially problematic among our youth.  It is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24 today; and gay and lesbian youth? . . . they contemplate suicide at 3x the rate of heterosexual youth, and they are 5x times more likely to actually attempt suicide?  And while things are indeed changing, coming out and admitting first to yourself, and then to others, that you are gay, lesbian, trans – well the people I’ve encountered in my ministry have taught me that we in the straight, cisgender community will ever be able to fathom how difficult it is.

So if by chance anyone listening to this sermon, either here this morning or on-line at some point in the future, is struggling with their sexual identity, know that you are deeply and dearly loved . . . every part of who you are . . . every part of who you were created to be.  And you need to know that doesn’t EXclude the sexual expression that best suits you.  It INcludes it.  You’re not loved by God in spite of your sexuality.  God loves that about you just as much as God loves the texture of your hair, the passions of your heart, and the warmth of your smile.  And you can never, ever let anyone, lead you to believe differently!

This is the message the Church is called to proclaim, and today, as much as ever!  . . . Freedom of religion does not give any of us the right to discriminate against another person for the lives they chose to live.  Ever! 

Yes, here in America we have the right to believe whatever we want to believe, and to practice whatever faith we choose to practice: until that faith oppresses or infringes upon the rights of others.  That friends, is not the way of Jesus, nor can it ever be masqueraded as the will of God.

Qu’ils mangent de la brioche.

Do you know that phrase?  It’s the infamous, and condescending phrase, that means “Let them eat cake”.  It is thought by many to have to have been spoken by Marie Antoinette, in the 18th century, upon learning that the French peasants had no bread.  Now there is actually no evidence she ever said such a thing, and in fact, she was known as someone who had great sympathy for the poor.  Never the less, old legends die hard, and so it is hard to change the belief that she had an overt insensitivity to those on the margins of French society.

Sadly, today, there are far too many people in the Church of Jesus Christ who have an overt insensitivity toward others, and far too many who are continually trying to push more and more people to the margins of our society: the immigrant and refugee, the poor and underemployed, women and sometimes even old white men, and most certainly those in the LGBTQ+ community.

But friends this simply cannot be the case for those of us who claim to be part of the Church of Jesus Christ.  Here, everyone deserves a welcome . . . gay, straight, trans, bi, rich, poor, young, old, single, married, divorced, and on and on and on.  Here, doors and hearts must always remain open; and our behavior, attitudes, and hospitality, all need to be determined and shaped not by Supreme Court decisions, but by the living Word, Jesus. Here, we not only . . . eat cake, but we bake cakes, for everyone!  Because here, everyone, is welcome.





Reclaiming Jesus: Affirmation #1

10 07 2018

ReclaimingMy next series of blog posts are shortened versions of sermons that were part of a 6-part series I preached at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church during the months of June and July 2018.  They were born in a new statement of faith written for the American Church in light of the difficult days we find ourselves in under the administration of Donald Trump; and they build upon important passages of Scripture around which followers of Jesus can find great unity in a time of such significant national polarization.  The creedal statement is titled “Reclaiming Jesus: A confession of faith in a time of crisis’, and it can be found in its entirety at reclaimingjesus.org.

 

The document was created and signed by some of the most faithful Church leaders in America today: Black, White, female, male, mainline, independent, evangelical, and progressive.  Acknowledging one another as siblings in the great human family, they all came together around a commitment to reclaim the teachings of Jesus – people like Old Testament Scholar Walter Bruggeman; long-time evangelical author and speaker Tony Campolo; presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and preacher at the recent royal wedding Michael Curry; and Otis Moss and Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-conveners of the National African-American Clergy Network.

What these people from very distinct and diverse Christian faith traditions have affirmed is that today, because of the attempts by so many to exalt political gain above Christian teaching, the Church’s identity in Jesus Christ must be lifted up as first and foremost in our lives.  These saints have sought to remind us that as the Church of Jesus Christ, we are HIS followers before we are followers of anyone or anything else.  And so when particular political platforms undermine our theology, or when the teachings of certain segments of the Church stray from a consistent Biblical or Gospel ethic, we must speak up.  We must boldly and apologetically take a stand to reclaim our faith, and seek to move things back in alignment with the teachings of Jesus.

You see, in case we’ve forgotten this, neither of America’s political parties has the corner on the market of Biblical or theological faithfulness.  That is not the goal of either the Republicans or the Democrats.  But that is . . . or at least that should be . . . the goal of the Church.  Biblical and theological faithfulness is OUR job!  And so this sermon series is not about Republicans or Democrats: it’s about us.  It’s about the Church.  It’s about the risen Body of Christ in the world today, and our role in dealing with the crisis of moral and ethical leadership that is confronting us; for we the ones who need to be leading the resistance.  We are the ones who need to be speaking truth to power; and we need to be doing whatever we can to minimize the harm being inflicted upon our nation, and our world.

To this end, this new confesssion lifts up six affirmations, that when understood as foundational to our life together, like any good confessional statement, have the potential to unite people of faith everywhere.  And the first affirmation is this:

“We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness; and racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God is some of the children of God.  Therefore, we reject the resurgence of White supremacy and racism in our nation . . . we commit ourselves to help dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate White preference and advantage . . . (And) any doctrines or political strategies that use racist resentments, fear, or language must be named as public sin.”

Now as I’ve said before, one would think that this issue would have been resolved by now.  The American war against slavery ended 150 years ago; and righteousness won that war . . . or so many of us thought.  We learned way back then that a house divided cannot stand; and the house that I’m referring to is not America.  You see, contrary to what many would like to believe, the house that Scripture is referring to in this morning’s passage is not this country or any other.  The house being referenced here is the Church: Christ’s body in the world.  And while the Civil War was an attempt to bring some unity to the American house, the Bible really isn’t so much interested in national unity, as it is in Christian unity.  And in light of where our nation is today, the Church’s first and perhaps most important affirmation is that each and every one of us is made in God’s image and likeness.

This confession, along with the newest creed in the Presbyterian Church’s Book of Confessions, The Belhar Confession, makes it clear that racial bigotry is an evil that must be eradicated from our world.  And this is where Christian unity can begin.  Followers of Jesus, and people of faith everywhere, must be united in affirming that White supremacy, preference, and advantage, and all the other markers of the systemic and structural racism that plagues our nation today, are nothing less than public sin.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the Church is called to be “the conscience of the state.”  And so our goal is not to become one with the state; or to even ‘take over’ the state.  Rather, we are to be the state’s conscience, holding it accountable to a higher standard, and modeling as best we can the way of the Christ.  We – you and me – need to be boldly proclaiming that the wonderful diversity of human skin color, is nothing more than that, different human skin color!  It in no way determines one’s value, or worth; and it certainly does not ever lead to second class status for anyone.  The dance that we do together – Black, Brown, Yellow, Red, White – is what creates the glorious rainbow that is God; and the whole American idea of a ‘melting pot’ can and should help us to incarnate the New Testament concept of family.

Jim Wallis, President and Founder of Sojourners, who played an important role in the formation of this creed has said that . . . “the soul of the nation, and the integrity of our faith are at stake.”  There can be no division when it comes to our need to confront racism, America’s “original sin”!  And it begins when we learn to be allies with people of color.  Our hearts need to be breaking over all that is breaking their hearts.  And when their sons’ lives are prematurely cut short by overly aggressive policing, and when their daughters’ lives find their way into the pipeline from school to prison: we need to be the ones who stand up and say “No more!”  When Black people are told that “All Lives Matter” and yet that has not been their reality: WE need be the ones who stand up and say “Black Lives Matter.”  When Brown people are labeled murders and rapists: WE need to be the ones who stand up and say “In American, we’re ALL immigrants!”  And when people of color are compelled to speak up and take a stand, or a knee for that matter; we dare not condemn their frustrations.  Rather, we need to be standing, or kneeling, right alongside them!

No, the Christian house will never know uniformity.  We in the Church will never be one on every political issue that faces our nation.  But we CAN know unity around the ways of Jesus.  And one of the first steps toward that unity involves our reclaiming the teaching of Jesus that all people have been created in the image of God, and that all people are dearly loved by God.  Everyone is part of God’s family; and any practice, policy, or political platform that denies this reality needs to be challenged by all who dare to name Jesus, as Lord.