Category Archives: Kingdom of God

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

In various ways we can build walls that divide us from numerous other people. The result is a culture of us verses them, where this wrong is justified. What we are left with is an is what Miroslav Volf describes as a “glaring incongruity” where “in a world so manifestly drenched with evil everybody is innocent in their own eyes” (Exclusion and Embrace, p. 79).

Then comes along Jesus who calls us to follow him and as we do, challenges us to break down these hostile divisions. Here is a challenging story about Jesus found in Matthew 9:9-13:

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax booth. “Follow me,” he said to him. And he got up and followed him. As Jesus was having a meal in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with Jesus and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this he said, “Those who are healthy don’t need a physician, but those who are sick do. Go and learn what this saying means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Most Christians are familiar with this story and Jesus’ saying, “I want mercy and not sacrifice.” But I wonder… Have we really taken time to do just what Jesus says and “Go and learn what this saying means”?

Breaking Boundaries

Last summer after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by officer Darren Wilson, protests erupted across America. Regardless of what happened on August 9, 2014, the incident and the ensuing demonstrations showed that there was still much racial tension between Blacks and Whites. This had to do with the perceived feeling on the part of the Black community that they are still treated unfairly by Police and the White power establishment. Whether you agree with that assessment or not, there normally is always a certain amount of truth to perception. Nevertheless, the situation created a politically hostile climate and threatened to create an “Us vs. Them” world. If you were on the side of the Darren Wilson and Law Enforcement then it seemed that you were against the Blacks. On the other hand, if you were on the side of the Blacks then it seemed as though you were against the Police and White people.

Here in Columbia, people joined in these protests. I was one of them and I took my daughter along with me. We joined with some from our community to say that “Black Lives Matter!” Believe it or not, I was told by one White person that I was being racist because I stood there peacefully demonstrating with other Black and White people. My daughter and I stayed at the demonstration for about two hours, where I engaged in several good conversations with some Black people about issues pertaining to racism and discrimination in America. At the demonstration, there were several Howard County Police officers present in order to make sure the demonstrations remained peaceful and lawful. So as my daughter and I were leaving, I walked up to the police officers and thanked them for doing a very difficult and underpaid job.

Why go and demonstrate with a community of Black people? Why stop and thank the police for doing their job? Here is why. Because I will let my Black Neighbors and my neighbors who serve as police officers become my enemy and become the “them.” It has nothing to do with my opinion of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri and what has happened in other police shootings of Black men. It has everything to do with following Jesus and refusing to allow the barriers that society would like to build up define who I will fellowship with.

Following… Jesus or the Pharisees?

It seems that if we really are following Jesus, then we cannot just religiously talk about reconciliation. We must actually attempt to practice reconciliation which involves getting up and following Jesus into the homes where he eats with those people, the “tax-collectors and sinners,” who were excluded behind a barrier that his society had built. Jesus did this without ever endorsing or approving of any sin and so can we.

Our society is full of divisions where an “Us vs. Them” reality exists at some level… Blacks and Whites, Christians and Muslims, Liberals and Conservatives, etc… Too often we align ourselves with a version of “Us” and hedge the boundary lines. That’s not the way of Jesus. So what can we do?

  • Option #1: As followers of Jesus we can actually follow Jesus among “Them” in order to show mercy rather than sacrifice. Remember, that Jesus’ practice of mercy is done among the sinners. The Kingdom of God was a space that had room for everyone, not just the righteous.
  • Option #2: We can follow the Pharisees, justifying our exclusion of “Them” in order to maintain our own purified socio-religious and political enclave. Remember, the Pharisees read their Bible’s too and they had their reasons which sounded very biblical too (perhaps they even came replete with biblical proof-texts). Yet they were wrong!

When Jesus said, “I want mercy and not sacrifice,” he really meant it and it is important that we honor his desire. But to do that, maybe instead of becoming quick to defend our religious freedom so that a pizza parlor doesn’t have to cater a gay wedding, we should instead pause and discern what it means to show mercy rather than sacrifice. Or maybe, instead of becoming quick to defend our rights by joining in an online bullying campaign because some small town restaurant owner doesn’t share our same moral-political view, maybe we should learn what it means to show mercy rather than sacrifice.

After all, Jesus did also say “Go and learn what this saying means…”

I Don’t Miss Mayberry. . . And Neither Should You!

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Mettitt

I’m old enough that I can remember watching The Andy Griffith show air regularly as reruns on television. I also remember watching the shows Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. It was good wholesome family oriented television that parents could watch with their children without having to worry about what those little ears and eyes might encounter.

Of course, The Andy Griffith Show took place in the fictional town of Mayberry. It was a small town, an all American kind of town. Neighbors knew each other, there weren’t any video games to keep children from playing outdoors, and the most serious crime was when Barney, the Deputy Sheriff would take Otis the drunkard to jail to sleep it off. That certainly seems like the ideal kind of place to live and make a life for ourselves. Heck, even though I didn’t grow up in a single parent home, it certainly would’ve been nice to have an Aunt Bee around always having a fresh-baked apple pie hot off the stove. If only we could return to way back when, right?

Wrong!

As the title suggests, I don’t miss Mayberry and what it represents and neither should you. As wholesome and pleasant as Mayberry may seem, I’m sure not a single Black person would enjoy going back to America’s Mayberry era. Not when being black meant being forced to ride at the back of the bus, not having the right to vote, and even being lynched. In fact, there’s more than a few groups of people that would not enjoy going back in time. That was a time when many still believed a woman’s place was nowhere else but in the home (not that there is anything wrong with women choosing to be homemakers) and sometimes that was a home where women were abused by their husbands while the law did little to nothing since it was a “domestic problem.” Let’s not forget the mentally ill, the mentally handicapped, and many other groups who were marginalized and mistreated.

So no, I don’t want to go way back when and I don’t know why any other Christian would either. In fact, I don’t know why Christians would long for any idyllic American culture, be it the traditional culture that Mayberry represents or the more progressive culture that America has seemingly become.

Growing up, we would sing the spiritual This World Is Not My Home during church services. Some churches still sing it. But do we really mean it? Because whether it’s the down-home traditional America or the more progressive America, many American Christians seem baptize the American ideal as the best thing since sliced bread.

Can We Recover Our Hope?

Christianity in America really needs to recover a sense of eschatological hope. That is, the church needs to learn once again what it is to live with hope. . . to be in the present what it awaits for and what it already is in the fullness of time. The Apostle Paul writes Philippians 3:20-21,

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Only when Jesus returns will everything in life, including our own bodies, become what it is meant to be. Right now we live with a promise which is hope to us in Christ because we know what our future is. So if this is what we are to eagerly await, why dream and politic for good ole’ Mayberry or it’s American antithesis? Christians belong to neither and await neither!

However, let me push this a bit farther. Within the context of Philippians 3:20-21, Paul is contrasting the Christian disposition of being set toward to the second-coming of the Lord with people who have their minds set on “earthly things (v. 19). While Paul is directly talking about people driven by hedonistic values where their own stomach becomes their god, it isn’t a stretch at all to say that Christians who for an idyllic American life also have their minds set on earthly things.

This is not to say that everything about America then and now is bad, as that would be a gross mischaracterization. There were and are many good things about America. Yet no matter how good we think America was or is, it will not be when Jesus comes again. One day when Jesus return, everything will be brought under his reign. Until then, the only way for the world to know now that Jesus is Lord is for us, the church of Jesus Christ, to live in hope of that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confesses. We can’t do that when we’re preaching sermons in the sanctuary, on Facebook, or else that says “I Miss Mayberry.”

The Conversation Churches Must Engage

As the circumstances of our surrounding culture and community change, so do the issues that face every local church. Often the issues, be it poverty, sexuality, religious pluralism, etc…, remain general enough that a church can ignore them if they wise. But at some point a church will have a visitor come from that new Section 8 housing down the street, having many needs and lives in that new Section 8 housing around the corner. Or that church will learn that the local Muslims are planning to build a Mosque across the street from where the church meets. Or someone in that church will come out of the closet, telling others that they are gay. Suddenly what remained as general issue  become very particular issues that impact the local church in such a way that whatever the response is, it will reshape the identity of the church.

This is called a kairos-moment in the life of the church. The word “kairos” comes from the Greek language and literally means time but not in the chronological sense like the time of day. It refers to an event that is happening among the church which is an opportunity for the church. Regardless of the circumstances of such a kairos-moment, it is an opportunity from God to listen and then walk on mission with God in such a way that the church is transformed. Or, depending on how the church responds, it is an opportunity from God that the church ignores, rejects, etc… which leads to a loss of mission. This is where churches begin to decline, anxiously seeking to go back in time and repeat the past because they fool themselves into believing trying a hundred different versions of the same thing over and over will somehow reap different results.

Responding To A Kairos-Moment

As I said, such kairos-moments are an opportunity for the church. Yet because the particular circumstances of these kairos-moments are difficult issues that raise theological questions and awaken sensitive political triggers, it is tempting and easy for churches just to avoid the issues. Or what happens is that people in the church simply react with a defensive (and highly emotive) response. When this happens, various platitudes, that have more in common with the American left and right than they do with the gospel, are underscored with biblical proof-texts and used as weapons to win the fight. Yet, neither avoiding the issue nor taking a defensive posture will help. By avoiding these kairos-moments, churches are unable to hear God’s voice and by taking a defensive posture, churches are unable to see where God is working.

The first response to such kairos-moments is spiritual-discernment. Such discernment is a conversation that leads to a thoughtful and contextualized response so that the church may continue living on mission with God as faithful followers of Jesus who are animated by the Spirit. It is a conversation that the leaders of the church must have with each other but it is also a conversation that the leaders must have with the rest of the church as well − and the conversation between the leaders and the rest of the church must shape the conversation that the leaders continue having amongst themselves. Failure to have either conversation will again simply result in a lost opportunity, likely rendering the local church as futile among the surrounding culture and community.

Engaging In Spiritual Discernent

I want to suggest two criterions for engaging in spiritual-discernment regarding any particular kairos-moment that I believe will help churches step forward on mission with God These are not the only criterions that could be discussed but they are two that I believe matter immensely.

PROCEED BY GRACE WITH FAITH. The spiritual-discernment necessary here is a process that takes the church into a wilderness so to speak. Sometimes it can feel like walking on ice in the dark… to find the shore, everyone must continue forward but with each step there is a bit of uncertainty as to whether the ice is going to break. It’s easy to become frustrated.

Show each other grace, allow each other to think openly and even say things that may not sound so wise at the moment. And don’t worry about making some mistakes along the way. The journey into the wilderness will come with some mistakes but have faith. Just as God preserved Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness, so will God preserve his people today. What the promise-land looks like will be as surprising as it was for Israel but God will lead the church there. So proceed forward but do so by the grace of God for each other with an abiding faith in God.

ENGAGE SCRIPTURE, TRADITION, & CULTURE TOGETHER. The particular issues that churches face today may share many similarities with the circumstances that other churches find themselves in. Yet they are not exactly the same either, so churches cannot simply juxtapose scripture or Christian tradition down upon any issue and say that what was done before is the church should do now. This locks the church into merely trying to repeat the past rather than living as a present embodiment of the gospel.

The conversation of spiritual-discernment involves bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other. By doing this, churches will discern what their theological praxis (how the church embodies the gospel) must involve for the present circumstances. Formulaically, the conversation of spiritual discernment is: Scripture (S) + Tradition (T) + Culture (C)= Theological Practice (ThP).

S + T + C = ThP

By bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other, the conversation is asking “What does the gospel look like in this?” and “How does the church enact the gospel Jesus lived in this?” The only thing left is for the church to faithfully follow Jesus where the Spirit leads, acting upon what God reveals.

One Final Thought

There is obviously much more to say about bringing scripture, tradition, and culture into conversation with each other that can be said in one blog post. So I hope to say more in the coming months. Nevertheless, this is the sort of conversation that the church had at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), has had at different moments throughout history, and must keep having. Yet it’s also a conversation for every local church because that is where the circumstances of culture are encountered in the particular. With that in mind, such conversations must always take place from a posture of listening, that is bathed in prayer and unequivocally faithful to Jesus, who is the Lord, and therefore a faithful embodiment of the gospel Jesus lived and proclaimed.

Living The Dream

The last time I checked, my children attend school with children from thirty-four different nationalities. Our neighborhood is a diverse dwelling of different races, ethnicities, religious beliefs and most everything else you would expect of a suburban community located between the cities of Baltimore and Washington D.C. There aren’t separate water fountains and everyone is free to sit where they like on the city busses. So clearly things have improved from the not-to-distant days of the past when racial segregation was legal in America.

For that reason and for good reason, we observe January 19th as Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” 

– Martin Luther King Jr.

But we would be foolish to believe that dream has been fully realized.

On The Other Side of the Tracks

The neighborhood I live in is also on the decline. It’s a neighborhood where some of the homes are designated as Section 8 housing. That means the increase of lower-income residents, which are more likely to be minorities, and the perceived increase of other social problems such as drugs and crime typically associated with lower-income neighborhoods. Yet I distinctly remember a Christian advising me to pick a different neighborhood to live in, one that wasn’t like “the hood.”

In fact, this is not the first time I have had a Christian offer me advice on where to live based on the conditions and social make-up of the neighborhood. I once had a Christian tell me I should avoid living in an area of town literally on the other side of the railroad tracks that had a lot of Muslim immigrants. When I lived in Memphis, in a neighborhood with its share of challenges, there were several occasions when a Christian questioned my wisdom about where my family and I lived.

None of these Christians are bad people. There not white supremacists or anything like that. They believe in civil rights for everyone and they will gladly volunteer serving meals to the homeless, organizing school supplies for students in need, giving to local charitable organizations, and even helping their church with its benevolent ministries. But then they go back home where it’s nice, quiet, and above all, safe.

Happy to Help, As Long As…

I am writing this because every Christian I know believes in loving others and believes in helping those in need, like the poor. Yet this help is often done at a distance, socially and physically, that we, who are the privileged control. Roberto S. Goizueto writes in his book Caminemos Con Jesús,* “As a society, we are happy to help and serve the poor, as long as we don’t have to walk with them where they walk, that is, as long as we can minister to them from our safe enclosures. The poor can then remain passive object of our actions, rather than friends, compañeros and compañeras with whom we interact” (p. 199). Do we see the problem?

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.'”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King spoke of a dream that had to do with human equality. Certainly our society closer to realizing that dream than it was back on that August day in 1963 when Dr. King spoke of this dream. Yet full realization of the dream destination awaits. Ultimately redemption awaits the return of Jesus who will come and make everything new (cf. Rev 21:5). Yet we, who are the church and already share in this newness of life, are to live as a portrayal what this future hope is life among the present. But this requires more than just ministry to those who have less, little, or none, who don’t live in the nicest or the safest neighborhoods, who may exasperate their struggles with their own poor choices, who may for now only know how to depend on the government for welfare and other social-services… This is a call to walk among them!

Changing the Conversation

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure what all of that should entail at the most concrete level, where the rubber meets the road. I also know that I talk a better game than I play. However, I also know that as Christians we believe God loved us by becoming one of us… becoming flesh in person of Jesus and dwelling among us. So for us to truly care about helping those living in various degrees of poverty, loving them as neighbors just like God has loves, then we must learn how to dwell among them.

One way of dwelling among such people involves changing the way we go about deciding where we will live. Let’s have a different conversation about where we should live. Instead of prioritizing safety, quietness, and convenience when we buy or rent homes, we move where we can participate in the mission of God as dwellers among the people we are called to serve. That begins with prayer and discernment regarding how and where God is calling us to live on mission with him and then we trust God as we obey his leading. Instead of flinching at a neighborhood because it suffers socially, we ask God if this is where he is leading us and how he wants us to serve.

Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. It’s a dream that I believe is anchored in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let’s live the dream.

——————–

* “Let us walk with Jesus”

Because Jesus Says “Come!”

I don’t know what it would be like to walk on water as Peter did but according to the story, doing so led Peter to Jesus. Well, that was until he became afraid and took his eyes off of Jesus. That’s when he stopped walking on the water and began sinking. You can read the entire story of Peter in Matthew 14:22-36.*

Stepping Into The Chaos

Most people who remember the story do so thinking of Jesus. But we shouldn’t forget about Peter because in many ways we are Peter. We here Jesus say “Come!” and that means we must step out of the boat and walk. But stepping out of the boat is scary business because to do so means stepping out and on to the sea, the great symbol of chaos throughout the Bible.

Chaos is difficult and frankly, nobody wants it or needs it. Not I. Not you. The boat is a much safer place. Though it may be surrounded by chaos as it sails on the sea, staying in the boat gives us the illusion that everything is ok and will be ok. Whatever danger staying in the boat may pose, it seems manageable. Faith is unnecessary, we just need to keep sailing until we reach the shore. The only problem is that Jesus isn’t standing on the shore . . . he’s walking on the water, telling us to get out of the boat and come to him.

Peter did the right thing when Jesus called. He got out of the boat and with his eyes fixed on Jesus, he began walking on the water towards Jesus. What got Peter into trouble was taking his eyes off Jesus. That’s when he began sinking. Yet even in sinking, he still did the right thing. That is, he still reached out to Jesus.

Perhaps we would do the same when we feel ourselves sinking in the chaos. But I also know that the boat remains a few yards away. So we might just try swimming back to the boat, thinking that if we can just get back to the boat and get control of the situation ourselves − or at least get things back to manageable situation − then everything will be okay.

It won’t! Jesus isn’t there. Jesus is out on the water bidding us to come join him. Peter did. Even cowering in faith, he reached out to Jesus. And Jesus saved him and sent on to become a founding apostolic witness for this kingdom of God movement that has now gone global.

But Peter never got back into that boat!

Eyes Upon Jesus!

Of course, I’m not really talking about a boat! I’m talking about the church. Your church. My church. Our church.

Jesus is calling but to step on the water and go to him, we have to step out of the boat and that is full of risk. Yet the boat, as we know it, appears safe. It’s surely more convenient. It appears more manageable, as we know how to row this boat because we’ve done it for some time. And if we step out on to the water and find ourselves sinking in the chaos, which seems normal, the temptation is to swim back to the boat, grabbing for a life-preserver, a boat oar, or anything else to feel safe again. But doing so loses focus on Jesus because he isn’t sitting in the boat . . . he’s out walking on the water.

So keep our eyes focused on Jesus and we’ll walk on water, joining Jesus and following him in this Kingdom journey. Just like Peter did . . . who never got back in that boat!

——————–

* This article was originally published in Connecting 29 (October 15, 2014), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ, and has been reformatted for this blog.

Believing In Jesus and His Way

A Farewell to MarsI’m currently reading through Brian Zahnd’s book A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace. The book is about the peaceful, non-violent way of Jesus Christ, which is often ignored and even dismissed as irrelevant by many Christians living in America. In other words, American Christianity believes in Jesus as the Savior but does not necessarily follow Jesus as Lord… at least not when it comes to putting down the sword and picking up the cross. This is why Zahnd says quite clearly and convincingly that, “It’s not enough to believe in Jesus; we also have to believe in the Jesus way!” (p. 142).

To illustrate his point, Zahnd does a little historical work regarding southern culture and the Christian revival throughout the southern states that preceded the American Civil War. Here’s the quote:

In seeking to preserve an economy dependent upon slave labor, Southern churches had embraced a fatally distorted faith. Probably without even knowing what they were doing, these Christians had quite effectively used Jesus and the Bible to validate their racist assumptions and protect their vested interests. They went to church on Sunday. They got saved. They loved Jesus. They waved their palms and shouted hosanna on Palm Sunday. But like the crowd in Jerusalem eighteen centuries earlier, they didn’t know the things that made for peace. And Jesus wept over an America headed to hell. The churches were full and slavery continued—until the Civil War, that is. Then 750,000 people died for the sins of America (p. 146).

My question is how long will Christians keep dismissing the non-violent way of Jesus as irrelevant and how much more carnage will we suffer as a result?

When The Glamour Fades… Discipleship

I’ve been preaching through the Gospel of Mark, which is probably my favorite  of the four Gospels in the New Testament. In a nutshell, the Gospel of Mark is about what it means to truly believe in Jesus. Discipleship!

Reading through the Mark’s Gospel will remind you that Jesus did call us to be just good “church-going” folks. Jesus calls us to follow him and as Mark reminds us, that call takes us to the place where we must choose to pick up our own cross and continue following Jesus into this narrow way that leads to life (cf. Mk. 8:34-35). So I’ll leave you with a quote from a book I recently read by Richard V. Peace, Conversion in the New Testament, reminding us that the following Jesus will not always be an ecstatic journey:

“To follow Jesus as the teacher/prophet/Messiah of popular imagination is one thing. This has glamour and appeal. Clearly Jesus is in touch with the power of God, and equally clearly he plays a unique and special role in God’s scheme of things. But the glamour fades quickly when following Jesus is defined in terms of self-denial and cross-bearing” (p. 257).

Whatever it may look like to deny ourselves and bear our own cross on a daily basis, we do it not because it is easy or pleasurable but because we believe in Jesus… because we believe that salvation only is found in following Jesus into his crucifixion and resurrection.

As darkness and evil continues among the world, may we remember our faith in Jesus!