COVID, Advent, and Hope

As I sit down to type out this post, the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are said to be made available in Delaware (where I live) and throughout The United States. Over the last nine months, the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged our world into fear and darkness. Many have lived in isolation, only going out of their house for the necessities while others have done their best to live as if nothing has changed. Just the other day, America had it’s single-most deadly day since the start of the pandemic. As numbers increase, so does the heaviness and anxiety about the virus.

We are in the season of Advent. Fleming Rutledge writes that, “Advent begins in the dark.” Rather than a countdown to Christmas, the season of Advent is a time to acknowledge the darkness that surrounds us and to expectantly wait for the dawn to break. The light breaking through the darkness is Jesus. At Advent, we roll up our sleeves and wait, watch, and prepare for the return of Jesus. Even as the darkness is think and heavy, we strain our eyes and our hearts looking for signs of Jesus’ return.

Advent is a season of hope. Jesus already come once and established his kingdom, but it has not yet been fully realized. Sin has already been defeated even as the world has not yet been fully redeemed. At Advent, we live in the already/not yet of God’s Kingdom (reign/rule). The war against sin and Satan has been won even though there are battles to still fight.

The deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine is a reminder of Jesus’ return. For ten month’s we have lived in darkness. We have heard rumors of the vaccines development and how it has progressed through test. Many have been preparing the vaccine- from scientist and researchers to those who will distribute and administer the vaccine. Others have longed for a vaccine so that the effects of the virus can be limited- or even defeated. After a period of darkness- there is hope on the horizon. The vaccine is already here, but it’s effects have not yet been realized. The war against COVID may be won but there are battles still to fight.

I am prayerfully hopeful that the vaccine will be safely, effectively, and effeciently distributed. Like many, I celebrate the work that has gone into the vaccine’s development. For the first time in months, we have hope. Hope to hug one another. Hope to visit friends and families. Hope to re-gather back together for worship in our churches. Hope that we no longer have to fear COVID.

Even more than the hope in the vaccine, we should place our hope in Jesus. In all our longing for the world to be made right, what we are longing for is the return of Jesus. We have hope Jesus will return and that the darkness in the world will be eliminated. Let us put our hope in Jesus.

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Hope for the Broken

[Sermon preached December 13, 2020 at Avenue United Methodist Church. You can listen to the sermon on our website or watch on Youtube.]

One Christmas in the mid-1980’s, my parents got my sister and I a cardboard space shuttle. My memory says it was about six feet long and looked like the Challenger or the Endeavor. In reality, it was a souped-up box that sat on the floor and required a kid to use their imagination that they were flying through space. It was not flashy. It was simple. It was great.

For four days.

We hosted a family New Year’s Eve party at our house where my mom’s family would come over. It was always the highlight of the season to have my cousins and a lot of food at the party. It was the one time of the year where we would rent a VCR in order to watch some movies. (If you don’t understand that, ask your parents). Somehow, over the course of the evening, our cardboard spaceship got wrecked beyond repair. Four days of imagination. Four days of use. Four days of joy. When it was no longer able to be useful, it went in the garbage.

Broken things cannot do what they were intended to do.

As parents, we have consumed a large amount of children’s programming over the years. We even have our favorites that we do not mind watching. There are other shows, I’m looking at you Calliou, that are permanently banned in our house. One show that the girls like was the Disney show, Doc McStuffin. Doc was a young girl whose toys came to life for her when no one was around. They had wonderful adventures together. Inevitably, a toy would get broken and Doc would take out her medical kit and repair what was broken. When Doc is around, there was hope for the broken toy.

As you read through the Major Prophets, today’s reading from Isaiah being one, you quickly have the understanding that Israel- as the people of God- are broken. The sin that infiltrated the world in Genesis two has become widespread. In the Book of Judges, we are told that “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The emphasis is on the fact that they did not do what God desires for them to do. Israel talked a good game about worshiping God, but they oppress the poor and take advantage of the fatherless and the widow. The say there are the people of God without living like the people of God.

In chapter one of Isaiah, God brings complaints against Israel. Israel is compared to a prostitute by being unfaithful to God by worshipping other deities. Idolatry, the worship of other things other than the one True God, is a major theme throughout the OT when it comes to Israel. God says that Israel was once full of justice, but that it is now filled with murderers. Lastly, they have failed to defend the fatherless and the widow. God says that Israel has become like a dying oak tree with fading leaves.

Dead. Fruitless. Only good for tinder.

Twenty years into Isaiah’s ministry, Israel fell to the Assyrian Empire and later they were led off into captivity for 70 years in Babylon. These losses for Israel were seen as divine judgment for the nation’s sins as they had lost their way. Israel had forgotten their purpose and calling to worship God and be a blessing to the nations. Like an oak fed to the fire, Israel crumbled and was defeated leaving the people and the nation broken and hopeless.

Over the last several weeks, we have been acknowledging the hopelessness that we feel in the world today. Some of this hopelessness comes from sources outside of ourselves. We see the poverty, the suffering, and the darkness that is in the world. Violence, systemic racism, famine, natural disasters and the list could on. We could easily include the pandemic as we deal with isolation, anxiety, fear, sickness and death of friends and loved ones. We see how sin continues to infect our world and our lives.

Some of our hopelessness and darkness in our lives comes from within us as we choose to live opposed to God. Our own sinful choices plunge us in hopelessness. We live with a sense of darkness and brokenness that comes from our sin and our distance from God. We have been created to live in relationship with God; we have been created with a purpose to be Image Bearers of God to the world, yet our sin keeps us from fully bearing God’s image.

Whether we are talking about Israel in the book of Isaiah or each of us today- we cannot escape the hopelessness and the darkness of the world on our own. There is Hope in Isaiah as God is going to do for Israel what they cannot do for themselves.

The easiest way to understand what happens in Isaiah 61 is that God is making a new way for Israel. God promises One who is anointed by the Spirit to proclaim Good News to the poor; put back together the brokenhearted; freedom for the captives; releasing prisoners; to comfort those who mourn; and turning mourning into joy.

At the end of verse three- God says:

“They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.”

Isaiah 61:3

At the beginning of Isaiah, God’s complaint against Israel was that they were a dying, worthless, oak tree that was only good for the fire. Here- there is hope for the broken as they will be called an Oak of Righteousness- displaying God’s splendor.

There is a great reversal here. Mourning is turned to joy. Ashes turned into a crown of beauty. It is the night being pushed away by dawn breaking on the horizon. Darkness is turned into hope as God puts back together the things that are broken.

Where does this Hope for the broken come from?

In Luke 4, Jesus went to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and stood up to read the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. He unrolled it and read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
Because he has anointed me

To proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
And recovery of sight for the blind,
To set the oppressed free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19

Jesus then rolled the scroll up and looked at those who were gathered there. His parent’s friends. The people who had watched him grow up. Those who may have knew of his scandalous birth. He said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Some people were amazed at Jesus’ words while others were furious and tried to kill him.

The Hope in the Darkness; the Hope for the hopelessness; the Joy for the Grieving; the life that is truly life is not a king. It is not a President. It is not a political party. It is not a lifestyle. It is not a philosophy. It is a person. It is Jesus. Jesus is the hope for the broken. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus overcomes our sin. Jesus restores our lives. Jesus brings healing to the broken places.

The Good News that Jesus brings, the healing that Jesus brings is not just for us. This good news is not something that we can keep to ourselves. It is for the world. It is for all people. If it is not good news for ALL PEOPLE then it is not GOOD NEWS.

Jesus Christ is good news for the poor. Jesus is good news for the brokenhearted. Jesus is good news for the oppressed, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, marginalized, the aged, the young, the immigrant, the criminal, the wrongfully accused, the addict, the confused, the anxious, the grieving, fatherless, and the widow.

Jesus takes the sin and the brokenness in our lives because of our own choices, and takes the brokenness in our lives because of the decisions of others and begins to heal them through the Cross and the resurrection. Jesus came to earth anointed to bring Hope to the hopeless and to heal the broken. God’s love for each of us through Jesus restores and heals what is broken in us and in the world. Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

This is where you and I have been called. As Image Bearers, we are to do the work of Jesus in the world. We are to bring Hope to the Hopeless. We are to work to bind up with brokenhearted. We are to feed the hungry and visit the sick. Why? Because Jesus did that for us. The Hope that Jesus brings must be hope for everyone or else it is not good news. When do do this, we will be like Mighty Oaks because God will work through us. A failure to do so will leave us as dying trees with fading leaves.

There is a lot of brokenness in our community. There are wounds that need healing and scars that tell the stories of brokenness of ourselves and our neighbors. Each place of brokenness we see and know of is an opportunity to share the Hope that we have in Jesus. In January, we will be have a 20 Day Fast and Prayer Time to lift up our church and our community as we ask God to help us see the brokenness and to hear how Avenue is being called to stand in the gap. There will be opportunities to pray together, share vision together, and to organize around our passions and callings of how we can take Jesus to Milford and the world. On Sunday, January 24th– we will gather in-person or virtually for worship and a time of visioning for the church. While Jesus is the one who heals, Jesus calls you and I to be active in the world as agents of healing. Even though we are in a pandemic, we have hope that the end is near. It is time to engage, to train, to disciple, and to release a church filled with the Spirit out into the world. I will be providing more information as the time draws near.

This week, and in the weeks to come, what opportunities do you have to share the Hope of Jesus? Are there ways that you can offer Christ to those who are broken? Have you invited Christ to heal the brokenness in our own life?

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Hope in the Darkness

First Avenue Mission Trip to Tennessee before caving.

When I was the youth pastor here at Avenue in the early 2000’s I had the privilege of leading a mission trip to Jellico, Tennessee for a week of home repair. We worked hard during the week and ended the week with a caving expedition. We hiked into the woods to the mouth of the cave and donned our flashlights and sweatshirts. As we walked through the cave, we came to what our guides called the “birth canal.” It was a narrow passage that I’m not sure was larger than 24 inches. We got on our bellies, crawled, sucked in our stomachs, and made our way through the passage into a huge Great Room with expansive ceilings.

Inside the Great Room, our guides had us turn off all our lights and encouraged us to five minutes of silent in a pitch-black room. It was the deepest darkness that I had ever experienced. If your hand wasn’t attached to your arm, you would have no clue it was waving in front of your face. The darkness was unsettling to think about people who get lost in caves and lose their lights! They would be walking around, groping in the darkness with no sense of direction and no ability to know the correct way out.

After five minutes of complete darkness in the cave, our guide struck a match and lit a candle. A single candle began to push back the darkness in the cave. We could see the features of the cave. We could see the rocks and other dangers around us. We could see our friends who were right beside us the whole time. As our group began to light their candles, the darkness was scattered away. The discomfort of the darkness dissapated and there was hope that we would not be left alone in the dark.

We are in the second week of our series, A Thrill of Hope, where we are looking for and living into the HOPE of Jesus Christ during the season of Advent. Last week, we shared how will keep us awake and cause us to roll up our sleeves to join the redemptive work that God is already doing in the world while we wait for Jesus’ return. This week, I want to continue to look at the idea of experiencing HOPE IN THE DARKNESS.

In the Prophet of Isaiah, the nation of Israel is in deep trouble. A darkness has covered the land. The sun has not stopped shining nor has the stars lost their light. Isaiah tells us that that the nation of Israel has been walking in darkness, a deep darkness. This darkness is the result of Israel choosing their own instead of following the ways of God. They have trusted human wisdom and glory rather than trusting in God. By turning away from God, the nation of Israel is plunged into darkness.

The depth of the darkness is seen in the Assyrian assault and destruction through Israel. The richest and most skilled were taken off to captivity. For Israel, it became a crisis of faith because if you believe that your God, the One True God, has allowed you to be carried off to captivity, what does this say about your faith? Darkness has covered the land. Death has become pervasive. Hopelessness is the feeling of the day.

In Chapter Nine of Isaiah, God provides Hope in the Darkness for Israel. In verse 2, God says,

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”

Isaiah 9:2

Isaiah proclaims that though the darkness covers the land that dawn is on the horizon. God will enlarge the nation and increase their joy. The yoke that burdens them will be shattered. This is good news for Israel. This is good news for the people. After years of oppression and occupation God is bring new life to Israel. After years of silence, God is again on the move.

God is bigger than the Assyrians.

Imagine yourself listening to Isaiah. You hear the news about the light that is coming. You listen as Isaiah declares that the yoke will be shattered and that Israel will celebrate once again like they would when the harvest would be gathered. You would probably imagine that God was raising up a rebel-King to inspire the people to revolt. Maybe you’d think God was going to use a military leader who could out maneuver, outmatch, and outwit the Assyrians. Perhaps God would send a natural disaster to decimate Assyria and turn the tables of Israel’s predicament.

You listen and you hear Isaiah declare:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called,
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Isaiah 9:6

The hope in the darkness is a child. Not a king. Not a military leader. Not a revolutionary or a celebrity. A child.

If you read Isaiah, you know this prophecy speaks specifically about a child that was born at this time who would lead Israel, but most Biblical prophecy is multi-layered because the child to be born is called “Mighty God” and will reign on David’s throne forever. No king in Israel was ever called “Mighty God.” The peace that The Child will bring will be an eternal peace. This is more than a child. This is The Child. The Messiah.

This child, The Child, will turn darkness into light. The Child will be a King to establish an everlasting Kingdom. The Child will take Israel’s conflict and turn it into peace. The Child will turn Israel’s loss into abundance and their despair into joy.

Like Israel in the book of Isaiah, we can easily find ourselves walking in darkness. We can choose to go our own way rather than following the ways of God. Things happen in life that cause us to doubt God or, perhaps, God’s silence causes us to go our own way. There are those in our community who struggle with drug abuse, alcoholism, marriage problems, financial shortfalls, and injustices that turn them away from the light. And we walk in darkness.

When we find ourselves in darkness, we can ask: Where is God? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why hasn’t God taken COVID away? Why did God allow my loved one to die? Will I ever get out of the cycle of debt? How can I stop feeling so hopeless?

These are Advent Questions. The Church has been asking them from the beginning. We do not know why God is silent. We do not know why God allows pain and suffering with such little meaning evident through the process. But what we do know is that there is a rumor, a hope, and an expectation that the night is nearly over. That the light is coming. God is working behind the scenes even when it doesn’t feel like it. God is at work in the darkness even when we cannot see it.

Where we began is not where God wants us to finish.

This Advent, Darkness may be where we start, but it not where God wants to leave us. Where we began in confusion, God brings us wisdom. Where we walk in sin, Jesus forgives us. Where we walk in despair, God brings comfort. We began with fear but God wants to bring us peace. We begin with mourning, God will bring us joy. God is working even when we cannot see it. There is hope in the darkness.

Our hope?

A child who is crown King over the universe. A Child who gives his life for us. A child whose kingdom will be filled with peace. This child is Immanuel, God with Us. This Hope is Jesus- who is the light of the world- who died on the Cross for our sins and was raised from the dead and who will return again- a light to disperse the darkness in the world.

As people of Hope, our lives should shine the light of Christ to the world. This could mean wearing a mask or staying home to slow down the transmission of a virus. This could mean making a handful of phone calls to those who are immune-compromised each week to check-in and help them stay connected. It could mean buying groceries or picking up prescriptions. We have the opportunity to be a light to those who are walking in darkness.

The question we have to ask ourselves is this: Have we allowed the child-King to take over the government of our heart and lives? Will we surrender our lives to God? Will we align ourselves with our kingdom or will we continue to mop and grope in the darkness?

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Hope Keeps Us Awake

1st Sunday of Advent at Avenue Church

[Sermon preached on November 29th, 2020 at Avenue United Methodist Church. First sermon in our series, “A Thrill of Hope.”]

Our family stayed home on Thanksgiving and while we missed seeing our extended family, we had a lot fun together as we cooked, watched a movie, and took advantage of the amazing weather we had. We had our Thanksgiving meal as a late lunch and then went outside for a family game of three-on-three basketball. We also started a fire in the fire pit and those who didn’t want pumpkin pie had s’mores. As we sat around the fire, it felt like it was 10:00 p.m. I looked at my watch and it was 5:17 p.m. The darkness was profound and had a deep affect in our lives. There was a tiredness at 5:00 p.m. that we usually feel at 10:00 p.m.

We live in a weary world. We are weary of COVID and the COVID restrictions. We are weary of our lives being negatively impacted by the virus. We are weary of our loved ones being sick or even dying because of the virus. We become weary with the corruption we see in high places. The darkness that is in our world is profound and has a deep effect on our lives.

When our skies become dark early, it reminds us of the darkness that is in our world. Even as we can already see Christmas lights and decorations, it seems like a short-term fix when we see the vastness of the darkness. The world is telling us to celebrate the civil holiday of Christmas while the church offers another option.

It is ADVENT- a time to name the darkness in our world and to wait expectantly for the light.

I had a candy ADVENT calendar when I was a child. My sister and I would wake up every morning to get a piece of candy on our way to school. On the last day of Advent was a $5 bill. While there is nothing wrong with the countdown, it did reinforce that the view that ADVENT is a countdown to Christmas. Advent is a season of recognizing the darkness that surrounds us, of “looking straight into our own heart and finding there- the absence of God.”[1] Advent is a season where we name the darkness in our world and we wait expectantly and hopefully, for the light to come.

Throughout the ADVENT Season, we want to highlight HOPE. When we live with HOPE- a weary world can rejoice. In general, we have taken the power out of the word hope. We hope for short lines or a good diagnosis. These are passive things. We can often think of hope as a grown-up wish. In fact, we talk about wishful thinking our hopes are too extravagant. Christian hope is not wishful thinking. Christian hope is expectant. It anticipates what God has promised to do. It makes us leap forward. It moves us to action. Hope puts our life in motion.

Let’s look at our text from Mark and see what it teaches us about hope.

  1. Hope Keeps Us Awake

There is a parable in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus tells about a man of a great house who goes away on a trip with an indefinite return date. He puts his servants in charge of the house, the property, and the business. Each servant has an assigned task that they are to tend to while the man is away. One of those servants is assigned to stand at the door and keep watch. They would stand at the gate of the house or a watchman would stand at the gate of the city and let everyone know when someone was coming so they could be ready for friend or foe.

A doorkeeper or a watchman would stay awake during the deepest darkness of the night, straining their eyes towards the horizons looking for any signs of the master’s arrival. They stayed awake and watched because they believed that the master would return.

Hope works in the same way. We have hope, and belief, that Jesus will return. The darkness is deep and Jesus has been physically been away for a long time. However, HOPE keeps us awake, looking at towards the horizon. Hope keeps us watching for signs of Jesus’ return: signs of redemption, signs of love, grace, and mercy even in the midst of the overwhelming darkness. We are doorkeepers and watchmen looking out for the return of Jesus. Hope Keeps us awake.

2. Hope Rolls Up Its Sleeves

The servants do not know whether the man will be gone for a day, a week, a month, a year, or 2,000 years. Jesus says in vs. 32 that “No one knows the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor that Son, but only the Father.” They are to do their assigned tasks with the same vigor and readiness on Day 10,000 as on Day 1. You don’t want to be caught sleeping on the job or hosting a part at the Master’s house when he returns. You want to be sure you have completed your tasks. They are be ready for action.

In 1 Peter 1:13, Peter writes

“Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming.”

The Greek word that is translated “Alert” in the passage is a term describing physical preparation. It is visualized as people gathering up their long outer garment and tucking it into their belts in order to do something physical. The same word is used by John to tell the story of Peter “wrapping his outer garments around him…and jumped in the water” when he saw the resurrected Jesus on the shores of Galilee. Peter invites the early Christians to “be ready” and to “Be alert” in the hope they have for Jesus’ return.

In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates the 1 Peter 1:13 this way:

“So roll up your sleeves.”

Christian hope is about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. It is not wishful thinking. It is not passive. It moves us to action.  Just like the passage in Mark, we have been given a tasks and a mission while Jesus is gone. We believe Jesus will return. We do not know when. This hope calls us to be alert. To Stay awake and to roll up our sleeves and get to work doing the things that Jesus did.[2]

The HOPE of Jesus’ return motivates and drives the work and mission we live into as Christians. But we also do not know when Jesus will return. We must continue to remind ourselves to: STAY ALERT. STAY AWAKE. GET TO WORK. Do not let the master find us asleep on the job. Hope keeps us awake so we can roll up our sleeves.

Like most kids, my sister and I were overflowing with excitement on Christmas Eve. We would have gone to our church’s candlelight service and when we came home we would open up one gift and read The Night Before Christmas. Then it was off to bed. We lived in a three-bedroom ranch at the time with all of the bedrooms at the same end of the house. My sister and I were so excited for Santa that we kept waking up and attempted to sneak out of our bedrooms to see if Santa came. Because my parent’s bedroom was right there with ours, Dad always hollered for us to get back in bed. Which we did…until we tried again.

In the middle of the night, when the darkness was deepest, my sister and I waited for Santa’s arrival with great anticipation. We hoped to catch a glimpse of the Big Guy and perhaps share a cookie with him. Hope kept us awake.

As Christians, we recognize that the world around us is full of darkness. We see it all around us. Through a pandemic, racial tensions, social distancing and masks, virtual schooling, a heated election season, misinformation and so much more, it is easy to see why suicides, domestic abuse, and drug abuse are sky rocketing. Amidst the darkness it is easy to become accustomed to it. We pay lip service to the idea of Jesus returning and setting the world right, but if we’re honest we can easily think this is wishful thinking.

Jesus warns us to be ready and to stay awake. Peter tells us to be alert and ready to act. Hope is more than wishful thinking- it is a call to action. A call to roll up our sleeves in order to prepare for the Master’s return. This means that we, as Christians and as the church, must roll up our sleeves to ensure that we are prepared, but to help other people prepare for Jesus’ return as well.

First, the hope we share for Jesus’ return should lead us to repentance for the times we have been sleepwalking through our faith, going through the motions. We must repent for the ways in which we live that is contrary to the gospel.

Secondly, we must call people to salvation. We believe that Jesus is the way to salvation. Believing that, we must share the good news of salvation through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to as many people as we can. We do this, not just be telling people, but by walking along side of the them as a guide and discipling them in the process. Will we take a chance and pray with a neighbor? Will we share the story of salvation with someone who has not heard?

Finally, we must roll up our sleeves and do the work God has called us to. Calling people to salvation is one way we do this, but it must be coupled with caring for the poor, giving sight to the blind, caring for the sick, and seeking justice for the oppressed, forgiving someone who has wronged us, and reconciling with an enemy. This is not wishful thinking for when Jesus returns, but the tasks and mission that we have been given now. 

This Advent, as Avenue Church, are we willing to repent of our sin and our shortcomings. Are we ready to share the hope we have in Jesus with those around us. This isn’t just from our building or the pulpit, but telling people about the difference that Jesus has made in our lives? Are we ready to be people of HOPE who roll up our sleeves to stand with those who experience injustice in our community? Will we be a church who stands in the gap for the voiceless and the marginalized in our community?

As we begin Advent, we live in the tension between Jesus’ birth and Jesus’s Return. We have been tasks with preparing ourselves and preparing others for Jesus’ return. We are watchmen and watchwomen. We are doorkeepers. We stand in the deepest darkness of hopelessness and stay awake because we believe that hope is coming. In the midst of hopelessness, despair, and sin our mission is to point to the coming light.  There is hope. There is light.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus. Come! Amen.

[1] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. 264.

[2] I’m indebted to Jay Y. Kim for his article, Hope: An Expectant Leap in the November 2020 issue of Christianity Today for some of these thoughts on 1 Peter 1:13.

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Advent and The Clone Wars

Sunday is the beginning of Advent. Advent is the beginning of the year of the Christian calendar. Where the world sees Advent as a countdown to Christmas the Church sees Advent, as Fleming Rutledge writes as “a seas of the shadows, the season of ‘the works of darkness,’ the season in which the church looks straight down into its own heart and finds there- the absence of God.” During the darkness of the times, we are called to stay awake, to keep alert, and to do the work that we have been given to do.

In Star Wars: Episode II Attack of The Clones, Obi-Wan goes to the planet of Kamino. It is a planet that has been wiped out of the databanks in the Jedi Temple. No one has heard of it. When Obi-Wan arrives, he finds that the Prime Minister of Kamino is expecting him. What Obi-Wan discovers is that a Jedi Master named Syfo Dyas had previously visited and commissioned the creation of a Clone army. Master Syfo Dyas has been dead for ten years and the installation on Kamino has had no contact with anyone about the mission. Yet, they have continued on their mission knowing that someone could show up at any moment to see their progress.

In Mark 13:33-37, Jesus tells a parable of a man with a large household. He has family members and servants, each with a tasks and responsibility that they are to take care fo each day to ensure the success of the family. The man goes away for a long time with the expectation of returning and finding that the household is working at a high level. The man tells the servants to “Be alert” and to “stay awake” for no one knows the day or hour of his return.

As Christians, we recognize the darkness of the world we live in. We been given a mission to complete in the world. We are to be like the beings on Kamino who are completely focused on their mission even though it has been a decade since the last communication. They worked, hoping that a Jedi Master would return and find them awake, alert, and ready. Our hope is that though the world is dark, the light of Christ will return. We are called to “stay awake” and to stay focused on our mission in order to be ready for the day that Jesus returns. Hope keeps us awake.

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Trading Our Birthright

Photo by Steve Tsang on Unsplash

Do you remember the story of Esau and Jacob in the book of Exodus? They were twin brothers and could not be more different. Isaac became a skilled hunter and Jacob stayed at home with his mother. Isaac, as a man who loved wild game, loved his son Esau. Rebekah, spending time with Jacob at home, loved Jacob.

There was a time when Jacob was home cooking stew and his brother came in from open country and demanded some of the stew because he said he was starving. Jacob offered a deal. I’ll trade you some stew for your birthright as the eldest son. The birthright meant that Esau was next in line to carry on his father’s property and livelihood. A birthright was the father’s blessing.

Esau is so famished that he says he was about to die and makes the deal to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup. Esau gave up the longterm benefits of the birthright for the short-benefits of a bowl of soup.

I think this is a good picture of Christians who have aligned themselves with political parties in search of political power. We have traded in the birthright (our witness and kingdom effectiveness) for a bowl of soup (political power and influence). The soup may taste good while we’re eating it. But the bowl of soup will go away and the witness of Christians will be diminished because they’ve chosen political power and influence as a means to achieve kingdom goals (I’m trying to think best case scenario here.)

The Bible does not direct us to pursue political power as a way to bring about God’s Kingdom. In fact, it is God who builds the Kingdom. We are invited to participate in what God is building. We should be wary of aligning ourselves with any political party or politician because when we choose a side, we do so at the expense of those on the other side. We trade our birthright for a bowl of soup.

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The Separation of Church and Hate | Neighborly Engagement

We all know the type. The know-it-all, the “I know-more-than-you-do,” the “I Stayed-at-a-Holiday-Inn-Express Last night” Expert. Whether the topic is politics, COVID, or even theology, they think they know more than anyone else. They may have some knowledge but they are always pushing things to make a point. In my experience, these “experts” never know when to stop, always trying to show they have the upper hand.

We meet an “expert of the law” in Luke 10 who asks Jesus about the key to eternal life. Jesus, in turn, asks the expert what he thinks. The expert, more than happy to oblige, says,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus gives the expert credit, saying that he has answered correctly. At that point, the conversation should have been over. The expert was trying to test Jesus so he said, “Who is my neighbor?”

In response to the expert, Jesus tells a parable. A parable is a story that is told to teach a point. This is sort of like an object lesson. The trouble with this particular parable is that it is one that we are very familiar with and that can cause it to lose power when we read it because it is so familiar. Try to think about this parable as if you were hearing it for the first time.

There as a man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho. It was a treacherous journey on the road between the two cities. There is a 4,000 ft. elevation change in just over 15 miles and there are plenty of hiding places for robbers and bandits in the nooks and crannies of the terrain. Unsurprisingly, the man is attacked, beaten, robbed, stripped, and left for dead. One can imagine this man in excrutiating pain, crying out to God, eyes filled with tears, gasping for air saying, “I can’t breathe.”

As if an answer to prayer, a priest comes by and surveying the man in the ditch passes to the other side. Another religious leader happens by, a Levite, sees the man in the ditch and maybe even hears him say, “I can’t breathe.” He passes on the other side of the road.

Two religious leaders have the opportunity to be the answer to this man’s prayers, but they passed on the other side of the road. There was risk in helping the man. First, the robbers could be nearby waiting to accost anyone who would help the wounded man. Secondly, the man appeared to be dead and to touch a dead man was to become ceremonially unclean. They would have been unable to perform their priestly duties. Finally, getting involved in the tragedies that other people experience would require the priest and the Levite to get personally involved. Their clothes might get ruin. Their time would be spent. They might have to use their own money. Getting involved in the lives of other people is messy business.

Finally, a man Jesus describes as a Samaritan comes along. Jewish listeners would not be able to imagine that a Samaritan could be the hero of the story. Samaritans were half-breeds and less than human. But Jesus says that the Samaritan saw the man and “took pity on him.’ The Greek word for pity is the same word as compassion. This Greek word means to be moved in our deepest parts. The Samaritan is sick to his stomach at the man’s condition and is moved to act. He treats the man’s wounds and loads him onto his donkey. He takes the man to an Inn and pays for his stay there, promising to pay for other expenses that may be incurred. The Samaritan got involved in the messy life of the wounded man.

When the religious leaders saw the man condition and counted the cost of getting involved, they passed to the other side. The Samaritan saw the man’s condition and was moved to action.

The religious leaders saw the man and felt fear, disgust, contempt, and even apathy.

The hated Samaritan saw the man and is so deeply moved that he has to ACT.

Jesus asks the expert: “Which of the three was a neighbor?

The expert replies: “The one who showed mercy.” (He can’t even bring himself to say the word Samaritan)

Jesus instructs him: “Go and Do likewise.”

When I was younger, I would think about things like- how much trouble can I get away with without getting in trouble or how little homework can I do and still get the grade I want? We do the same thing with sin- we’ll think (or we act this way without realizing it) How worldly can I live and still profess to follow Jesus. The so-called expert of the law was asking Jesus: Who do I really have to love? Much like the expert, there are times when we can live with minimal engagement in the lives of those around us. In hearing a parable like this, we should identify with the Priest and the Levite who fail to connect their faith and their actions in a congruent manner. We can identify with seeing a need and choosing to not get involved.

Over the last six weeks, we have been exploring the ways that Christians can be peculiar people by being a healing presence in a polarized world. To do this we must be a people where our beliefs and our words and our actions line up with one another. As apprentices of Jesus should lead us to love our neighbor. Who is our neighbor?

The Biblical answer of the question is this: Our neighbor is anyone who has a need. Our neighbor is anyone that we have the opportunity to assist. In an age when our world is shrinking because of the internet, our neighbor could be halfway around the world just as easily as living next door. Just as the Samaritan looked on the man lying in a ditch with compassion and acted; just as Jesus looked over the crowds with compassion and acted- a disciple of Jesus will look with compassion and act of behalf of those in need. It will be neighborly engagement of the church that will be a healing balm in our world.

In the 1990’s, Nepal lifted restrictions on climbing the legendary mountain in order to bring in more tourism dollars. As of 2006, there had been more than 2,700 people who have reached the summit of the mountain, many paying more than $60,000 for the experience.

One of the results of this commercial influx is the decay of the moral code on the mountain. In a rush to the top, those who have paid a fortune to do so often do it at the expense of others.

David Sharp became a casualty to the mentality in March of 2006. The 34 year old enginer from Cleveland managed the reach the summit on his own. However, he ran out of oxygen on the way down, 984 feet from the top. As he lay dying, 40 climbers passed him by, too eager to achieve their own goals than to use up oxygen on someone else. As a result, David Sharp froze to death.

This doesn’t just happen exotic hiking trips. In 2007, LaShanda Calloway had stopped to shop at a convenience store in Wichita, Kansas when she was stabbed during an altercation. As she lay dying, a survellience camera recorded no less than five people stepping over her to continue down the store’s aisles. One stopped briefly- to take a picture of Calloway with her cell phone. The last thing that Calloway saw before she died was people literally stepping over her.

A few months ago, after the shooting of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I heard the recording of Floyd’s last few seconds. It was painful to listen to. I had tears in my eyes as Floyd cried out in pain saying, “I can’t breathe” and even calling for his mother.” As I listened, I wondered what I would have done or how I would have responded as a passerby. As a Christian, I’ve wrestled with my response to the injustices that exist in our community and our world. Will I stand with my Black and Latino brothers and sisters in the injustice they face? Am I willing to be an engaged neighbor? Am I willing to get involved? Will compassion move me to act? Has my faith taught me to respond as a good neighbor? A godly neighbor?

N.T. Wright says, “No church, no Christian can remain content with living life in a way that allows us to watch most of the world lying half dead in the road and pass by.”

There is much of the world that is lying half dead; famine, war, abuse, drug addiction, sex trafficking, depression, racism, and poverty are just some of the ways that people are dying. I know I can turn a blind eye to it and wrap myself up in my own little world. Like the people in the convenience store, I can step over LaShonda Calloway on my way to another family night. I can walk past a freezing David Sharp in order to go out to eat. I’m too busy to be bothered. I don’t want to risk getting involved.

If we want to engage the world as good neighbors, godly neighbors, then we must take responsibility in this world and carry the burdens and wounds of others. We must look around us and be moved with compassion deep within us that moves us to action on their behalf. As apprentices of Christ- we cannot remain detached or uninvolved.

If we want to see a change in the world, it will not come from politicians and political parties. It will come from the Body of Christ living as the hands and feet of Christ. It will come from Christians looking on their neighbors with compassion and acting on their behalf. It will be when Christians get involved in the messy lives of those around because Jesus came for us when we were a mess. It will come when Christians make the decision to live more like Jesus. It will happen, not as a result of an emotional experience, but daily making the conscious decision to the a doer of the word.

In a polarized and divided world, we have a choice to make- will we contribute to and live into the division? Or will we make the decision to live in such a way that Christ brings healing through the way we live and talk? Who was the neighbor in the story? The one who showed mercy. Go and Do likewise.

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The Separation of Church and Hate | Winsome Love

One of the most remarkable persons during the last century was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi was an Indian Lawyer, Anti-colonial nationalist, and political ethicist who utilized non-violent forms of protest to campaign for India’s independence from Britain. Gandhi was a practicing Hindu who also widely read and open minded about seeking truth. Among others, he had a deep friendship with the Methodist missionary, E. Stanley Jones. It is said that Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount of “turning the other cheek” influenced Gandhi- and in turn- influenced the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights Movement.

There is a story told by Rev. Pattison that Mahatma Gandhi decided to visit one of the Christian churches in Calcutta. As Gandhi approached the sanctuary doors, he was stopped by the ushers of the church. He was told he was not welcome and that he would not be permitted to attend this particular church as it was for High-caste Indians and whites only. The caste system would be similar to segregation in America. Because of this rejection, Gandhi turned his back on Christianity. Gandhi found Jesus to be one of the greatest teachers of mankind. Dr. J.H. Holmes, a Swarthmore professor who conversed with Gandhi on several occaisons, quotes Gandhi: “I believe in the teachings of Christ, but you on the other side of the world do not, I read your Bible faithfully and see little in Christendom that those who profess faith pretend to see.” Dr. Holmes went on to quote Gandhi saying Gandhi saw Christians seeking wealth at the expense of others and that they are the most warlike people rather than the image of Christ Gandhi read of in the Gospels and especially the Sermon on the Mount.[1]

In short: Gandhi liked Christ, it was the Christians he had a problem with.

This is one of the great struggles of the church and for Christians. We are, by nature, hypocrites. We profess belief in Jesus who boiled down faith to “Loving God and Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself.” Even as we proclaim an ethic of love, it is the unloving words of Christians that undermine our witness. We become disgusted with certain people or groups- believing them to be “less than” ourselves. We cannot hate someone and hope to reach that person.

We live in a world where outrage is the all the rage. Our social media feeds are filled with outrage towards people different than us. We can feel disgust towards people who think or belief differently than we do. Christians are complicit in the outrage culture when we behave badly rather than lovingly communicating the Good News of the Gospel Message.[2] There is a disconnect when we are unable to discern how our hypocrisy can destroy our witness. We can claim to know the love of Christ, but we fail to show that love. When we do this, we show that we have not been truly gripped by grace and our constant need for it.[3] Our words and actions push people away from faith in Jesus.

The opportunity for the Church is to live out what Dr. Ed Stetzer calls “winsome love.” Winsome love is a kind of love that draws people into the Gospel story in order to experience the love of God. Winsome love seeks win some rather than repulsing people away from Christ.

The second chapter of Acts is the Pentecost story where the Holy Spirit, the presence of God that we experience, gave birth to the church. When the Spirit descended upon the Disciples, they preached and performed miracles though the Holy Spirit. On that first Pentecost three thousand new believers put their faith in Jesus. Luke, the author of Acts, provides a summary statement of the early church at the end of chapter two. Luke tells us that the early church was known for several things.

  • They were learning the Jesus way by their devotion to the Disciple’s teaching
  • They shared meals together- study and eating led to fellowship
  • Sold possessions to care for anyone with a need
  • Met daily for worship
  • They were known for having glad and sincere hearts.

Then Luke adds:

“…enjoying the favor of all the people.”

The early church wasn’t argumentative. They weren’t wearing the garb of their favorite politician. They weren’t engaged in a culture war. They weren’t walking around with frowns on their faces. They were known for the love they had for God, for one another, and for others. This is an image of winsome love- a love that draws people in. Here is the proof, as Luke adds:

“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. [4]

Winsome love, the humble and sacrificial love of Jesus, draws people in rather than pushing them away.

Years ago, The Beatles had a song called, All You Need is Love. I hear that today- that all we need to do in the church is love- which is true- yet we also need to know what love means. IN the English language, we have one word for love. I can love my wife and I can love ice cream. In the Greek, there are at least four words for love that give us specific picture of what love looks like. When Jesus teaches us to love our neighbors and enemies- it is AGAPE- sacrificial love where one lays down their life for someone else.

Now, let’s be clear. Loving our neighbor does not mean we have to compromise convictions and it doesn’t mean we are wish-washy on our beliefs. Sometimes, loving someone means practicing tough love where we have to call out a choice or a behavior out of love with the intention on reconciliation or restoration (as Dan said last week.) Winsome love does not mean we become pushovers, either. Winsome love doesn’t speak to whether we disagree; rather it shapes the ways in which we disagree.”[5] Rather than trying to win arguments, proving our points, or practicing shutdown tactics, winsome love seeks to maintain the relationship. As Christians, and in life, wining an argument often means we lose the relationship. It has been said that no one has put their faith in Jesus because they lost an argument.

In order to practice this kind of winsome love, the love that Jesus offered, we must approach all our relationships with humility. Humility is in short supply. In Ancient Roman culture, humility was not seen as a virtue among men. Even today, I see humility taught in some places, yet the loudest and most braggadocious person is the one who gets the attention. Christians should live like Jesus- whose love led him to humble himself. Paul writes

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

Paul says we should have the same mindset as Jesus- that we humble ourselves around others. We serve others to the point of laying our lives down for them. That is winsome love! That is when our life reflects the love of Christ for the world. We can disagree with someone and still lay our lives down for them.

Humility is not losing! It is not weak. It is not cowardice. Our culture teaches us that those who are humble are doormats, always getting stepped on. Biblically, we see that when we humble ourselves to listening and understanding the culture, worldview, and background of those we engage with it opens doors to share the gospel of love. Winsome love done in humility shows we are more interested in a winning relationship than we are in winning the argument.

Friends, we must not allow ourselves to become complicit in this age of outrage. We must learn to live in winsome love in our speech and our actions. When we do that, Christ will draw people to himself through our lives and examples of love.

With the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg earlier this year, the naming of a new Supreme Court Justice has been the source of outrage. Perhaps this same Supreme Court can show us an example of how Christians can live out winsome love for our neighbors.

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away, stories of her career began circulating and one that caught my eye was the stories of Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia. Ginsburg and Scalia were on opposite ends of idealogical spectrum when it came to Constitutional Law. These two legal giants were often on the opposite end of some major court cases.

They were best friends outside of the courtroom.

They both loved the opera and would attend together. Their families spent New Year’s Eve together for years. When news of Ginsburg’s husband’s death was announced in court, Scalia openly wept. Scalia and Ginsburg once rode an elephant together in India. Ginsburg called Scalia “her best buddy” in an interview. Scalia was once asked if his friendship with Ginsburg ever help him in the courtroom. Scalia said that “some things are more important than winning the argument.”

Here are two people who were able to put aside their differences on what they believed in order to be friends- sometimes confounding others with their friendship. In an age of outrage, they stand as an example of how we can exhibit winsome love to our neighbors.

Friends, we have a choice to make and it is becoming more and more imperative that we make it today. We can either choose to go to the way of the world and silo ourselves off in echo chambers of people just like ourselves that creates greater division between us and those different than us. Or we can choose the way of Jesus: who eats with sinners, whose disciples included a Jewish traitor and an Anti-Roman terrorist. We can choose the way of Jesus who showed people grace and called them to sin no more. We can choose the way of Jesus where we lay down our lives for others because Jesus has already laid down his life for us- while we were still sinners. We can choose the way of Jesus- who loved the world even as the world crucified him.

We have a choice to make today. Will people see what they see everywhere else by our words and actions- or will we choose the way of Jesus as we humbly love our neighbors and our enemies?


[2] Ed Stetzer, Christians in the Age of Outrage, 198.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The New International Version (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), Ac 2:42–47.

[5] Stetzer, 211

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The Separation of Church and Hate | Patterns

[This is the sermon text from my 10/25/2020 message from Avenue United Methodist Church. You can listen to the sermon here or watch the worship service here.]

My childhood best friend had a wood shop on his property. It had every kind of wood working power tool that you could imagine in the shop. The shop was immaculate, too. We would sleep in the wood shop when I would spend the night in the winter time. His dad had someone that worked for them, doing carpentry projects around the house. You would look around the shop and find pieces of wood that had the word PAT on them. There was no one named Pat at the house, so I asked what it meant. PAT meant that the piece of wood was the pattern that was being used to make other pieces so they would be the same. The pattern ensured uniformity.

The challenge for us, as Christians, is what pattern are we following?

The late British Pastor, John Stott tells the story of visiting India where he heard of a young Hindu girl raise in a strict Hindu family who had come across some Christians. Someone asked her what she thought a Christian was. She thought for a few moments and replied, “A Christian is someone who lives differently than the rest.”

A Christian is someone who lives differently than the rest.

We are in the second week of our series, The Separation of Church and Hate. We are naming the polarization that is in our society and even in our church and looking at how we are called to live differently as followers of Christ. Nowhere is that more evident, in this moment, than in politics with the election just over a week away. Even as followers of Jesus, we have been content to replicate the pattern of the world when it comes to our politics. Some of us cannot speak to other family member or friends because of the polarization this election has caused. We cancel anyone who thinks differently than us. We’ve traded our Kingdom-based identity for a world-based identity in order to achieve world-based ends.

The Church, over the years has failed here because our political parties have done a better job of discipling us than the church has done. We’ve made our political identity greater than our identity as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Sure, we’ll say our Kingdom Identity, our identity as Christians, is primary but our lives tell another story. If we find that we spend more time in the echo chambers of MSNBC or FOXNews than we do in studying the scriptures, in prayer, in times of worship, and in serving our neighbors, then it is likely that our politics are more important than our citizenship in the Kingdom. If our belief system and worldview reflect the Republican or Democratic platform rather than reflecting the Kingdom of God, we’ve traded our Kingdom identity for an identity grounded in the world.

A Christian is someone who lives differently than the rest of the world. Trading in our Kingdom-identity for a world-based identity is the essence of conforming to the patterns of the world.

In Romans, Paul has addressed the mind several times and how apart from the work of the Spirit our mind is sinful. Apart from God we have a pattern of putting our own interest first at the expense of others. In Chapter 12, Paul encourages followers of Jesus to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. This is your true and proper worship.” Notice that true and proper worship is not attending worship once a week- true and proper worship is when we make the decision to give our bodies- our lives- to God. True worship is how we live out our everyday routine, mundane, and normal lives. Our lives are patterned after the decisions and the choices we make every moment of every day. We are the sum total of the choices we make.

There is a worldly pattern that is self-centered, that sets us above those we deem to be less than us, and invites us to see other people as enemies. The wordly pattern tells us to step on and over people on our way to the top. The worldly pattern is that I am the most important person in the universe. Paul writes

“Do not conform to the patterns of the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

The way that we avoid conforming to the pattern of the world is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This is why it is so important to consider the voices we allow in our lives. If the media we consume is encouraging a world-based kingdom, we will begin to pattern our lives in pursuit of that kingdom.

While it sounds so very trite in Church, this is why we must have a growing understanding of the Bible, of time in prayer, in worship, and in our service in the world. We need to create space for the Holy Spirit to shape us and to direct our lives- that space needs to be greater than the space that we give the talking heads on TV or the internet. The Holy Spirit renews our minds making a way for us to test and approve of God’s will.

A Renewed Mind Leads to a New Way of Living

As we think about the patterns of the world and allowing the Spirit to renew our minds, a renewed mind will lead to a new way of living. A renewed mind will enable us to ‘live differently than the rest of the world.’ Paul covers three ways (at least) that a renewed mind enables us to live differently

A Renewed Minds Leads to Renewed Thinking

Paul writes that we are to be “renewed by the transforming of our minds.” Renewing our minds will naturally lead to renewed thinking. When we eliminate the garbage that we place in our minds and replace it with the things of God, we give room for the Spirit to renew and reshape our mind. This will lead to, as we see in verse 3, thinking of ourselves with sober judgement. Rather than thinking of ourselves, our tribe, our beliefs, or our actions are better than others, we will have a renewed sense of humility that enables us to respect and live empathetically towards others.

A Renewed Mind Leads to Renewed Relationships

When we are able to live out humility in our lives we are able to have a renewed relationships. In Chapter 12, Paul reminds us that we are part of the Body of Christ and that every person in every role is important. We belong to each other. Too often, in the American Church, we downplay the role of community and our responsibility to the Body in exchange for personal salvation and personal faith. In the New Testament, faith in Jesus is always experienced and expressed in community. We are better together.

Think about Jesus’ disciples with me. There was a group of them, Peter, James, and John to start with, who were fishermen. They probably had a lot in common. But then, there was Levi the taxcollector. He was a Jew working for the occupying oppressor and living off of scamming his fellow Jews. Then, there was Simon the Zealot. While you can be zealous in a lot of things, by the time of Jesus- a Zealot was a group of anti-Roman revolutionary faction who believed God was calling them to extract divine judgment on Rome. They were out for a holy war. In today’s world- Simon the Zealot was a Religious Extremist- a terrorist. Then there is Judas Iscariot who stole from the group treasury and betrayed Jesus. Common fisherman, a hated taxcollector, a terrorist, and a crook. Ultimately, that is a picture of the church. It’s not homogenous. It is diverse and messy.

When it comes to a difference of opinions, we cannot cancel someone out because we disagree with them. Each person and each gift is necessary for the body. Christians should be the last group to practice the cancel culture because God has yet to cancel us when we fall short. Because we have received grace from God, we are to give grace abundantly to those in our midst. This changes and renews our relationships.

A Renewed Mind Leads to Renewed Love

Lastly, a renewed mind leads to renewed love. Last week, we talked about loving our enemies and Paul continues to give us encouragement on how to love our brothers and sisters in the church and those who would be our enemies. In verses 9-21, Paul comes at us with rapid fire exhortations about how we are to put love in action.

  • Devoted to one another in love
  • Joyful in hope; patient in affliction, faithful in prayer
  • Practice hospitality- important- caring for strangers
  • Bless those who persecute you
  • Rejoice and mourn- we are to be empathetic towards others
  • Live in harmony
  • Don’t let your pride prevent you from associating with people in low positions (Humility was not a normal attitude in Greco-Roman world)
  • Do not repay evil with evil
  • Do everything you can to live in peace with one another (this would include social media post)
  • If you enemy is hungry, feed them. Thirsty? Give them something to drink.
  • Overcome evil with good.

Don’t we need more of this in our church and the world? Devoted to one another? Joyful? Patient? Humble? Seeking to live in peace? Loving our enemy? Refusing to meet evil with evil? If we are living like this, we are living with our Kingdom Identity. When we live with a renewed mind, we will be building bridges in a world that has become more separated and polarized.

In the ways in which we live with in the world, we must be careful to live out the patterns that we see in Jesus and in Scripture. Regular patterns of loving our neighbor and our enemies; extending grace to those around us; forgiving those who wrong us; caring for the poor; seeking justice for those who have been treated unjustly; proclaiming the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. These patterns not only renew our lives, but they transform our communities as well. The life of a Christian should look different than the rest of the world. Who or what is your life patterned after?

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The Separation of Church and Hate | The Danger of Tribalism

[This is the text from the 10/18/20 sermon preached at Avenue United Methodist Church. You can listen to the audio here or watch video here.

Last week, we talked about the effects of advertising to impact our lives by selling us the promise of a lifestyle rather than the product. Author James K.A. Smith writes about the change in what is expected in the typical ad executive at a major corporation. Where they once were responsible for design, packaging, and promotion, the brand manager is now asked “to create…a meaning system for people through which they get identity and understanding of the world.”

One Ad Executive, Douglas Adkin, asked himself, “What makes people exhibit cult-like devotion?” He began to study cults in order to figure out how brands could induce “loyalty beyond reason.” When he listened to people talked about paper plates or sneakers he realized that people attach to brands for the same reasons they join cults and religions: To belong and find meaning. They cease being merely customers and now identified themselves as disciples, or “members of the tribe” whether that tribe be VW owners, Starbucks drinkers, or Mac users.[1]

I had a roommate in college who was a Mac user before it was cool to be a Mac user. It was still Indie then, in a sense. I had a PC desktop at my desk and he would give me a look of disdain every time I had an update, or received the blue screen of death, or had a freeze up. I was outside of his team, outside of his tribe.

For my birthday in 2010, Andrea got me tickets to go see the Steelers and the Ravens play on a Sunday Night in December. I went with a friend and we are both Steelers’ fans, having grown up in Western PA. The temperature at kick-off was 26 degrees and it went down from there. While we could have worn coats on over our jerseys, we went walking into Baltimore with our Steelers gear in full display. We were part of a tribe encroaching on the land of an enemy tribe. During the course of the game, I had a member of the rival tribe spitting on my jersey while my friend had a beer poured on him as we left the stadium- that doesn’t include everything that was shouted at us. It could have had something to do with the Steelers winning the important game.

Our sports team gave us an identity. For me, sports continue to be an important way to relate to my dad. We’ve watched, listened to, and talked about sports since I was little. Our sports teams often connected us to our neighbors who were part of the same tribe. If your sports tribe was in another region, then you may be in danger of being singled out by the dominant tribe of the area.

The human race has been tribal from the beginning. In many ways, tribes can be healthy and helpful as they provide meaning and purpose. Tribes provided protection from wild animals and other tribes. But there is a danger to being part of a tribe or team. Tribes can cultivate devotion to their group and purpose at the expense of other tribes.

Our nation is becoming more and more polarized, more tribal. We are being pushed into more insulated silos where we cultivate devotion to “our” tribe while being opposed to those outside of our tribe. Think of the divide between Republicans and Democrats. While their purpose is the same (caring for our nation) they oppose each other. Our churches are tribal as well. We are Mainline, Evangelical, or Pentecostal. We are United Methodist, Presbyterian, Independent, and Non-Denominational. We are conservative or progressive in our theology. Even within the church, we are tempted to express our devotion to our side and protect our tribe from the influence of outsiders. We are tempted to love those who think like us and to see those who are different than us as our enemies.

Jesus has something to say about that.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy…’”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes commands from the Old Testament and reinterprets them with a Kingdom mindset. You will not find a direct command in the Old Testament to ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ What Jesus is doing here is summarizing the ways in which religious leaders understand the narrative of the Old Testament. We don’t have time to get into it, but in Joshua Israel is to destroy enemy cities. In the Psalms, we can read prayers of David seeking vengeance against the enemies of God. Tribalism created an identity around the worship of Yahweh, but anyone not in the tribe could be seen as an enemy. On one hand, the tribalism protects the group from foreign gods and false teachings. On the other, tribalism can cause those inside the tribe to see those outside the tribe as “less than” God created them to be.

Jesus invites us to live differently:

Matthew records, “but I tell you to love your enemies…”

This is revolutionary as Jesus teaches that we are to love our enemies. This would come as quite a shock for those who would have been listening to his teachings- especially as Israel was occupied by Roman forces and had a long history of exile and enslavement. It would be easy to look at Romans, Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians as enemies. A good Israelite would have seen Samaritans as enemies and half-breeds even though the worshiped the same God. Israel had an “it’s us against the world” mentality and were waiting for God to restore them to their rightful place on top of the political and social heap.

Jesus calls them to love their enemies. To love the Samaritan. To love the Gentile. To love the Roman soldier who mocked them and crucified their countryman. To love the corrupt tax collector. To love the unclean. To love the sadistic and tyrannical Roman Caesar. Jesus calls them to love their enemies.

Have you read the story of Jonah lately? Especially beyond the story of Jonah and the whale? Jonah was called by God to go to Ninevah and to call them to repentance or else they would be destroyed by God. Ninevah was the one of Israel’s enemies. They hated each other. Jonah doesn’t even want to go there. When he does, and calls them to repent expecting them to be destroyed by God, something remarkable happens. These enemies of Israel repent. The King of Ninevah even declares that the animals were to participate in the fast of repentance. When God saw Ninevah’s response, God forgave them.

This made Jonah mad. He couldn’t believe it. Jonah is angry at God for forgiving Ninevah, the enemies of Israel. Jonah wanted fire and brimstone. Jonah wanted to see his enemies suffer and face the consequences of their sin. Jonah is so angry with God that Jonah says he’d rather be dead than to see Ninevah be forgiven.

For Jonah, his nationalism has become an idol as it prevents him from valuing those who are different from himself. In the same way, when we allow our tribal identity to distort our view of those around us, we sin. When we see a Democrat or a Republican as anything less than created in the image of God- we have sinned. When we see a Muslim, or someone of a different ethnicity as less than someone created in the image of God, we sin. When we see a member of the LGBT community as anything less than someone created in the image of God, we sin. When we allow our tribal identity to be greater than our identity in God- and the “others” identity in God- we sin.

Pastor and author Tim Keller writes:

“When Christian believers care more for their own interests and security than for the good and salvation of other races and ethnicities (we can put political beliefs here), they are sinning like Jonah. If they value the economic and military flourishing of their country over the good of the human race and the furtherance of God’s work in the world, they are sinning like Jonah. Their identity is more rooted in their race and nationality (political party) than in being saved sinners and children of God.”

Our primary identity and tribe is that of the tribe of God and we are called to love those outside of our tribe. The question is how are we to do this? Jesus tells us:

“But I tell you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

The best way, and sometimes the only way that we can love an enemy or someone different than us is to pray for them. Jesus directs his disciples to pray for those who persecute them- this likely meant to pray for the occupying Romans who would persecute them. Can you imagine the church living this out during the time of Nero and other times of persecution? They prayed for their enemies.

Our prayers should not be that our enemies will be proved wrong, or that they will face eternal punishment- but our prayer is for our enemy that we can love them as Jesus taught us to. We are to pray, and then pray some more for our enemies until we are able to feel the love God has for them for ourselves. “We are not asked to love the enemies character or deeds or teachings or anything else about them; We are not called to agree with them;  we are asked only to love the enemies themselves.”[2] If  would take a miracle for me to be able to love someone who I see as an enemy- do we not worship God who has a thing for miracles?

When our devotion to a tribe is greater than our devotion to Jesus we will begin to see other people as opponents to beat rather than people made in the image of God. When our devotion to our tribe is greater than our devotion to Jesus- then we are practicing idolatry and our tribe has become our god. Our identification as Christians should be primary. It should lead us to love and pray for those around us- especially our enemies. This is the only way we will begin to see the polarization in our country begin to heal.

As followers of Jesus, how are we doing at loving Donald Trump? How about Joe Biden? How are we at loving Muslims? People of Color? LGBT community? An Evangelical? A Mainliner? Loving someone who looks like me, speaks like me, and believes like me is nothing commendable. That’s tribalism. We are called to love our enemies and the starting place is to pray for them so that we feel God’s love for them.

As we consider living as Jesus taught us, we must consider what it means to pray for our enemies. I believe that Jesus taught this because Jesus really meant for us to do this. We are not to hate or cancel those who are different than us. We are to pray for them until we are able to love them the way that God loves them. That is truly revolutionary.


[2] Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of Matthew

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