That is parenting

September 29th, 2014

One area of my life where I have struggled to be exceptional in the ordinary things is in my relationship with my children. Kids are tough. They come screaming into the world and pretty much keep that decibel going for the first year. They enter as needy creatures, totally and utterly dependent on you — needy doesn’t even begin to describe it. They begin at ground zero: no social skills, no communication skills, no physical skills (outside of crying), and you must slowly and patiently teach them, well, everything: from wiping their faces to wiping their bottoms. It is a tedious business this parenting. My prayer for every parent is the same: patience, patience, I pray for you unending patience. This child is going to take you to the brink of your sanity, to the point where you know you can’t handle anything more, and then they are going to poop in the bathtub, and you are going to cry as poop oozes between your fingers.

That is parenting.

However, is has taken me awhile to see that there is a glory in it all. In the service, in the whispered words that they will not remember. In holding them as they cry themselves to sleep. It is full of memory — full of meaning. But, as Oswald Chambers wrote, “these things are not learned in five minutes.”

The White Psyche on Race

August 14th, 2014

Before democracy, chattel slavery in America was born. – Michelle Alexander

My people, white people, are baffled by questions of race in the 21st century. It’s uncomfortable for us. We don’t know how to talk about it, don’t know whether to say ‘Black’ or ‘African American'; aren’t sure if we’re about to say something racist or not. So our solution? Never bring it up. Claim color blindness.

And yet, it keeps creeping up on us doesn’t it? Things just don’t seem quite right and yet we can’t identify why, and so we slip back into our apathetic ways: back into our suburban homes, far away from the places of economic, social, and political collapse — the ghettos. It might be 20 miles South of us in the inner city, or just across town on the other side of the tracks, or perhaps both, but everyone knows the reality: we are world’s apart and we are growing farther apart. Our churches are largely segregated. Our schools are largely segregated. Our neighborhoods are largely segregated. Not totally, of course. But far too much for comfort. It’s as though the higher on the economic system we climb, the fewer black people there are. But why is this? We do not know. No one knows. It’s just the way the world is. It’s the way the world has always been. Or is it?

Of course, there are exceptions. The exceptions make us feel much better. We know a black woman, an extraordinary women. She went to college and everything. She has a good job. We know a president, a black man, whom we of course voted for. He has a marvelous story. He is exceptional.

And yet, the ghettos persist and we do not know why, or we do not want to know why. Which is it? We are not sure. Better not to think too much about it. Might get us down. And so we forget. It’s so easy really. Months flash by. But then Trayvon Martin happens, and the black people come out of their homes and march and cry in the streets and we are reminded that things are not well. We do not understand, or do we?  And then Michael Brown happens, and we see the police brutality, and the sadness on the faces of black folks who know that could be their son, father, brother. But we do not understand.

We are miles apart — worlds apart.

*Note: To better understand race in 21st century America I would highly recommend The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. It is a revelation.

Sermon: Soil

July 18th, 2014

This sermon was delivered at New Hope Christian Church on July 13, 2014. The transcript below is substantially longer than the actual sermon delivered. In fact, I think it’s the longest sermon I’ve ever written. However, NH has a 25min cutoff (which I still abused) so I had to cut quite a bit out for the sake of time.

Part One

Matthew 13:1-9 &18-23

Our default mode for reading the text of Scripture is to place ourselves in the position of the righteous man or woman. In the Old Testament we nod along with Amos or Isaiah as they condemn Israel’s unfaithful ways. When Jesus criticizes the hypocrisy of the pharisees we’re right there next to him wagging our fingers and feeling very sorry for what silly people they were. And as we read the parables we tend to place ourselves as the hero at the end. And of course, the temptation is no different with this text. In the parable of the sower we all want to imagine ourselves as the one who gets it: hearing the word of the dream of God for the world, receiving it it, embodying it, and watching as it spreads from life to life — like a virus for good infecting every person we come into contact with. This is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and perhaps it’s true, perhaps we really are those people. And yet, I wonder if perhaps we might receive more from the parable if we cast a more critical eye at ourselves — casting ourselves in the role of the unfaithful person and asking the question: is this me? Have I failed to understand the nature of the rule of God for the world? Have I failed to understand what kind of Messiah Jesus really is? You see, it’s those questions that are at the heart of this — and every — parable.

Central to this parable is the notion of the kingdom of God. That language is a bit archaic and doesn’t necessarily sing for most of us today so let me give some background on the concept. The Jewish people had a golden era that began with King David and continued through his son Solomon’s reign. It was a time of prosperity, peace, and wholeness. It was a time largely of, what the biblical writers referred to as shalom, which literally translated means peace, though it’s a larger more rounded out concept than that. It’s the idea of peace or wholeness at every level of human existence; encompassing both the personal (emotional, mental, spiritual, physical) as well as the societal (political, economic, communal) levels. A great picture of shalom is a large family gathering with meal times and caring and sharing by firelight (Padriq Harrington). Or another example might be, a society in which the crushing weight of poverty is unheard of. That was the kind of world envisioned by the prophets: shalom, peace, wholeness, fulness: However, if you’ve read a good bit of the Old Testament you know that that peace did not endure, and in fact what happened is that the story of the people of God became a story about the ways that Empire — with it’s violence, greed, and will to power — dominated and controlled the land of Israel. First the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, and finally by the time you enter Jesus’ era, the Romans. These were not days of shalom. Thus it was during this period of conquest after conquest that the prophets began to foretell of a Messias, a deliverer, who would restore the shalom of God in the world. This historical context helps clarify why Jesus was considered a failed messiah. 1st century Jews expected a militaristic messiah. They were looking for a king with a sword in his hand and what they got was, well, Jesus. A king with thorns as his crown, a cross as his throne, and his death as his enthronement ceremony.

People often wonder why Jesus speaks so much in parables. No doubt it was because of his peasant background (Jesus was not trained in the finest synagogues of his day) and audience (mostly peasants themselves), however a deeper reason is that Jesus was himself a living parable. He came embodying the kingdom he preached, a kingdom that he said would, like a mustard seed, start small and quietly in the hearts and minds of his followers, impacting them on a deeply personal (mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual) level. However, over time that little seed would bloom into a tree that would be kingdom community, and that community, the church, would themselves embody the shalom of God in ways that would be a blessing for the entire world. That is the vision of the kingdom and it is to this kingdom and the soil of the human heart upon which it grows that we now turn.

Part Two

The parable of the four soils in Matthew 13 opens with the image of a road with soil that is so densely packed that the seed simply lies there dormant, stillborn, unable to penetrate to the life giving oxygen of the soil where it might bloom into something beautiful in the person’s life: faith, hope, and love never flower.

Judas Iscariot is the villain of the New Testament and, because western culture is so influenced by Christianity, he is a sort of universal villain for our entire culture. That’s why parents don’t name their children Judas. They can be the most hardened church-hating unbeliever but they wouldn’t think of naming their child after Judas, because culturally he stands for something. He is the figure of the traitor writ large. He is the man who betrayed the Son of God. If Jesus represents humility and service then Judas stands for selfishness and pride. If Jesus represents a love of others, then Judas represents a hatred for the fellow man. If Jesus represents a generosity and freedom from wealth, then Judas — the man who betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver — represents greed and an insatiable desire for wealth. (As a quick aside, the figure of Judas the money-lover is the origin of a strong anti-semitism that developed historically within Christianity — that’s a travesty and there’s no excuse for it. Both Jesus and Judas were Jewish and it’s simply ugly racism to extrapolate from Judas to Jewish people everywhere.)

However, what’s remarkable about the betrayal is that there’s no doubt that Judas had a strong connection with Jesus on a personal level. They did after all spend three years traveling together, and that means hours and hours of eating, talking, telling stories, and running from bandits. If Judas had a wife I’m sure Jesus had met her, if Judas had children I’m sure Jesus had hugged them or shaken their hands. In fact, there is even a record in the the Gospel of Matthew (ch.26) where Jesus, knowing Judas will betray him, refers to him as ‘friend.’ However, perhaps more disturbing than the sheer amount of time they spent together were the hours Judas spent hearing the message of the kingdom. He heard every parable, story, and analogy a hundred times. I think we’d forgive someone who heard the parable of the sower or the Sermon on the Mount once and then simply went on their way, but Judas soaked in the message of the kingdom for years. Judas not only heard the parables, but he spent time with the living parable: the parable with flesh and blood on, the parable who slipped into skin and revealed God to us — the Christ. So what happened?

There is plenty of speculation on this topic, most of it centering on the title following Judas’ first name: ‘Iscariot.’ Some scholars think that Iscariot might mean son of Keroth, and Keroth was a city in the Negev region which is in Judea. The reason this is significant is because all of the other disciples were from Galilee and Judeans looked down on Galileans. In other words, there might have been a class issue. Judas had failed to embrace the part of the kingdom of God where declares that in Christ their is neither male nor female, slave nor free, rich nor poor, Gentile nor Jew, Judean nor Galilean, for all have been made one in Christ. This might be the reason for Judas’ failure to embrace the message of the kingdom.

However, scholars also speculate that a copyist error flipped the “I” and the “S” in the last name ‘Iscariot’ which would mean the title Iscariot should actually be ‘Sicariot.’ This would place Judas firmly in the camp of the violent revolutionary group the ’Sicariis’ — which literally means ‘the dagger men.’  Thus Judas Sicariot is Judas ‘the dagger man’. In other words, Judas was possibly a Zealot who believed the Roman Empire could only be overthrown by violence. This would make sense as to why he would earnestly join Jesus, the one he believed to be the Meshiach (Messiah) of Israel, only to abandon him when he realized that Jesus was taking a different path to establish the kingdom of God than he expected — not the path of violence but the path of the suffering servant with thorns for his crown and a cross for his throne.

Of course, this is speculation and at the end of the day we’re left with the disturbing mystery that there are people who hear the message of the kingdom and have some level of comprehension, yet they never come to deeply understand it in a way that involves acceptance, reception, and appropriation. They heard the word but they never enact the word, they never themselves become a parable of the kingdom. They have failed to understand what kind of Messiah Jesus is and the nature of kingdom they have been invited to join. They are hard soil.

The parable then shifts to the image of a soil that is good and rich and receptive to seed, however lurking just below the surface is a layer of rock that prevents the seed from laying down deep roots. They are a shallow person who have not moved beyond the syrupy sweet goodies of culture and popular Christianity to embrace the deep things of the soul, the Spirit, The Christ, and the Father.

Back in my early to mid twenties, before I had children, I remember days where I would do nothing but watch college football from morning to night. You had the early pre game stuff beginning around 11am and then the game at 12pm, another game at 3:30pm, and then the night game around 7:30pm. This means I would watch football for roughly 10hrs that day. And what I distinctly remember is the anticipation with which each of those days began and the absolute horror with which they ended because over that 10hrs, between the sedentary couch sitting and the utterly horrific nutritional value of queso, I had turned into a slug. I literally felt exhausted by my nothingness. It was the height of irony. My day of rest and relaxation had utterly depleted me. My day of fun and enjoyment had left me utterly depressed. Why?

There is a way of engaging certain activities that do not plunge us deeper into our lives and the lives of those around us; that do not put us more in touch with ourselves as mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual beings, but instead isolate us from others and over time cause us to become less human. Rather than generous, open people characterized by freedom, we are selfish and anxiety ridden, often addicted and trapped. This is a tremendous danger in a culture of 24-7 news and an endless number of cable television stations. It is a tremendous danger in a culture of easy access to both illegal and prescription medication. We live in perilous times when every sort of bizarre sexual fantasy is just a few clicks a way online, while our wives or our husbands languish alone in bed. It is so easy for us to float through life, living shallow lives — from purchase to purchase or sporting event to sporting event — and all the while neglecting the deep things of life.

But what are these deep things I’m speaking of – whatever it is that reconnects you to others and your own soul. A walk with your spouse and the comfort of holding hands, a good novel that helps you tap into the deep reservoir of emotion that is in us all, a world cup soccer game that has you screaming and eventually crying with everyone in the chills bar, a cup of coffee in the morning as you read the Psalms, the quiet lapping of a lake, your nightly episode of ‘Parks and Rec’ with your spouse, journaling (writing your story), the laughter of your child as you push them on a swing. The way Brian Zahnd, one of my favorite pastors in America, put it is this “When birdsong and gentle footfall replace the shrill rancor of 24-7 news and the inane blare of 500 channels, the soul has a chance to heal.”

Now, why did I just give you this long cultural analysis? Because the truth is that Matthew 13 is describing a religious version of this same phenomena. What we have here is a description of someone who has refused the deep soil of faith, and has thus resigned themselves to a shallow religion which is what passes for popular Christianity in this country.

The description the text gives of this person is a bit disturbing though because it’s a counterintuitive. What it describes is not someone reluctant to join the faith, but someone who is literally overjoyed at finding the kingdom. ‘Praise God’ they yell! ‘I have been saved!’ They are full of enthusiasm and passion. They are what we might refer to as an on-fire Christian. You know the type. They come into the faith in a blaze of glory, they have a stirring testimony of what God has done in their life, and they are telling anyone and everyone of those great things. They also tend to have a strong fixation on the sexier things of faith: they’re spiritual power, the demons they have seen and controlled through their prayers, the direct tangible experiences of God they have had. What is the theme here: THEM. Or to put it in the first person, ME. You see, that’s how I know this person so well, that was me, and to some degree still remains a temptation for me. Turning Christian faith into an extended exercise in navel gazing. It is all about me. My experience of God, my spiritual power, my miracle, my blessing, my future, my dreams, my kingdom…? But this is to fundamentally misunderstand what kind of Messiah Jesus is and the nature of the kingdom we have been invited into.

To cultivate deep roots we need the death of me. Too many of us think that Christianity is about God making me into the best me that I can be. But Christianity is an invitation not to the inflation of self and an obsession with the ego, but a death to the self. The way the famous German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it is this: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This is the deep soil of faith that the kingdom invites us into.

To cultivate deep roots we need to practice (1) works of mercy. Christ washed feet and described himself as the servant of all. To be his follower is to serve the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in our society. Caring for children is a work of mercy. Whether it’s on a Sunday morning or as a mother or father. There is a selflessness there that is remarkably Christ like. Caring for the elderly is a work of mercy. We too often neglect the older citizens in our society. However, the church should be a place where the elderly are never lonely. The mentally ill, mentally handicapped, and physically ill are another group who could use your time and attention. There is a lot of stigma around mental illness in our society and thus persons with this sickness are often neglected. Volunteer at a hospital. Care for your or others children. Care for your or others grandmothers. These are works of mercy and the deep soil of faith.

To cultivate deeper roots we need (2) spiritual practices. As we discussed earlier we live in an insane society with too much busyness and noise and it’s killing our souls. Find some time each day to read the Scriptures, journal, or pray. Over time these practices will shape you into someone who loves God, other people, and is more in tune with the state of your own soul. Spiritual practices cultivate deep roots.

To cultivate deep roots we need (3) a better grasp of the family story. Too many of us are unfamiliar with the Story of both Scripture and Church history. Take the next year to read through the Bible and a book by Roger Olson called The Story of Christian Theology. Again, in a shallow drive-by culture there are plenty of crappy Christian best-sellers out there but we need the great thinkers of the faith to shake us from our theological slumber: St. Basil, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth are all wonderful thinkers who will help you grapple and engage more deeply with the question of what it means to call yourself a Christian.

The parable transitions a third time to the image of soil that is choked by the thorns of a worldly materialistic wealth.

Let me preface this point by saying up front that talking about money in the church is difficult for at least two reasons.

First, we live in a society strongly divided by class. The minimum wage in our country is not a livable wage, thus we have a large contingent of working poor. They often work two and three jobs just to put food on the table, a roof over their head, and clothes on their kids back. Then there is the middle class who are working for something well above minimum wage, but they are far from being rich. For them money is tight, but no where close to what it is for the working poor. Finally, there are the upper classes. If the middle class has trouble either remembering or identifying with what it’s like to work for minimum wage, these folks have likely completely lost touch with the reality of what life is like for the millions of working class folks with no pensions, zero job security, and feeling that you’re a paycheck or two away from financial devastation. As an aside, let me say that I’m completely supportive and appreciative of what people like Scott and Amy Johnson do through Financial Peace University because they are helping people who work for a living do everything in their power to stay away from financial devastation, and that matters greatly. Having said that, we also need to be addressing the systemic issues in our country (e.g. poor minimum wage and sky-rocketing CEO pay) that are hurting poor and working class folks. But coming back to my main point, the reason class makes it difficult to talk about money in church is that I’m speaking to three groups of people with three very different relationships to money.

The second reason it’s difficult to talk about money in church is because there is the perception that the only thing the church is interested in is our money. Thus any time the issue of money comes up, even if it’s not ’stewardship’ (tithing) Sunday, we have our radar out because the question of alterior motives is always in the back of our mind. We feel like we’re at a sales pitch and so we reach for our wallets, not necessarily to give but to protect them because we fear that we are going to get taken! In other words, when the preacher starts talking about generosity we wonder if it’s because he or she is trying to get rich off us. It is disconcerting to see a pastor driving a Bentley. Now, I don’t know the exact paychecks of people on staff at New Hope but I do know most of them personally I can assure you they do not drive Bentley’s nor do they down vacation houses in the Bahamas.

You can tell a lot about a society by it’s fairy tales. In western society our fairy tales are always a rags to riches story. There is someone who starts off at the bottom but through their ingenuity, hard work, or just sheer good fortune they end up at the top. It’s only when they’re a princess, a king, or some other wealthy person that the story can conclude with the famous phrase ‘And they lived happily ever after.’ However, in the New Testament the logic is reversed. Here we have stories of people who had it all (wealth, status, prestige, etc.), or at least could have had it all (e.g. Jesus tempted by Satan with the kingdoms of the world) and yet they refuse. They go from riches to rags. And yet, they would say that they have chosen what is better. How could this be?

It’s interesting that the person said to be choked by thorns is someone described as both deceived and riddled with worry. Up to a certain point in our life money is sheer survival. We need clothes to wear, shelter over our heads, food in our children’s bellies. Yet, once our material needs are taken care of there is a shift that occurs at which point money becomes a promise of a life that never comes. Money promises us security and yet we find that whatever amount we thought would make us feel absolutely secure is never enough. Money promises us social status and yet no matter how high up the social ladder we climb there’s always someone ahead of us ready to make us feel small. Money promises us pleasure and yet we find that exotic foods or vacations quickly become routine and mundane. In short, what this text says is that we have been lied to. Rather than bringing simplicity, peace, depth, and love to our lives wealth seems to bring complexity, insecurity, anxiety, and hopelessness.

There is a passage in the book of proverbs that get’s right to the heart of the matter.

Proverbs 30:8-9
“…Give me neither poverty nor riches;
Feed me with the food that is my portion,
9 That I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or that I not be in want and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

I wonder if I am a person—if we are a church—who could write such a verse. Are we a people who can reject the fairy tales of western culture in order to be able to pray something like this. Because of course from a larger societal perspective this is truly an insane prayer. Who ever heard of someone begging God to not make them wealthy? However, there is a wisdom here that we desperately need. When it comes to money we have too often had a theology of more more more, when what we need is a theology of enough. This is the deceitfulness of wealth. It is never enough. As Mahatma Ghandi, a man who himself lived a simple life of ‘enough’ said “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Oh God, give us enough that we aren’t hungry but not too much that we have no time to feed the poor. Oh God, give us enough that we aren’t tempted to steal but not so much that we can no longer envision a society of shalom and sharing. Oh God, give us enough that our children have clothes on their backs but not too much that we no longer see you in that homeless person who themselves need clothing. Oh God, give us enough, but not too much that our imaginations are darkened and your dream of a world with enough for everyone is choked out by the thorns of a greed that is never satisfied.

Part Three

Finally, the parable makes it’s final transition to the image of good soil that bears good fruit. Notably it doesn’t go on and on describing exactly how this good fruit functions or what it looks like, rather we gain our insight into this good soil from contrasting it with the three previous soils.

Where the first soil was an image of someone hardened to the message of the kingdom: full of unbelief and lack of faith. The good soil is the image of someone open, receptive, and trusting to what God is up to in the world.

Where the second soil was an image of someone shallow who did not fully comprehend the depth of message of the kingdom: full of false enthusiasm and shallow thinking. The good soil is someone who has learned to be patient and set down deep roots: deeper serving, deeper thinking, deeper praying, deeper conversations, and a deeper connection with our soul and the one Jesus called ‘Abba.’

Where the third soil was an image of someone overwhelmed by greed and thus stifled in their imagination for the kingdom: full of a lust for more more more. The good soil is someone who has learned to say that they have enough and they now devote the remainder of their lives, to bringing the shalom of God to the world.

Let us pray.

Nudities – Giorgio Agamben

July 2nd, 2014

Nudities‘ is a collection of 10 essays by the renowned Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. I found it both thrilling and challenging. Thrilling because of the way he jumps between philosophy, theology, literature, psychoanalysis, and political theory; challenging because, aside from the density of Agamben’s writing, as a collection of essays it was difficult to discern the common thread running throughout his work. Thus, while I don’t feel I can adequately sum up what Agamben was getting at, I can offer a few quotes that give you a feel for the originality and power of his writing.

“…God is the place where humans think through their decisive problems.” (pg.4) This came as a revelation to me because it helped clarify the difference between a philosopher like Agamben and someone like, say, Richard Dawkins. For Dawkins the notion of God can only ever be a silly notion equivalent to the Easter bunny or the tooth fairy. However, Agamben, though not a believer himself, sees in theology a site of significant thinking that one cannot merely sidestep without missing something about human existence and the history of ideas. Thus, even a short text like this one is riddled with references to the Christian church fathers (e.g. Saint Basil) as well as Jewish and Islamic theologians and theological concepts. This is one of the things I appreciate about the Continental Philosophic tradition coming out of France and Germany as opposed to the Analytic tradition stemming from Great Britain and the United States. The Analytic tradition has a tin ear for all things religious.

In an essay titled ‘On What We Cannot Do’ Agamben explores the idea of not-doing as something uniquely human. We are the ones who can say “no.” This is in contrast to something like, for example, fire whose only operation is to burn. This was an extremely short essay but he seemed to be taking this in a political direction. He writes,

“Separated from his impotentiality, deprived of the experience of what he can not do, todays man thinks himself capable of everything, and so he repeats his jovial ‘no problem,’ and his irresponsible ‘I can do it,’ precisely when he should realize that he has been consigned in unheard of measure to forces and processes over which he has lost all control. He has become blind not to his capacities but to his incapacities, not to what he can do, but to what he cannot, or can not, do.” (pg.44)

I couldn’t help but think of the self help industry with it’s, as Agamben may put it, jovial “You can do anything you set your mind to!” or “The only limit is yourself!” which is of course a load of bunk. We cannot do everything. Every ‘yes’ is a ‘no’ to something else. As a leftist, where Agamben wants to take this line of thinking is into the socio-political realm with it’s corporations built on the backs of millions of people who have become blind to their incapcities. Instead of pitching a fit and saying enough is enough, we are like Boxer the horse from the book ‘Animal Farm’ who only ever says “I will try harder!”

Finally, I won’t comment on this passage but I’d like to close with a paragraph from the essay ‘Hunger of an Ox’  that exemplifies the power and force of Agamben’s writing. He is discussing how as Westerners we’ve lost the art of the festival.

“Despite the faint air of nostalgia that still surrounds the feast day, it is all too obvious that it cannot be experienced today entirely in good faith. In this spirit Kerenyi compared the loss of festivity to the condition of a person who wants to dance but can no longer hear the music. We continue to perform the gestures our grandparents taught us–to abstain more or less completely from labor, to prepare with more or less care the Christmas turkey or the Easter lamb, the smile, give gifts, and sing–but in reality we no longer hear the music; we no longer know how to sanctify. And yet we are not able to give up our celebrations, and so we continue to pursue on every possible occasion (even beyond the official holidays) this peculiar–and lost– modality of acting and living that we call “celebrating.” We insist on dancing, making up for the loss of music with noise of discos and loudspeakers; we continue to squander and destroy–even, and increasingly often, even life itself–though we are no longer able to reach menuchach, the simple, but for us impracticeable, inoperativity that could alone restore meaning to the feast.” (pg.106)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Karl Barth & The Pietists

June 12th, 2014

Karl Barth & The Pietists by Eberhard Busch is a fascinating read showing Barth, primarily in editions 1 and 2 of his  book The Epistle to the Romans in conversation with the forefathers of a tradition of Christianity that today dominates the landscape of American Religion, namely, Evangelicalism.

For those unfamiliar, Pietism was a 17th century movement that originated among the laity (non-pastoral members) in the Lutheran church which emphasized experiential religion over and against dead orthodoxy. It’s not enough to attend church and confess the creed each week, the pietists believed, you must be born again. Revivals, a moment of dramatic conversion, daily Scripture reading, experiences of God, once saved always saved, the power of the Holy Spirit, holiness as a call to not ‘smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do”, etc. — these and many other beliefs are all the results of over 400 years of a vision of a Christianity that swept through Europe and crossed the Atlantic to the U.S. with the Puritans, Mennonites, and others. It continues today with the Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, and various Evangelical offshoots of other denominations who themselves were founded prior to Pietism but remain impacted by the movement (Evangelical Lutherans, Evangelical Presbyterians, etc.)

Of course, there were various strains of Pietism running around in Barth’s day and the same is true in our present era, so one of the questions that needed to be tackled right up front was what the essence of Pietism is. In other words, what is characteristic of the movement across it’s various expressions in differing cultures and times throughout the world. He came upon what he believed this essence to be in the writings of the pietist G.F. Nagel who summarized the central truth of the New Testament (over and against the Old Testament) as the work of God being “in you.” For Nagel what mattered was “personal fellowship with God and gaining a share in the divine life… The person who is not born again and has not experienced the power of the gospel in his own heart is not a Christian.” For anyone familiar with Christianity in the South of the great U.S. of A, statements like this are likely extremely familiar. So what shape did Barth’s critique take?

One of the more powerful critiques Barth leveled against the pietists was that their nearly exclusive focus on the experiential nature of religion shifted the emphasis of Christian faith from Christ to the self. Busch summarized Barth’s view in this way “He (Barth) spoke of the danger that in the process the ‘self’ so easily moves from the periphery to the center, and Jesus moves from the center to the periphery.” Here I’m in complete agreement with Barth. As an example, think how often our sunday school classes, sermons, small groups, heck even our worship music! tends to center around, well, us. Another more personal example could be taken from my journals 8-10 years ago. While I did love God, it’s clear that all of my hand wringing — God, why I don’t I feel you?! God, show me your will for my life! God, I want to see miracles! —  in entry after entry points to the fact that I was more in love with my experience of God than God himself. What Barth wanted to do was shift the emphasis back to God.

The second critique Barth offered is that for pietists faith was viewed as a possession of the believer, rather than understood as hope. This is difficult to summarize, but the gist of it seems to be that Barth caught on to the over confidence that followed in the trail of pietistic religion. The way pietists so quickly claimed God for their side, their viewpoint, their politics, their church, while condemning the other side as the enemy  of all things good and holy seemed to him point to a deeper theological problem. Thus, what Barth saw behind these confident proclamations was a failure to understand that faith is not a sense of possession born of my rock solid experience that can never be questioned. Instead he wanted to posit faith as a confident but humble hope in God. Again, note the emphasis again on God.

One final example of an insight I gleaned from this book came, not directly from either Busch or Barth, but from the simple act of reflecting on pietism as a thing. This may sound trite, but what I’m getting at is that up to this point I had not properly thought through the fact that there is a difference between a conservative theological stance and pietism as a historical phenomenon. In other words, these are separate concepts that I needed to have teased apart a bit. For example, there is such a thing as a conservative theology that has little to no pietistic influence  and of course the reverse is true as well; there is a liberal theology that is incredibly pietistic — at least in the sense of placing the emphasis on the self and it’s experience of ‘the divine’ or something of that nature. What this helped me realize is that I’ve been wrestling for a number of years now not only with my conservative theological inheritance but, also as someone with a pietistic inheritance of an emphasis on religion as, at it’s core, experiential. That is both a blessing and curse, and it’s certainly something that warrants more reflection on my part.

The Story of Christian Theology

June 5th, 2014

The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform is a beautifully written and imminently practical book by the moderate Baptist Theologian Roger Olson. Olson teaches at Truett Theology Seminary out of Baylor University, which is right down the road from where I reside in Dallas. Coming in at over 600 pages (not including end notes) this book is a bit intimidating for the beginner in theology, however Olson does a wonderful job explaining complex theological concepts in a clear manner, without completely butchering their subtlety and depth. I would highly suggest this book for anyone looking to gain a better grasp of theology from the early Apostolic Fathers all the way down to our modern context with it’s bewildering number of off shoots (Neo-Orthodoxy, Liberation Theology, Process Theology, etc.)

1) One of the ways Olson gives a story as big as Christian theology some sense of narrative arc is by framing each ‘act’ of the story with the question of how the primary thinkers at this stage understood soteriology (i.e. the doctrine of salvation). For example, nearly all of the early church fathers understood salvation as some sort of ‘divinisation’ of the human into the God. In other words, God became man that man might become God. This sounds a bit more scandalous to modern ears than they would have likely intended, because at the heart of the concept wasn’t a literal understanding that we would become exactly like capital ‘G’ God. Rather the idea was that we would experience a union so complete that we would become something ‘more’ than human. In other words, the telos (purpose and future) of human existence is to be absorbed into the divine life. It’s a concept that continues in modern Greek Orthodox theology to this day. However, this can be contrasted with the understanding of salvation by the Archbishop of Canterbury named Anselm, who in the 11th century understood salvation to center around the concepts of debt and forgiveness. Man has sinned and become indebted to the creator. This is a debt that only God himself can pay via the sacrifice of his one and only Son, Jesus Christ. Christ pays the debt, thus allowing God to become reconciled to sinful human begins. Here the telos of man is to be forgiven by God and accepted into heaven.

2) Another helpful frame that Olson offers to give a sense of continuity to the story is the debate between monergism and synergism as it relates to our understandings of salvation and sanctification (i.e. the way Christians are empowered for Godly living). In a monergistic understanding of salvation it is God alone who plays the role of saving human kind: there is nothing we can do to add to his work, nothing we can do to try and be saved. It is grace all the way down. However, in synergistic understandings there is a co-mingling or synergy, between God and humans. This isn’t to say there isn’t a place for grace, but rather a more synergistic take is that God’s grace enables us to live faithfully. Here there is an increased role for the human as it relates to salvation and our ongoing sanctification. Now the reason this becomes helpful is that Olson traces this question all through the various arguments and differing theologies present in the Christian tradition. For example, it’s illuminating to realize that Martin Luther, far from being a card carrying synergist, was in many ways right there with John Calvin as far as a strong emphasis on the definitive role God plays in salvation.

3) Another gem Olson offered was on the question of Karl Barth’s understanding of Scripture. Even after reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics last year, I found myself a bit puzzled in trying to explain to others his understanding of Scripture. For various reasons, Barth was hesitant to too closely align the literal words of the Bible — in all their humanity — with the Word of God. He would go so far as to say the Bible becomes the Word of God, or that we can experience the Word of God when reading the Bible, but his radical Christo-centric emphasis halted him from directly identifying the words of Scriptures with the Word of God — which is Christ alone. Olson offered an anology that perfectly summarized what I had struggled to grasp in wrestling with this concept.

One analogy that accurately depicts the neo-orthodox view of the Bible is the light and the light bulb. The word of God is the light, and the Bible is the filament and glass of the lightbulb. The light (Word of God) shines through the light bulb (Bible), and the light bulb (Bible) is in some sense necessary to the light (Word of God).

4) If I had one quibble with the book it is that Olson’s appreciation for Open Theism and Arminianism come across very strongly. Now, this didn’t bother me too much because I have similar sympathies, however I always appreciate a book of history where it’s difficult to tell where the author’s personal preferences lie. That wasn’t really the case here.

 

 

Clement of Rome

May 28th, 2014

The last few years have seen me spending quite a bit of time reading 20th century theologians: Karl Barth, James Cone, Paul Tillich, etc. However, a major gap in my reading of Christian Theology are the earliest Christian theologians commonly referred to as the ‘Apostolic’ and ‘Church’ Fathers. To help remedy that, I picked up the book ‘Clement of Rome And The Didache‘ translated by Kenneth J. Howell. Clement was the 4th Bishop of Rome who wrote a letter to the church in Corinth, while the Didache — which simply means ‘teaching’ — is an early compilation of catechetical (i.e. intro to the faith) writings for new believers.

Clement of Rome

1) What immediately struck me concerning Clement’s letter to the Corinthians (yes, the same Corinthians Paul wrote his famous letters to 40 years earlier) is the Pauline style the letter takes. First off, just the fact that it’s a letter to a church is quite Pauline. But beyond that, the language is immediately recognizable for anyone familiar with Paul’s writings. For example, here’s the opening salutation of the letter.

The church of God on it’s pilgrimage in Rome [writes] to the church of God on it’s pilgrimage in Corinth, to those called, sanctified in the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace be multiplied to you from God almighty through Jesus Christ. (pg.79)

Thus, there does seem to be some merit to the Catholic tradition that Clement of Rome knew Paul personally and that the ‘Clement’ mentioned in Philippians 4:2-3 is one and the same with the later Bishop and writer of this Epistle. This sense of historical continuity was the most delightful aspect of delving into the letter. Readers of the New Testament may find themselves asking questions like ‘What ever happened to the Corinthian church?’ or ‘What ever became of the ‘Clement’ Paul mentioned?’ and it’s fascinating to pick up some of those story lines by reading an Apostolic Father like Clement.

2) Like many of the Apostolic and Church Fathers, Clement has no hesitation in reading the Old Testament both christologically and allegorically. For example, in chapter 12 he connects the red cord that Rahab used to allow the Israelite spies to escape Jericho, with the blood of Christ that will later allow humanity to escape from death and sin. If it is true that the ‘Word’ of God was in the beginning with God (Gen. 1:1), that this same ‘Word’ revealed itself to Moses at Sinai, that the ‘Word’ spoke through the mouths of the prophets, and that finally this was word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1), then it makes perfect sense to read the Old Testament with a Christological lens. However, if my pastor preached a sermon on Joshua 2 and, via an allegorical reading, connected it to the blood of Christ I would have a hard time not laughing out loud. I couldn’t help but think of Nietzche’s critique of the Church fathers where he wrote “Wherever any piece of wood, a switch, a ladder, a twig, a tree, a willow, or a staff is mentioned, this was supposed to indicate a prophecy of the wood of the cross… Has anybody who claimed this ever believed it?” Though I’m sympathetic to Nietzsche’s criticism I do think the Apostolic and Church Fathers (following in the footsteps of the famous Jewish philosopher Philo) really believed in an allegorical reading of the Old Testament.

3) Finally, the trait of a Christ-like humility was extremely important to Clement. In the modern church, leadership tips and tricks are in, but humility is, well, quaint. Perhaps more than anything, it was this recurring emphasis that reminded me I wasn’t reading a modern Christian best seller. Clement writes “Christ is for those of a humble mind, not those who raise themselves over his flock.” (pg.93) and later “He ought to be the more humble the greater he seems to be, and he ought to seek the common good and not what is good for himself.” (pg.121) and finally “[You are] the one who humbles the pride of the arrogant, the One who destroys the reasoning of the nations, Who lifts up the humble into the heights and humbles the exalted.” It was a good reminder that any notion of leadership that doesn’t have humility front and center, simply doesn’t have any place in the Church of the one who came washing feet.

 

True Forgiveness – Sermon

May 27th, 2014

Blueprint-“True Forgiveness” from New Hope Wylie on Vimeo.

—The following is the transcript I wrote prior to the sermon.—

Our Scripture for the day is Matthew 18:21-35, so please stand with me for the reading of God’s word.

If you’ve been at New Hope the last few weeks you know that we’re in the midst of a series called “Blueprint” which has centered around the theme of God’s design for our relationships with one another. So sticking to that same stream of thought, this morning I wanted to discuss the place of forgiveness in our relationships with one another. Specifically, I wanted to discuss how we can experience a deep and profound forgiveness with someone even after they have wronged us deeply and even repeatedly. It is as verse 35 says, a forgiveness “…from your heart.”

Like many spiritual topics forgiveness has become familiar to us through repetition. It’s
mentioned in multiple places in the Scriptures and it finds it’s way into multiple sermons a
year, so even if it’s not the direct topic at hand it’s something that is on our radar. And of course, that’s where our trouble begins because the more familiar something becomes to
us the less challenging and powerful it becomes as well. It’s no longer prickly to us. All it’s
rough edges are rounded out, and it no longer provokes. So my hope this morning is to
make forgiveness something profoundly offensive again. So let’s begin by clearing the
ground of obstructions and clarifying what true forgiveness is not.

First, forgiveness is not overlooking an offense. Generally when we talk about forgiveness
what we mean is extending the common courtesy of letting go of petty offenses to others
with the knowledge that I will need the same courtesy extended to me. It’s a transaction of
sorts that occurs in every day encounters with other people over minor grievances. It’s in
conversations like this where phrases like “oh it was nothing” or “it’s no big deal” could
replace the phrase “I forgive you”. For example, this is a conversation that occurs 37
times a day in our house. “Dax, why are you crying?” “Evey took my stick.” Eve, why did
you take Dax’s stick?” “Because I thought he was done with it.” “Well, he wasn’t. What do
you say to Dax?” “I’m sorry.” “Sorry for what?” “Dax, I’m sorry, for taking your stick.” “Dax,
what do you say to Eve?” “I forgive you.”  And so on and so forth. Of course, we have
adult versions of this as well. It’s the little conversations, the little graces, we bestow on
each other throughout the day to ensure that little offenses don’t become big offenses.
Don’t get me wrong, this is important, it’s just that this isn’t forgiveness in the deepest
truest sense of the word.

Second, forgiveness is not forgetting. There are certain philosophies which extol the idea
of being a person so removed from life that nothing can touch you. Or if something does
seem to touch you, you need to do everything in your power to simply get over it as soon
as possible. It’s sort of a stoic or macho forgiveness that acts as though only weaklings
are impacted by others. If the sins of others are rain drops, then you’re like a dog who
simply shakes them from your coat as though they don’t even matter. A “forgiveness” that
is equivalent to forgetting is not what the Scriptures are getting at when they discuss
forgiveness.

Third, forgiveness is not reconciliation. Now, this one may confuse people because in our
minds forgiveness and reconciliation are intimately tied together. And of course, there are
many verses that connect the ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation (Matthew 6) so we
have good reason to do so. Also, let me be clear that I’m all for reconciliation! However,
by tying reconciliation too closely to the concept of forgiveness in our minds we run the
risk of turning forgiveness into a calculation of sorts. In other words, we have someone
who we really want to be reconciled with and so we decide to forgive them. Where this
get’s problematic is that forgiveness can become an empty gesture whose only purpose
is to lead to something else, namely, reconciliation.

Now let’s return to our text this morning so that we can jump into what a true or pure
forgiveness, a radical forgiveness from the heart.

1) True forgiveness operates unconditionally

You see what Peter is looking for in verse 21 is some sort of parameter around
forgiveness, an outline to limit the process. He’s looking for a “healthy boundary” that
says you are required to forgive up to this point, but no further. But lest we laugh at Peter,
are we really any different? How many times have we told ourselves, I am tired of
showing that person grace. I am sick and tired of bearing with them in this. This was just
one time too many. Look at them! I don’t even think they’re sorry! Or perhaps it’s the
magnitude of the sin that’s proving the real sticking point. Perhaps they only did it once,
but you are thinking to yourself “oh Brett if you only knew the hell they put me through, if
you only knew the tears I’ve cried in my pillow. If you only knew the pain and grief I have
lived with for months or years now, if you only knew…”  But as your brother in Christ
based on Matthew 18 here is how I am required to respond: surely you know that it is not
forgiveness until it is impossible. It is not forgiveness until it is absolutely without
condition. For­giving is pure gift. You see this is where worldly definitions of forgiveness
begin to unravel. When it’s something that we cannot simply overlook or forget. When it’s
a pain so deep or repetitive that all our reconciliation calculations say “Walk away.” It’s at
that moment that the possibility of a true forgiveness opens up it’s arms to us.

Marie Monville, who at that time was Marie Roberts, received a call from her husband
Charles Roberts the morning of October 2, 2006. Charles Roberts was grief sticken over
the loss a few years earlier over their newborn infant daughter. She had died after only
20min of life and Charles was embittered at God and completely unable to cope.
Psychologists would later say that he had a psychotic episode, however he was in his
right mind enough to call his wife Marie and let her know that he would not be coming
home. He had left a note explaining everything, he said. Marie could tell Charles was not
well, and she pleaded with him to come home but he hung up the phone. Charles actually
phoned Marie from the Amish school house where a few minutes later he shot 10 young
girls ­ 5 of whom actually died ­ before taking his own life. In this video clip, Marie Monville
describes one of her first encounters with the Amish after the shooting.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zgl2jScr05g) Of course, if you know anything about
the Amish they are committed Christians who take Jesus’ commandment to forgive and to
refuse all forms of violence and retaliation incredibly seriously. They have tapped into a
reservoir of forgiveness and love rooted in a faithfulness to Jesus that the church needs
to rediscover.

2) True forgiveness operates among equals
Have you ever gone through the ritual of forgiveness and yet a day or a week later found
resentment in your heart towards that person? Have you found yourself unable to pray for
them? When in the company of others did you experience an inability to speak good
words about that person? Was there a kindness that you simply found yourself unable to
extend to them? In other words, upon “forgiving” someone have you found yourself
unable to truly forgive them?

Here’s what I’m beginning to become convinced of: whenever someone wrongs us we are
tempted to shift into a position of power and judgment over that person, and often a
formal gesture of forgiveness can serve to only reinforce our sovereignty over them. In
other words, that person is such a bad person but I am such a good person and the way I
know that I am a good person is that I am willing to forgive them. What a big person I am!
What a moral hero I am! Perhaps some day someone will right a book about me! Perhaps
some day I will make it into one of Keith’s sermon illustrations for an example of someone
who is so incredibly spiritual!

However, the parable that Jesus tells strikes to the very heart of this mentality because it
tells us the truth about ourselves. This is a truth that could not come from any philosophy,
worldview, or self help book, but rather this comes as a capital “R” Revelation from the
God who made you and I from dust. The revelation is this: a forgiveness that can actually
bring reconciliation with someone, a forgiveness that can enable me to pray again for
someone, a forgiveness that enables me to speak good things about someone, a
forgiveness that yes, even causes me to after time has passed, forget that they ever
wronged me, can only spring from the recognition that I am myself a sinner in need of the
grace and forgiveness of God. It’s only with the realization that I am not a spiritual hero, a
morally superior person, a purely victim of injustice, etc. but that I am myself someone
who has been forgiven much. Thus what else can i do but go and show the same
forgiveness to others? What else can I do but go and show the same grace to others.
What else can I do but become someone who holds nothing over another’s head for God
has held nothing over mine. What else can I do but return every form of evil with good,
every curse with a blessing, and every sin against myself with forgiveness since God has
delivered nothing but goodness, and blessing, and forgiveness unto me?

The Church & Cultural Cocktails

March 11th, 2014

The problem isn’t that the American church is hopelessly out of touch with the larger culture; the problem is that we have bought into it hook, line and sinker.
We too are staggering drunk on a cultural cocktail of consumerism, radical individualism, and western imperialism; all while proclaiming the Christ who eschewed worldly possessions, preached a radical love for our neighbor, and said that those who live by the sword will die by it.

It’s like your friend, stinking of booze and sobbing on your shoulder, swearing they’re not drunk. The only dilemma is deciding which is worse: their liquor problem or the fact that they’re lying to themselves about it.

Sermon: A Community From the Future

February 3rd, 2014

Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 comprise the single largest body of Jesus’ direct teachings that we have recorded in the New Testament. These chapters combined are commonly referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount” because Jesus gives this entire discourse from the, well, side of a mountain. Although the title may not be super creative, the text itself is controversial, poignant, and provocative. Here’s a few verses you may recognize.

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard it will be measured to you.” (7:1-2)
“Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (7:7)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘ An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (5:38-39)

But like all great texts this manifesto has a beginning and so it’s there that I would like to focus today.

Read Matthew 5:1-12

Makarios
The word repeated multiple times in this section is the word blessed, which in other translations is rendered happy, though I think blessed is to be preferred. They’re both translating the greek word makarios which in the New Testament communicates the idea of being supremely blessed because one is in the position of receiving the favor of God. What is repeated throughout this passage is that those who find themselves in the circumstances described: poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for God, giving mercy, pure in heart, peacemaking, persecuted, and reviled are, despite all appearances to the contrary, in the place to receive the Yes of God.

Now of course there’s a certain ironic tension in the passage because so many of the circumstances described don’t sound like someone who has the favor of God. I grew up in the mildly charismatic wing of Christendom so notions of the blessing or favor of God were a common topic of conversation. However, we often associated the favor of God with outward signs of worldly or spiritual success. Thus, if someone received a promotion at work they had the favor of God; or if they were a very good speaker or singer they had the favor of God. In other words, if things make sense and seem to be going well then surely that’s God and if not, well… And that’s exactly what makes the blessings of Matthew 5:1-12 so shocking, they utterly undermine the very things we want to proclaim are signs of God’s favor.

Where we prize external wealth, both physical (Luke 6) and spiritual (Matthew 5), Christ says it’s those who are destitute who have his blessing. Where we point to those who are happy and whole, Christ says it’s the mourners that he’s close to. Where we we prize the movers and the shakers, Christ says it’s only the meek that can be entrusted with care of the earth. Where we appreciate a certain moderation in our spirituality, Christ says it’s those racked by hunger and ravaged by thirst for righteousness who will be satisfied. Where we appreciate a world in which the guilty get what’s coming to them, Christ says it’s the merciful ones who see clearly. Where we find someone with a misty eyed purity to be a bit naive of the way the world really works, Christ says it’s they who will ultimately see God. Where we value a certain machismo that returns a punch with a punch and a bullet with a bullet, Christ says it’s the peacemakers who are His sons and daughters. Where we think a little religion is helpful, maybe even to be admired, appropriate for the private sphere; Christ said it’s those whose faithfulness brings them into opposition with the powers that be who will receive the kingdom.

All this begs the question: what sort of logic is operating here? Is he calling darkness light and evil good? Is Jesus, for example, with the statement poor in spirit claiming that bone crushing poverty or spiritual despair is a good thing? Is he claiming that people wracked with grief over the death of a loved one should be smiling at their loss because it’s a delightful blessing from the good Lord?

Think Future
No. Rather Jesus is thinking, and you’ll have to forgive the fancy theological term here, eschatologically. And by that I mean he’s thinking of the future, of what the Bible calls the last days, the time when God will be all in all. In the Scriptures the books that deal most prominently with eschatology are Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, the Gospel of Matthew, and of course the often misunderstood book of Revelation — though eschatological ideas are in the background of nearly all of the Christian Scriptures even if they’re not referred to explicitly.

Now most people, perhaps many of us sitting here this morning, have a very pessimistic view of the world because our eyes are open. We see our friends pain, we know our own struggles, we are not naive of the senselessness and brutality that human beings are capable of. We know the things that destroy individuals: greed, rage, adultery, jealousy, alcoholism, abuse. We understand the violence and the lies that entire nations are built upon, systems of racism, slavery, economic exploitation, war. You do not need to tell us the horror of the world. We get it. It’s dark out there. Yet, not just out there, it’s dark in here, in us. At a core level we resonate with the rhetorical questions asked by a soldier in the war movie “The Thin Red Line”:

“This great evil. Where does it come from? How’d it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin’ us with the sight of what we might’ve known. Does our ruin benefit the earth?”

Now young people are starry eyed and they think they’re going to change it. They’re going to end all this brutality and senselessness. But the older folks know better. They know that young people have always thought that. And thus what begins as a certain shock at the world’s horrors and a frenzied effort to change it, as we age turns into a creeping cynicism that says this is all just natural, it’s just the way things are and always will be. Of course, we don’t think of it as cynicism, we call it realism.

However, to be Christian is to be given a new story, and in this story God does not abandon us. The Old Testament prophets called it “The Day of The Lord”, Jesus referred to it as the kingdom of Heaven, and the Apostle Paul called it New Creation but they were all pointing to the same thing — the moment of the in-breaking and rupture of God in the world, the point at which all of history has been driving at, the time when God acts decisively to wipe all tears from all eyes; that time when as the prophet Isaiah foretold “the lion will lay down with the lamb… they will beat their spears into plowshares, and their swords, into pruning hooks, when nation will not up take up sword against nation, and they will not train for war anymore”; that time when as the book of Revelation so stunningly says in chapter 21 verse 5 “Behold, I am making all things new.” or as 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.”

So to bring us back to Matthew 5, what we have to realize is that we are an eschatological people, an alien people, a people from the future, a people operating according to a different logic, a people living not according to what is, but that which will come. We are living a different story. And it’s a story that turns all our notions of what’s realistic and natural on their heads. In this story, it’s actually the poor, the mourners, the gentle, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers who are the realistic ones. And I think what Jesus would say is this: don’t be surprised if in the midst of a violent and fear ridden world you find yourself persecuted and reviled.

Think Communally
Now, you may be thinking that these descriptions of people sound great — these peace loving, merciful, gentle Christian people — but it’s not you. You couldn’t possibly live up to the standards that Jesus lays out in Matthew 5:1-12, much less the entire Sermon on the Mount. Which brings us to point number two and our conclusion for this morning.

As westerners we tend to read every passage as though it’s written to us individually, when really the Scriptures are nearly always directed to communities of people. In fact, the way this passage began is by Jesus speaking to his 12 disciples and a crowd of people. Also, the pronoun that’s repeated over and over throughout these verses are “they”. Blessed are the poor in spirit for they… blessed are the gentle for they… etc. My point is that though there’s certainly a high standard of Christian discipleship being voiced here, we have to keep in mind that we are all together the body of Christ. In other words, no one of us will live this out perfectly, but together we are the hands and feet of Jesus. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas says in his book The Cross Shattered Church, “So look around you, expect to see those who are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, peacemakers, and the persecuted. Jesus does not say that we should try to be poor in spirit, meek, merciful, persecuted. Rather he says that you should not be surprised that those called to serve in his cross shaped kingdom will find among you those who have learned to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”

Let us pray.