November 29, 2016

Hey Liberal, Progressive, Conservative, Traditional Christians: It Starts with You.

It is tempting during a time of divisiveness to blame others for the problems we face. It is even more tempting with the rise of a demagogic president who has played on the fears and darker desires of the people to blame others for what is going wrong. I admit it. I have spent a lot of time and energy thinking: What is wrong with those people? And I have been more than willing to provide my own answers.

But then during the Advent season, which has perhaps never been better timed for the cultural and political moment, at least not in my lifetime, we hear about John the Baptist. I admit right up front, John is one of my biblical fascinations. He is a wild man archetype. He is a mentor to Jesus. He is a much-needed ice pick of a voice breaking through the frozen souls of the liberals and the conservatives of his day. John is introduced in Matthew like this:

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
     ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
      make his paths straight.’ ”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:1 – 6)

He is rough and uninhibited. He is attractive and fearsome in the way a lion is, untamed and roaring in beauty. He speaks to the heart because he goes straight to it without playing around with social, religious, or political conventions. He calls people to a new life, a life of getting ready for God’s new and wonderful thing, a life that begins only through the portal of repentance.

But you could be tempted to think, when you hear John’s wilderness scowl, he is speaking to someone else. Probably the people you disagree with. Or perhaps people you agree with but who are just not quite getting with the program. So listen to John speak to the very folks who think that way:

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 3:7 – 10)

The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the liberal and conservative parties of their day, at least within Jewish life. They disagreed with each other. They blamed each other for whatever was going wrong. They argued over whose side God was on. They probably came out to see the fascinating John assuming that the other ones were going to repent, be baptized, change their ways, and become like them. They wanted to see that and feel a little better about themselves.

And John says to the whole sorry mess: You all need to repent! You all need to look at how you are part of the problem! None of you escapes this hard path because you’re part of the “right” party or group or ideology, or because you voted one way or another! It’s you! It starts with you!

And then people humbled themselves, opened up about their own failings more than their opponents', went down deep into the water, and came out with a new start. They were ready to embrace the new, open reality of God’s kingdom breaking in because they had given up on the old, closed reality of their own small minds and self-righteousness.

One of the great gifts of the church is the ritual and discipline of confession of sins, repentance, pronouncement of forgiveness, and the chance to walk the path of life anew. It is a source of great hope that there are communities of faith willing to confess their own errors more than they accuse others of theirs. It might be the only thing that makes it possible for God to work newness among us and in the world.

What to do now as the church responds to a difficult time with the potential for a rise in hatred, racism, nationalism, fear, and blaming others? Let the wildness and cry of John reach us. Confess. Repent. Trust forgiveness. Walk anew the path of love in a time of hate.

Prepare the way. It starts with you, with us, here and now beloved, or it might not start anywhere with anyone.

November 28, 2016

Keep Alert! Stay Awake! There Is No New Normal

In the weeks following the presidential election of 2016, the election of Donald Trump to the most powerful office in the world, something odd and unsettling started to happen. After eighteen months of a campaign that stoked fears of Muslims, Mexicans, and Syrian refugees; after insults and intimations of sexual abuse hurled at women; after demeaning comments made about prisoners of war, soldiers killed in battle and their grieving families; and following a reaction to all of this by the press and the public of protest, outrage, anger, and fear… unbelievably, it all started to be forgotten or ignored. The most petulant and demagogic presidential candidate in modern American politics won, and so people began to accept it all as some new normal for American life.

This is a frightful loss of a moral conscience in our society. It would be one thing to overlook the immature, hateful, and jingoistic statements of a television celebrity who magnified his ego and popularity via a reality television show. He could carry on publicly damaged, perhaps as some diminished, B-list celebrity showing up on Dancing with the Stars, or as a Comedy Central roast insult comic. We could live with it. We could live with it because we could ignore it with little consequence. But this is the president-elect of the United States of America, the man about to assume an office with great power, influence, and import. To let go of all the words, threats, insults, and frightening policy promises all in the name of acceptance of an election, all because he won, is to lose all claim to being a society of any kind of goodness or righteousness.

In the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we hear what is often called a “little apocalypse.” It’s a stirring text calling the readers of Mark to faithfulness in a time of fear, in the face of a powerful empire attempting to shape the narrative of their lives. Of course, the narrative they were struggling to live was the story of Jesus, the one sent to bring about God’s kingdom of righteousness and justice through humility, powerlessness, and exposure of the empire for all its folly and evil. The power of the Roman empire was great and awful. It was the power to overwhelm one’s faith, hope, and memory with a grand, frightful, and strangely alluring hegemony.

I imagine that in the time of Mark’s Gospel being written, around 70 AD and the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, Jews and Christians were faced with a great temptation: accept this awful reality as the new normal. Give in to the amoral shift happening because it is inevitable and unchangeable. Forget all the great hopes and dreams you had about God shaping a world of love, justice, and mercy. Political, religious, and military power has rendered all that impotent. Take some pills and just let it be.

In that kind of setting, Jesus says in Mark’s Gospel:

But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. (Mark 13:32 – 37)

In the face of great and dreadful power, Jesus-followers were called to persistence and resistance. They were called to beware, keep alert, stay awake. Those warnings and encouragements are all about not remaking what was happening into a new normal, not accepting what was happening but working against it and working for something far better. And perhaps most important, not letting the ugliness of the empire crush the faith and hope of the people who claim Jesus and his love, his way, his death and resurrection, as the only power and empire that matters.

Nothing could be more relevant in this moment. Beware! Keep alert! Stay awake! Beware – the forces of hate that have been stirred up are dangerous and cannot be met with silence. Keep alert – the rhetoric of fear mongering is dangerous and must still be resisted. Stay awake – it is all too easy to fall asleep now and hope this is all a bad dream. It isn’t. It is real. Faith matters now more than ever.

There is no new normal of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that can be accepted or acquiesced to simply because we have grown tired of resisting it, and the one who spouted it all is now about to become president. There is no new normal just because television news and written journalism have stopped pushing back as hard. There is no new normal for those who live by faith, who are wary, alert, and awake to what is going on. For those who put their faith in God and the kingdom coming through Christ Jesus, there is not a new normal, but a new wonderful. And it is not so far from us, and may be arriving through our witness and our actions of love, justice, and mercy.

Keep alert. Stay awake. Now more than ever.

November 27, 2016

A People Living by Hope: One Candle Will Have to Be Enough

It is tempting to live by despair. The political shifts toward anger, racism, xenophobia, and nationalism have created a mood of anguish for many. Just at the moment when winter is approaching and the days are getting longer and darker, it feels like our society is growing darker, too. People who live by faith in the coming kingdom of God inaugurated in Jesus, people who seek a world of justice, reconciliation, unity in diversity, can feel at times as if we have taken several giant leaps backwards. It is tempting to live by despair.

The season of Advent, which just began, is a time to turn our attention away from despair and toward hopefulness. It calls to mind the coming of Christ in the past, an event of great expectation, to shape how we see and trust the coming of Christ in the future, and even the coming of Christ into every now. It is always an arrival of grace, an incarnation of love, a reign of mercy, and a kingdom of justice. Advent says: We are a people who live by hope, even when we don’t.

In Scripture we hear the prophet Isaiah speak of a time to come. We can surmise that he was speaking to a people living in despair. War, economic injustice, fear, and doubt were all too familiar to them. And into that moment and those lives, Isaiah speaks of a day to come when God will be the one who arbitrates disputes between nations and between peoples. Because God is just and righteous, arguments will be settled fairly. Therefore, there will be no need for war or instruments of war. They will be pointless and a waste of metal and wood. They will be repurposed into farming implements to feed people and give life. Of this time to come, Isaiah says:

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
     and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
     and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
     and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
     neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:3b – 4)

by Jeni Andersen
We are living in a time of great arguments about the way we should go. The disputatious political parties seem unable to judge between their differences themselves. Common citizens struggle to articulate and discuss the deep longing and sadness they feel at the state of the world, and quickly devolve into argument, name calling, and divisiveness. If ever there was a time we needed an arbitrator, and a holy and divine one at that, it is now. Our weapons are still sharp and deemed useful. Weapons of words, political power, hatred, segregation into like-mindedness, and nationalism.

On the first Sunday of Advent, many churches and individuals perform a ritual. On a wreath that includes four candles, only one candle is lit. It sits there, giving some light, but next to three unlit candles. It’s a ritual that is visual and demonstrative of this hard truth: That day we dream of, that kingdom we long for, that world of peace and justice is not here yet. It is a promised day, but one we still only hold a promissory note for, a rain check. On this day, as far as we can tell, we must live by hope, hope rooted in a deep trust in God’s promises, hope that must learn the painful discipline of patience in the face of struggle.

The patience and hope of people of faith is not a passive and do-nothing thing. Our faith dares us to believe that we are part of God’s movement in the world, a cell in the body of Christ straining and lurching towards that great day we await, at times by inches, and at times by miles. But today, during real trials and suffering and antagonism towards God’s reign of peace, one candle is all we get.

In the great Gospel song by AndraĆ© Crouch, Soon and Very Soon, we sing of the day when we are going to see the king, the one who settles our disputes both national and personal so our weapons can be repurposed to grow food and give life. It is by great, audacious faith that we sing of that day coming soon, and very soon, and even sing Hallelujah! We know it may be far off, but it is at least one day closer and sooner. We live by a great, hopeful faith that nothing, not even the dark days, can crush. 

We live now with just one candle lit, and three reminding us of the darkness. But one candle will have to be enough.

November 21, 2016

#NotMyPresident? #NotMyKing!: Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Sermon for Christ the King Sunday
November 20, 2016
Michael Coffey

Here’s tough and tricky question for you:
            Who is your president?
            Emotions are running strong in this post-election moment.
            Many are tempted to speak and tweet #notmypresident.
It happened with Obama, it’s happening now with Trump.
The problem is, in a democratic system
            we agree that whoever wins the election
            is president for all of us,
not just those who voted for him or her.
And when we say they are our president
            we say we have the right to hold them accountable
            and to make sure they are being president for everyone.

It’s a bit different in the Bible, though.
We hear Jeremiah speaking about the king of Judah,
            who was a puppet king put in place by Nebuchadnezzar
            after Judah conquered and many deported to Babylon.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord,
when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
and he shall reign as king and deal wisely,
and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.
And this is the name by which he will be called:
“The Lord is our righteousness.”

There’s a subtle trick going on in the text,
which is only seen in the Hebrew.
The puppet king put in place by Nebuchadnezzar
            at the time Jeremiah was writing
            was named Zedekiah, which means
The Lord is righteousness.
But in Jeremiah’s prophetic speech,
            he says God will put in place our true king
            and his name will be Zedakanu: The Lord is our righteousness.
Jeremiah says the king will not be Zedekiah, Zedekiah is #NotMyKing,
but Zedakenu,
a verbal jab at Nebuchadnezzar’s terrible rule over Judah.

Christianity has always been a political faith.
Not in the sense of putting our ultimate trust in one party,
or leader, or philosophy of government,
or economic system.
Christianity has always been political
because we make a confession
of who our true Lord, King, ruler, authority, governor, president is:
Jesus is Lord!
This is what always what got early Christians into trouble.
They confessed it loudly and boldly in public:
Jesus is Caesar! Jesus is emperor!
Jesus is president! and no one else.
Any other authority is secondary at best, 
           is #NotMyKing,
and does not ever override the authority
of God’s reign in our lives through Christ Jesus.

The key thing to understand in this radical Christian claim is
what kind of ruler, king, president is Jesus?
It might surprising that our Gospel text for Christ the King Sunday
is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke,
            but Luke says something incredibly important here.
Everyone is shouting to Jesus: Save yourself!
Everyone wants Jesus to use his power to save himself,
either to prove who he is,
or so they could get something out of it along with Jesus.

And what becomes clear by the end of the story is
Jesus refuses to save himself.
Jesus refuses to save himself
because that is the problem with this whole human mess,
people constantly trying to save themselves,
to use what they have to protect only themselves,
to make life work out for a small vision about us only
and nothing larger like the vision of God’s kingdom.

Here’s what is so powerful about this text:
Jesus saves us by not saving himself,
by reigning in the world through powerlessness,
by confronting human institutional power
with the power of God’s love which always looks foolish
in the capitals of power,
but always reveals divine love
for those open to seeing it.

All of God’s reign is revealed in the cross of Christ,
not when we look up,
like we do at tall capitols and skyscrapers
and football stadiums, and cathedrals
but when we look down,
not when we pursue power, but when we serve,
not when we try to fix everything to go our way,
but when we show compassion
for those whom the world does not go their way,
not when we win,
but when we gather with all the losers
who know God is their hope.
One of the ways we show this in the church
is in the ritual of bowing at the cross.
We bow at the cross when it processes by
or when we enter the sacred worship space,
because we honor him who reigns from down low,
not from on high.
We lift him up visually and prominently among us
so that his lowliness can be fully seen,
not so he can rule over others like a despot,
            but so his reign of compassion can be proclaimed.
We lift him up,
not because he reigns from on high,
but because he reigns from down low,
where the poor and suffering are,
where we are when we give up lifting up ourselves.

The questions and struggles for the church are always:
            Does it matter if we believe this and live it out?
            How do we live it out in our world
            that worships human power and domination?
It is a struggle the church has not always been faithful to.
            History is filled with the church’s failure
to praise Jesus as Lord and king.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the well-known Lutheran pastor
who lived in Germany
during the rise of Hitler and National Socialism.
He spoke against the church of his time,
            the church we would call the Lutheran Church,
            which they call the Evangelical Church,
                        but started to call the German Church,
                        a church of nationalism for Germans only.

Christianity stands or falls
with its revolutionary protest against violence,
arbitrariness, and pride of power,
and with its plea for the weak.
Christians are doing too little to make these points clear
rather than too much.
Christendom adjusts itself far too easily
to the worship of power.
Christians should give more offense,
shock the world far more,
than they are doing now.
Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak,
rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.

The movie 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson
breaking the color barrier in major league baseball.
There’s a scene in the movie when the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers
            is interviewing Robinson to decide if he wants to sign him.
At one point in the interview, Jackie asks the owner,
“You want a player who doesn’t have the guts to fight back?”
“No, I want a player with the guts not to fight back.”

The church living in times of injustice and empires
that work against the kingdom of God,
still follows the way of Jesus,
We don’t fight back, we love back,
even when that love looks like a fight for justice.

In 2004 Victor Yushchenko ran for the presidency of the Ukraine.
He was opposed by the ruling party.
They poisoned him and nearly killed him.
But he still ran for president.

On the day of the election Yushchenko was in the lead.
But the ruling party tampered with the results.
The state-run television station reported:
“ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger
Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”

In the lower right-hand corner of the screen
a woman by the name of Natalia Dmitruk
was providing a translation service for the deaf community.
As the news presenter repeated the lies of the regime,
Natalia Dmitruk refused to translate them.
Instead, she signed:
“I’m addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine.
They are lying and I’m ashamed to translate those lies.
Yushchenko is our president.”

The deaf community moved into action.
They texted their friends about the fraudulent result.
A movement spread.
Within weeks, the Orange Revolution was underway,
            and by the end of it, Yushchenko was president.

The cross is our sign language.
            At times only we can understand it.
Jesus is Lord. Jesus is king. Jesus is president.
The church speaks and acts in ways that make his gentle rule
            all the more visible in the world today.

How will we follow him today?
How will his reign override all the other powers for us?
We have to figure that out today in new ways.
But it will surely look like Jesus on the cross,
the one we lift up,
because he reigns from down low,
with mercy, where the poor and suffering are,
and where we are when we give up trying to save ourselves.