Embrace the Squiggle: Fools for Christ, I Corinthians 3:18-23

[Note: 98% of this sermon was written before the tragic events in Charlottesville last Saturday. When I heard about Charlottesville Saturday evening I tried to figure out how I needed to change the message in light of the hatred and racsim on display in Virginia. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the message seemed very relevant to current events with only a few changes. We addressed the situation in Charlottesville directly in our prayer time on Sunday morning, including a reading of part of Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”]

When I saw the preaching schedule said I got to preach on being fools for Christ my first thought was, “I’ve been typecast!” Then I came across this old picture of me in my youth ministry days and thought, “OK, I guess the shoe fits.” But seriously, why would Paul advise us to be fools?

Do you know it says in the Bible, “There is no god?” It really does, and that particular verse is a great reminder that we cannot pick and choose things from the Bible and take them out of context. Psalm14:1 is where it says “there is no god,” but if you read the whole verse you discover it says, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘there is no god.’” That’s obviously not the kind of fool Paul wants us to be.

A friend sent me a list of some not so bright things people have said. They reminded me that some of the squiggles in life are caused by fools. Here are a couple of these squiggly quotes:
“Whenever I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.” Maria Carey
“I’ve never had major knee surgery on any other part of my body.” UK basketball player Winston Bennett
“We don’t necessarily discriminate. We simply exclude certain types of people.” Colonel Gerald Wellman, ROTC instructor.
“Your food stamps will be stopped effective March 1992 because we have received notice that you passed away. May God bless you. You may reapply if there is a change in your circumstances.” Dept. of Social Services, Greeneville, SC.

That’s not the kind of fools Paul is talking about either. Verse 18 says “Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise.” Come again Paul? How does one become wise by becoming a fool? That seems pretty foolish.
Verse 19 helps a bit. It says, “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; (Job 5) and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” (Ps. 94)

The Interpreter’s Bible commentary explains some of the confusion this way. Corinth, because of its geographic location was a very cosmopolitan city. Corinth, sitting in southern Greece and just across the Aegean Sea from modern day Turkey, was on the major trade route between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. It was therefore made up of a diverse population and affected by a variety of religious and secular ideas. Among the key influences was the Greek philosopher Diogenes who taught that the “wise are friends of the gods and gods own all that is. Therefore the wise have access to everything.” It was an early version of what today is known as the prosperity gospel, namely that if we believe the right things we can expect God to reward us with material prosperity. It’s a favorite theology of those who start out to do good and end up doing very well.

By contrast Jesus taught the exact opposite, that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” and that we shouldn’t “store up treasures on earth where rust can consume and thieves break in and steal.” That’s not the kind of wisdom we hear from our financial advisers and retirement planners now is it?

As I read this text over the song that says “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread” kept coming to mind. But we have to give Paul credit. He practiced what he preached, getting imprisoned for his faith several times and once even refusing to escape from jail when he had the chance. He, like many martyrs and visionaries seemed to be a fool himself by challenging the wisdom of the world. In the church at Corinth Paul felt it necessary to do that because some of the members in that church were becoming arrogant and feeling self-important. Some who had particular spiritual gifts thought they were better than others who didn’t have the same gift. Paul addresses that specifically later in I Corinthians chapter 12 where he compares the church to the human body that needs all of its parts to work. And no one part is more important than any other.

Paul urges Godly foolishness because the ways of the world are not God’s ways. Worldly wisdom says “Good people finish last.” Jesus says, “The Last will be first.” The wisdom of world says, “Don’t get mad, get even.” “Do unto others before they do unto you.” The folly of Jesus says, “Turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” Fools for Christ say, “The cycle of hate and revenge stops here.”

Paul is asking the church at Corinth and the Church on the Hill for moral responsibility. Moral responsibility requires self-awareness so we make conscious and intentional choices instead of really foolish ones based on worldly wisdom. There’s a great line in the old baseball movie, “Bull Durham” describing a clueless rookie pitcher named Ebby Calvin LaLoosh. One of the other characters in the movie says Ebby is “not cursed with self-awareness.”

When we are not self-aware it’s too easy to act irresponsibly. Instead of doing what we know to be right or stopping to think about that, we just go along with the crowd. Someone said recently that he was glad he grew up before cell phone cameras were everywhere because he did a lot of really stupid things in his youth and there’s no record of any of them. At its worst those who are not blessed with self-awareness can fall prey to what’s known as mob mentality. That can lead to horrible actions that most people would never do on their own but will when we lose our sense of self in the anonymity of a crowd. The violence in Charlottesville is an extreme instance. An example on a less dangerous scale is the term “fan” we use to describe a sports team’s followers. The word “fan” is short for “fanatic” and we’ve all seen or been one of those kinds of fools who get a little too carried away with team spirit, or some other kind of spirits. My family hated to sit with me at my son’s high school basketball games because for some strange reason they thought expressing my displeasure with the referees was embarrassing!

Without moral responsibility we lose track of our values and priorities. Like Pastor Chris said in last week’s sermon our own personal goals and bucket lists can become more important than doing what is right and good. I grew up a huge fan of the Cincinnati Reds in the days of the Big Red Machine. I suffered with them through two World Series losses to those darn Yankees and the Oakland A’s. And then in 1975 they won it all in one of the best World Series ever against the Boston Red Sox, and I thought my dreams were fulfilled. The Kingdom of God could come now. Somehow I expected things to be different because of a silly game played by overgrown and over paid kids. Of course it didn’t change anything.

The world doesn’t even change when the Buckeyes win a national championship or the right political party is in charge. In victory or defeat our purpose is the same, to be responsible moral agents for God’s will. We don’t base our behavior on peer pressure or majority rule. I think it must be in every Mom’s handbook to ask “If everyone else jumped off the bridge would you too?” And that’s solid advice. Being morally responsible means a constant process of learning critical thinking skills. It means we need to ask God to set us free from any selfish goals or priorities that prevent us from doing the right thing. We may have to say no to the consumerism of the world so we can pick up a cross and follow Jesus. When Jesus called his disciples he didn’t say, “Go home and pack.” He just said, “Follow me.”

There’s even a lesson we can learn from something as scary as the nuclear game of chicken going on with N. Korea. We’re all praying for a peaceful solution to this problem, but it’s a reminder that in the worst case scenario if there is a nuclear attack anytime we won’t have days or even hours to get our moral house in order. We need to be right with God all the time, even when it makes us look foolish in the eyes of the world.

Let’s not sugar coat it. To be a fool for Christ can be lonely. I was a Boy Scout all through Jr. High and high school, and it was a great experience. But I have to tell you I dreaded Boy Scout week each February because it meant we were supposed to wear our scout uniforms to school. It wasn’t cool to be a boy scout. The same thing happened when I got my call to ministry at a church camp my sophomore year in high school. It took me 3 years before I told anyone about that because I was afraid people would think I was some kind of goodie two shoes.

We all know bullying is a major problem for kids these days. Being a Christian fool means doing something to stop a bully, whether it’s intervening directly or getting a teacher or other adult to address the situation. There was an incident in Portland, Oregon recently where a man was yelling racist and anti-Muslim threats at two women on a bus. Three other passengers intervened and two were killed and the other wounded when the bully pulled a knife on them. What they did to put ourselves in harm’s way might seem foolish to the world, but the harm to one’s conscience when we fail to do the right thing is much worse. That’s an extreme case of course, but it illustrates the seriousness of Christian discipleship. And then the violence in Charlottesville happened yesterday, and the risks of standing up for truth and justice were written in bloody broad strokes for all of us to see. There’s nothing funny or silly about being a fool for Christ.

Christian fools pay a price for their faithfulness. John and Charles Wesley who started the Methodist church were thrown out of the Church of England because they challenged things in that church that they believed were wrong. Worldly values would call Mother Theresa foolish to go live among the squalor and disease in Calcutta, but we call her a saint.

I am so proud to be part of this congregation for all the foolish things we do. Worldly values often base decisions on what the ROI will be of a particular action. ROI stands for Return on Investment. By the ROI standard Northwest Church does a lot of foolish things. Our Kairos ministry shares the Gospel and delicious cookies with prisoners at the Marion Correctional facility several times a year. None of those men are likely to ever darken the door of our church. Where’s the ROI for the time and effort that goes into that ministry?
We send food and servants down to Broad St. UMC to serve meals to hungry and homeless people at the Manna Café. We even have some wonderful servants who get up very early some Sunday mornings to serve breakfast to hungry people at the Church for All People. None of those folks will ever contribute to our church’s bottom line. Where’s the ROI?
Same thing with Brown Bag Lunches and back packs filled with school supplies to kids in our own backyard. It’s unlikely that most of those people will come and sit in these pews so our attendance numbers look better for the bishop.

The world operates on a profit motive, but the church runs on a prophetic model. The world says “what’s in it for me?” Christian fools say “what’s in it for others?” Our ROI is the warm feeling of having done something good for one of God’s children. It’s seeing the joy and pure delight on the faces of hungry kids receiving their brown bag or backpack; watching them run out to meet our church van because it shows them somebody cares about them.

When I was youth minister at Worthington UMC we took our kids on mission trips every summer. One year we went to West Virginia to help with flood relief. We stayed overnight in a UM church in Morgantown, WV on our way home. It was a big downtown church with a two-story education wing. I went out that evening to pick up some pizza for the group and as I drove back to the church I was both amused and embarrassed at what I saw. Hanging from the upstairs windows of the church was a big sign that said “Love for Sale.”

I made the kids remove the sign as soon as I got in the church, and we had a talk about it while we ate our pizza. I don’t remember what I said to the kids way back then 30 years ago. I’m sure I said their sign wasn’t appropriate, but reflecting on it now here’s what I wish I had said. “Love is never for sale. When we love someone we don’t weigh the costs and figure out what we can get in return – that’s not love. It’s a business transaction.”

The wisdom of the world is self-centered. The foolishness of the Gospel says those who love must be servants of all. Christians are called to always reflect love and grace, not judgment and exclusion. I learned a simple prayer in a seminar on peacemaking a few years ago. It really helps when I remember to pause in a tough situation when it is so easy to lose my temper. It’s simply to repeat to myself these three phrases: “Let me be peaceful, let me be kind, let me accept myself and others as we are.” That’s really very hard to do, and I often fail miserably; but it’s what we are all called to do and be by the biggest fool the world has ever known.

Jesus spent his three year ministry breaking rules and challenging the wisdom of the establishment. He offended the wise leaders of both the Roman Empire and the Jewish hierarchy. By worldly standards Jesus had no qualifications to be wise – no degrees, no portfolio, and no 401K. He got himself in so much hot water he was brutally killed. The world says that’s the height of foolishness. One of the thieves crucified with him speaks for the worldly values. He says, “Jesus, use your divine powers Jesus to save yourself and us.”

Instead Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And then, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” The wisdom of the world thought it had triumphed on Good Friday. Jesus’ mother and disciples grieved the death of Jesus and their hopes for the future. But on resurrection day God got the last laugh.

The basic ground rules for being a fool for Christ are captured in these words which reportedly were written on the walls of Mother Theresa’s home for children in Calcutta:
“People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
Create anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God.
It was never between you and them anyway.” Amen.

[Preached at Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio, August 13,2017]

“How Can We Love Our Enemies?” Matthew 5:38-48

“God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” I heard Dr. Fred Craddock preach on this text once, and he observed most of us would not be so generous toward the evil and unrighteous. He said if he were in charge the rain would fall on the good farmer’s field and stop abruptly when it came to the property line of the evil farmer. He went on to say if God were really just that every golf ball hit by a Sunday golfer playing hooky from church would go straight up in the air and fall at the feet of the golfer.

This whole passage from the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most challenging in all of Scripture. And in particular Jesus telling us to love our enemies has to be high on the list of those things we wish Jesus hadn’t said. But those words are much needed in our bitterly divided nation and world today.

Before we dig into the practical problems of how in the world to live up to these teachings of Jesus I want to set the context by sharing a quote from Dallas Willard, a teacher of spiritual formation. Willard says, “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Let me repeat that: “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.” Those words are especially true of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is describing to his followers what it looks like to live as faithful disciples and citizens of his kingdom here and now in a world that teaches the very opposite. In other words, too many Christians focus on what Jesus did for us on the cross but not enough on what he requires of us as his disciples. That is a little strange since it is Jesus’ high standard of ethical living that got him in trouble with the authorities who killed him.

And so Jesus begins by repeating what previous Scriptures have taught about living in the worldly kingdom. “You have heard it said…” Don’t get mad, get even! Revenge is a natural human reaction, and I’m guessing most of us have been there in one degree or another in recent days or weeks. “You have heard it said, an eye for and a tooth for a tooth.” Sounds fair, doesn’t it? Let the punishment fit the crime. In fact, at the time those words were written hundreds of years before Jesus they were designed to limit revenge; so victims would not demand two eyes for an eye, or a whole mouthful of teeth for a tooth. As someone has said, if we follow the eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth philosophy to its logical conclusion, we end up with a world full of blind, toothless people, and the cycle of violence and pain continues forever.

So Jesus reminds his disciples of the ancient law and continues, “But I say to you…” Look out whenever Jesus starts out with that phrase; brace yourself for a zinger. “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. If anyone strikes, you on the right cheek, turn the other as well.” O, Jesus, you’ve got to be kidding! We can’t do that! You can’t be serious. How can we possibly love those responsible for horrific acts of death and destruction? You don’t mean for us to love ISIS, or that creep who murdered and raped Reagan Tokes, or our political enemies do you? And you can fill out the rest of your list of those we find it hard if not impossible to love.

Let’s look at the big picture of how our understanding of God’s will changes and grows. God doesn’t change, but our ability to grasp the enormity of God’s grace and love increases as we grow in faith both as individuals and as a faith community. We’ve already seen how that process unfolds from the days of Moses to Jesus, but let’s look at some other examples of how God surprises us throughout the Scriptures. I found this wonderful summary of that process in a Facebook post from Bixby Knolls Christian Church:

“In Deuteronomy 23 we read that the people of Moab are bad and not allowed to dwell among God’s people. But later in the Old Testament we meet Ruth the Moabitess (who becomes the grandmother of David and one of the women listed in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus).
Jeremiah 25 tells us that people from Uz are evil, but then comes story of Job, a man from Uz who is the “most blameless man on earth.”
No foreigners or eunuchs allowed, again from Deuteronomy, and then comes the story in Acts 8 of an African eunuch welcomed into the church.
God’s people hate Samaritans, but Jesus tells one of his most famous stories where a Samaritan is the hero and the model for what it means to be a good neighbor.
The story may begin with prejudice, discrimination, and animosity, but the Spirit moves God’s people toward openness, welcome, inclusion, acceptance and affirmation.”

And our Judeo-Christian Scriptures aren’t when it comes to non-violent responses to those who hurt us. The Dali Lama, a leader of another of the world’s great religions, wrote these words shortly after 9/11, certainly one of the most trying times in our lifetime for those who take Jesus seriously. The Dali Lama was commenting on how America should respond to 9/11 and wrote, “It may seem presumptuous on my part, but I personally believe we need to think seriously whether a violent action is the right thing to do and in the greater interest of the nation and people in the long run. I believe violence will only increase the cycle of violence.”

The tragic fact that we are still involved in the longest war in U.S. history in Afghanistan 16 years after 9/11 underscores the truth that violence increases the cycle of violence. We’re not going to solve that eternal question today, especially on the international level, but let’s take a look at what Jesus is asking of us in our personal lives and relationships when it comes to living peaceful Christ-like lives.

It is hard to find silver linings in some clouds, but even in tragedy there are often some benefits. We see it in extended families that rally around each other when there is a death of illness. We saw it the sense of unity in the U.S. after 9/11. Patriotism was higher than at any time since WWII. That kind of unity as a family or church or a nation is wonderful, but Jesus asks us to take that sense of community one giant step further–to include even our enemies in the circle of God’s family.

The sense of unity and patriotism after 9/11 didn’t last long, and part of the division in our nation is because we differ over how to respond to evil. Some insist on an eye for an eye response and others advocate a gentler approach. Those differences have hardened into partisan political lines that make it more important than ever to love those we differ with politically. One way to do that is to pray for those we disagree with by name, and the stronger our disagreements, the more important those prayers become. Whoever you see as on the wrong side of the political fence or some other contentious issue, pray for them, and I find it helpful to do so by using first names. That makes the prayers more personal and meaningful, and I find it hard to be angry when praying for someone.

Fear of others is the biggest barrier to love. In today’s political climate immigrants of all kinds fear for their future. We can’t solve the immigration policy debate here today, but each of us can engage in simple acts of kindness, go out of our way to smile and be kind to others who are different from us. Let them experience the radical hospitality of Christ so they know they are welcome in this country.

As individuals we can also listen to those we have political disagreements with. Just this week I heard from a friend who is cancelling his newspaper subscription because his local paper took an editorial position he disagrees with. I also heard that political divisions are showing up in personal ads on dating sites where profiles include such phrases as “no Trump haters need respond,” or “No Trump supporters welcome.” People unfriend people on social media and refuse to watch news channels they disagree with. The battle lines are drawn, and important functions of government like feeding starving children, rebuilding crumbling dams and bridges, and fixing the water supply in places like Flint – things we all agree need to be done are the causalities of partisan gridlock. It seems so obvious but still needs to be said, the first step to loving our enemies is communication and sharing our common human needs. Until that happens the bigger issues that divide us can never be addressed.

Jesus did it. He practiced what he preached. He walked the walk all the way to Golgotha. He loved his enemies and forgave those who nailed him to the cross. But how can we mere mortals love our enemies, even while we deplore their horrible deeds?

I certainly don’t have all the answers–not even all the questions; but it seems to me there are two things that are necessary for us to have any hope of following Jesus down this path of loving our enemies.
1) We need to understand who are enemies are and who they aren’t so we don’t over-react in fear against all Muslims or against everyone who looks different and is therefore suspicious. There was an incident in my hometown in northwest Ohio last year where some parents pulled their children out of a middle school social studies class because there was a unit on the history of Islam. That kind of fear of knowledge is tragic. There is no hope for peace without understanding. We need to learn all we can about Islam so we understand better the complicated political and religious realities we are caught up in. We don’t dare oversimplify or stereotype.
2) Perhaps most important, we need to practice forgiveness. Someone has written that forgiveness is the key to happiness. The pursuit of happiness is one of our most cherished American ideals, and forgiveness is what it takes to be free of the burdens of anger and hostility that make happiness impossible.

Logan Cole is a student at West Liberty High School who was shot at school a few weeks ago by a fellow student, Ely Serna. After Ely shot Logan, Ely handed the shot gun to Logan and asked him to shoot him as well. But Logan refused to shoot his attacker because he knew an eye for an eye doesn’t solve anything. And a few days later Logan forgave Ely from his hospital bed at Children’s Hospital with buck shot still lodged near his heart. Fortunately the shot gun damaged Logan’s body, but it didn’t damage his heart and ability to love his enemy.

What about Brian Golsby, the ex-convict who raped and killed Reagan Tokes, the OSU senior from Maumee a few weeks ago. Does Jesus want us to love killers and rapists? The Scripture is pretty clear the answer to that question is “yes.” We don’t have to like them or approve of what they do, but no matter how awful life circumstances has made someone like Brian Golsby and deformed his basic humanity– he is still a child of God and invited to accept God’s amazing grace.

Where does the ability to love someone who has done us great harm come from?

My favorite story about that kind of love comes from another period of unspeakable terror and suffering in human society, the Holocaust. After the war, a young Christian woman traveled around Europe proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and love for everyone who would repent and give their life to Christ. Corrie Ten Boom was a death camp survivor. Her entire family had died in the Nazi death gas chambers, and yet she was filled with God’s love and anxious to tell her story. Until one night when she was giving her testimony and looked out into the congregation where she saw a face that made her blood run cold. Sitting there staring at her from the pew was one of the former Nazi concentration camp guards who had helped to execute her family. She could barely finish her talk and hurried toward the side door of the church as soon as she was finished, hoping to avoid any further contact with this awful man.

But he was anxious to talk to her and met her at the door. He extended his hand as he told her that he had repented and become a Christian, but, he added, it was so good to hear someone like her proclaim the unbelievable good news that God’s love was available even to such a terrible sinner as he had been. His hand was there, waiting for Corrie to take it in Christian fellowship. But her hand was paralyzed, frozen at her side for what seemed like an eternity. The silence was awkward, and even though she knew she should shake his hand, she could not. Finally, she said a prayer. She said, “Lord, if you want me to forgive this man, you’re going to have to do it, because I can’t.”

And just then, Corrie said her hand moved of its own accord. She took the former Nazi’s hand and says she felt the most amazing surge of warmth and power pass between them that she had ever felt in her life.
How can we love our enemies? On our own, we can’t. But with God’s help as followers of Jesus Christ, relying on and empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, we can, we must, and we will because we are already part of God’s kingdom.
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory!

Rev. Steve Harsh, Preached at Epworth United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, February 19, 2017

Prayer for the Human Family

As my regular readers know I have strong political opinions about the current situation in Washington and its repercussions around the world. I strive to make sure those opinions are theologically grounded. After prayerful consideration of the crisis over immigration policy that has unfolded over the weekend I have decided to offer a prayer for unity and compassion for everyone involved rather than add to the often polarizing debate about political positions and constitutional interpretation. The inspiration for this prayer comes from my understanding of Judeo-Christian Scripture but also from a very secular source.

That secular source is from a marketing slogan used by one of my favorite breakfast restaurants, Bob Evans. (Full disclosure note: My son is a V-P in marketing for Bob Evans, but I would like this slogan regardless of family ties.) Our church has been doing a sermon series on myths and sayings that aren’t in the Bible, and I’d like to propose that this one could very well be. The slogan which is on the walls of many of Bob’s restaurants is this: “We treat strangers like friends and friends like family.”

Dear God, creator and sustainer of all creation, God of radical hospitality, you have taught us in Scripture and through Christ and faithful Jesus followers to be people of love. You warn us that it is not enough to love those who love us back, but to love even our enemies and those who persecute us. You have instructed us via prophets and parables all the way back to Leviticus to love our neighbors as ourselves. But we often forget that love of neighbor extends to all the Samaritans and Syrians and Somalis longing to be free.

Forgive us when we forget that your inclusive love requires us to welcome dialogue with our political foes and to enter into those conversations with open minds free from judgment about the motives of others. Help us temper our zeal for justice with open ears that can hear the concerns and fears of those we disagree with. Help us to lower the decibel level of the discourse as we strive to treat others with the same respect we want for ourselves and those we advocate for. Forgive us when we are more concerned with being right than reaching peaceful solutions to complex problems. Gently remind us when we are more determined to win an argument than to know the truth.

Teach us your patience, Lord, and remind us to double and triple check our facts before we post or tweet or share any information that may be counterproductive to the ultimate cause of peace and justice for all of your children. Give us minds that thirst for truth and learn from history, to see the many logs in our own eyes before we judge others about the specks in theirs. We have much in our American history for which we need to repent, O God of mercy. You know us better than we know ourselves. Grant us the courage to search the depths of our own sin. Remind us of our own shameful record of injustice against people of color, women, and our LGBT sisters and brothers. Send your Spirit to help us not be shamed by guilt but to benefit from our past transgressions and from those of others so we can learn and grow in our faith from this political crisis.

Touch our hearts O God in ways that empower us to live up to your high expectations for us. May your Spirit burn within us with a compassion for families that are separated, for students and business travelers stranded in foreign lands, for everyone who fears for their uncertain future. Let us not become so embroiled in the political struggles of our own nation that we surrender to 24/7 news fatigue. Do not let us lose sight of the fact that millions of human lives are at stake and will be impacted by our own action or lack thereof. Do not let us belittle our own significance with a false humility that can silence the voices of the many crying in the wilderness. Do not cease to remind us that we are to treat the stranger in our midst as we would treat our own family and friends, that radical hospitality is not an unreachable ideal or a clever marketing slogan but Gospel Truth.

Lord, there is much fear consuming our nation and world. There is fear for safety and security, fear of political impotence and fear of excessive power. Help us acknowledge and face all those fears with the confidence of your children who know that only perfect love casts out fear. You are the unshakable foundation of our faith and the only true source of perfect love. Without you we cannot imagine how the overwhelming crises of our world can be resolved. But you are the God of exodus and exile, of crucifixion and resurrection. No political crisis has ever silenced your voice. In the tumult and chaos of protests and partisanship, whisper again to us the assurance once more that neither powers nor principalities, death nor life, nor anything else in all creation will ever separate us from your love. Thanks be to God.

The Dark Side of the Prosperity Gospel

“Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7).

It’s been a busy week since Monday night’s presidential debate. I don’t have time to say much but feel compelled to address something that struck me Monday night while it is still relatively fresh in our memories. There has been much debate about who “won” the debate and how you vote on that is pretty subjective. I think most of us heard what we expected to hear filtered through our own political lenses and that of the media analysis we choose to rely on for “expert” opinions.

What struck me most were two things. When Donald Trump said that not paying taxes makes him smart and that taking advantage of the foreclosures during the recession was “good business,” he showed again why he is the poster boy for the dark side of the prosperity Gospel and even of Capitalism itself. The prosperity Gospel is the misguided interpretation of Christian theology that emphasizes material blessings and rewards for those who proclaim their faith in Christ. It is responsible for the growth and success of many mega churches and television evangelists, but it is totally contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

There are too many examples to cite them all here but these quickly come to my mind. “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt. 6:24, Luke 16:13). The parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), and numerous times where Jesus says, “leave what you have and follow me.”

Mr. Trump said earlier in the campaign that his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye.” When one’s only concern for how to measure one’s worth is material wealth and power, that’s a great motto to live by, but I pray that some of Mr. Trump’s Christian followers will prevail upon him to someday learn what Jesus said about that desire for revenge by reading the Gospels or even just the Sermon on the Mount.

The Gospel of Christ has been twisted into the prosperity Gospel because it sells. Promising people they will have to take up a cross to follow Jesus, or to share what they have with the least of those as judged by the world’s standards, or to love their enemies and turn the other cheek – those just are not good marketing techniques. Promising potential church members they need to sell all they have and give it to the poor doesn’t entice many recruits to sign up. Maybe that’s why Jesus only had 11 faithful ones?

The spread of the prosperity Gospel also explains the conundrum many political commentators have wrestled with this year, namely how to make sense of Trump’s popularity among some Christians. Galatians 6:7 says it so well, “we reap what we sow.” Creating a flock of materialistic, wealth-worshipping “Christians” over the last few decades has produced this strange phenomenon of those who call themselves evangelicals enthusiastically giving their support to a man who is the antithesis of the values and lifestyle Jesus Christ calls us to live.

It also explains how those who claim the name of the Prince of Peace can be devout supporters of the NRA and gun rights. Fear of losing one’s prosperity leads to taking very drastic and unChrist-like measures to protect and defend those “things that thieves can steal and rust and moth can consume.” The rest of that advice from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says, don’t put your faith in those perishable things, “but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:19-21).

God is not mocked. We have planted seeds of greed and selfishness, and now we are reaping what we have sown.

A Response to the Orlando Massacre

“Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus

Another mass shooting, another record broken for innocent lives snuffed out, more prayers and tears and hand wringing. This one is worse because it targeted the LGBT community and people of color – an all-purpose hate crime. My heart is broken again, but I haven’t yet heard the expected hateful tweets from Trump and his ilk calling for more violence and stronger defense. Trump recently said his favorite Scripture is “An eye for an eye;” which says volumes about his lack of Christian faith. I have intentionally avoided Fox News all day, as I do most days, because I’m not sure I can take much more vitriol and fear-mongering.

I fully expect this tragedy to be used for political gain by Trump, and anticipate he will blame the work of ISIS on President Obama’s “weakness;” so I want to counter that bogus argument right now. To blame the rise of terrorism here and abroad on “weakness” and to call for more guns and more military action in response is to forget recent history and to engage in bad theology. The full context of the Scripture above is as follows:

“ While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 At once he came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. 51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Matthew 26:47-52

You can twist the interpretation of that text, and many do, to mean that Jesus was saying those who commit violence deserve to suffer in turn. But that is not consistent with the full life and teaching of Jesus that blesses peacemakers, advises turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemies, and praying for those who persecute you.

Human history is so full of violence against creation and humankind that I don’t know where the origin of that cycle of vengeance could ever be identified. We only get four chapters into Genesis before the first murder occurs! And in that story God marks Cain, the murderer, not to punish him but to protect him from retribution. That lesson was lost immediately.

The warfare in the Middle East goes back before recorded history; so it is difficult to assess blame or to solve that Gordian knot. But that is no excuse to twist more recent history to justify a dangerous political ideology. I would argue that the rise of terrorism in recent years is not because of American weakness but because of unjustified invasions of that region by former President Bush. Those of course were in response to 9/11, which was I’m sure justified in the eyes of the terrorists by US imperialism and the decadence of our society. My point is that there are always those who can find an excuse to get revenge on those we label as “enemies.” But military strength does not bring peace. We are the strongest military power in the history of humankind, and we are still not safe and secure. Violence can never bring peace. World War I sowed the seeds of WWII, which created the Cold War and the nuclear arms race. And on it goes.

And Jesus said, “Put away your sword.” Till the cycle of violence is broken, till we confess our own guilt for profiting from fear by selling more guns and security systems, and selling arms to other countries, the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned us about 50 years ago will continue to beget more violence. The U.S. currently gives $5 Billion dollars a year in military aid to Israel, and ¾ of that money is spent back in the US to buy weapons produced by US manufacturers; and the US Congress, which can’t agree on anything else, wants to increase that amount! What price are we paying as our infrastructure and education system collapses while we profit from bigger and better ways to kill each other?

People who are afraid have a hard time hearing Jesus’ words to be peacemakers; so I don’t expect this reminder to be popular in another moment of tragedy. But what we are doing is obviously not working and to double down on violence and power as the solution is not the answer.

Not With Swords, Matthew 26:52

Tuesday of Holy Week 2016 and we awake again to news of unspeakable violence – this time in Brussels. My heart breaks for the victims, of course, but it also aches for all of us who now suffer from a new wave of fear, anger and despair. The death toll will be much higher than whatever the final gruesome body count is in Belgium because fear and anger will spawn new and very natural responses of revenge. Violence begets violence. We know, but we seem powerless to respond in any other way. I get that, but I also know that if we continue down that wide well-traveled road the only destination is more destruction.

If we demand an eye for an eye, blood for blood, it will not make us safer. We have the power as some have suggested to bomb the enemy into oblivion and in doing so we would lose our soul. Terrorism would win and it would be reborn somewhere else while we waste our resources on more instruments of death instead of spending our time and money and energy on education and humanitarian efforts that make for peace and understanding.
I would suggest we use this latest attack as a motivation to take the passion of Holy Week more seriously. Let’s ask the hard questions about what Jesus’ death and resurrection really mean in a world gone mad in 2016. Is it more than an ancient story we re-enact in bad bathrobe dramas? Is it more than jumping easily from Palm Sunday to Easter morning because the middle part of the story is too hard to swallow?

I believe that the popular substitutionary atonement theology of the cross is largely to blame for our failure to apply the hard parts of the Gospel to our lives. The abridged version of that theology says that Christ died in our place as a substitute for our sins in order to offer eternal salvation to everyone who accepts Christ as his or her Savior. There are several problems with that theology, but the basic one is that it lets us off the hook too easily so we don’t have to take the hard truths of Jesus’ teaching seriously. It makes the cross something Jesus did once and for all, but that Gospel ignores the fact that the Scriptures tell us multiple times that Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Luke even adds we have to do it “daily.”

Jesus doesn’t need or want worshippers or Sunday only Christians, he wants followers; and that means just what it says—imitating how he lived and practicing what he taught. And here’s the intersection between Brussels and Gethsemane that we don’t want to hear. Matthew (26: 47-56) tells us that when they came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night “one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. ‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” He doesn’t invoke the second amendment or argue for peace through strength. He says, “My way is not the way of the world. The way of the sword has never brought peace and it never will because one cannot bring life through the instruments of death.”

We don’t want to hear it because we’re afraid, but we must grow some ears that can hear Christ’s truth before it is too late and the way of the sword continues to fester and spread like a plague. Doing the right thing is easy for most of us when there is little to lose by doing so. Jesus followers do it when it’s seemingly impossible and impractical according to the ways of the world. Real Jesus followers make hard choices when everyone around them and their own instincts insist on the way of the sword.

It comes down to practicing what Jesus preached even when it’s unbelievably difficult. For example, in both the Sermon on the Mount and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain Jesus says we are not to resist evil but to turn the other cheek when someone strikes us (Matt. 5:39; Luke 6:29). It’s very easy to say that in a safe sermon by the seashore or from a comfortable pulpit. I’ve preached and taught those words hundreds of times, but how often have I lived them when the going got really rough? Jesus does. As he is about to be arrested and most certainly executed, he lives what he taught. With his earthly life on the line he is true to the eternal truth he came to show us and says, “Put away your sword.”

That’s the Gospel, the good news, during this Holy Week when the sword seems to be winning. Is cheek turning and pacifism practical? Will it work against a hurricane of hate? We don’t know because it has never really been tried on any global scale. A few martyrs have followed Jesus’ example, and they inspire us from afar. But Brussels is real life here and now, and if we let the way of the sword prevail again, if we let fear and anger triumph over peace and love, even for our enemies, then terror wins and Jesus loses.

I don’t pretend to have the faith I need to lay down my life for my faith. But I wrestle with these hard truths from Holy Week because I still believe deep in my soul that it is the way and the truth and the life. The way of the sword has been tried forever in human history, and it has failed to bring about a lasting peace. Jesus followers are called to wrestle with both the words and example of Christ who is still saying to us during this Holy Week “Put away your sword.”

I don’t have the answers, but we who call ourselves Christians must wrestle with the questions. We desperately need meaningful dialogue on this topic. Please share any thoughts or suggestions or questions you have about what peacemaking looks like on a personal or global scale for you.

What Are We Full Of?, Jonah 3:1-5, 10

This sermon was written for a Sunday emphasis on what it means to live a missional lifestyle, and our case study from Scripture is one of those negative examples of how not to do that. I asked my son once how it was that he is a better golfer, skier and basketball player than I am when I introduced him to all those sports. He smiled and replied, “Oh, I just watched you, Dad, and saw how not to do it.” I think he learned a lot of life lessons that way from me. And we can all benefit in the same way from the story of Jonah.

Before we get to Jonah, I want to tell you about a pastor who decided one day it would be good for his parishioners and his son to take the 5 year-old with him to visit a local retirement community. The little fellow was fascinated by all the new things he saw – walkers and canes and especially the power wheel chair when one of the residents took him for a ride down the hall. But he was most interested when he went into one room with his dad. Pointing in amazement at a set of dentures in a glass on the bedside table he said, “Dad, the tooth fairy is never gonna believe that!” Some things are hard to believe – and the story of Jonah is one such tale.

Ask most people what they know about Jonah, and you will get “Jonah and the whale” as their response. It’s a familiar story kids learn about in Sunday school, but it is much more than a big fish story (which is what the Hebrew says, not a “whale” per se) if we ask some basic questions, like what was Jonah doing in the water and why was he swallowed by the big fish? And please don’t get hung up on the feasibility of a grown man being swallowed by a fish. This is about theology, not biology.

Jonah is a very short story, only 3 pages, and it makes more sense if read in its entirety. So here’s the abridged version of the whole story to put it in context:
1. God calls Jonah and tells him to go on a mission to Nineveh.
2. Jonah doesn’t want to go and jumps on a ship headed for Tarshish (in the exact opposite direction) instead.
3. God is not pleased and causes a storm at sea, and when the sailors learn that Jonah is the reason for God’s displeasure, they throw Jonah overboard to save themselves.
4. God appoints a big fish to swallow Jonah. (Not to punish him, by the way, but to save him and give him time to reconsider God’s offer.)
5. After 3 days God has the fish spit Jonah out; and Jonah decides this time he’d better listen to God, heads for Nineveh and delivers God’s message that they should repent or else bad things are going to happen.
6. The people of Nineveh heed Jonah’s warning, repent of their sins, are forgiven and saved from God’s judgment on them. You’d think any preacher would be thrilled if thousands of people changed their lives based on one short sermon, right? Not Jonah.
7. Jonah pouts because he really wanted God to destroy the Ninevites, not save them.

So there’s a lot more going on here than Jonah and the fish. It’s a story about a refusal to say yes when God’s mission is very clear. The message from God to Jonah couldn’t be more straightforward and direct: The 2nd verse of chapter 1 says, “Go at once to Nineveh,” and those orders are repeated verbatim in our lesson for today. There is no failure to communicate here – just reluctance to obey. Frederick Buechner says, “Lying to God is like sawing the branch you’re sitting on. The better you do it, the harder you fall.” Saying “no” to God is pretty much the same thing; so why would Jonah even try? And why do we?

We all have different reasons and excuses for failing to live missional lives. To consider Jonah’s rationale for disobeying God requires a little history lesson. Nineveh was the capital of Babylon, a hated enemy of the Hebrew people that had overthrown Israel years before and carried many of their people off to Exile. So what Jonah was being asked to do was take a warning to the people of Nineveh so they could be forgiven and spared from God’s wrath. It may help us to identify with Jonah to know that Nineveh sat about where the modern city of Baghdad is today.

Put yourself in Jonah’s place. Fill in your own favorite enemies: Democrats, Tea Partiers, Islamic extremists, the religious right or left, your bitter athletic rivals, unethical business competitors, lawyers, former spouses – whoever it is that you would like to be the very last people God would forgive. That’s exactly who Jonah is being asked to save and why he dares to defy a direct order from God.

I have been blessed by hearing good preaching this month. Pastor Tom Slack started the New Year off right for me with a sermon on the prologue to John’s Gospel. What struck me that day was the verse that says “The word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” And just 2 verses later, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” I’ve been journaling and praying ever since about what it looks like for us, for me, to be full of grace and truth. Our other fine preacher, Mebane McMahon, added to the dialogue with her sermon the next week on the baptism of Christ and how we are all beloved children of God. She added another piece to the puzzle the next week’s sermon on the story of Eli and Samuel and how being beloved children means listening when God speaks.

In Jonah we have someone who doesn’t just fail to listen to God, he rebels and does the exact opposite of what God tells him to do. Why do we do that? It never turns out well. Reflecting on those January sermons my take on why Jonah and I and many of you fail to live a missional lifestyle is because of what we’re full of – or NOT full of. The Scriptures don’t tell us for sure why Jonah ran away. Chapter 1 says he tried to flee from the presence of the Lord. He needed to read Psalm 139 which asks the very question, “Where can I flee from God’s presence?” The answer is nowhere, because there is nowhere in all creation that God isn’t.

We aren’t told but we can imagine why Jonah does what he does. Maybe fear – he was being asked to go into enemy territory. Are there places or people God is asking us to be in mission that we are uncomfortable with or afraid to go? Maybe Anger – Jonah admits in the end of the story that he’s mad at God for forgiving his enemies. He says, “I knew you were a God of mercy who would repent and forgive these slime balls. They don’t deserve it.” (That’s a loose translation, by the way.) Are there people we don’t think deserve God’s grace and mercy? Do we hoard the good news of the Gospel – thinking if we share it there might not be enough for us?

It seems pretty clear to me that Jonah is full of anger or fear or vengeance or judgment, or some combination of those poisons. And that’s why he can’t obey God’s call. When we are full or even partially full of guilt, jealousy, doubt, insecurity, bitterness, pain, there’s no room for us to be full of grace and truth. Those negative feelings are like an anchor that keeps us stuck where we are and unable to go where God wants to send us.

It’s like this story about a blacksmith with a seemingly insurmountable problem. He just didn’t fit the macho stereotype of a blacksmith. He was strong and very good at his craft, but he was very, very short of stature. As a result, he was very unsuccessful in the dating game and was quite lonely. Until one day a beautiful young woman appeared in his blacksmith shop with a horse who had thrown a shoe. It was love at first sight for the smithy, and he could tell the feelings were mutual. So he took all the time he could and did the finest job he had ever done on shoeing a horse. As it was drawing time for his new love to leave, he desperately wanted to kiss her and could tell she would welcome that. But there was a big problem. She was a full head taller than he.

Just as he was about to give up yet again on romance, the blacksmith had a brilliant idea. He led the young woman by the hand to the corner of his shop and jumped up on the anvil where he had just hammered her horse’s shoe into perfect shape. Standing on the anvil, he was able to look into her beautiful brown eyes and kiss her.

The two of them fell madly in love and were inseparable for weeks and then months. Everyone in the village assumed they would soon announce their engagement to be married, and the young woman was waiting expectantly for her little beau to pop the big question. Instead, without warning, he announced to her one fine spring afternoon that he was going to have to end their courtship. She was devastated and confused. She asked him why? Didn’t he love her? Was it something she had done or said, or not done or not said? To each question he just shook his head until she was begging him to explain his sudden change of heart. Finally he said, “My dear, I do love you very much, but you see, dragging that darn anvil around everywhere we go is killing me!”

Like that anvil worry, fear, guilt, anger – whatever you are full of is an unnecessary burden that no longer needs to drag you down. And we don’t have to break up with God. Just get rid of the burden. We can give those things to God. That’s the truth that sets us free to say yes to God’s mission and purpose for our lives! No matter what our excuses have been none of us are beyond God’s redeeming love. If God can forgive the enemies of his chosen people who destroyed Jerusalem and carried God’s people off into Exile, then God can certainly forgive our reluctance to share our faith with the least and lost. And your Nineveh may not be as far away as you think. The person sitting next to you may need your support. Your mission may to someone in your own family or neighborhood or it may be somewhere further away.

Be open to surprises about where God leads you to discover your mission. In 1997 Bill Gates thought he was on a mission to bring computers to people in developing countries until he visited Africa and saw firsthand the abject poverty and the ravages of malaria and tuberculosis. He realized there were far more critical needs there than internet connectivity. He found a new mission and he and his wife Melinda started their foundation which has for 17 years donated millions of dollars to build hospitals and schools for impoverished people all over the world.

When wrestling with a call to a new mission, remember that it’s natural to feel nervous and fearful whenever we try something new and different. They call it moving out of your comfort zone – because it is! Susan Jeffers has written a very helpful book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. That’s easier said than done, but very good advice. I saw some good advice on Facebook recently about working out early in the morning before your brain realizes what you’re doing. In a similar vein, I’ve also found that it helps me when tackling a new challenge to do it quickly before I have time to realize I’m afraid.

So what does Jonah do after his mission in Nineveh is over? We don’t know. At the end of the story he’s pouting, caring more about a dead gourd plant that had been shading him from the sun than 120,000 people in Nineveh. Like many Biblical stories, the ending of the story is left up to us. That’s because more important than an old fish story from long ago is your story and mine, and the next chapter of those stories is waiting to be written.

My wife and I were participants in a very intense personal growth seminar a few years ago, and something there stirred up some anger in me which I directed at one of the workshop leaders. She listened to me rant awhile, and then she said very quietly to me, “You know, Steve, you don’t have to be angry. It’s a choice.” It was one of the best Aha moments of my life – to realize for that I don’t have to be controlled by my emotions. I can choose to respond differently. Is that easy? Of course not. My wife can tell you I still have a long way to go in changing that 60 year-old habit. But old dogs can learn new tricks; it just takes us awhile. We can change and allow ourselves to be filled with grace and truth that empowers us to live the mission God has for us – whatever that is.

Let me share something that has worked for me lately. When facing a challenging situation I try to remember to pause and ask, “How would I respond to this situation if I were filled with grace and truth?” It’s a form of “faking it till you make it,” a small way of practicing a missional lifestyle; and if I keep trying, with God’s help, to live AS IF I am full of grace and truth, that lifestyle will eventually become a new habit.

What are you full of? If you don’t like the answer to that question, the good news is you don’t have to spend time in a fish’s belly to turn your life around. All you have to do is say yes every day to the one who is Grace and Truth.

[Originally preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, January 25, 2015]