Overwhelming, Matthew 17:1-9

overwhelming-promo-picture

It’s sometimes hard to describe something that is overwhelming, powerful, and glorious. Sometimes, it’s so hard that people won’t ever believe you until they experience it themselves.

One of my favorite science fiction movies is the movie “Contact.” Based on the book by Carl Sagan, it’s about the life of astronomer Ellie Arroway, and her search for intelligent life in the universe. Her justification for this is an often repeated phrase in the movie, “If we’re the only life in the universe, well, that’s an awful waste of space.” Thought crazy by most of the scientific community, she waits patiently, listening to the stars, searching for signals from extraterrestrial beings.

contact-machineOne day, she gets her wish. A signal arrives. It’s unlike anything ever recorded in human history. A series of sound waves and frequencies, hidden in this anomalous sound are plans, blueprints, for a large machine of some kind. What the machine does? Nobody knows. But she’s bound and determined to be the first person to use it.

So she applies to be the person to use the machine, which requires a person to be in a pod and dropped through the middle of this spinning, mysterious machine. She’s almost all but perfect for the job…save for the fact that she doesn’t believe in God. The council that came together to determine who would use it decided against her because, if the machine is some kind of transport, and the person who uses it is the first to contact alien life, they should believe in some deity, because most of the human population does and they want someone to represent.

Thus is the central conundrum of the film. There is irony here: she doesn’t believe in God. Most of humanity does. But she also believes in alien life, which most people think is absurd. What do you do when you believe in something few people do? And when does your belief run into everyone else’s? What happens when your beliefs are not deemed worthy?

contact-landscapeBy the end of the film, the tables have turned. Ellie got the chance to use the machine. She is then transported somehow to a distant place, beautiful and beyond explanation or description, and is contacted by alien life. To her this journey takes 18 hours. To the rest of humanity, it appears as if nothing happens. She is then brought before an investigative committee, who disbelieves that she had this experience at all, but she is convicted, resolute: she saw something that opened her mind, and changed her point of view. She saw something amazing, and it transformed her just by witnessing it. And she doesn’t care if nobody believes her. She knows what she saw. And she begins to understand what it is for the rest of humanity to believe in something without a shred of proof. She begins to understand why they didn’t choose her to begin with. And so she goes on, continuing to live based on an overwhelming belief nobody else can understand, and transforms people around her by living out her beliefs.

This movie is, for all intents and purposes, and extended parable on faith. Whether Carl Sagan intended this to be the case is irrelevant, because the film itself stands firmly on its philosophy: Belief and faith matters, even if nobody else can experience what you experienced. Beliefs can transform you, and that transformation should change how you live. That’s the message that I hear, and that’s the message that I am reminded of today.

transfiguration-headerTransfiguration of the Heart

Today is the last Sunday before Lent, and that means in the Liturgical Calendar that today is Transfiguration Sunday.

Transfiguration Sunday is when we recognize and celebrate the moment when Jesus revealed his true and full glory to three of his disciples upon the mountaintop, shining brightly with a dazzling gleam, and communing with prophets of old. It memorializes when God the Father spoke and told the disciples that this Jesus who you are witnessing is in fact his son, that he loves him, and that he is to be listened to.

It’s a beautiful moment in the Gospel, and a turning point as well, as it marks the transition from Jesus preaching and teaching to Jesus preparing for his ultimate crucifixion. It’s placed right before Lent for that reason as well: it’s the high point of Jesus’s life on earth. There will be nothing to top the moment when his full glory is revealed to his friends. There is nothing that can surpass this moment of transcendent, overwhelming beauty.

mountain-topIn my time as a Christian, I’ve come to call this moments of being overwhelmed by the glory of God “Mountaintop Moments.” They give you a spiritual high, in a way. They reflect the dramatic emotional transformation found in this very real transformation of Jesus Christ, and in his disciples.

One can’t forget how the disciples were transformed by this event–Peter especially. Peter, Jesus’s faithful friend, ever the hard-headed zealot, responds to this transformation by wanting to manifest his inward transformation by building temples or shrines where he was–on the mountain top. He wanted to stay there on the mountaintop forever.

That’s a tempting prospect for many. Going back to the movie Contact, Ellie wants to stay transported to this alien place far longer than she was allowed to do. She wanted to explore, to learn, to experience this new overwhelming reality even more than she was already doing. Ultimately, she was denied, and sent back. Back to a world that wouldn’t understand her. To a world that couldn’t understand her. She was sent back a resident alien, a stranger in her own homeland, for having this transcendent, transformational experience.

Peter, James and John, in our Gospel story, play a similar role to Ellie. They experienced something amazing. They wanted to stay. But they were bound to go back to where they were from, and though sworn to secrecy, they eventually attempted to relay the experience in the Gospels. And I have no doubts that what we have only scratches the surface of this transfiguration. There are no words that can adequately describe God’s fullness. These meagre ones are all we have.

It’s important that they had this transformation though, because for anything to change, one’s heart must change first.

Ellie had a change of heart through her experience with new life. Peter, James and John had a change of heart when they saw Jesus in his glory. They were transformed inwardly, in a way that is impossible to explain. And God will do that. I’ve had experiences like that myself. Experiences so indescribable, they seem almost silly in hindsight. And yet they changed my heart.

You can have these transformational experiences too. I had mine on a UM Army trip. Others have had them on Walk to Emmaus retreats. Others still have had them in other ways, other places, be they with many people, or all on their own. Transfiguration happens in its own way, on its own timeline, and respects nobody’s schedule. But they all transform the heart.

Transfiguration of Life

It’s a remarkable thing when someone’s heart transforms, because it often transforms their life as well.

Ellie in Contact goes on to become a teacher, and not just a researcher. Her search moves from self-fulfillment to enrichment of others’ lives. Peter, James and John, often preoccupied with determining who is the greatest amongst themselves, become the pillars of the early church. Peter became the first Pope, despite his own shortcomings and over-eagerness. They’re lives were changed from looking inward to looking outwards.

When we are overwhelmed by the presence of God in a real and deep way, our lives can’t help but change. We can have emotional highs in our spiritual life. It’s easy to get caught up in a stirring praise and worship song. It’s easy to find that mountaintop and just stay there, never changing, never growing, never moving on. When we experience God’s grace and splendor, we can’t help then to move that focus outward.

We can be a part of the transformation of others, and enable them to come to that moment of overwhelming, transcendent glory.

If you’ve never been to the mountaintop, don’t worry–your mountain exists, you just haven’t climbed it yet. There’s no shame in not finding it yet. God has made your path especially for you, and it’s only in hindsight do you truly appreciate how far you’ve come. I hope that you do find that mountaintop, and become transformed inwardly in an indescribable fashion. I want that for all of you, because nothing compares.

boys-on-mountain-topIf you have been to the mountaintop, then I cannot be happier. But I want to remind you to not stay on the mountaintop. It’s on you now to descend that mountain, and share the good news. You may be disbelieved. You maybe thought of as crazy. It may be impossible to adequately describe what you experienced when you found God’s glory. That’s ok. It’s okay because it’s in sharing your story, you help someone else in their own path to finding their mountain. You become a co-wanderer on their journey. And one day, God will find them, and they will remember you.

Inward transformation leads to transformation of life. And my prayer for you is that all of you are transformed by the overwhelming glory of God. Amen.

 

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Once more, Unto the Breach: Thoughts on the Old Year, and into the New Year

Life has a way of taking your attention away from the things that you always mean to do, but never seem to find the time to do. I started this blog ages ago with one purpose, and now I hardly ever update it. Partly because I’m older now, and work does take up my time. This blog is a great sermon dump!

However, I am noticing habits that come back. Every year around this time, I tell myself I’m going to turn things around. I’m going to write for myself. I’m going to eat healthier I’m going to get fitter (as fit as a fat man can be!) And for the most part, I do my best to aspire to those goals. Sometimes, I have things that help me along. Sometimes, I fall back on these promises I make to myself. All in all, I have to remind myself to keep moving forward. Years are arbitrary measures of time, but sometimes measures can help us keep track of ourselves, our personal progress and our lives. So here’s to 2017,  the 2,017 arbitrary measure of the common era. Let’s do some cobweb dusting in the old brain.

Mountains behind me

There is a lot to be said for this year in terms of good things. For one, I got my career back on track in a good way. Things were very sketchy at the beginning, and it was looking like I might be in for a major life change. However, thanks to the help from a lot of people, not the least of which is DeSay, my wife, I’m back on track. I’ve been given a second chance, one that isn’t often given. I have great mentors in my life. I have a vision of what things might look like in my future, and that’s a great thing. I started out the year in a dark valley, and now I’m climbing my way out, and I could not be more grateful.

I’ve become a better pastor. I feel confident in being able to say that, and that is a huge deal. My wife has helped me gain the confidence I’ve needed to become that better pastor. My churches have been willing to help me along in ways that I never dreamed. I’m far from perfect, but I’m on the way there, to crib a note from Wesley’s writings.

My writing has changed a bit. I want to say that it’s simpler, in a way, but that’s probably because I’ve come out of the academy for a little bit. I’ve had more conversations with people. I’ve met people I would never have otherwise if I wasn’t a pastor in the rural church. People will change the way you write, for better or for worse. I feel that sometimes simplicity can mean a lot more than fancily constructed sentences with 5-dollar SAT words. Shut up, younger me, you can write well without showing off.

Other good things? The podcast, Silly Robots, is still going strong, even though since I live out here I often miss out on major pop culture landmarks than I would like. (I live an hour from the nearest movie theater, so sue me.) However, our podcast is fun, so give us a listen on iTunes and Google, and if your feeling generous, check us out on Patreon.

Mountains before me

So, here’s the dreaming part. These are the things I’d like to do in the next year.

  • As ever, I want to make writing for myself a bigger part of my life. I love writing, and I always feel better when I do write. It does give me anxiety though–what if I’m unoriginal? What if what I write is bad? I’m getting to the point where I’m beginning to not care as much about these things. I’m turning 30 this year. My novel won’t write itself–if that is indeed what I write.
  • Joining the gym and getting a bit more fit. Eating better. Treating my body better, in general. I feel better when I exercise, so I just need to get up the determination to do it.
  • Listen to more good music. The last album I really listened to well was David Bowie’s Blackstar and there was so much more to this past year I missed out on.
  • Read more. Not just fiction either. As much as I ragged on my old writing style, I do want to get back into academia and read some more mentally stimulating non-fiction. If anyone has any recommendations, leave them in the comments below!

Well, that seems like a good list. Lot’s to chew on and pray on. If I don’t accomplish it? No sweat. But these are my goals for the year. So as we sit on the edge of that great cliff that is the new year, let’s plunge together and try to make this year better than last year.

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Hard Times Ahead, Luke 21:5-19

Luke 21:5-19

Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”

Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”

10 Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. 11 There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 12 But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. 14 Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. 15 I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. 17 Everyone will hate you because of my name. 18 Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. 19 By holding fast, you will gain your lives.

miroslav-petraskos-church

Image by Miroslav Petrasko.

When you step inside a beautiful church, what is it your eyes first see?

Is it the altar, and the arrangements around it? Is it the windows, stained glass or decorated? Is it the pews? The wall hangings? The organ? The architectural style? The columns, or lack there of? The stones in the walls?

I’ve been to some beautiful churches in my life, and I look forward to seeing even more. A well-built church is a thing of beauty, elegant in either its extravagance, or its humility. A beautiful church can be small, plain and intimate. It can be large and gothic, ornate and baroque, or mosaic and ancient. Whatever shape, size, or style, there is nothing quite like a beautiful church.

So if tomorrow I were to rent a wrecking ball and started dismantling this church brick by brick, what would you do? What would you feel? Would you be angry? Grieved? Surprised? Saddened? Would you try to stop me?

Most, if not all, of you would. There would be no reason for me to tear down the church, right? It wouldn’t make sense, especially with as much history and love that this church has to offer the world. This church means something to this community, or at least that’s what I believe. A while ago, a bishop asked us, if our church were to cease to exist, would the community miss it? I think they would.

So think on that. Think about where we are, and what this building means. And think about what it would mean for it to not exist. Now, multiply that feeling by a hundred, and we’d approach the emotion that this passage is meant to evoke.

We as a church, as a community, as a nation, stand at a crossroads. And I have news for you, news from 2000 years ago: we have hard times ahead of us.

Yes, hard times. I’ll talk about how in a second, but suffice it to say, we are going to face hard times. And in doing so, we must ask ourselves, what do we have our eyes on in these hard times? Do we keep our eyes on our temples, or do we have our eyes on each other. Jesus confronts us with this dilemma today.

The Temple Already Fell

premillennialism-destruction-jerusalem-70ad-titus-archLuke wrote his gospel around 85AD. In 70 AD something happened that Jesus predicted. In 70 AD, the city of Jerusalem was sieged by the Roman army, and temple of Jerusalem was destroyed.

So when Luke retells this prophecy of Jesus, he does it with eyes that already saw the devastation of this beautiful, historic temple. He already saw the bricks fall with the rage of the Roman sword. He already saw the men, women, and children slaughtered by a force that saw themselves as righteous peace bringers against foreign subhuman hordes who dared stand up against their imperial might. These people with their strange god and their heathen temple do not deserved the right to assemble and worship as they saw fit, thought the Romans. And so they destroyed Jerusalem, and razed the temple to the ground. And Luke saw it all.

So in reading this, we see that Jesus, in equal measure with the Father and the Holy Spirit, could also see the temple being destroyed. He knew it would happen. And so he said that it would be destroyed, as these people gathered around in awe of its beauty. All of these beautiful things would be demolished, and that would only be the beginning.

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Jesus foretells of a time of persecution. A time when there would come someone clothed in the trappings of success and righteousness who would pretend to be God. There would be people who claimed the name of savior for themselves, that only they could stand between you and destruction, and that is when the hard times would begin.

Jesus tells us that there will be bloodshed, and nations coming against each other. Natural disasters would abound. But even before that, the people would suffer.

They would be abused. They would be imprisoned. They would be humiliated, subjected to all kinds of horrific violence. False churches would stand with the imperial powers and claim these horrors to be in the name of righteousness. People would be disowned by their families, rejected by people who once called them friends and neighbors.

The biggest twist of all this as compelling as the apocalyptic narrative may be, fear and dread is not what Jesus intended to instill in people, but rather hope. Hope is what we have, we remain faithful to the law of love. And that is where we come in today.

Life in the Ruins

pile-brick-rubble-13863905The question for you today is this: does the church still exist if the walls are torn down brick by brick? The answer is yes. The church absolutely exists, because it exists in you.

The church building, as beautiful and meaningful as it is to us, is simply a crutch. It is an outward sign of success, as much as it is a meeting place. Were these walls to crumble, we would still be a church, and meet in the ruins. In the midst of catastrophe and destruction, the church still exist. Or rather, the church must exist. Because the people need it.

Persecution, though you may not see it, is happening. It is happening in ways you may not be able to perceive, and its not happening in the ways we may have expected it to. For many, the church is triumphant when all see the glory of God in the buildings we build, the outward signs of success. Many a foolish pastor and parishioner has seen themselves as kings in their ecclesial castles because of the worldly success of the church. Accumulation of wealth, buildings that rival the greatest of structures, numbers piled upon numbers. None of that is what makes a church. Worldly success is not Godly success.

The church triumphant is not when the church comes in to worldly, financial, or even political power. The church triumphant is when we wrap a towel around our waists and wash a stranger’s feet. The church triumphant is when we step in and care for a child who is disowned by their parents. The church triumphant is when we offer shelter to the persecuted, the immigrant, and the outcast. The widow, the orphan, the homeless, the alien, the hated, the scorned and the wretched–these are the people that make up the church invisible, and our care for them is what makes us the church triumphant. When we stand up for the least of these, no matter their background or beliefs, our faith in God is what guides our hands. That is the church triumphant.

There will be hard times ahead. If we are to be triumphant in these hard times, when even the walls of the church may shudder and crumble, we must understand our role in all of it. Our faith will bring us through, and our faith calls us to action. We must care for the least of these. We must stand up for the hated, the persecuted, the lost, and the least, for when we do so, we do so to Jesus. Jesus exists in the souls of the needy. Will we be there in the hard times for those who need us? I certainly hope so. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Eternal Comfort and Good Hope, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Brothers and sisters, we have a request for you concerning our Lord Jesus Christ’s coming and when we are gathered together to be with him. We don’t want you to be easily confused in your mind or upset if you hear that the day of the Lord is already here, whether you hear it through some spirit, a message, or a letter supposedly from us. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way. That day won’t come unless the rebellion comes first and the person who is lawless is revealed, who is headed for destruction. He is the opponent of every so-called god or object of worship and promotes himself over them. So he sits in God’s temple, displaying himself to show that he is God. You remember that I used to tell you these things while I was with you, don’t you?13 But we always must thank God for you, brothers and sisters who are loved by God. This is because he chose you from the beginning to be the first crop of the harvest. This brought salvation, through your dedication to God by the Spirit and through your belief in the truth. 14 God called all of you through our good news so you could possess the honor of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold on to the traditions we taught you, whether we taught you in person or through our letter. 16 Our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and a good hope. 17 May he encourage your hearts and give you strength in every good thing you do or say. –2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

hurricane

Today, brothers and sisters, is a day we find ourselves in the eye of a hurricane.

Today is a Holy day. One of the holiest days of the Christian year. It’s the day we celebrate the Saints. We sing in memory of their lives. It’s the day we join hand-in-hand and remember. We remember who we are. Who we have been. And we also rejoice in who we will become, who we are becoming.

And yet… it exists as a small island of light and hope in the midst of a maelstrom of activity, chaos, doubt and uncertainty. We have weathered one of the most difficult years on record, I think we can all safely admit that. In fact, one would not be mistaken in thinking that the end is near.

ballot-boxTuesday of this week, our nation reaches the final culminating day of the past 18 months: Election day. And though I am hesitant to speak about it, I cannot deny the tremendous and tumultuous chaos this political season has caused in our church, and in our nation. There has never been a race like this before, not in most of our lifetimes. Our base fears have been tapped in ways that have long since been dormant. Anger has risen between sister and brother over candidates, issues, and beliefs. We stand as a people rent in two by political difference, in a season unlike any other.

I cannot tell you who to vote for, as some may want me to do. To do so would be a breach of my pastoral covenant with you all. If I did, I would risk my ability to minister to all people. Effectively, if I make my political inclinations known, I alienate a vast swath of people who may or may not ever meet Jesus any other way, or who seek guidance from a ministerial presence. What I can do is to vote your conscience. Vote with your values. And vote with the kingdom of God in mind.

I mention God’s kingdom because that is what have to look forward to today. All Saints’ Sunday is when we look back on the faithful who have influenced, and forward to the life in Christ that is promised to us.

This is our focus today, on the eternal hope and good comfort that God promises us in Jesus Christ, found only in the kingdom of heaven. Such comfort, however, only comes after the troubles of the present age, troubles that were known all too well in the days in which this letter was written.

Concerning The Day of the Lord

christian-martyrsThe early Christian community was all too aware of the problems of the world. In fact, most of the time, they were often the victims of the worst of what the world could offer.

Christians were a community of outsiders, both religiously and politically. Religiously, they were often antagonized by Roman and Greek religious groups, but also the Jewish community from which they had their roots. The story of Christ is rooted in the Jewish scripture and theology, as Jesus and all of the disciples were all Jewish. And yet they were reviled by all camps, ousted as cultists and even atheists, in their days’ reckoning.

Not only that, politically they were seen as anarchists, because of their refusal to call Caesar Lord. For them, there was only one Lord, and that was Jesus Christ. As a result, they were frequently targeted by political authorities, and disenfranchised as citizens.

This resulted in quite a bit of suffering on the part of the Christians of the first few centuries.

Public stoning, burning at the stake, fed to lions, imprisonment, and much more were faced by the saints. Their witness stood as a testament to their faith, however. The did not waver, nor did they fear for their own lives. They lived for Christ, and that Christ had given them new life. They were a strange but powerful group on their own.

And yet… that left many questions for the saints who were not martyred. What would happen to them? And are all these persecutions signs of the end times, the coming Day of the Lord? Would Jesus return, and were the sitting authorities in reality the Anti Christ?

These were very real questions that they faced, and so the writer of 2 Thessalonians takes them seriously.

The writer very clearly acknowledges their fears, but also in a way puts them to rest. He says to not be deceived, and that the Day of the Lord will only happen at an appointed time. In the meantime, however, he gives them–and us–these words:

Thank God for you. Yes you! You, the ones left behind to share the witness with those who will come after. Thank God for your lives, because you are loved by God. God made you to be the first crop of the harvest, the first fruit that will be shared for all time.

So, live up to your example, and stand firm. It’s not time for the day of the Lord. This isn’t the end. Rather, this is the beginning. God loves you, so let that love give you eternal hope and good comfort. God will do amazing things through you for centuries to come.

Saints Living the Gospel

I am happy to report that, as a matter of fact, the Saints did just that. They lived the Gospel.

They lived the Gospel, and many died for the Gospel, and in the kingdom of heaven they live again. They endure. Their witness endures throughout the generations. And today, we celebrate that witness.

great-cloud-of-witnessesThat’s the great thing about All Saints Day. We get to remember the lessons of the past, the traditions that were shared, and joy that echoes the love of God through the ages. God loved them, and God continues to love us. Though saints may live in glory, their glory lives on in us as well. These saints never quit being a part of the church. Their story lives in us.

So think about the saints today, and remember them. Not just ones from history books, but from your history. Think on them, and give thanks for them. They give thanks for you, because you continue the tradition of sharing the love of God with the world. We rejoice in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Spiritual Courage, Civil Disobedience, Acts 5:27-32

renegade gospel

Over the season of Lent, we did a series on the Renegade Gospel. But Lent is over now. Jesus is Risen, and risen indeed… so what next?

What next is definitely a big question to tackle in the Easter season. Oh, and yes, it’s still Easter. It’s going to be Easter for a while. The rest of Easter is devoted to that question: What’s Next for the followers of Jesus Christ? What’s next, when our Lord is alive, when death is dead, and the resurrection is a reality? When the Kingdom of Heaven is here, but not quite yet? What do we do in the face of this new reality, how ought we to live?

This passage today from Acts depicts a tense confrontation between the Temple Priests and the new Jesus Movement. It is a moment in time that is imminently relevant to our modern world, the conversations we have about the role of holy living and the public sphere, and how we are to conduct ourselves when the rest of the world may not necessarily live according to our viewpoint.

Scripture often gives us a somewhat complex perspective on the ways in which we as people who follow Jesus ought to behave ourselves in response. We’ll talk a little bit about that, but we’ll also talk about the role of civil disobedience to authorities, peaceable resistance, and when and how we ought to participate in them.

This Far, No Further

Our scripture, as usual, is our jumping off point. It begins several weeks from the Easter Resurrection event, post Pentecost, and focuses on a heated debate.

PeterFlyer

Peter and the rest of the disciples, for weeks now, had been engaging in a public preaching ministry, as well as engaging in healing ministries–events that often took place on the Sabbath. Now, Jesus set the precedent for that, and the temple was certainly not pleased about it. Now we have tons of people doing the same thing, and the temple is enraged. For generations, the temple had at least some control over the message of the religion, but this was something new, something dangerous. Jesus was a heretical rebel to the Jewish authorities, who they had arrested for charges of treason to the Roman Empire. And now, we have a group of people saying that he isn’t dead, that he’s alive, and his message is taking over the city of Jerusalem.

This looks bad for too many reasons to count for the Temple, as it means a disintegration over their influence and their control under the Roman Regime. It also, in their minds, could spell doom for the very city they live in; if there’s enough of these rabble rousers around, what’s to stop the Roman Authorities from bringing the hammer down on the city. (Their fears weren’t entirely unjustified, by the way; the city was indeed ransacked by the Roman authorities in the 60’s AD, although in response to Jewish zealots, not Christ followers.)

So they round up these Christ followers, for not the first time, and accuse them in their court for preaching the resurrection in the name of Jesus Christ, who if you remember, was public enemy number one for the Temple priests. They haul them before the council, and say “Look, we asked you to stop. Repeatedly. So why is it we hear you now filling the entire city with more teaching, and not only that, pinning his death on us?”

GTY_supreme_court_cases_jef_131003_16x9_992Peter, being the honest hothead that he was, blew up. He didn’t refute the charges; in fact, he doubled down on them.

He responded with a very pivotal argument: We don’t answer to human authority, or your authority; we answer to God’s authority. You are responsible for Jesus’s death, but even though you had him lynched, hung, crucified, God raised him from the dead anyway. He’s now with God, and we’re now with you, doing what we need to do. We are witnesses to this resurrection, and the forgiveness he offers to Israel and to the whole world, and we can do no other. The line is drawn here: this far, no further.

Believe it or not, this is not the first time that this argument has been made. In fact, it long predates the Christian church.

  • “I did not think [the king’s] proclamations were strong enough to have power to overrule…the unwritten and unfailing ordinances of the gods.” (Antigone, in Antigone by Sophocles, lines 453-455, fifth century BCE)
  • “Men of Athens, I honor and love you, but I will obey God rather than you.” (Socrates, in The Apology by Plato, 29D, fourth century BCE)
  • “We are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.” (seven Jewish martyrs defying the decrees of the Seleucid King Antiochus IV, in 2 Maccabees 7:2, second century BCE)

– See more at: http://www.onscripture.com/value-and-limits-religious-liberty#sthash.31NA5nzb.dpuf

So though the argument was old, it was put to new use in the context of Jesus’s followers, but note the specific usage of the argument: it was used to defend the ability to confess the gospel. Furthermore, they did not refuse to suffer consequences for these actions. This is something called non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. It took tremendous spiritual courage to do so, but primarily because they knew that their faith kept from doing any other. What was unjust, they could not stand by and allow.

Public Discourse and Civil Disobedience

We live in very troubled times. In other news, water is wet, grass is green and Santa wears red.

struggleIn every age, every era, there has always been troubled times. Some times were better than others, but the truth is, there is no such thing as the good old days. There have always been people who suffer, who struggle, who are oppressed and downtrodden, whether you remember them or not, whether it ever impacted you or not.

Struggling to survive is a very real, human experience, and honestly it’s not an experience I can readily identify with in my life. Sure, I’ve lived in poverty. I’ve struggled to make ends meet, wondering how I’m going to get to the end of the month on what’s left in my bank account. That’s thankfully been a very limited experience, though. I live in relative comfort.

poverty-cycleSo when I hear of my brothers and sisters caught in a cycle of poverty and destitution that increasingly gets harder and harder to escape, I do two things: I realize the privileges of my own life, privileges I enjoy without even thinking about them, and then I do what I can to give voice to the struggles of my brothers and sisters who bear a burden I can’t comprehend.

In the 1960s, there was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. He was a Baptist preacher, with an education not unlike my own, but an experience that I could not in my wildest dreams begin to understand. His was a time of institutionalized persecution, separation and segregation.

He did not start the civil rights movement. That movement had its roots long before him, since even long before the civil war. He was simply carrying on the movement from Sojourner Truth, WEB DuBois, Marcus Garvey and Ida B. Wells before him. He did, however, become the focal leader for the movement in the 1960s.

martin-luther-king-1965-selma-hero-fix-ABHistory has painted him as a hero, and surely he is one. However, he was not a popular hero in his day. In fact, he was seen as a very dangerous man, not the toothless, genteel and soft-spoken icon of popular lore. He was outspoken. He was a powerful speaker, one who drew from countless schools of thought, from the ethical philosophies of Reinhold Niebuhr, to the non-violent resistance of Mohandas Ghandi, and of course, to the rich tradition of freedom fighters in the African American community, and the black church,  in the United States. He spoke for justice, justice that came from his understanding of the gospel.

Most of white America saw him as a threat, especially those in power. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, put him near the top his personal most wanted list. He was public enemy number 1 for many Americans, simply because he fought for equality, an equality that the law did not see fit to enforce. He ultimately died for his beliefs, died by the bullet from the gun of a man who deemed him not worthy of equality.

We have sanitized his history, as we have sanitized the history, ignoring that while he was alive, he was no more loved for his beliefs than the disciples were for theirs. He fought for his right to exist, not to own or dominate any other person. The disciples fought for their right to believe as they saw fit to do so, not at the expense of anyone but for the benefit of all.

Justice, Love, and the Public

And that’s where I wanted to bring this full circle. There are many who believe that we Christians in America are a persecuted lot. I would beg to differ. We, as a group, have  a rather privileged place in American society. But then, that should not keep us from being engaged in public discourse.

AURA BENCH MEETING TABLEWe absolutely need to fight for our ability to remain in the conversation of faith in this world. We ought to be given a place at the table of public discourse, but we ought to also realize there are voices that are not others, and those voices, though we may disagree with them and perhaps even be diametrically opposed to them, are voices that are valid and worthy of a seat at the table as well.

The disciples and apostles did not want to shut the temple down and replace it with their own. They simply wanted to preach their gospel in peace, to do what they felt necessary, not to the exclusion of others, but in community with others. The gospel is one of peace, of justice, of equality, and most importantly, one of love.

If we purport to be people of the word, and fail to remember that that word is love itself, that our gospel is service, that our message is one of liberation and peace, then we are not doing what Peter and the disciples were doing. We are being the temple priests. By shutting down other people in their rights, we are no better than the ones who killed Christ. By excluding, persecuting, and dominating others, we have failed to live into the Gospel of Jesus, the gospel preached by Peter and Paul.

So which will it be? Will you be a force for domination, or a voice for liberation? Will we be people of the resurrection, or people who remain in darkness? I believe we can be Easter people, resurrection people, second chance people, love people. That is good news to me. Amen.

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Weapon

Praying for your enemy is the ultimate weapon,

Because it is a weapon that only heals.

What enemy can exist if one prays for the other?

If one loves their enemy, they cease to be an enemy

At least in the eye of the lover.

They may hate. Persecute. Despise. Hurt. Kill.

They may do what they will, but that is not up to us.

What is for us is to love, and to pray,

For in taking to God the lives of our enemies in prayer,

God sheds love on them

and in the fullness of time

Just maybe

Love will reign supreme.

 

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44

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Wolves

I like to imagine that I do not live surrounded by the enemies of God

but frankly, that is not true.

Wolves appear in all shapes and sizes

And often regularly sit in pews

Say the prayers

Sing the songs

And harbor hatred for the other.

In their heart of hearts they believe they are sheep

But in the work of their hands and the words of their mouths

Their teeth are bared to the powerless and oppressed.

Fear is the opposite of faith

And fear is their default, oppression their practice.

It is possible to oppress without knowing it.

All the more reason to be wise as serpents

and gentle as doves.

 

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Mathew 10:16

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