The Contrast

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Sermon on the Mount by Laura James

This morning I was reminded that throughout the stories of Jesus (the Gospels) there is a contrast between those who are well-integrated in society but are too busy and those who are excluded from society and have too much time. (Thank you Jean Vanier.)

Maybe Jesus knew that those whose lives were deeply connected to the norms of society–good jobs, well educated, a measure of influence and privilege–would be too invested in the lives they’ve already built than to consider rebuilding. No wonder he didn’t travel to cities like Tiberias, a wealthy city on the western shore of Galilee, or spend much time networking in other centers of power. Maybe Jesus knew that they were too preoccupied with the promises made by the Roman Dream.

Instead Jesus travels to the cities where the poor and marginalized are found. He spends time with those society called “sinners.” Their dreams were up for negotiation because their standing in society offered them little power and privilege to pursue them. The only government willing to let them dream again and welcome them to the center of blessing was the one Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

It makes me stop and ask, who will I become and what kind of life am I building?

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You Are Loved

As you journey into your week, don’t forget that you are loved by a triune God, an eternal community of three distinct Persons of diverse participation in faithful self-giving love and perfect unity (what a mouthful!). There are three simple implications to this beautiful truth.

You are made in the image of our triune God, so you are made for relationship. Don’t allow sin to create isolation or division in your life or in your relationship with others. Our society misguidedly prioritizes the individual over community. Don’t give into the temptation to elevate yourself to the point to isolating yourself. The triune God as eternal community and communion opens outward to invite us into his life.

As one made in the image of our triune God, you are made for self-giving participation. The Father gives himself, the Son gives himself, and the Spirit gives himself, all for our good and as a signpost to the Lordship of Jesus. As the Father gives us the Son who gives us the Spirit who gives us God’s presence, he summons us to join him in this beautiful dance of mutual submission expressed in the diverse participation of God’s story of redemption. You have a distinct place within God’s purposes and among his people. Trust in his Spirit’s leading as he bears witness to the Lordship of Christ working within you, around you, and out ahead of you in the lives of others.

As one made in the image of our triune God, you are made for love. We yearn to be known and loved as we are and to feel secure in this love, so much so that no other kind of love will satisfy us. Our God, who is eternal communion and love, knows you best and loves you most without caution or restraint. His love is anchored in the covenant he made to his people. When God makes a covenant, he keeps it. God’s faithful love can liberate you into the kind of life his Spirit longs for you to experience. Trust in God’s love and listen to the King as he whispers, “Abide in My love. Follow me.”

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This beautiful piece of art is entitled, “The Burning Bush” and is by Scott Erickson (scottericksonart.com). Scott is one of my favorite artists. I have this print and will soon hang it in my study.

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When I See Jesus in the Gospels

My perspective shifts when I look at Jesus in the Scriptures. When I turn through the pages I see the crucified, resurrected, and ascended liberating Lord and redeeming King I’ve always needed. And still do.

I see Jesus as Lord and King teaching the worshippers in synagogues, healing tormented people, and proclaiming good news in Galilean neighborhoods. I see him holding the hands of unclean lepers, showing compassion to the vulnerable, and sharing a table with people religious leaders labelled as sinners, just to prove his love.

Jesus as Lord and King welcomes a religious skeptic too fearful to be seen with him in the light of day, just to prove his love (John 3:1-21).

Jesus as Lord and King pursues a woman at the well hiding from her shame, just to prove his love (John 4:1-26).

Jesus as Lord and King refuses to let a newly married couple suffer the reputation-ending embarrassment of running out of wine at their wedding feast, just to prove his love (John 2:1-12).

Jesus as Lord and King refuses to leave a widowed mother in her grief and frightened father in his fear, just to prove his love (Luke 7:11-17; 8:40-56).

Jesus as Lord and King refuses to leave the hungry without food and thirsty without drink, just to prove his love (John 6:1-15; Mark 8:1-10).

Jesus as Lord and King honors a Roman centurion soldier, a leader in the enemy’s army, and embraces a desperate foreigner, a Gentile mother from Canaan, and even heals her child¹, just to prove his love (Luke 7:1-10, Matthew 15:21-28).

Jesus as Lord and King refuses to kill his enemies and chooses to die so they might be saved, just to prove his love (Luke 23:34; Romans 5:10).

The people religious worshippers deem irrevocably unclean and unholy he makes irrevocably clean and calls holy. The ones considered stained and profane he welcomes as sacred and honored. He gives the poor kingdoms and the guilty freedom. And he does it all just to prove his love.

What becomes clear to me when I look at Jesus in the Scriptures is a display of love that demonstrates God’s stubborn refusal to let us be held captive to the divided ways of a divided world prone to fear, exclusion, and violence. The love I see in Jesus’ teachings and actions enables me to see God’s heart-healing, mind-freeing, wholeness-making, life-giving love made available to all of us.

The good news for you and me is that his love hasn’t changed.

Christ Mural in SF

I took this picture of when visiting the chapel of St. Joseph’s Prep and Gesu School building in Philadelphia. It is called, “Christ of North Philadelphia.” You can read more about the incredible work here.


¹  Matthew’s use of the old term “Canaanite,” is different from Mark’s description of the woman as “a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia” (Mark 7:26). Writing to a Jewish audience, Matthew recalls historical animosities to remind the reader that significant social barriers existed between Jews and non-Jews, a.k.a. foreigners.
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Praying & Delaying

“I was hungry
and you formed a humanities club
and discussed my hunger. Thank you.
I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly
to your chapel in the cellar
and prayed for my release.
I was naked
and in your mind
you debated the morality of my appearance.
I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health.
I was homeless and you preached to me
of the spiritual shelter of the love of God.
I was lonely
and you left me alone
to pray for me.
You seem holy;
so close to God.
But I’m still very hungry
and lonely
and cold.

So where have your prayers gone?
What have they done?
What does it profit a man
to page through his book of prayers
when the rest of the world
is crying for his?”

~ James Cone, Speaking the Truth, 113.

The Church must awaken to the possibility that as the Spirit-filled royal priesthood of God we will often be his answer to the prayers of others.

It is not about activism. It is not about party-politics. It is not even about justice. It is about faithfulness, both to King Jesus and the integrity of our confession. We are co-laborers with God and prophetic witnesses of his kingdom.

Anything less is a parody of Christianity.

And it begins with you and me.

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God is with Us

“And they will call him Immanuel, which means God with Us.”

In loneliness, there is hope because He is Immanuel.

In confusion, there can be peace because He is Immanuel.

In sorrow, there can be joy because He is Immanuel.

In darkness, there can be light because He is Immanuel.

Compassion can overcome condemnation, significance can replace shame, hospitality can heal hurts, and love can conquer loneliness.

Immanuel is our way, He is our light.

Immanuel is always true, He is our life.

Immanuel never leaves, He is our peace.

Immanuel is our help and comfort in grief.

Immanuel is our strength and His love is sure.

Immanuel is King Jesus and Redeeming Lord.

Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas. God is with Us.

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Bonhoeffer, Closed Minds, and Blinded Eyes

Blessed Advent Wednesday to you all.

I wanted to share a couple of quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One is an excerpt from his sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9, the other from a letter he wrote to his grandmother (hat tip to David Fitch for posting these on Facebook).
“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.”
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from his sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9
He later wrote this note to his grandmother in August of 1933:
“It is becoming increasingly clear …that what we are going to get for “church” is a volkisch nationalistic church that in its essence can no longer be reconciled with Christianity … we must make up our minds to take entirely new paths and follow where they lead. The issue is really Germanism or Christianity, and the sooner the conflict comes out in the open, the better. The greatest danger of all would be in trying to conceal this.”
 – Bonhoeffer (vol 12 Bonhoeffer Works).
Looking back into the pages of history and the uprising of Nazi Germany we see that Bonhoeffer’s words should have provoked Christ-followers to think critically about what was taking place. Yet, they were ignored by over 10,000 German Lutheran pastors who remained supporters of the nationalistic christianity promoted by the Nazi regime.
Bonhoeffer was not the first to speak prophetically during troublesome times. Over the course of history God has raised up prophets to speak to His people to draw them away from the ideologies that promoted exploitive or death-dealing movements. In the U.S.A. prophets have tried to awaken us to movements like the Trail of Tears, to the mistreatment and denial of full equality for women and people of color.
Stop and think.
As native peoples were being marched to a slow death, christians gathered in church buildings to sing Amazing Grace while never thinking critically about what was taking place. As women were given limited opportunity for real independence in American society, from education to vocation, many christian men sitting next to them in worship services listened to stories about how Jesus treated women while never thinking critically about what was taking place. As people of color were forced to social separation from the majority of American society, and as they were limited to the attics and basements of a white congregation’s church buildings, if allowed in at all, white people gathered in church buildings to come to the Lord’s Table while never thinking critically about what was taking place.
Closed minds and blinded eyes lead to unliberated lives.
May the Spirit of the Lord open the eyes of many blinded by the god of this age so that willful blindness and denial be present among His Church no more.
“But if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case, the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we are not proclaiming ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’s sake.”
~ Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:3-5
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Tell the Truth

“Before I was a civil rights leader, I answered a call, and when God speaks, who can but prophesy? I answered a call which left the Spirit of the Lord upon me and anointed me to preach the gospel. . . . I decided then I was going to tell the truth as God revealed it to me. No matter how many people disagreed with me, I decided that I was going to tell the truth.”¹

These words have been bouncing around in my mind while I’ve been sick in bed all week.

I’ve been thinking about how the notion of truth is sometimes pulled apart in philosophical and theological attempts to offer a precise definition. For centuries philosophers and theologians have believed that truth must be more than a replication of facts. There must be a larger context. For followers of Jesus, I think truth can be described as claims on reality that are consistent with the compassionate purposes of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. But before truth is ever a proposition, it is first and foremost a Person. Jesus said, “I am the Truth.” So it’s from there followers of Jesus have to understand what is true.

The thing about truth is that it creates movements, life-giving or death-dealing. Society’s understanding of truth helps it determine how the world works and what kind of life can live up to it. Truth matters. We see it in history. We see it now.

What happens when society gets truth wrong? What happens when people in power or people with influence offer society an understanding of truth that is nothing more than a lie? Truth that isn’t true creates narratives that run contrary to the narrative we find in the gospel of Jesus. The script it hands society to study and work from inevitably concludes with a death-dealing ending. False truth cannot produce life. It’s a lie. And those who spread it, especially in the name of Jesus, are to be seen for what they are–untrustworthy. It’s why the apostle Peter said with boldness:

“But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, and will bring swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their unrestrained ways, and the way of truth will be blasphemed because of them. They will exploit you in their greed with deceptive words. Their condemnation, pronounced long ago, is not idle, and their destruction does not sleep.” (2 Peter 2:1-3)

How can we know the difference between truth-tellers and false truth-tellers? It’s actually not complicated. We only need to pay close attention. Jesus said we can know the difference by the fruit they bear–their actions. False truth-tellers are “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who, in the end, cannot fully embody the love for God, neighbor, and enemy Jesus taught because they do not tell the truth. Like Peter said,

By obedience to the truth, having purified yourselves for sincere love of the brothers, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again—not of perishable seed but of imperishable—through the living and enduring word of God. (1 Peter 1:21-23)

Truth is the soil upon which love flourishes. One necessitates the other. Truth is life-giving and love is what truth looks like embodied. It’s what we see in Jesus.

In these polarized times, I believe one of the reasons followers of Jesus are struggling to love each other in the way Jesus taught is because we’ve allowed our understanding of truth to be co-opted by a commitment to nation over neighbor. This is where I find the apostle Paul’s words helpful. It’s out of his commitment to truth and love for the Church that he issued this summons to his young disciple Timothy:

“I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom: Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching. For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new. They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths. But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

As a pastor, along with all who have been called to the task, I have a responsibility to tell the truth, even if some in the Church disagree. Truth-telling plays a significant role in:

“training the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head—Christ. From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.

Paul goes on:

Therefore, I say this and testify in the Lord: You should no longer walk as the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their thoughts. They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. They became callous and gave themselves over to promiscuity for the practice of every kind of impurity with a desire for more and more.

But that is not how you learned about the Messiah, assuming you heard about Him and were taught by Him, because the truth is in Jesus.” (Ephesians 4:11-21)

Truth telling, even to people who follow the One who said, “I am the Truth,” is a costly and unwelcome business in an age of nationalism. Idols are subtle and tricky things.

But truth can reveal idols.

Tell the truth. Do so with love and boldness. Trust God with the consequences. Lives are at stake. Fulfill your ministry.

 


¹ Dr. Martin Luther King in an address given April 30, 1967, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

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