Yesterday, I got to preach the hardest sermon I’ve gotten to preach (so far).
The text is Matthew 25:31-46, what is commonly called “The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats”. It’s also the one where Jesus shows up as a naked and hungry beggar and prisoner. It’s one of the most difficult, confusing, and doubt-inducing texts in the Gospels. Let me know what you think. Sermon cameos include Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, Martin Luther, and homeless Jesus. Here’s the audio:
You can also download it here, or subscribe to our podcast. If reading is more your style, here is my manuscript for your perusal. Continue reading
“I want to know if you smile when you see me happy again and if a tear runs down your face when you realize that your people are the reason I’ve never quite healed, that chemistry and not Christianity has been my cure.”
~ Lydia Childress,“They’ve Thrown Us Out of the Church Like Lepers”
That’s the opening quote of this amazing piece, “Jesus is not our Zoloft: Reflections on Mental Health and the Church”, by R.L. Stollar, and I think it captures well the heavy heart with which he writes.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about Stollar, what he does or what his experiences in this area are, but this blog post is absolutely stunning. It is a response and critique of a recent Gathering on Mental Health and the Church conference, spearheaded by Rick Warren. He sees many things that encourage him, and some others that further dismay him. And he is spot on.
He points out the ways that the Church has wrongly seen mental health issues and mistreated those with them, and he beautifully charts a way forward.
Please read this. Yes, it’s kind of longer than most blog pieces, and doesn’t lend itself to skimming. But if all church leaders and Christians read this and took it to heart, it could change and help so much. The Church needs to hear this.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been immersed in Southern Evangelicalism where a certain brand of interpreting world events looms large. I grew up in the Bible Belt, where Saddam Hussein, Desert Storm, the fall of the USSR, the growing rise of Israeli nationalism, and “slipping societal morals” were all “signs” of the “end times” or “the last days”. I sat through youth group meetings where our senior pastor would talk about how the book of Daniel had coded prophecies about nuclear weapons in space.
(Being in high school, I saw no problem with him making that argument by saying that the book’s “original language” uses the Greek word dynamos from which we get the word “dynamite”; it was only later that it clicked for me that Daniel is written in Hebrew and Aramaic, not Greek.)
Moving to the Northeast, the bastion of mainline Christianity; and attending two different seminaries from traditions very different from this prophecy-interpreting one, I was under the false impression that this whole game of interpreting current events in apocalyptic ways was rightly losing steam.
But then, this past week, the tragedy of ISIS (or the so-called “Islamic State”) beheading 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians happened. I first found out on Facebook, when I saw a procession of ancient Christian articulations of mourning filling my news feed. “Come, Lord, Jesus.” “Lord, have mercy.” “Kyrie Eleison.” I, myself speechless, decided also to lean heavily on old words from our Christian family to find comfort and express lament.
Not everyone went this way, though. After these initial responses, my Facebook and Twitter feeds began to fill with phrases and out-of-context Bible verses that I hadn’t seen in years. People were posting blog posts and verses all of which were trying to say that these deaths amounted to some unique act of “global Christian persecution” that was somehow emblematic of the world’s “last days” or “end times”.
Today I’d like to offer a seven reasons why this is wrong-headed and unhelpful:
Today is Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of the Lent season of the Christian Church Calendar. It is the time of year in which we turn up the volume on those darker whispers in our hearts to hear what they say. We turn our ears to the cries of the world bear the wounds of a weeping earth in our hearts and hands. And oh, the wounds are deep.
We come to this Lent with the weight of so much on our collective shoulders: so much brokenness, so much injustice, so much pain, heartache, death, and violence in the world. I honestly thought that 2015 would bring relief from 2014. So far, it has not.
But in the midst of the chaos that reigns both within and without, I am determined to turn my thoughts and this blog towards one area in which the Church as a whole needs to repent; an area in which I feel we can make some real progress in this day and age: Women in the Church.
I do have an on-going series on this topic that I’ve been adding to for the past couple of years, but I think it’s important and helpful to turn towards it particularly now. Lent has always had a deep connection to this topic for me.
For the Dead
Eternal Lord God, we remember before you today your faithful servants,
the 20 Libyan martyrs; we pray that, having opened to them the gates of larger life,
you will receive them more and more into your joyful service, that, with all
who have faithfully served you in the past, they may share in your eternal victory.
Almighty God, who, in joy and felicity, lives with the spirits who die in the Lord,
and with the souls of the faithful: We give you heartfelt thanks
for the good examples of your servants, who, even in the fear of their final moments
finished their course in faith, and now find rest and refreshment.
Father of all, we pray for those we love, but see no longer:
Grant them your peace; let perpetual light shine upon them;
in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work through their deaths
the good purpose of your perfect will.
Today’s “guest post” is by Sebastian Castellio, a 16th-century reformer, pastor, and theologian from France. He was good friends with John Calvin for quite some time, but if there is one big, black, dark stain on the reputation of Calvin, it is his overseeing the burning of the heretic Michael Servetus. The Reformation years were a time of great strife within Christianity and much blood was shed simply because people held different doctrinal convictions. One of the first widely respected people to vehemently fight against this was Castellio. Today, especially in light of last week’s post on denominations, I want to reproduce a small portion of a pamphlet he wrote right after hearing about Servetus’ execution. This event tore apart his and Calvin’s friendship.
Most of the Christian Church doesn’t burn or kill those other Christians with wom we disagree. But still, our modern forms of “persecution” and labeling as “heretic” remains. Blog posts, message boards, tweets, Facebook comments, and passive-aggressive interviews fill the Christian blogosphere. And yet, in a post-Christian America, I find this to be increasingly unnecessary, silly, and shameful. My favorite Castellio quote is this:
To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.
I think the same can be said about dumb comments, blog posts, and tweets that aim to take down others that are just as sincerely trying to follow God as we are. As you read this, imagine today’s forms of attack in place of the overtly violent ones mentioned by Castellio, and I think you’ll agree this is a important a read today as ever. (This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity. If you’d like to read the unedited excerpt, you can find it in this preview of Hans Hillerbrand’s The Protestant Reformation.)
“Just as the persistence of torture is unnerving, so are the costs of torture incalculable. Torture corrupts. It corrupts everything and everyone it touches. It corrupts them profoundly and often irreversibly. There is a political level to this corruption, but the category of the political is not sufficient. Likewise, there is a moral level to it, but neither does the moral suffice to capture what is at stake. At its deepest level the corruption represented by torture is spiritual.
The category of the spiritual is descriptively required because, as many have observed, torture tends toward becoming an end in itself. That is the deepest horror. As if by some invisible yet inexorable force, torture seeks and creates domination for its own sake, even as it also seeks and creates cruelty for its own sake. It seeks and creates cruel dominion and wanton cruelty toward another in disregard of the other’s inherent dignity as a human being. …
When torture is conducted as an end in itself, and has therefore become demonic—when the purpose of power is power, and the purpose of cruelty is cruelty, when torture’s purpose is tyrannical subjugation and sadistic degradation—then the divinely given meaning of life is unspeakably distorted and destroyed. The relation of the torturer to the tortured, and of the tortured to the torturer, makes a travesty of the most basic relations given by heaven to earth. In so degrading the human being and human community, torture blasphemes against God, neighbor and self.”
H/T Kait Dugan [Twitter/Facebook]
We all know there’s been a lot of things written, said, and otherwise expressed on race these past months. As I wrote last week, I’ve been frustrated with White America and their response in this. I’ve been looking for something to encourage me in this. It’s been hard to find it in our present, but I think I may have found a little light from our past.
I recently came across President Lyndon John’s 1965 Commencement Speech for Howard University, a historically black university in Washington, D.C. In it he says everything that I feel White America needs to hear. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard a President speak like this–much less a white one. He is blunt, clear, poetic, and offers a vision of hope and real progress in moving forward.
The sad part is that, yes, these words are still just as applicable today as then. The good news, though, is that we can still learn from them. And so, here is video of the speech in its entirety, followed by some of my favorite excerpts. Please listen, read, and reflect. [FULL TEXT] Continue reading
This weekend, I finally watched Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave. Yes, I’m over-dramatic as a general rule, but I can’t remember the last time I cried like that (actually, it was probably after I saw McQueen’s last movie, Shame).
The brutal reality of the film combined with the knowledge that this wasn’t hypothetical–this was real–broke me. Further, it wasn’t just real for this one man, but for our entire nation. The brokenness, evil, and callousness of it all was staggering.
And we’re still doing it today.
No, I’m not exaggerating. The effects of slavery in this country are still absolutely tangible, apparent, and real. And frankly, too many of us don’t give a damn.
There are still people alive today that knew slaves when they were younger. That’s how recent this whole thing was. And yet, we’ve done to racism what we’ve done to every other thing we should engage with meaningfully but don’t–we’ve privatized and individualized it. We’ve redefined “racism” to mean harboring active, conscious, discriminatory thoughts and feelings towards someone of another race.
U.S. foreign policy as it pertains to ISIS should reflect the reality of what ISIS is: a social movement for which the best course for absolute defeat is a “bottom-up” approach, rather than just “top-down”.
On Monday, the Supreme Court gave a shocking decision to not rule on gay marriage decisions in five states. Some could see this as a defeat for gay marriage, prolonging the costs and time it takes to move the process forward state-by-state.
On the other hand, though, most commentators and gay marriage proponents saw this as giving tacit approval to gay marriage by the Court. And in fact, this does seem to be the case. Unlike most other Supreme Court decisions, it doesn’t take a majority for the Court to agree to hear a case–it only takes four votes. This means that at least a super-majority of the justices did not feel the need to provide oversight to the decisions.
And this is important to remember. The Supreme Court is not intended to be a court in the usual sense. It is an appeals court. It oversees the federal appeals courts’ decisions and only acts when they think the appeals courts are either contradicting one another or are going in an extremely wrong direction. In other words, they are there to clarify when there’s ambiguity, not create out of thin air.
Ever since the police in Ferguson, Missouri brought out their military gear in response to peaceful protests after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, there has been a new conversation about the increasingly blurred lines between the police and the military. I have very good friends that cannot seem to understand why there needs to be any distinction. Force is force, right? Well, in my reading recently, I came across this relevant quote I thought I’d share:
The distinction made here between police and war is not simply a matter of the degree to which the appeal to force, goes, the number of persons killed or killing. It is a structural and profound difference in the sociological meaning of the appeal to force.
In the police function, the violence or threat thereof is applied only to the offending party. The use of violence by the agent of the police is subject to review by higher authorities. The police officer applies power within the limits of a state whose legislation even the criminal knows to be applicable to him. In any orderly police system there are serious safeguards to keep the violence of the police from being applied in a wholesale way against the innocent. The police power generally is great enough to overwhelm that of the individual offender so that any resistance on the offender’s part is pointless.
In all of these respects, war is structurally different. The doctrine of the “just war” is an effort to extend into the realm of war the logic of the limited violence of police authority–but not a very successful one. There is some logic to the “just war” pattern of thought but very little realism.
–John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus
In short, you shouldn’t appeal to policing tactics to justify military force, and you shouldn’t use military tactics in policing.
[photo credit: Whitney Curtis for the New York Times]
I know, I know. One of the worst types of writing there is in the world is a white person writing about their discovery that they are privileged and this is deeply engrained. I know. This post isn’t that, I promise. Just stay with me for a little bit.
Having worked in social work for a little over five years now, I’ve grown in my understanding that racism is about a whole lot more than individuals feeling an active, conscious dislike of someone just because of their race. It’s structural, cultural, political, economic, and systemic.
(Still, I’ve really missed this at times, and old habits and ways of thinking die hard. I’m really, really sorry for that.)
Recently, I had the honor to speak at one of my church’s ministries for those in homelessness. Afterward, I walked around saying hello to the almost-exclusively black crowd there. As I made eye contact with different people, I would offer a smile to them and give them as warm of a look as I could. I did really feel a genuine warmth and love for this group.
And yet, I started feeling this…thing…within me. As I gave my smiles away to the crowd, I realized that this was a problem. I was giving my smiles to them. Something in me felt as if I, as a privileged white male, was “serving” these people by “granting” or “bestowing” upon them affection. Does this make sense? Do you see the problem?
Believe it or not, I don’t really have much experience at all in preaching. Yeah, I’ve spoken and “preached” at some things, but I’ve still never offered the preached proclamation at a Sunday worship service. It’s an area I’ve wanted to grow in for a while.
To that end, I took a preaching class last semester for my seminary program. It was a powerful course that changed my whole relationship to both the Bible and the act of preaching. Each of us wrote and presented a sermon on an assigned text. The sermons were recorded, and I’m offering mine here today. It opens with some brief words on the context I had in mind when preparing this.
I hope it meets you and speaks to you, wherever you are. The video is above, the text and my manuscript are below. You can also download files for both the audio or the manuscript.
Special thanks also to an old friend, J. Chord Barnes of ASERWorks Media, for fixing some audio issues in the original recording and remastering it for me. Check him out at the link above. Continue reading