Ends and Means?

A few weeks ago I had one of those “did he really say that?” conversations with a clergy colleague. We were discussing a news story about Baptist churches in Kentucky and New York that were advertising they would be giving away door prizes to entice new people to attend their church.

Apparently forgiveness and salvation aren’t reward enough to get some people through the church doors since many churches have tried similar gimmicks. There was a church in Columbus, Ohio a few years ago giving away a car on Easter. Sure beats the coffee mug, cheap pen and refrigerator magnets our church offers as welcome gifts.
What got my attention about the Baptist churches’ promotion was that they were promising to give an AR-15 and other guns to the lucky winners of their door prizes. The church in Troy, NY even went so far as to quote John 14:27 (“…my peace I give to you”) over a picture of a semi-automatic rifle! To make matters worse, the churches in Kentucky were in Paducah – where three students were killed during a school shooting in 1997. Really, you can’t make stuff like this up!

Foolishly assuming that most followers of the Prince of Peace and certainly most pastors would agree that this was a really bad idea, I made a comment to my colleague about how absurd, if not blasphemous, this was. His response blew me away. He said, “Well, we wouldn’t do that in my church, but if that’s what it takes to appeal to the target (Freudian slip?) audience in that community, then it might be OK.” I was too dumbfounded to respond.

When I relayed the conversation to another friend, his immediate reply was, “No it’s not OK. A stripper would attract some people to church too, but that wouldn’t make it right.” Churches that start acting like businesses are in danger of selling their souls along with their “products.” Marketing strategies are fraught with ethical dilemmas in any business, but certainly the church must hold itself to a higher standard than Wall Street or Main Street when it comes to promoting the Gospel. When churches or any institution fall prey to the temptations of growth and institutional preservation as the primary motivation for what we do and say, we are on the slippery slope of believing that any means are justified if they achieve an honorable end.

It is no secret that mainline churches are in trouble. Membership and attendance figures have been in a steep decline for decades, and that reality can convince otherwise good people to compromise their ethical standards and fall into a panic mode of self-preservation. It is an inherent danger to institutional religion. Institutions almost always have a primary value of preserving and maintaining themselves. Institutional leaders have a vested interest in looking successful and maintaining their livelihood that can cloud objectivity. And the more dire the statistics become the greater the danger. Desperate people do desperate things, like giving deadly weapons to people instead of “beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3)

Yes, these are scary times, and I understand why individuals want to protect themselves and why churches want to keep themselves alive. And I know all motives for what we do are mixed. I’m sure those Baptist churches have a genuine desire to share the gospel along with the guns. Self-preservation is a very basic human motivation, but Christians are called to measure the means we use to achieve our means by the higher standards of the one who said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

“A Borrower and a Lender Be,” A Holy Week Sermon on Matthew 21:1-13

Suppose you went out to get in your car at the mall or after church next Sunday or even in your driveway and a couple of strangers were looking it over. When you ask them what they’re doing they say, “Please give us your keys.” I’m guessing the first question you would ask is, “Why?” And when they say, “Because the Lord has need of it,” would you just hand over the keys or would you more likely call the cops?

That’s what the Gospels tell us Jesus did to “borrow” a donkey in preparation for his Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. We are so familiar with the Holy Week narratives that we often fail to grasp the radical nature of what this story tells us about Jesus and what got him crucified. John Robert McFarland grabbed my attention on this matter in an article in The Christian Century way back in 1990 entitled “Go Steal Me a Donkey.”

This is not Sweet Little Jesus holding lambs and children in his arms. Healing the sick and loving people don’t get you crucified, but challenging the political and economic foundations that society is built upon will get one in a lot of hot water immediately. These verses from Matthew 21 are bookended by donkey stealing and Jesus physically turning over tables in the temple and driving the money changers out because they have claimed what belongs to God for their own purposes. This Jesus is not a wimp. He is one with the courage to challenge anyone and anything that is contrary to God’s wills and to pay the price for his convictions.

Tax day in the US fell within Holy Week this year, and that makes looking at Jesus’ theology of economics even more real. In “Go Steal Me a Donkey” McFarland points out that both socialists and capitalists claim Jesus, but he isn’t either. The former believe in collective ownership of property and the latter in individual ownership. Jesus believes everything belongs to God. In the very next chapter of Matthew (22:15-22) the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the tax issue. They try to trap him with a question about whether it is legal to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus gives a clever politically correct answer. He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That sounds like a safe answer, but Jesus’ actions tell us he knows the bottom line on his 1040 for the IRS would be a big fat zero.

Would he get audited? You bet, but he would do it anyway. Why would he do that knowing the trouble it would cause? Because he knows everything belongs to God, including donkeys and upper rooms in which to celebrate the Passover. Jesus borrows what he needs because it all belongs to God. There’s an old adage about borrowing that is so familiar we often think it should be in the Bible. But “neither a borrower nor a lender be” is not biblical. It actually comes from Polonius in “Hamlet,” not Jesus. In fact, what Jesus says about borrowing and lending is a direct contraction of Shakespeare. “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (Matt. 5:42). “If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:34).

Jesus borrows: a manger for a cradle, boats to teach in, houses to heal in, and a tomb to be buried in. He doesn’t ask for what he needs, he commands. When he borrows his disciples, he says, “Come, follow me, Now!” No time to bury the dead. Do they leave their families and their livelihood in exchange for some promise of great wealth and fame? No, he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” When he borrows Peter and Andrew from their fishing nets, when James and John leave their father Zebedee in his boat, when Levi leaves the tax office, do you think Jesus plans on returning them? When you borrow a cup of sugar to bake a cake, do take the sugar out of the cake and return it? I hope we don’t return a used Kleenex after we “borrow” it! When Jesus claims us followers and disciples, there’s no turning back. It’s for keeps, because everything, including you and me, belongs to God–always has, always will.

That’s the bad news. What we think is ours isn’t. We are just stewards and caretakers of what belongs to God, and what’s worse is that selfishly trying to cling to what is “ours” will keep us out of the Kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus says it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. It’s why Pope Francis is cracking down on Bishops who build multi-million dollar mansions for themselves while millions starve.

But here’s the good news. We can borrow freely from God whatever we need in life. God gives us Jesus as an example of what that ultimate borrowing of things that really matter in life looks like; and Holy Week is the best example ever of how that works. We see it demonstrated throughout Jesus’ ministry, but it is concentrated in those final days of his life between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. We’ve seen it when Jesus is napping in the boat during a storm. His disciples are freaking out, but Jesus is sound asleep because he has borrowed the peace of God. When those same disciples try to talk him into homesteading on the mountain of Transfiguration where it’s safe and comfortable, Jesus borrows the courage from God to set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross; and he never looks back.

When he is confronted with physical violence and arrest in Jerusalem, he borrows the peace of God again not to resist violence with more violence. His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane is not for his own safety and comfort, but he borrows integrity and obedience from God as he prays “Not my will but your will be done.” And then on that dark Friday afternoon, the supreme gift of grace is borrowed again when he says, “Father forgive them” to the men who have nailed him to that cruel cross. Jesus doesn’t say, “I forgive you,” and that’s significant. In mortal agony from those wounds, I believe it was humanly impossible for that amazing compassion to come from Jesus himself, just as it is often impossible for us to forgive those who hurt us badly. Jesus couldn’t forgive them, but he knew someone who could–and that he was free to borrow that strength and grace from his God.

We know that source of grace as well, and we are invited to borrow from that eternal God whenever and wherever we want with no interest and no expectation to repay the debt. The borrowing Messiah of Holy Week teaches us that when we are free of possessions that possess us, when we are free of fears and insecurities from the cares of trying to control our own lives, then we are free to live and free to die. Because we know everything belongs to God, including us, now and forever. Holy Week and Easter invite us again to borrow the gift of grace, the gift of new life.

Adapted from a sermon preached at New Life United Methodist Church, Columbus, OH, Palm Sunday 2014.

“Prince of Peace,” Isaiah 9:6-7, John 14:25-27

The “Prince of Peace” is a phrase that only appears once in Scripture, in Isaiah 9:7, a passage we often hear at Christmas time. Isaiah tells us that God’s Messiah is named “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Those words are very well known because of their inclusion in George Frederic Handel’s famous oratorio “Messiah.” It is tempting to sing those few bars of the Hallelujah Chorus, but I will refrain since I remember some advice I received many years ago when preaching my final sermon at another church. Most of us are familiar with the phrase “Swan Song” that is used to describe a farewell performance. But what my friend told me on that occasion was where the phrase “swan song” comes from. It comes from the fact that swans sing before they die, and my former friend suggested to me that it is better if some people die before they sing. In my case that is good advice.

We all want peace in our world and in our lives, and Isaiah’s words remind us that the Judeo-Christian scriptures have been promising a messiah bringing peace to the world for over 3600 years. Isaiah says “His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore.” (9:7)

In spite of that wonderful promise, we don’t seem to be getting any closer to a peaceful world. We feel like little kids in the back seat asking incessantly, “are we there yet?” And we’ve been asking so long that we are often tempted to just give up on peace– and that would be the most tragic outcome of all.

God’s persistent vision of peace is a dream that will not die and Lent is a time for every follower of the Prince of Peace to recommit ourselves to following his example in how we live our lives. But we have to be realistic. Creating world peace is too big a job for any of us to take on, and we can easily get discouraged and give up. No matter how much we want to, we can’t solve the conflict between the Russians and the Ukranians. We witness more and more death and destruction in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and on the streets of American cities every day. We desperately want peace, but what can we do to make a difference in a world that seems bent on destruction?

We know the ingredients that make for peace: Mercy, humility, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness. But knowing those words alone isn’t enough. So God gives us Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to show us and teach us what those words mean. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus directly challenges the old ways that have failed repeatedly to bring peace. He says “You have heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you…turn the other cheek.” He says “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5).

But Jesus doesn’t just talk a good game, he models for us how peacemakers live. He doesn’t just say to forgive your enemies; he does it, even while hanging on the cross in mortal agony. He doesn’t just preach humility and meekness; he refuses to call on God when he could have called down God’s might to spare him from the cross. He doesn’t ask God for reinforcements to defend himself from the arresting soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane; he says, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). And when one of his disciples draws a sword and lops off an ear of a high priest’s slave, Jesus not only heals the slave, he explicitly tells the disciple to put away his sword because “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Because Jesus was at peace he could live it, even under the fear of death itself. Nobody ever promised it would be easy. Nothing important ever is.

One important question for peacemakers is how to deal with anger. Anger is a natural human emotion, and because he was human Jesus got angry too. At least four times, the Gospels tell us he called the Scribes and Pharisees a “brood of vipers” (Matt. 3:7, 12:34, 23:33, Luke 3:7), and in his most angry moment overturned the tables and drove the money changers out of the temple because he said they had turned it into a den of thieves (Matt. 21, Mark 11, John 2).

Is that the most effective way to deal with conflict? Not really, and Jesus knew that, which is why that scene stands out, because it was so atypical of Jesus’ normal style and demeanor. Much more Christ-like is the advice in Ephesians 4:15 which says, “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.” In order to do that we have to suspend our judgment and anger and meet people where they are, even if we really don’t like going there. To grow into Christ, we must learn to understand why people do stupid, hurtful stuff. Peacemakers remember that everyone is dealing with their own brokenness and burdens. Empathy and compassion are the foundations of living peacefully. Yes, I didn’t say this was easy, just necessary.

But we often fall into a 3 year-old mentality when we get into a conflict. Many times I remember as a child telling my mother when I was caught in a battle with my sisters, “They started it!” “She hit me first!” Only in later years did I learn to appreciate my mother’s wisdom. She would say, “I don’t care who started it; you can stop it.” Anyone can start a fight, but peacemakers are those who rise above their emotions and figuratively turn the other cheek. Otherwise the cycle of anger just repeats and often escalates.
Another common mistake we make in dealing with conflict is to ignore it and hope it will go away. As I know from decades of personal experience, it never does, it just gets worse. The scriptures are loaded with stories of people like Jonah, Elijah, Moses, even St. Paul who try to flee from God’s call because it seems easier than facing conflict and trouble. But peacemakers are like first responders who run toward trouble while others run away. Fleeing from conflict might seem easier in the short run, but it’s not. The Prince of Peace is our example. He doesn’t run from the cross waiting for him on Calvary or let his friends talk him out of doing what he must do. He sets his face toward Jerusalem and never looks back.

Here’s the bad news about conflict. Change and conflict go together like a horse and carriage, and change, along with death and taxes, is one of the constants in life. The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, captured that truth centuries ago when he said, “You can’t step in same river twice.” It may look the same, but the water that is flowing by here in the Scioto River today will be well on its way to the Ohio River if you go back to the same place tomorrow. Everything in creation is in a constant state of flux – every being is either growing or dying – there is no static point of being. A tree is growing as long as it is alive – but as soon as it is cut down to become lumber for a home or furniture, it begins to decay. The same is true of God’s peace. We are either growing and moving toward a more peaceful way of life, or we are sliding backward into darkness. And we all choose every minute of every day which side we are on by the way we treat each other.

One reason peace is so illusive is that God’s ways are not our ways. We humans confuse power with peace. As someone has said, we keep looking for Rambo or some other super hero and God sends us Gandhi. The Prince of Peace doesn’t ride into Jerusalem like a conquering hero on a white stallion. If Jesus comes to town this Palm Sunday, he won’t arrive in a stretch limo but in a beat up VW bug. He is a suffering servant, obedient to what is required and right, even when it’s hard.

Jesus shows us that it takes great courage to be a peacemaker. It’s much easier to be a bully and get your own way, but those who choose that path will never be at peace. True peace can never come by the ways of force. History teaches us that oppressors always lose in the long run because coercion is not God’s way, and what is not in harmony with the will of God cannot long endure.

That’s why Jesus reminds his disciples in his swan song before his arrest that his peace is not the world’s peace. John 14:25-27 says, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Unlike the world’s peace, God’s peace is a deeper eternal peace that stays the course when every fiber of your being wants to flee or fight. God’s peace is not about personal safety or comfort, or success measured by the world’s standards. Real peace comes only from total trust and obedience to will of God.

One sermon I most remember preaching was on September 23, 2001 just 12 days after the 9/11 attacks. The text I resisted for days but felt compelled to preach on that day was from Matthew 5, a part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The title of the sermon was “How Can We Ever Do That?” And the answer is we can’t, but God can. That kind of love comes only from God’s peace, which passes all human understanding.

That kind of peace is not human peace, but the king’s peace, and it’s not King David we’re talking about but the real King. Isaiah refers to the Messiah as the prince of peace and not the king of peace. Why is that? Because God is the only true king and the son of the king is the prince. One key to Jesus’ inner peace is that he knows who he is; he is the prince of peace, not the king. He knows his place and doesn’t let power go to his head, but trusts in the only real power there is.

We can go back to the text from Isaiah to sum this up.
Isaiah says “His authority shall grow continually,and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.”

The text clearly states that God’s wants there to be endless peace, but if you know the history of Israel, you know that David’s grandsons only two generations later destroyed the peace and David’s kingdom by reverting back to the world’s ways and not God’s. So how could Isaiah be as wrong as a weather forecaster? He’s not, and to understand why he isn’t wrong we have to look very carefully at the last verse of that passage. “Forevermore” is not a human concept. Only the eternal God can do forevermore, and that’s why the last line says not a human ruler, but “the zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.” And if we remember that Jesus is a descendent of King David we realize that in the long run it is very true that His Kingdom is forever.

In a few weeks we will again relive the passion of Jesus during Holy Week. As you hear those stories again this year, I urge you to pay attention to the contrast between the Roman Governor Pilate and Jesus. Pilate condemns Jesus to death and thinks he has finally solved the Jesus problem for the Romans and the Jewish authorities, right? But we know better. Pilate doesn’t win that battle in the long run, the Prince of Peace does.

That risen Lord has left us with the Great commission to go and make disciples. And as the Prince of Peace he has shown us that a major part of our job description is to be peacemakers, the ones who are called the children of God.

The prayer of St. Francis is one of the best descriptions of a peacemaker ever written.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” AMEN.

Preached at Jerome UMC, March 30, 2014, as my final sermon before retiring.