I think he should have baked the cake.

I think he should have baked the cake.

I feel like I need to discuss today, why I think the baker, Jack Phillips, in the case before the Supreme  Court about refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple,  should have done differently.

It’s not because of the morality or immorality of gay marriage.  Nor is it about his rights or liberties or religious freedom.  That’s the Supreme Court’s problem.

No, for me, there is a Jesus reason to have made the cake.

It’s because the Bible says the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Gal 5:16).

I’m not taking that out of context – it’s in context of a discussion about how much of the Jewish Law to obey – in other words, what is it God is looking for in us?  What does obedience look like?

And God is looking for us, if we are his people, to love first.  Our faith should express itself not first in outrage, not first in legalism, not first in taking a stand…but in love.

 

I mean, what has been accomplished in making this into, literally, a federal case?

Did the baker, by his principled stand, cause the gay couple to reevaluate their lives and not get married?

No.

Did the baker, by punishing the gay couple with a public refusal, a lack of welcome, a rejection of their “lifestyle,” cause them to reconsider being a couple, or being gay?

Of course not.

Did the baker, by standing up for “his rights” to “personal expression” and “religious liberty,” drag the good news of Jesus into the mud from the point of view of the people around us?

Yes, unfortunately, he did.

I understand he did what he thought he should.  But I wonder, who taught him he should do that?

Because I don’t think Jesus would have taught him that.

 

What Jesus wants from that gay couple, is not their outward obedience to sexual or marriage norms, but their hearts.

He wants them, and all of us, to know how beloved we are by God – loved so much that God sent his Son to rescue us.

From what? From death.  From living a life that is stunted from a disconnect with God.  From living without knowing we are loved by God.  And, yes, from living the life we could be living in concert with the way we were made, in relationship with God.

God offers us a new life, joined to Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit.  That new life is lived in companionship with God, who leads us into a way of life that pleases him and blesses us.  What that life is like, is up to God-in-us.

These are the stakes, not who is having sex with whom, or who let themselves be dragged into what they regard as a counterfeit wedding.

The baker wasn’t asked to marry them.  He wasn’t asked to approve of them.  He was asked to LOVE them.

Just like Jesus did.

 

Do we honestly think that the things we don’t see about our own lives would have been any less uncomfortable for Jesus to be around, than this gay couple was to the baker?

Have we really not taken into account what “sin” really means?

It’s not just our acts, it’s our minds and hearts which are out of sync with God’s mind and heart.  It’s not just what we do.  It is, unfortunately, like an infection we have.  Since everyone has it we tend to ignore it, but the truth is, it’s killing us.

And somebody doing what you or I would never do, is not MORE infected than I am.

So leaving aside the morality issues (and I am well aware that I am writing to both people who regard homosexual behavior as sinful, and those who regard people who think that as monsters), let us consider what love is.

Love is Jesus coming to us.  Love is Jesus going to Matthew the Roman collaborator’s house, to sit with other sinners for dinner.  Love is welcoming the woman who poured perfume on his feet, who so distressed Simon the Pharisee because Simon thought he was holier than she was, and he’d never let her do that to him!  Love is Jesus asking the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, and then telling her how to be saved.  He broke so many rules that day that the disciples didn’t know WHAT to think.

What matters, is faith showing itself in love.

 

So what if the baker, recognizing the situation, had decided this was his chance to heap the coals of love on the heads of people whose sin, from his perspective, truly offended him?

What if he’d made them a cake, a really beautiful cake, and told them God loves them?

What if he prayed for them while he made them that cake?

Would they have reconsidered their plan to enter into a same-sex marriage?

No.

Would they have reconsidered their identity as gay?

No.

Would his cake have changed anything about their behavior?

Probably not.

Except, they would have heard and seen the love of God at work.

And who knows what happens next, when we put ourselves at the disposal of God to love, regardless of our “personal expression” or our “religious liberty rights”?

What happens if we act like Jesus, take the hard parts on ourselves, and love first?

 

He should have just baked the cake, with great love.

It feels like war.

It feels like an act of war.

Doesn’t it?  Under what other human scenario do we experience being killed in large groups by a stranger?  While we sang songs of joy at eternal life, a shooter took the lives of innocent people, even tiny children, in a church.

But, what is so disorienting is that in our nation, we treat it like an act of nature.

Like a terrible tornado that came and took lives, for which we grieve, from which we push on and rebuild.

But something in us knows this is not true.  It is not inevitable that someone with a high-powered gun will kill us while we are together and paying attention to something else.

We know this, because it doesn’t happen anywhere else with the frequency it happens here.

No, this has something to do with us. 

Like many things, I believe we are failing to face up to the truth – and we can’t cure what we won’t acknowledge.

First of all, both of those statements above are true.  It is an act of nature.  And an act of war.

To kill others out of your own personal pain is perhaps the ultimate act of the “sin nature,” the “flesh,” which cries,I must survive no matter what.”  It’s biological in its origins, but what each of us considers a threat is in our minds.  We have little to go on to know what it is that motivates (or deludes) these individuals.

But, these are also acts of warfare – it’s just that we have to be spiritually discerning to remember it.

Even if a shooter thinks they are at war with us, the real hostilities are on a spiritual level. Jesus knew it: he survived the temptations of Satan to act out of self-interest, inflicted on him when he was at his human weakest.  These temptations, though, were not for Jesus’ benefit.

Satan, evil, darkness – wants to destroy us and defy God.  And whenever we can be provoked to destroy each other, we make a lie out of the image of God in which we were made – his goal.

Satan knows our flesh  better than we do, and prods us in the tenderest places to think and will and do the kinds of things that deny the image of God in us, that deny Christ in us, if we fall into it.  Or if we don’t know any better.

Satan has a field day with our culture of “rugged individualism,” our assumed Christianity that is only a veneer, our media world that adores violence, and our stinginess toward treating mental illness…combined with our near reverence of guns.

 

There are as many guns loose in our nation as there are men, women and children.  Are many gun owners responsible?  Sure.  Are many of the guns people own specifically made for killing people?  Yes.  Yes.  Think about that.

Because if we will not face the facts of our situation, we are left with pretending that “these things just happen.”

And worst of all, we are beginning to believe that the only solution to these mass shootings, is for all of us to arm up and regard every other person we meet as someone we potentially may have to shoot.  I can’t think of a worse way to build a community than that!

I can’t think of a better way to serve the Darkness than that.

But Jesus told us it would be this way.  And we have been equipped to stand, and to do what he sent us to do.  We have “God’s armor,” (Eph 6).  This battle belongs to the Lord.  We don’t fight so much as stand, and as we stand we pray.

Thoughts and prayers aren’t the end, but they are surely the beginning.

Then we love.  Jesus meant it, when he told us to love those who are out to get us.  We have nothing to fear; we are eternal.  And even if we are afraid, we have the Spirit to empower us.  Despite what people say, even this shooter was not ‘an animal.’  Even he was beloved of God.  What if we are the ones who are called to name the evil and rebuke it?  This is the real war.  When Jesus sent us, he sent us into this.

Then we act for justice.  This government is us.  We must stop pretending.  Guns don’t make people good.  Guns don’t make people strong.  Some guns are made, to make people dead.  We can limit their presence among us.  Guns are tools – but like money, we can start serving them instead of them serving us.  Speak up for the innocents who die EVERY DAY from gun violence, and gun accidents.

And we had better face up to the enormous mental health needs we ignore.  Broken and dangerous people are often left in the hands of relatives who cannot help them nor control them, and we say there’s nothing we can do until “something happens.”  It doesn’t just happen.  We just didn’t help.  We can do better.

One thing all this is not:  it is not “an act of God.”  This is NOT God’s will.  It is our collective will, which has not stood up for what is true and real.  We can’t ignore it any more.

When Nazis come to town….

Last week, I wrote a post called, “I’m sorry” and then I left on vacation.

I wrote about the belovedness of all people, from God’s point of view, as demonstrated by Jesus, and about the churches’ frequent failures to realize that is the starting point, and that without that, what we busy ourselves with is not the gospel.

 

After I posted that and left town…came Charlottesville. The torchlit parade of Nazis!  The counter protest. The clergy kneeling. The sickening sound of bodies being hit by a speeding car. A name – Heather Heyer – memorialized as one who gave her life to tell white supremacists, white nationalists, that they are wrong.  To declare the belovedness of all people.

 

So what about these neo-Nazis? These people who want to declare the “White race” superior, people of color (and Jews) inferior? Who think Heather Heyer was “worthless” because she hadnt bred children for the Master Race? Who literally raised Nazi salutes and shouted “Hail Trump”?

 

Well, theyre wrong. They are not only incorrect but they are immoral, because they deny the first truth about human beings – that we are all made in the image of God. They also deny the Christian hope of the “kingdom of God” to come, where there are no hierarchy distinctions but people of “every nation, tribe and tongue ” will be one in the Lord.

 

Not only that but they enacted hatred and intimidation, the very antithesis of loving one’s neighbor. Everything they did was calculated to scare people, even if you leave out the actions of the one driver who literally copied from the ISIS playbook. These were domestic terrorists.They showed up to make a display of force and they were there hoping for trouble. Why else did some arrive wearing body armor, armed to the teeth?

 

When they encircled a mostly black congregation having a prayer meeting, holding torches in their hands, they were not there to pray.  When they poured lighter fluid on a female in a wheelchair and waved their torches near her, they werent there to explain their point of view.  And anyone who joined their number thinking this was not about terror and at least implied violence,  should have got out of there once they realized what was really going on.  There is no excuse for what happened.

 

Were there others who sought violence?  Yes, there were some who stood against this protest who fought back, or maybe initiated actual fights. But they didnt start the terrorism. The White Supremacists did.  And they’re thrilled with the outcome – look how much attention they got!

 

But that brings me back to my original claim: are even Nazis beloved of God? Even White Nationalists chanting “Jew will not replace me!”?

 

Well, yeah. All people are beloved of God.  All people are made in the image of God.  What we do with that image, how people sully it with hatred and greed and selfishness, among other things, breaks the heart of God. Thats not what we were made for.  God hates that hatred, greed, selfishness.

 

But the nature of the “good news” in Christ is that people can start over.  People can be forgiven and made new. And as much i as i am disgusted by the claims of NAZIS marching our streets, i know it is my job not just to denounce their cause, but to pray for their forgiveness.  For their repentance. For their renewal. And mine.

 

It can feel really good to my “flesh,” to use Paul’s word, to consign them to hell as though i were the judge. But if God’s grace cannot be true for them, then can it be true for me? “There is no one righteous, no not one.”

 

I will make no excuses for their hatred and terror. They must not be permitted to gain any quarter in our society.

 

But i will, and do, pray for their souls even as i pray for protection and peace for their intended victims. I must, because Jesus did.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry.

As a follower of Jesus for more than 40 years, I realize that for most of that time I’ve avoided – we’ve avoided – the most important aspects of following Jesus.

I’m sorry that I missed that Jesus’ first and continuing lesson, was the belovedness of each human being.  If Jesus came as the manner in which God loves the whole world, how did we continue to see things in terms of who is in or out, just changing the categories?

How is it that we – I – continue to seek out the cool kids, the winners, the upwardly mobile, when Jesus  seemed genuinely not to notice such differences?

I’m sorry that we glossed over the parts in the gospel where Jesus engaged the hated – not just the poor or the “unclean,” but even Zacchaeus who was quite wealthy (as a white-collar criminal in his day) – and by his engagement, they were changed.  Is that what we were supposed to be doing?

I’m sorry that we became so entranced with building “successful” institutions (and did!).  Those institutions, to remain, have to be continually fed with more and more “winning.”

I’m sorry, because Jesus appeared to have rejected that sort of thing.  It seems like many people – even his own brothers – wanted him to amend his game so he could play at a higher level, but he just walked on in his one robe.  I know it wasn’t because he had some sort of self-esteem problem; on the contrary, it was because he knew all our  posturing comes from fear.

I’m sorry, because now I see at least this much: that we were straining at gnats while swallowing camels, so to speak, fighting over disputable issues in our own camps while leaving aside what we could have been doing as Spirit-filled Jesus-followers, if we just would have seen other people through Jesus’ eyes.

I understand more, at this stage of my spiritual development, why this happens.

I’ve talked about it a lot at church but still have so much more to learn myself about how to live this way.

I’m talking about what Paul calls the difference between living “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit.”

Living “in the flesh” is pretty much just living like everyone else.  It’s living this life as though this life is all there is, and being fully engaged in the battle for survival, whether survival means getting daily bread, or safeguarding one’s position at work.  It’s a life of fear and anger and defensiveness, of tribes and clans and warfare.  It’s building earthly “towers” and defending them.  It’s protecting what’s most dear to me, the heck with anyone else.  We don’t always see it because we are engaged in what’s dear to us – but let us perceive a threat and “living in the flesh” will become clear.

But Jesus called us to his kind of living.  It’s not an ideal – it’s a real way of living in his presence.

It’s what he was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount, where one’s heart is fully engaged in loving others, refusing to use others, trusting God to do the defending.  It’s that life that where everyone is beloved, and I can take the chance of loving others because I am so safe with God.

This is Spirit-empowered living.

With this power I can, if I am willing, transcend all the petty fighting in my “flesh” and override my defensiveness and fear and become friends and fellow travelers with anyone, as Jesus did.

That’s the way it is supposed to be.  But it mostly hasn’t been that way.

I can’t say “I’m sorry” for everything.  It’s true that in any church there are individuals at many levels of spiritual development (including “none”!).  If a church is a hospital for sinners, then it is foolhardy to expect that one can enter a church and never encounter someone who is rude, petty or hateful.  If the door is open to everyone, then certainly it is open to…everyone!

There is no church on earth where there are no sinners.

But I am so very sorry that so much of our history has been wasted, chasing the wrong things.

We were not meant to build cathedrals (much as I love their beauty).  We were not meant to become culture warriors.  We were not meant to become fortresses.

We were meant to be lovers of others, the breakers of barriers, the pursuers of reconciliation, just because we are so well loved by God in Christ.

For every new barrier we built, I’m sorry.

For every new rift we created, I’m sorry.

For everyone who felt especially UNloved by us, I’m desperately sorry.

Please forgive me.  Please forgive us.   We have a lot to learn, but I hope that we are learning.

If you have anything to say to us in that regard, please do.

Trinitylivingstonpastor@gmail.com

I’m OK as long as I know I’m better than somebody else

Jesus came to do some very important things, but up there in the top 3, was showing us what God is actually like.

This is very important because we all have a tendency to imagine God either in our own image, or to specs that meet our imaginings.  And our imaginings are often not quite as easy for us to figure out as we’d think.

But Jesus routinely blew the minds of the religious folks around him, in the way he talked about God – and God’s real attitude toward people.

Consider that famous parable Jesus told, the one called “The Prodigal Son.”  It’s about a father and two sons.  One son, the younger one, has grown impatient at living under his father’s thumb and so he decides to seek greener pastures.

He decides the best way to fund this, is to ask his father for his portion of the inheritance he’d get when his father died.  So excited is he about his prospects that he maybe doesn’t notice how incredibly hurtful to his father it was, to ask for his inheritance, as though his father were only worthwhile to him as a dead man.

But the father, for whatever reasons, gives this boy the money.  And he goes, Jesus says, to a “far country.”

He doesn’t handle the situation well.  He spends all the money in living without boundaries, and just at the point where he finds himself without funds, a famine hits the land where he lives.  He has no way to survive, except to hire himself out to a local farmer to feed that man’s pigs.

Pigs.  Remember, Jesus is Jewish.  Jews don’t eat, or raise, or even get very near, pigs.  In Jesus’ storytelling, this guy can hardly slip any lower.  And then, Jesus says, it dawns on him a) that the pigs are eating better than he is and b) that his dad treats HIS hired men better than he is being treated.

So this younger son decides to go home.  He knows he has blown his father/son relationship, but perhaps his dad, who is a principled and good man, will hire him on as a farmhand.  It was worth a try.  On his way home, he rehearses his speech.  “I have sinned against God and against you….let me work as one of your hired men…..”

Now if this were a soap opera you know how it would go next.  In great dramatic fashion, the father would bar the door, call the authorities and proclaim that he would never help that ungrateful son who would have to learn the hard way about hurting people and misusing money!

But that’s not what happens in Jesus’ story.  Jesus says, that while the son is on the road home, the father, who makes a habit of scanning the horizon looking to see if his boy is coming home, sees him.  And turning his back on his dignity, he picks up his robes and runs to meet the son, and wraps his arms around him in an embrace.

The son begins his rehearsed speech:  “I have sinned….” But the father is not even listening.  He is already celebrating!  Even though the boy is hardly repentant, even if you listened to his speech!

In the culture of his day, he sends his servants out to gather up what this boy is going to get: the clothes and shoes of a son of the household.  And a party!  A great big celebratory feast because, as the father said, my son was dead and now he is alive!

 

Jesus says, the Father in his story, is God the Father.  And that boy is any of us who thought we knew better than God about what would make us happy, who celebrated our freedom FROM God by using everything up and finding ourselves at the bottom of things.

Maybe like him, we thought God would require some groveling from us, perhaps a demotion in status and maybe we’d be turned away.

But look what Jesus shows us!  God’s glad to have us back.  Notice the Father didn’t ask that child for a thing.  That doesn’t mean the son didn’t do wrong – he did!  But the Father is literally paying that son’s debts, because he has him back.

Jesus is telling us that God the Father wants us home, and he will even pay the price owing for  us, that we can come.

Some people like to make it sound like God waits on his throne looking for the ones he might throw into hell, but that’s not how Jesus showed it to us.

Instead, God’s the dad on the porch, hoping against hope that TODAY is the day his beloved child might come back into relationship with him.  Those folks who want to make God sound enraged and ready to punish, haven’t been paying attention to Jesus.

 

But, there is another son.

There is the older son.  That son did everything the way he was supposed to do it.  He never dreamed of leaving his father’s land and going to far countries.  He would never have broken his father’s heart by asking for his inheritance now so he could get away from his father.  He was absolutely dependable, and he did what his father wanted him to do.  He checked all the boxes.

And when that younger brother showed up and was welcomed home, this older son stood outside the house and seethed.

Why, after all that boy had done, would he be welcomed like that?

Wasn’t it clear who here was the GOOD son?  If anyone around here is going to be honored, shouldn’t it have been him?  If that kid was going to come home, wouldn’t it have been the right thing to have humiliated him?  Or even turned him away and sent him back where he came from?

What is the reward for having been so very good, and OBVIOUSLY better than his brother?

While the party goes on inside, this guy stands in the outer darkness and stews in his resentment.  Until the Father comes out to him, and begs him to come in.

The older son says, you’ve never even given me a small party with my friends, and I slave all day for you!  And this son of yours comes home and you throw a huge celebration!

But the Father replies, Everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad:  this brother of yours was dead, and now he is alive; lost, and now he’s found!

There’s so much going on here.  On first glance it’s obvious that the older son doesn’t have his Father’s heart.  He never feared or worried or cried over his lost brother, and it didn’t mean that much to him that he was back – but it was not so for the Father.

And then, there is the matter of what motivates this son.  He regards himself as so much superior to the younger brother, because in every way he has met the outer obligations of his station in life, but he has just made it plain that he was never any more in tune with his father’s  heart than his brother was.

Every day he SLAVED for his father?  And his father GAVE HIM NOTHING?  He is no less of an ungrateful mess, even though on the outside he looks like the good boy.

I wonder, how much of the time did that older brother power himself merely on the mean pleasure he took at being the better son, the superior boy, the heir who merited everything, while he imagined his brother’s humiliation at losing everything?

How important to him was it, that he was the superior son?  And did that have anything to do at all, with his relationship to the Father?

How many people live their lives finding their own meaning, solely in being superior to someone else?

 

Now, it’s a parable.  Jesus is telling us about God’s heart.  God loves both sons, and both of them have missed the point, lost the plot, and don’t deserve what they hope for.  He welcomes the younger one home; he begs the older one to come into the party and join the celebration.  What makes it a party, is the joy in the Father’s heart, to have his sons there.

 

So, if we imagine that God loves us better because we are good and follow the rules, well, we’ve missed the point.  God loves, because God loves!  God loves the “good” kids and the “lost” kids and every  one in between and he wants us  all to come home.  Of course he wants holy lives from us – but we can’t even begin to live a holy life, until we are back in relationship with our Father.

If we imagine that God ought to bang the door shut on those who aren’t as good and righteous as we are, well – we’ve missed the point.  God didn’t think either one of those boys was “good” – but he gave both of them a new opportunity to start over.

If we imagine that our sinful self is a special case and God definitely wouldn’t invite us in to the party until we have saved a life or something and thereby made ourselves acceptable, well – we’ve missed the point.  It’s God who makes us acceptable, by accepting us in Jesus.  God wants us home.

And, if we imagine that we are better than both those sons because we already know this story and we know why Jesus died on the cross and we get it, well – maybe we’ve missed the point again.  One thing to know about Jesus’ death on the cross is, that the ground is level there.  In other words, there is no hierarchy.  There aren’t the best people and then those who are still very good but a little lower, etc.  No.  We are all in need of God’s love and grace, and Jesus demonstrates that God freely gives it to us.

Rather than measuring ourselves by what we imagine God’s standards to be, it is imperative that we examine in this parable just what Jesus shows us God’s standards ARE:  he wants us home, he’s willing to WAIT for us, and he sent Jesus to make the way home for us.  And he hopes that when we come home to him, our hearts will thaw, and we will look at one another the way he does, and see everyone else in his celebration as a beloved of God, in need of grace, receiving what God has to give.  In fact, that is what the party is about!

“Send them away, Jesus”

“All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away!” – Jesus, John 6:37

Did Jesus ever turn anyone away?  Did he ever reject anyone who sought him?

This is something I’ve been wondering about, because I’ve noticed before that the disciples frequently offer that as a solution:  “Send them away, Jesus!”

When the crowds are demanding or the needs are too big or someone is very annoying, they say, “send them away!”

I confess, there are times I think I probably might have, too.

After all, we all run out of energy.  We all run out of resources.  I know I need time alone to recharge (and it looks like Jesus did, too – those all night prayer meetings with his Father on the mountain!).  It is good to know our limits and it is also good to have wise boundaries.

Then again, sometimes we send people away not because we are tired, but because we reject them.  Sometimes we even think that God wants us to reject them.  We think that makes us holy.

But did Jesus do it?

I looked.  The answer is, no. Jesus did not send people away without meeting them in their need.  No matter what.

Now, it’s true that after Jesus  fed the 4,000 in Matthew 15,  it says right there that he “sent them away” – but that was after a full  day of teaching and then dinner!  That phrase does not indicate that they were in any way rejected.  (Matt 15:29-39)  It was just time to go home!

And then, we have that story of the Canaanite (non-Jewish) woman who came to Jesus to ask him to heal her daughter, but, quite out of character, he told her he only came for the lost sheep of Israel. (Matt 15:21-28)  But if we’ve read the gospel, we know that he had already healed the Roman soldier’s servant a couple of chapters before.  What’s going on?

It seems clear that Jesus was putting his disciples to the test when this woman showed up:  would they understand what was needed here?  (Their first response?  “Send her away….”)  In the end, he heals her daughter and compliments her faith (I suspect the disciples were embarrassed). We sensed they were supposed to know by now what Jesus was here to do…and that Jesus doesn’t send people away!

There are times when Jesus so thoroughly challenges someone who comes to him, that they leave of their own accord.   There’s the “rich young ruler,” whom Jesus instructed to give away his wealth and come follow Jesus if he wanted eternal life…and the young man went away sad.  He did not choose the Jesus way.   (Matt 19:16-22)  But Jesus didn’t reject him.

There are the people whom Jesus challenged to let their parents go and come follow him (“whoever doesn’t hate his mother and father…”) (Luke 14:26; Luke 9:59-60).  Some of them left him, too.  Was Jesus really so cruel?  No, we have to understand:  the man who said, “let me bury my father first,” didn’t mean his dad had died and they hadn’t had the funeral yet.  He meant, “my parents will never approve of me following you, so after they have died I will come.”

Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  Jesus is saying, that’s an excuse.  You might have conflict with your parents, but if you have found the Son of God, if you trust him, then you are going to have to risk it.  There is no waiting for an easier moment!

No, Jesus didn’t send them away, even though some of them found his challenging teachings too much.  Jesus did not sugarcoat following him.  He was calling people out of death into life – if they wanted to put it off, it was clear they didn’t yet understand.  But there was room for them to come tomorrow if they did.

I am interested in this because it seems like there is a strain of “religion” that likes the idea of sending people away, as though that makes the religious folks holy.  As though we know they are not called by the Father.  As though that were up to us!

We get some strange ideas going, sometimes – like our job is creating and preserving a church full of righteous people who behave as they should, as a gift to God.  But Jesus didn’t tell us to do that.

Jesus sent us out to rescue the “sinners”!  Jesus, who walked right up and touched lepers, who went and ate with the tax collectors (those who collaborated with Rome, considered traitors) and reprobates…Jesus, who would have gone home with the Roman centurion to heal his slave if he wanted him to, understood that he brought holiness and cleansing where he went.  He was not infected by sin or disease or “uncleanness”; he spread healing and new life.

“As the Father sent me, so I am sending you,” Jesus told us.

“Whoever comes to me, I will not drive away,” Jesus said.  (John 20:21)

Now, I don’t mean to say that Jesus was too far the other way, overly concerned about being popular and keeping up his celebrity.  No.

Jesus did not trim his teaching to make it popular and easy to swallow in order to keep the crowds coming.

No, the crowds said he taught “like one with authority.” (Mark 1:22)  He told them about God’s love and about the kingdom of God, but he called them to holiness.  “It is what comes out of your hearts that makes you ‘unclean,’” he said. (Matt 15:18)  Everyone who came to Jesus needed a heart transplant, which he would provide, if they would trust him.  But following him entailed a cost – one’s own life!

Thus did he require that  the “rich young ruler” give away his money, because it was an obstacle to his wholehearted devotion to God and his new kingdom.

In the same way, he confused the group that followed him the day after the feeding of the 5,000, who wanted more free food and were trying to manipulate Jesus into producing it.  “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,” he said.  We know what he was talking about, but most of those folks that day hustled home.  He had confused them and freaked them out.

That’s followed, though, by one of my favorite passages – the confession of Peter’s faith.  Jesus looks at the disciples and says, “You don’t want to leave me, too, do you?”  And Peter says, “To whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God”

Peter didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about that day, either – but he knew Jesus was trustworthy, and so he trusted him.  He knew Jesus was trustworthy because he heard him teach, and saw him heal people and set them free, and heard what Jesus said about the kingdom of God – he trusted all that Jesus taught him.

 

A lot of people are talking about “Evangelicals” these days in contemptuous tones.  It has to do with politics but it also has to do with the experiences some people have had, who felt that they weren’t welcome in an evangelical church, because they did not seem to meet the standards, or fit in the group.  They were “sent away.”   Or at least, they felt like they were.

But if JESUS didn’t send anyone away from him, why on earth would we think he expects that of us?  Who are we to drive away someone, whom Christ is calling to himself?  Jesus sent us out to love and to tell the good news from God – where did we get the idea it was up to us to be the gatekeepers?

Let God do what  he is going to do in others; this is  a hospital for sinners, and the doctor is Jesus.  Open the door.  God is sending the wounded.  May we do as Jesus taught us.

 

 

 

Subversive humility (?)

“Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from ‘desires of the flesh,’ which war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the [nations, peoples] that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

1 Peter 2:11-12

I remember many years ago at our denomination’s Annual Meeting we were shown a video of fellow Covenant church members in a Latin American country who were serving the homeless.

These homeless folks were in many cases mentally ill and/or substance abusers, and they had long ago given up any hope of being clean.  They were the most dirty and foul human beings I’d ever seen on a screen – and this church arranged for showers, barbers, donated clothing and food to help them.

In one scene a man who had about two teeth and long overgrown matted hair, who seemed not to know he was, was helped into the shower by two individuals who peeled off his rotting rags and then proceeded to wash him.  Encouraging him the whole time, they washed and scrubbed his whole body and brushed his teeth, cut his nails and had the barber cut his hair and shave him.  They clothed him again and had him seen by a doctor, and gave him a meal.  And he was transformed!  Not only did he look (and no doubt, smell) better, he seemed much more aware, and very, very thankful.

And I realized I had a lot to learn about following Jesus.

These church people didn’t complain about the homeless.  They went out and loved them, in a most practical, wet and soapy, hands-on way.  These saints saw those broken people as made in God’s image, and what they could do, they did. They rescued him from the chaos of who he was becoming, and rediscovered his human dignity, and they did it by getting right in there with that washcloth.

They did for that man what they’d hoped someone would do for them should they ever have such needs.

 

Peter, writing to a church that is suffering from some local persecution, points to that kind of work and reminds us that those kinds of deeds are going to be hard to criticize, even if someone really is out to get us.  And then if they do, others will see the holiness of it – and they’ll recognize that holiness in Christ.

What are the principles of such behavior?

Just the love and grace and mercy of God.  Having eyes to see as Christ sees all of us – broken “eikons,” those made in the image of God, worthy of being loved and made whole because that’s what God wants to spend on us.  This is life “in the Spirit,” because “in the flesh” we’d be too busy thinking about how much they smell and how wet we’d get and the unlikelihood  that we can, with our soap, make them “successful” in the world’s way.

 

Recently, a prominent senator questioned a nominee for a federal position about his Christian faith.  The nominee had written an article for a conservative journal and expressed his belief in Christian doctrine about Jesus and the kingdom of God, and this senator at least pretended to outrage:  are you telling me, Mr. Appointee, that you believe that everyone who is not a Christian is condemned by God?

He said it as though he didn’t know the claims of Christianity, or indeed the claims of his own religion or others.  In putting it that way, he made it sound as though anyone who adheres to a religion that has doctrines is, by that fact, unfit to serve in the federal government.

It was rather astounding to see, in a nation where at least 60% of the population still identifies as Christian!

It made me feel like we’ve hit a turning point, and henceforth we will feel like we need to defend our Christianity on a public stage among people not inclined to like what we say.

Now, we know why that is.  We are constantly told that 81% of Evangelicals voted for the current president, so members of the other party are not feeling kindly about Evangelical Christians right now.

And we are all frequently exposed to people who feel free to literally hate other people and wish them harm (Muslims, immigrants, Jews, blacks, etc), who also call themselves “Christian,” even though the rest of what they say publicly doesn’t sound like Jesus at all.

Not surprisingly, other people are not very drawn to a Christianity that sounds like that!

And as we increasingly gather around opposite poles in our culture, refusing to accept a single thing about people on the other side, the public view of Christianity is that it is all gathered around one pole. And all who call themselves Christians get all lumped in even with those whose “Christianity” is about saying “merry Christmas” and calling down trouble on those who won’t.

 

I realize as this swirls around us that the only thing that upsets the entire devilish scheme is Christlike humility. Paul reminds us of it in Philippians 2 – Jesus, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8)

Jesus’ way of life was a demonstration of humility, even while at the same time it was a demonstration of the power of the kingdom of God!  Jesus touched lepers to heal them, and went out of his way to meet and know the outcast, and to bring them back into community. He sat down and talked with women, and lifted up children as models of how to enter the kingdom of God!

He was not focused on the things we might think would be important to a religious figure, such as families or the institution of the church or synagogue, or railing at sinners.

Instead, he bent low and washed feet, and he let the adulterous woman go home, and he restored even Zacchaeus to a place of honor.  Though it should have all been about him as God, he didn’t act as though it were.  He kept pointing everyone’s attention to God the Father, and literally spent his life in order to reconcile those who were far away from God, to God.  He said he was like a doctor, who came for the sick, not the well – he came for the sinners, not the righteous.

And then he said, as the Father sent him, he was sending us.

 

As I got on the plane last week to come home from the annual meeting, I found myself feeling offended by a fellow passenger.  He was of a different subculture, advertising in his clothing and the things he carried a kind of rebellion.  I was immediately put off.  He wound up sitting a row ahead of me and on the other side, and as we all were scrolling through our phones waiting for the flight attendant to tell us we had to turn them off, I glanced up and saw that he was watching porn on his phone, right there on the plane.

Like, really?  Where everyone can see it, dude?  And not only that, but what is wrong with you, anyway – don’t you realize how that woman is being exploited so you can “enjoy” it?  And you probably don’t care about how much her exploitation and your lasciviousness (there’s a Bible word!) offends God….

Yeah, I was very offended and frankly, I don’t think I was wrong to be.

But, what should I do with that?

Humility tells me that I am not his judge.  And that’s because a) there are things in my life that may not look offensive but are, and b) because the judge of all the earth hasn’t given up his day job (but he did instead take all our sin to the cross.)

The gospel tells me to love that (literal) neighbor.  So I began to pray for him, trying not to pray prayers of judgment but of hope and love for him.  I know that in this world what he was doing is often seen as innocuous; much as I want to think I know all about him, I don’t – I only know that he too is beloved of God.

 

This is why our mandate is to love God with everything we’ve got…and then to love our neighbor as ourselves.  That’s not glib.  It’s hard, and it changes how we view everything and everyone.  It’s not what others expect and it’s not what we know how to do except by the power and love of the Holy Spirit.

Even my prayer isn’t “it” – to love him, I’d have to get to know him.  I’d have to be his friend, not his judge and not his rescuer, but someone authentically caring for him.  I’d have to take his view of me into account!  Perhaps I’d learn a lot about what is offensive in me. If it were possible, I’d have to let him care about me.  And all of this would be under the guidance of the Spirit, who wants to see us both “saved.”

 

This is what Jesus-following really is, and why it can really change the world.  Beware buying into the smaller, portable kinds of Christianity that are sold in the marketplace, where we figure out who is and who is not a Christian by the language they use, the music they listen to, and – critically – who they are against.  That’s not enough.  This world’s dysfunction needs the full power version, the kind of Christianity that took Jesus to the cross for us…and raised him from the dead in a burst of power we cannot replicate…not yet!

This world needs Christlike love and nothing less, and we are sent out with it, but only if we are in tune with the Spirit.  Then it is lifechanging.

And that kind of Christianity might still get criticized, but it won’t be so easy to hold up to ridicule.  It just might fortify even our critics to recognize Christ at his coming!  And God willing, some will see Jesus in us as we have experienced him, making us new and setting us right, and loving us thoroughly.  God willing, in that moment we will all forget the poles, and the enemies we are supposed to be, as we love the Lord, and are loved by the Lord, together.

A shocking Christian

Every day, I surprise someone I don’t know on Facebook.

I do it when I respond in a way they didn’t expect from a “Christian,” much less a pastor.

I hasten to correct any misunderstandings; I am not shocking them by being rude or naughty (at least, I don’t think so!).  No, I am shocking them because they expect me to make excuses for hating Muslims, fearing Sharia, or condemning gays.  They expect me to be angry and defensive against cultural change, and mostly involved in trying to shut other people up.

They think that what Christianity is really about, is shoring up a culture that is slipping away, where men were men and women were at home, where everyone knew their place and stayed  in it if they knew what was good for them, and that of course meant that black people stayed on their side of town, Spanish-speaking people lived  somewhere else and NOBODY’S kid was gay, much less “transgender.”

They think that is what my job is, to teach people to passionately defend that world, and so they are  prepared to sneer at me, at my church, at dumb Christians who believe fairy tales, in general.

So I surprise them, by agreeing with them on a lot of things.  I surprise them by telling them that Jesus agreed with them on a lot of things.  I surprise them by sharing their disgust with that other picture of Christianity.

I’d like to think that makes a difference, but of course it is more fun for them to disparage people they don’t know than it is to have to consider my challenge to their suppositions.  I understand that.

And of course there are enough Facebook posts and cringeworthy interviews to underscore that there ARE Christians who think that above paragraph is the most essential thing for them to care about right now.

And, after all, I can always argue that Jesus told us we would be misunderstood and rejected.

But let’s be misunderstood and rejected for actually loving and caring for our neighbors, no matter who they are.  Let’s be prepared to care for the one in need of mercy on our way, no matter who they are.  Let’s be misunderstood for being too compassionate, being too willing to listen to other people, being foolish in the way we are generous.

Let’s be regarded as being dangerous because we do NOT uphold the status quo, just as Jesus wouldn’t.  Let’s let the  empire start to worry about us, because we just will not fall into line.  The minute our hearts start to close up toward someone, let us pray for an emergency action of the Spirit, that we would be good listeners.  (We don’t have to agree to listen).

And let’s surprise everyone by our willingness to love, even if they mock us for it.  Even if they threaten us for it.  I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus  had in mind.

When did we start to celebrate cruelty?

I suppose “liberals” are frequently derided as soft, “bleeding hearts” who take every possible insult too seriously, overly sensitive folks who are paralyzed by the pain of anyone, anywhere.

But these days, “conservatives” are starting to look cruel.

Cruelty is characterized by an indifference to the suffering of others, and even perhaps taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

Someone who is cruel sees no relation between themselves and the sufferer.   And these days I am struck by how quickly those on the right-wing side of things run to explain away the suffering of others as deserved, and therefore of no consequence to good people such as themselves.

Poor people?  Obviously they don’t work – why should we help them?  (The fact that a high percentage of those who receive “food stamps” or Medicaid are actually the working poor escapes them, along with the history of falling wages that make it impossible for a worker at minimum wage to survive on that wage alone.)

Sick people?  Ask Mick Mulveny – diabetics got that way just by eating improperly; they’re not our responsibility.  (Genetics plays a role here, but Mick doesn’t care.)

The Republican candidate for Congress in Montana lost his cool and beat up a reporter whose question he did not want to answer?  Well, didn’t the president SAY the press is the enemy of the people?  Even when FOX NEWS REPORTERS gave eyewitness testimony that was in conflict with the candidate’s version of events, his followers explained it away.  Now, it’s perfectly fine to beat up reporters from “liberal” media if you don’t like what they say.

Cruelty is certainly nothing new in the human condition.  Long are the histories of the brutality of tyrants, or of the imaginative ways tribal opponents have of making each other’s villages miserable, and of course we know the stories of torture and imprisonment of some of history’s worst.

But shouldn’t a nation that at least loosely holds a “Christian” history be just a little bit wary of the creeping cruelty of some of our public conversation?

I’m alarmed at the scapegoating of groups whose humanity we no longer need to consider.

I’m bewildered by the North Carolina Pastors’ Network posting a billboard about why we ought to have a Muslim ban, because “19 Muslims killed 2700 Americans on 9/11” – what kinds of houses of worship do they pastor?  Don’t we follow a Lord of grace and forgiveness?  Haven’t we been told our enemy is not flesh and blood?  Would Jesus post that – or would Jesus go have dinner with the Muslim neighbors because God loves the world?  Clearly the Muslim NEIGHBOR didn’t kill 2700 Americans!  When did PASTORS become rigidly angry and full of fear?

I’m angry, too, but at politicians and a president who dismiss other people so easily.  President Trump seems to think he can call anyone he wants a Loser, and then give them a nickname that dismisses them.  How can we respect a president who reserves respect, apparently, only for the most authoritarian of leaders?  (He thinks Philippine president Duterte, who is murdering his own countrymen without benefit of trial or sentence, is doing a “great job”!)

And I’m worried, when I hear stories of casual cruelty from strangers who have contempt for someone who is not white, or perhaps obviously gay – who then explain their behavior by pointing out that “Trump won.”

For whatever those who voted for Trump were hoping for in this new administration, I hope it was not that our society would devolve to being at one another’s throats.  Certainly we have problems we must act on, but blaming them on others and then taking out our ire on them is not American, and it most certainly is not Christian!

I am going to take a stand when I hear it.  I am going to get in the face of those who I see do it.  It is time, especially for those who call themselves by the name of Jesus, to call it out.  It’s not funny.  It doesn’t make the crueler person the winner.  No more.  Call me a bleeding heart if you will, but I would rather be that, than someone who has lost the ability to share another’s suffering.

When the World Around is Scaring Us

 

How should we proceed when there is ample reason to be afraid?

I’m not talking about the anxiety  that many people suffer from, the kind of thing where our brains search for things to worry about.

Nope, I’m talking about the days when North Korea shows a video of one of their missiles blowing up San Francisco, when it seems like our president is hiding something (why else beg the FBI Director to stop his investigation?), or when he leaks classified intelligence to the Russians and tells the murderous Philippine dictator who kills his people that he is doing a great job – and then tells him where our nuclear subs are?

I’m sorry, I don’t want to be too political, but I know I’m not the only one who thinks these are pretty scary times.

So as followers of Jesus, what should we do?

First of all, I think we need a sober analysis of God’s view of this world.  Those of us who keep saying God is in charge haven’t read our Bibles thoroughly enough. Yes, of course, God is sovereign and this world has a destiny of renewal in God’s time, a new heavens and new earth where God will dwell with his people (Rev. 21).  Amen!

But in the meantime, the Bible seems to say that the Devil is having his day.

Paul speaks of the “ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Eph 2:2), which is to say the earth, “the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.”

Satan seems to think he’s in charge – he tells Jesus so in Luke 4:  “The devil led Jesus up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give ti to anyone I want to.  If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

The picture we get of the world and its people is that we are blind to spiritual things, and easily led astray in spiritual ways by a force that is hostile to our Creator.  Under those circumstances it is no surprise we choose badly, even though we are made in the image of God and are also capable of goodness, kindness, love and wisdom.

Satan, though, is a liar and the father of lies, and wherever there are lies he is at work.  That’s why it’s hard to believe that any president can be God’s “chosen one,” (or that God chooses our presidents!) since it is pretty difficult to get to be president in our current system while always telling the truth – although I have to say, at this moment our president has taken lying to new heights.

So, while there are real reasons for fear, we ought not really to be surprised – what else could we expect?

So what should we do?

Armor up!  That’s the Bible’s  prescription.  We should be very clear what it is we are dealing with and what our orders are.  We’re told to “put on the armor of God” – that’s a reference both to David and Goliath and to Isaiah.

It’s a reference to being defended by something better than we can arrange for ourselves.  We’re told to find our defense in things like our  faith, the gospel, righteousness – our relationship with God – and the word of God.  And then to stand firm.  God is actually fighting the real fight, the spiritual one, and we aren’t going to be consulted on how he does it.

We will sometimes bear the scars, however.

And when we are wounded, we need to go to the Healer and find our peace in Him.  It might take time before we gain his perspective on what’s going on, but it will come.  And then we can be empowered to do the difficult things Jesus commanded us:  if someone slaps us on one cheek, turn to them the other one and let them have another shot.  If they compel us to carry their burdens for one mile, volunteer to carry them two.  If they take our coat, give them our shirt, too.

Why would we do that?  What kind of nonsense is that?

It’s the nonsense of Jesus, which demonstrates that this battle has already been won.  We are supremely confident because we know how it ends.  What can the devil take from me?  I am eternally safe, and those I love are in the hands of God.  Evil will not prevail, even if it wins this skirmish.  And nothing enrages evil more than when we demonstrate that our faith has conquered our fear.

Sometimes I say things like this on Facebook and people who identify themselves as Christians say I’m insane.  Well, maybe, but what do they think Jesus was talking about when he told us to do that?  And we can’t say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about – he went on to do EXACTLY those things, as they humiliated him, beat him, spit on him and crucified him.  But he rose from the dead and they couldn’t keep him “gone.”   They can’t erase us, either.

The answer to our fear is not nice-sounding bromides but the real truth:  we have always been in a battle but we are wrong about who the enemies are.  It’s not “flesh and blood,” as Paul writes, but rather God’s Enemy, the spirit of evil.  We win by love.  We win by trust.  We win by standing, in the Spirit, with God.  That’s the only thing that ever wins.