Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday, Health Care, and the Kingdom of God.

1 Peter 1.3-12 (continuing study of the Petrine epistles).

If you have been paying attention these past few weeks you will, of course, know that we are living through an incredibly divided time in our nation’s history. The Democrat majority passed sweeping health care legislation that appears to many to be the equivalent of a Marxist takeover of the American political system. I heard one woman call in to NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” this week and complain that she had an apple thrown at her as she was driving because she has a political bumper-sticker on her truck. She also complained of having her vehicle “keyed” because of her political opinions. She then identified herself as a conservative and proceeded to inform the host of the program and his guests that it may be time for Americans to claim the rights that the 2nd Amendment gives to form militias and take back the government.

Meanwhile commentators were pointing out that this new legislation signals a meaningful step forward in the leveling of economic disparity in our country. This of course terrifies those concerned with the specter of socialism that still haunts the American consciousness since the Cold War. And I think they are right to point out the dangers of socialism, at least a secular socialism, in its reliance on a certain totalitarian power for enforcement. Yet, the poor and the sick, especially children, will now have access to health care that only the more wealthy had before. One of my co-workers, whose wife runs a childcare program in their home, “complained” that they were going to lose one of the children that attends their program because of this new health care bill. This child suffers from a rare medical condition that has always been rejected for coverage by insurance companies. This required the child’s mother to work just to pay for medical treatment so that her child could live. The new health care bill, by prohibiting the exclusion of children due to pre-existing conditions, will happily free up this mother to quit her job and stay home with her child.

As the health care legislation was being signed, outside the White House thousands of immigrants and activists were protesting the lack of action the administration has taken with regards to immigration reform. Immigrants and the sick. Tea party activists. These scenes reminded me this week of the rabble that followed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There were the sick, the poor, the aliens, the strangers, the tax-collectors, the fishermen, the zealots, the militants, and, leading them all, was Jesus riding on a donkey--on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Palm branches waving, the crowds laying their cloaks on the ground before his feet, the people were celebrating the arrival of their Messiah into their capitol, Jerusalem, the city of Kings. A week later he would be crucified, hanging on a cross outside the city, condemned to have his body torn apart by wild birds as a warning to other radicals.

Jesus upset all of their expectations. He perhaps upsets ours as well.

Peter writes in verses 3-5: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” Our hope, according to Peter, is not in the triumphal entry. Our hope is not in the establishment of a political party, a particular legislative act, a militia, or a constitution. Our hope is not in Barak Obama as his political propaganda proclaimed. Our hope is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that event which invades our world and our time with something radically new. Ours is not a hope in conservatism, liberalism, socialism, capitalism, Marxism, Federalism, or state’s rights. Our hope is in resurrection.

This is not a confusion of categories. Some would argue that resurrection doesn’t belong among these political movements. But Peter called it a “living hope.” It’s not a dormant, sleeping hope waiting for some future day to be realized in our life. It is now, active in the present, shaping our lives, our actions, and, yes, our politics. But our political party is that of the “exiles of the dispersion.” We affirm that the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem was the king. That his entry was triumphant. That his followers are called to live lives of political importance. It’s just that the political lives they live will not be recognized as such. Or if they are recognized, they will be seen to be as subversive as Jesus himself who was killed because he upset the order so much. This should remind us of the early Anabaptists who simply rejected the political options that were set before them. Rather than take one side or another in the Roman Catholic/Protestant conflicts that were dividing Europe during the Reformation, the Anabaptists claimed that their faith trumped all political loyalties. This, of course, turned out to be a political loyalty. But it was a loyalty to the Kingdom of Heaven.

But Peter also said that the resurrection indicated an inheritance, “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.…” We typically interpret this based upon a belief that heaven is that place to which we are going when we die. Our hope is not of this world. It is waiting for us up there, in heaven, in the sky, away from this world. The political hope of Christians then seems to consist of the simple act of waiting to die. There is something about this way of seeing things that is absolutely right--and also significantly wrong.

Our hope does require that we wait. I suggested last week that we compare two images in the Bible: The Tower of Babel and the New Jerusalem. The Tower of Babel is something we build. It is a vivid image of human power and pride, constructed on the promise of greatness and progress. On the other hand, the New Jerusalem is an image of God’s action. It is God’s building, a heavenly hope, and it comes to us. This is our inheritance and it will come to us. It will not be something we build--no constitution we write, no legislation we pass, no government we establish. It will be God’s action and I will suggest to you that this is tremendously freeing. You are not called to change the world. You may walk into Jerusalem with Jesus, you may march to Washington, but most likely you will not succeed. Like Jesus you will experience persecution and “suffer various trials.” This is normally the fate of exiles. And so, like exiles, we wait for the time of our exile to be over, which means we are waiting for the New Jerusalem, the New Heavens, and the New Earth.

Yet the nature of our waiting is not inactive, apolitical, or powerless. Rather, the period of our waiting is characterized by the witness, in our lives and our communities, to the kingdom of God. Our politics is informed always by the politics of the king who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is a politics that brings together right and left, young and old, wealthy and poor, sick and healthy, into one community, a community that is first of all characterized by the worship of God’s people as they shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” What characterizes this sort of politics is a sort of radical patience. We may act, and we will act. We will act in such a way that accords with the teachings of Jesus on the Kingdom of God in the Gospels. But we will not attempt to control the system, or wield power other than through the witness of our lives and our patience. We are not building a kingdom, we are waiting for a kingdom even as we live in that kingdom. We are not building the Tower of Babel, we are waiting for the New Jerusalem.

Our waiting and the suffering that a politics of exile produces, is to be something in which we paradoxically rejoice: in the words of Peter, “so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation [the apocalypse] of Jesus Christ.” In this new community of worship our violence and indignation fades away. Our desire for control melts into worship of the one who is in control and whose reign will one day be manifest in the New Creation. Our focus is redirected to justice, mercy, and peace. But ours is a politics of outsiders, looking in, saying, “this might be a good idea for you to try” or, “look, those people are suffering, lend a hand, help them.” Or, “here we are, working and laboring for the sick and poor, come join us in this labor.”

This is where the Christian practice of hospitality lent itself to to establishment of homes for the sick and dying, called hospitals. It is the Christian practice of care for the sick that is at the heart of our debate surrounding health care. It is the Christian history of caring for the sick even at extreme risk to our own health, as was the risk of nurses a hundred years ago, that is the source of our understanding of health care: nursing as martyrdom, nursing as witness, nursing as testimony to the Lamb who was slain. Such a self sacrificing practice of hospitality is a witness to the king who rode on a donkey, a king who cared more for the sick than for his own reputation, political viability, or success. It is the king who rode on a donkey that loved the sick and the dying more than political ideology. It is the sick and the dying that paradoxically wield the power in the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us not forget this as we continue into the fray of political divisiveness that is overwhelming our country during this time. As we continue the debate over health care, be chastened by this reminder that it is the sick and dying, regardless of their ability to pay, who hold the place of honor and value in the Kingdom of God.

And let us, in patience and peaceableness, direct our politics first toward worship, toward the worship of the one who alone is king and who alone will come with power and might. Let our politics be first of all characterized by the last words of the Bible: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thoughts on love....

The following is the text of the sermon I delivered at a wedding for two members of our church last week.

Some thoughts on love….

1 Cor 13.1-3: “If I speak in the tongue of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my posessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

1. Love is a cliche. It is a word used over and over again so that its meaning is watered down as it flits through our vocabulary almost unnoticed. “Love” floats gently and sweetly before us as some dull and cheap cliche, recycled by teenagers and Hallmark, bumper-stickers and smiling believers. We are told that what the world needs now is love, sweet love, but in fact we are not sure what in the world that looks like beyond vague and sentimental feelings. And, of course, nothing is more cliche than speaking about love at a wedding. Nothing.

2. Weddings are about love. They are. Of course they are! But not the cliche type of love. Not the sentimental love. Of course, if all we know about love is how love is used and over-used in our shallow culture, in vague and general terms, then weddings cannot help but go only as far as this smarmy, pink and frilly love. But weddings are about love, real love; love rich and deep, love rooted in the soil of everyday life. The love that weddings are about, that they should be about--that this wedding is about---is a love that touches ground. Weddings are about love.

3. We don’t know what love means apart from seeing it. There is no “love” floating about above our heads that somehow is what we mean by “love.” We don’t know what love is unless we can see it, touch it, taste it, feel it, experience it and be caught up by it. I can teach you the dictionary definition of love and show you how to use the word in everyday speech. I can tell you what it means but unless you are loved, unless you experience the earthy stuff that makes love, love, you won’t have a clue. We don’t know what love means apart from being loved.

4. God loves us. This is just about as banal and sentimental as any cheesy greeting card. Christianity, however, resists over and over again the urge to become universal and vague. Some religious traditions move in the direction of the dissolution of particularity, the undoing of the ego, the shedding away of personality and identity. Not Christianity. The God of our faith moves in the opposite direction. Instead of being a large amorphous force in the universe, he enters into a personal relationship with his creatures. He becomes particular. He comes close. But as if close wasn’t enough, he becomes a man. God in human flesh. This is love--a nitty gritty particular love. Love made flesh. Love with skin. Love with dirty hands and sawdust in his hair. Love that bleeds. In Christ, God has made his love visible.

5. The Apostle John tells us: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”

6. So, weddings are about love. This kind of love. The kind of love that lays down its life for the other. That’s what makes them interesting. I mean, what would be interesting about a wedding that didn’t involve this sort of risk? Too many weddings these days are based on the feelings of love and when the feelings change and drift the marriage changes and drifts. There is nothing exciting in this. Where is the danger and risk? Where is the excitement? Christian marriage is about a different sort of love, the sort of love demonstrated in a manger in Bethlehem and that made its painful way to the cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem. Christian marriage takes its cue from God’s love. Weddings are about the sort of love that says, “I will lay down my life for you.” That’s interesting! That’s daring! That takes courage! I want to see that!

7. Weddings, if they are about love, are also abut freedom. This is because love is the necessary context for freedom. Too often we assume that weddings are tremendous acts of voluntary imprisonment; acts of giving up personal freedom for a constraining and binding relationship. So we have this backwards and harmful tradition of bachelor parties and bachelorette parties where we encourage the bride and groom to live it up on their last night of freedom! That cantankerous writer Edward Abbey once exclaimed, “how can I be true to one woman without being false to all the others?” And so we have this strange verbal habit of referring to our spouse as “the old ball and chain.” This might be so...except for love! We can spend our lives chasing after vague, fleeting, amorphous images of love, resisting commitment, moving in and out of relationships claiming that we are free...but this would be a lie. Or, we can love, really love; and we can be loved, really loved, and then and only then, are we free to live our lives, not chasing after love, but living in the context of love. Love sets us free.

8. Pat and Wendy, your wedding today is about this sort of love. The sort of love that through the laying down of your lives for each other sets you free to live in the security of love. And so your marriage bears witness to love--real, tangible love. It will stand as a witness to us of what love means. We will learn from you how to love in the way God loves us. That’s a tall order! But that is why we are here. Our love for you will hold you up when you stumble. When your love falters we will be here for you lean on. In this way your marriage is not just about you two, but it is about us as well. Your marriage--this wedding--is a gift to us. By being married in a church you declare that as you give yourselves to each other you also give yourselves to us, and we, in turn, give ourselves back to you.

9. Finally, in his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul elaborates on what love is. Pay attention! He doesn’t leave us with a bland sentimental take on love, but rather with a real life, tangible, and practical take: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” May your marriage today begin to give flesh to these words!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Easter 2009

Here's my Easter sermon. I've been preaching through Revelation and thinking about martyrdom. I am mostly awed at the way in which martyrs invoked a new reality--the new creative work of God begun in the Resurrection--and opened the door to the possibility of life lived free from the constraints of death, even in the face of death. The death that the martyrs anticipated took the peculiar shape of Christ's death which, we learn at Easter, is transformed by resurrection.

We are known as a peace church. As Mennonites we are identified to a great extent by our opposition to war and violence, often calling ourselves pacifists and for evidence pointing to generations of conscientious objectors and activists working in the arenas of conflict resolution and peacemaking. We frequently quote verses such as “blessed are the peacemakers,” “love your enemies,” “turn the other cheek” and so on. In all of this there is a certain honesty: the world is a violent place, full of conflict, wars, and struggles over power. We would simply rather have a peaceable world than a violent one—who wouldn’t? And yet our lives are understood according to narratives of struggle.

To the extent that we are Americans, we are a people who, for the rule of law and a peculiar notion of freedom, fought a great empire and won. Our identity has been forged according to the myths of redemptive violence that the revolution and subsequent wars have been used to suggest. By myths of redemptive violence I mean stories that have been told of wars and conflicts, stories in which we learn the necessity of violence in the good task and calling that has been the formation of the American nation. What would America be without Valley Forge, Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, Iwo Jima, Pearl Harbor, and D-Day? Bearing the name Sam Adams, as I grew up I came to identify with these stories as somehow definitive of who I was. I was named after the great American patriot after all, the founder of the Sons of Liberty and the instigator of the Boston Tea Party. Even the beer was named after the patriot! What would a great American beer be without a nod to our revolutionary origins?

But aside from the nationalistic stories, our lives on a more personal and less political level are understood according to stories of conflict and struggle as well. If you have overcome some hardship in your life, whether poverty, abuse, neglect, addiction, dependency, or the like, you have learned that such conflicts ought to in some way define you. They are part of your story. It may be that you are going through such struggles and conflicts right now that demand so much energy and attention that you will forever be changed by the demands that are placed upon you as your character is forged in the fires of adversity.

This is simply the way the world is. A Darwinist might call this the survival of the fittest. Organisms compete with one another for scarce resources and the ones best adapted to the task survive, beating out the competition and assuring their place in the genetic future. At the core of our world, at the core of the universe it seems, is conflict, strife, competition, and violence.

So who are we to protest? Who are we to want peace? If we are realistic about conflict, we ought to be realistic about the solution: prepare and be strong, defeat your enemy, adjust, adapt, play the game and come out ahead. Enter the race, train, and win. Survive, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Etc.

It doesn’t, of course, have to be so selfish. If we want peace we have to fight for it, right? If we want to be free from terror we have to kill all the terrorists. If we want to be free to live as we do, to work as we like, to worship who we want, we must assert these things with strength or we will find them slipping from our grasp. There are plenty of bad people who would like to see us fail.

Conflict, war, struggle, adversity—these are the ways of the real world.

So, we write of Jesus rather easily. A spiritualist we think he is, or an idealist—wait until heaven, then there will be peace. Or perhaps all he is doing is simply showing us how to find inner peace. The peace that passes all understanding. Let’s psychologize Jesus, make him the stuff of motivational infomercials, so we can understand the right technique to arrive at and get this un-understandable peace.

But the world is all about struggle, conflict, and war.

Or is it?

On trial before the governor Pilate, Jesus is asked the question, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answers, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

“Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

“So you are a king?”

“You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Jesus’ trial is remarkable. He never enters the game. He offers no defense. He is innocent and yet takes the abuse. He explains when it seems right but at other times remains silent. He is not competing with Pilate. He is not competing with the High Priest. He is not competing with the Emperor.

After being flogged, mocked with a purple robe, and given a crown of thorns, Jesus is presented to the crowd who wants him to be crucified. Pilate is baffled and distressed. He questions Jesus again.

“Where are you from?”

Jesus gives no answer.

“Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”

Jesus answers this time, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

From then on, we are told, Pilate tries to release him.

Jesus refuses to enter the game. Interestingly, he acknowledges the power of Pilate, the Roman governor, but he refuses to acknowledge the myth that made sense of Roman power. Paul does the same sort of thing in the 13th chapter of his letter to the Romans. Power is not, ultimately, won through struggle and conflict. Power is God’s. Pilate would have no power if it had not been given from above.

But the religious leaders try to pull Jesus into the game. They try to get him engaged according to the rules of religion and politics: “If you release this man,” they say, “you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

And so Jesus is crucified.

It is not that Jesus was somehow a spiritual king, unrelated to the emperor. John, in his apocalyptic vision, prefaces his letter by affirming that Jesus Christ is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1.5). Jesus is not set against the Emperor, rather he is set above the emperor. And it is this that gets him into trouble, leads to his death, and the death of many of his followers. Jesus’ death is certainly a political death in a political contest—but by his death Jesus denies the very rules that would govern the contest. His is not a Kingdom from this world. In John’s Gospel this is the last we hear of the Romans. Their part is over. The end of the conflict that defines our world; the end of the sort of power that rules nations and empires; the telos of the conflict that defines our lives is this: the death of the Son of God.

That’s as far as the story goes. Or so it seemed.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”

The scene has changed. The players are different. Now we have women, fishermen, friends.

The hot and bloody stone of Pilate’s politics has been replaced by the dark morning chill of a woman grieving in a graveyard. Then an empty tomb! Then there is running, and news, and more running. One disciple outruns the other and gets to the tomb first. They see the tomb empty—empty except for the grave-clothes—and there was a mixture of belief and confusion. Then the men leave and Mary is left, alone, with her grief. But she is not alone. Jesus is there. He is alive.

Religious and political power killed him. The conflicts that seem to determine this world killed him. The politically fit survived and killed the King of the Jews. Rome is stronger. The tension between the Jewish leaders and Pilate is eased for a moment. Diplomacy found a victim—but at least it was only one. It’s an old story, a very old story. But something new was happening, away from Pilate, away from the Temple elite, away from the crowds, away from the powerful and the proud. The politics of death continued, but life….life had won. And life did not play according to the rules. As it turns out, conflict is not the nature of the world, war and conflict are not the essence of the cosmos. Peace and life are. And their reign has begun. Jesus is alive, the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth. The only way that Jesus could have stood there before Pilate, carried his cross to Golgotha, been crucified and died, is if the power behind the cosmos is more determinative than the power in the cosmos. Were his kingdom from this world he would have fought, he would have engaged the empire, but instead he simply bore witness in the face of the conflict of this world that life was stronger than death, that God was not in the same league as the emperor, that though all the power and shame of the empire could be hurled at the Son of God, the victory would remain God’s.

She mistakes him for the gardener. Mary mistakes the King of Kings for a gardener. The only way such a mistake could be made is if the nature of kingship and power had somehow been fundamentally shown to be different than the way we have learned to see it.

This is what we witness to when we call ourselves a peace church. Being a peace church is being an Easter church. On Easter, everything changes. Life is shown to be more powerful than death—not by degrees, but by its very nature: death is shown to be ultimately powerless in the face of the goodness of God. By bearing witness to this through the practices of non-violence, reconciliation, and peace-making, even to the point of death, we participate in the life that is at the heart of the cosmos.

Easter tells us that our lives are not to be determined by conflict, violence, and war. Instead our lives are to be determined by the life and the peace that comes to us on and through Easter. In our church, even here, we are invited to enter into the shalom that comes to us from God the giver of life. In our worship we join together with the power of life over death. In the face of death our ancestors in the faith were able to sing because they lived in a world where death was not final, not ultimate—but rather life was. This they learned from Easter. As we go from here this evening, may we begin to see that Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed as we learn to see the lies inherent in the conflicts that surround us. May we begin to live as if life was infinitely greater than death so that our lives too may be a witness to the kingdom that is not from this world, but is instead the kingdom of the King of Kings.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Who are the Mennonites?

The following are three key convictions making up what I think it means to be Anabaptist or Mennonite. These are not in any way limited to Mennonites, but I think they represent the witness of that tradition to the broader church. And I do not think they can be written off as some quaint characteristics of an obscure denomination! These are why I am committed to keeping this tradition alive...

a) The Lordship of Jesus Christ. His lordship encompasses all of life and demands that every aspect be submitted to Him. There are no “spheres” or “domains” in which and over which He is not Lord. This has more ramifications than we would at first think, for if Jesus is Lord then the quality of that Lordship does not change even if we want to distinguish between public/private or spiritual/temporal. All of those dualisms are done away with if Jesus is Lord.

b) Non-violence/peace as faithfulness to Jesus. Non-violence names the practice of rejecting the means of power that the world relies upon to determine the outcome of history. Anabaptist faithfulness is eschatological in that it relies on God to determine the future, thus enabling the rejection of violence and other coercive means of control. Peace names the practices of reconciliation that enable the community of disciples to embody the substance of God’s righteousness and to work for that righteousness in the world.

c) The community displays the nature of the reign of God. The Anabaptist community is a community that displays to the world what sort of God it is that rules the world. And it is in our worship of the slain Lamb that we participate in His rule (Rev 5.7-10; Cf. John Howard Yoder, “To Serve Our God and to Rule the World” in The Royal Priesthood.)

Sunday, November 2, 2008

waiting as a mark of discipleship

The following is part of the rough draft for this afternoon's sermon. I never got to finish it as a written sermon, but am offering what I have here in case it can be helpful.

What does it mean to a people who wait? I am going back two weeks to the epistle reading from 1 Thess 1.9-10 that we missed, but that I alluded to last week: Paul writes, “For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.” Waiting is a theme of the Bible, repeated especially throughout the book of Psalms as an appropriate disposition one ought to have toward the Lord. Psalm 27.13- 14:

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD
In the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
Be strong, and let your heart take courage;
Wait for the LORD.

Or Psalm 43 from today’s reading:

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.

Hope in God. Wait upon the Lord. Wait for his Son from heaven. This attitude of waiting has been criticized in the people of God as a motivation for inaction. Christians, it is said, are a people who wait for their “pie in the sky, by and by…” We sit on our hands while people suffer around us. We wait for heaven, rather than trying to bring a little bit of heaven to earth. I especially hear a version of this when people criticize our stance of non-violence, as if our unwillingness to bear arms against our enemies were somehow a failure to take seriously a responsibility to do everything we can to make sure that good triumphs over evil.

On the other hand, there are countless Christians who have decided that waiting really has nothing to do with how we live in this world, and are impatiently trying to gain as much power in Washington as possible in order to create a Judeo-Christian nation. For these Christians waiting is entirely spiritualized. So, on the one hand we have those for whom waiting means doing nothing, and on the other hand there are those for whom waiting in no way limits an aggressive attempt to gain power to change the course of the world (even though, presumably, their theology teaches that things will get worse and worse until Jesus returns). At several points in our nation’s history the Christian assumption was that the things would actually get better and better and the Millennium would be ushered in through the hard work of either evangelists or those working for a progressive notion of social justice. A Civil War, two world wars, and Vietnam put a decisive end to most of these Christian movements.

So, does waiting mean sitting around on our hands, or does it mean actively pursuing power to change the world? Or something else entirely? I will suggest that it means something else entirely.

Let me give an example from history that might help clarify what I am saying. In the early history of the church the Roman emperor Constantine I decisively ended the brutal oppression of Christians and led the way for Christianity to be the official religion of the Empire. For many Christians this represented what they had been waiting for. The emperor becomes Christian and the Empire soon follows. And yet, this is very different from the Thessalonian church being praised for their willingness to wait for God’s Son from heaven. Constantine was not God’s Son. And the subsequent history of the church after Constantine ought to make us question what sort of victory was really won when the Empire became Christian. The emperor is not the Messiah, nor is the President. Yet this hope is alive and well today. I heard a young woman interviewed this week who was eagerly waiting for Sarah Palin to run for president in eight years. Christians, especially in light of history since Constantine, should not be looking to national politics or to any state for a savior. This is what I take waiting for the Son of God to mean. It may mean other things, but it at least means this.

But how do we describe our waiting? I would differentiate between living faithfully while waiting, and an impatience that seeks power so that waiting is unnecessary. As Christians we do not take the power to determine the outcome of history into our own hands, rather we live faithfully in the meantime—seeking justice, peace, mercy, and hope—while rejecting the tools of power that would coerce those ends. And so the rejection of violence is justified by this just to the extent that violence represents an unwillingness to wait upon the Lord. I can picture the Thessalonian church in their faithfulness, caring for the sick and the poor, bringing equality between differing groups to realization in their fellowships, advocating on behalf of the abused, but trusting on the Lord for the outcome of their actions and hopes....

By being a community that is willing to wait, that is willing to reject the coercive means of control offered to us, we bear witness to the Lord who will come, and we might even convince a few that He is the living and true God who has already come....

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Recovering the Good News...

Part of a sermon from this afternoon, reflecting on 1 Thess 2.1-8.

In our text this afternoon we learn that what is most important to Paul and his companions is the Gospel. They have endured persecution, they have forsaken the pressures of the world, especially the approval of those from whom most would seek approval, but it is the Gospel that is of utmost importance because it is only the Gospel that brings true meaning and hope to life. Paul and Silvanus and Timothy did not come with flattery or greed because the Gospel is enough—who needs the praises of men in the face of what God has done? Who needs the prestige of multiple degrees in the face of what God has done? Who needs worldly success in the face of what God has done? Who needs to cling to the old ways when the new ways have been demonstrated in Christ, given the stamp of resurrection, and made available to us?

The problem is that we have been duped in the ways of greed. We have become soft to the ways of the world. There is a poem of Wendell Berry’s that gets very close to what I am trying to say this afternoon. It begins with the line “We who prayed and wept for liberty from Kings, and the yoke of liberty, accept the tyranny of things we do not need…” This is the American story. The struggle for freedom from tyranny ends in freedom that has become complacent. Consider the poem:

We who prayed and wept
For liberty from kings
And the yoke of liberty
Accept the tyranny of things
We do not need.
In plentitude too free,
we have become adept
beneath the yoke of greed.

Those who will not learn
In plenty to keep their place
Must learn it by their need
When they have had their way
And the fields spurn their seed.
We have failed Thy grace.
Lord, I flinch and pray,
Send Thy necessity.

The same may be true for the church in America. “In plentitude too free, we have become adept beneath the yoke of greed.” In our prosperity and our freedom we have lost a sense that the Gospel is good news. We don’t understand what it means to give up our idols and, like the Thessalonians, let the word of the Lord sound forth from us. Belief is too easy while our idols are too much a part of who we are for us to recognize them as idols. Instead we spiritualize the Gospel, domesticating it to the comfort of our private selves, filing it away as the correct assent to certain propositions, and fitting it neatly into lives we have learned to live from others for whom the Gospel is only an oddity. Religious freedom may be a blessing, but it carries with it a curse. And in that curse we too easily lose the goodness of the Gospel.

But, thank God for Paul. Thank God for the scriptures. For through them we can come again and again to catch a glimpse of the way the world really is. We can come to be challenged and reminded that Gospel is good news. We can come and be challenged if only to consider how we might have lost the sense that it is good news, and struggle to recover what it would require giving up for it to ring true again. We can be reminded by Jesus’ sermon at the beginning of his ministry that good news is proclaimed to the prisoners, the blind, the lame, the oppressed. We can be reminded that the Gospel is good news for the poor, for the least of these, for the outcast. We can be reminded through the telling and retelling of the story of Israel that without Israel Jesus makes no sense. Without God’s promise to his people, the fulfillment of which came in Jesus of Nazareth, there would be no good news, no salvation, no revelation, no hope. We need to tell the stories, too, of our Mennonite tradition: stories of Menno Simons, a bishop on the run, shepherding little churches all over northern Germany and the Netherlands, not for the sake of Anabaptism, or Mennonites, or the Swiss Brethren, but for the sake of the Gospel. Not for the honor, prestige, and position it offered, but because something in the story of God saving humankind in and through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ—his life, death, resurrection, and ascension—is good news worth risking all to tell. We need to preach this good news to one another, to our families, to our friends, and to our neighbors.

But like Paul and his companions, we need to share ourselves with our neighbors. “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” This is, of course, a proper analogy of the Gospel, because what is the Gospel but God caring so deeply for us that he gave himself for us. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son….If God has given himself for us, we then ought to give ourselves for one another. If it takes a new season of trial and difficulty for us to relearn this, then so be it. If it takes, as Wendell Berry put it, the fields to spurn our seed, then so be it. We may indeed need to “flinch and pray, send Thy necessity.” But we must learn, in plenty or scarcity, in freedom or oppression, the exceeding value of knowing Jesus Christ our Lord so that the church, this church, can continue to proclaim in faithfulness and conviction, the good news that is the Gospel.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

A Defiant "Nevertheless!"

If there is one word that continues to dominate public discourse, it is “confidence”. There is this game that the government is playing with the markets and a major part of that game is to do things that will encourage banks to lend money to other banks again. So far the game isn’t working and confidence is sorely lacking in the worldwide economy. Without confidence that money loaned will be repaid, the banks won’t lend money. If the banks won’t lend money, the economy can’t grow. If the economy can’t grow, we all feel the pinch. Confidence is a sort of faith, faith that things will turn out as we think they should, but confidence—and faith—is placed in something or someone. Banks place their confidence in the market—that in the marketplace things will naturally sort out for the benefit of the market. It’s faith in the process; a confidence in the system. The market has become a “power” in the Biblical sense of Paul’s “principalities and powers” and that power is coming under deep suspicion as it seems to be faltering. Paul, in last week’s text, had placed his confidence in himself, viz., in his lineage and his ability to follow Jewish teaching with consistency, integrity, and zeal. The transformation that affects Paul is that in knowing Christ he discovers that his own righteousness is futile compared to Christ’s righteousness and that Christ has offered his own righteousness for Paul. Therefore, Paul is freed from his own efforts and instead can rest in the righteousness of Christ! Paul’s confidence is transferred from himself to Christ. It is this confidence that Paul recommends to the Philippians and to us:

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ [or, the faithfulness of Christ] the righteousness from God based on faith. (Phil 3.7-9)

For Paul, it is not that suffering had ceased, or that hardships were done away with, but rather that he had gained a new way of seeing the world as he saw it in the light of Christ. Instead of seeing life as a challenge to be overcome through hard work and zealous effort at following Torah, he discovered in the faithfulness of Jesus that it was God at work in the world—not himself. Life was not about Paul and what Paul would accomplish, but rather it is about God and what God had accomplished in Jesus. And beyond this, it is about what God is accomplishing in and through people like Paul and us—disciples of Jesus—for the sake of the world. Because of this, Paul was able to place his confidence in God—the only one truly worthy of confidence. What you and I are supposed to see in this is that the turmoil of the markets, the back and forth of election politics, and the uncertainty of many confusing circumstances in our own lives, are put in right perspective by the story of Jesus. For in Jesus God is at work redeeming and reconciling the world to himself. And this touches ground in the particularities of our lives. It offers a critique of our misplaced confidence in the markets. It critiques our misplaced confidence in ourselves. It critiques our misplaced confidence in our political process. It draws our lives into the story of Jesus and only in that story do we truly find hope and peace—and joy.

This week’s text introduces another word that may seem odd at this time: rejoice. Paul calls us to “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!” [here I'm following Stephen Fowl's commentary on Philippians] The difficulty we usually find in following this exhortation is most likely because we think of joy as an emotional response, a spontaneous emotion that is the result of happy circumstances. But this is not how Paul uses it. Consider Phil 1.18 in which rejoicing is in the context of false motives of preachers, or his own deliverance. In Phil 2.17-18 he writes, “But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.” Here we see rejoicing in the context of suffering. In Phil 4.10 we see Paul rejoicing even in the context of his having need—or being content when others would be attentive to their lack.

I know that I find rejoicing hard to do when the bills are piling up, when the prospects for the economy look so bleak and our house continues to sink in value, when the kids throw fits, when I’m not sure where the next job will come from…all of these things make rejoicing hard. What circumstances in your own lives make rejoicing hard? Yet these are just the same or similar circumstances that surround Paul’s exhortation to us to rejoice. So Markus Barth tells us that “Joy in Philippians is a defiant ‘Nevertheless!’ which Paul sets as a full stop against the Philippians’ anxiety.” Joy is what comes when we consider the circumstances we are in and compare them to the goodness of the world seen through the story of Jesus.

Essential to understanding this story is not that by rejoicing and releasing our anxiety then all our problems will go away. It is that the future is in God’s hands. This is what Paul means when he speaks of the Resurrection. To rejoice is to defiantly claim the Resurrection in the face of the economy. To rejoice is to defiantly claim the Resurrection in the face of illness. To rejoice is to defiantly claim the Resurrection in the face of uncertainty, persecution, and suffering. To rejoice is to see the world as the arena in which God is working his salvation.