REPENT, AND BELIEVE IN THE GOSPEL

 

Our culture’s present state of imbalance and disorder is fueled by a whole class of public intellectuals: TV news personalities, members of think tanks, and partisan strategists. They have orchestrated and engineered the toxic soup that we as a society have been drinking in for years. We’re all caught up in this. Regardless of our political commitments, social class, or religious affiliations, we’ve all become disconnected from reality to some degree. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into identity- and ideologically-based tribes. We’ve been lied to, bamboozled by the rich and powerful for so long that it’s often hard to tell which way is up.

Can you feel it? Anxiety is gripping our country. The government shutdown is just a symptom. We live in a society with no shared sense of moral commitment, or even historical reality. There is no longer any solid foundation for us to cling to. We look out on the world, and what we see is so overwhelming. “What can I do? What difference can I possibly make in the face of this level of confusion and mayhem?”

In times like these, our membership in the body of Christ is revealed to be so important. As friends of Jesus, we have access to a source of truth that reaches beyond our present state of confusion. Through Jesus, God is reaching into history and speaking directly to us. Regardless of what we see on TV or Twitter, the Holy Spirit is available to us as a trustworthy source of guidance.

We are participants in a tradition that spans back thousands of years. We are part of a people and a community that has survived even worse evil than that which we see in our present context. The church of Jesus Christ is a community capable of living truth boldly, speaking into times of hatred and chaos. In this community, God binds us together in the spirit of love, even in the face of this world’s rancor and blind hatred.

We’ve just passed through the Christmas season. Christmas is a time that we tend to sentimentalize. We think about the joy and wonder of the star and three wise men. We focus on the love of the mother Mary for her infant son. On the sweetness and vulnerability of the Christ child, lying in a manger. Star of wonder, star of light; star of royal beauty bright.

And the light of that star is real. There is joy in the season of our savior’s birth. But we are also cognizant that God had to send that starlight for a reason. That dim light could be so clearly seen in the night’s sky, because it was indeed nighttime in Israel. The age of Jesus was a time of deep darkness, sorrow, and loss.

It was a time when a petty dictator like Herod could slaughter all of the infant children in a town just to eliminate a possible rival. A time when thousands of Jews were crucified by the sides of the road, a testimony to the futility of rebellion against the brutal occupation of the Roman Empire. Only in retrospect can we perceive that the days of Jesus were ones of hope and promise. For those who lived them, it was deepest darkness.

People knew they needed a savior. The common people of Israel flocked to Jesus, because they knew just how desperate their situation was. And not just Jesus. The people of Israel were desperate for healing and liberation, and they were looking for God’s love wherever they could find it. That’s why they came to John by the thousands. That’s why they joined this wild man in the desert, by the side of the river Jordan. That’s why they sought John’s baptism – immersion in water as a sign of repentance.

This is where Jesus began his ministry: immersed in the waters of the Jordan; emerging from the river and seeing the heavens torn open, the Holy Spirit of God descending on him like a dove. This is where Jesus received his call to ministry. A call to be light in the darkness. To take the ministry of John, the call to repentance, and take the next step.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.” This was Jesus’ first sermon. This is the foundation and core of Jesus’ ministry. The announcement of the reign of God on earth, coming now and immediately. Repentance: turning away from the darkness and wickedness of this present world and throwing our lot in entirely with God.

It can’t be overstated how foolish this message must have seemed to those in the centers of worldly power at that time – in Jerusalem, in Caesarea, and in Rome. The domination of Rome’s empire seemed just as absolute and unquestionable as global capitalism and nuclear-armed military powers seem today.

The idea that a little nobody like Jesus, emerging from a region that even the Jews considered a backwater, could represent a real threat to empire was preposterous. For him to declare the empire of God in the midst of Roman occupation was almost as unbelievable as preaching an economy of love in the midst our culture’s economy of wealth accumulation and income inequality.

But, as implausible as Jesus’ message was, there were some who did believe. Those who were so desperate to see the light that they were ready to die to darkness. Women and men who flocked – first to John, and later to Jesus – immersing themselves first in the waters of the Jordan and later into the power of the Holy Spirit. Despite the darkness of the world around them, their lives were transformed. They became a light shining in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome them.

Are we light in our present darkness? Are we repenting like Jesus calls us to? Are we surrendering our lives to the love, life, and power that Jesus wants to reveal in us?

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

The present form of this world is passing away. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the gospel.

Paul is exhorting the church to become fully repentant, fully given over to the life of God’s kingdom. To be transformed by God’s love, justice, and spiritual power. He invites us into a journey of faith that utterly breaks down the facade of normalcy that we live in. Paul writes that the age of darkness and wickedness is coming to an end. We can no longer act like it’s business as usual.

Do you believe that? Do you feel it in your bones? Can you sense that this present order is passing away? That in the midst of this darkness, the true light that enlightens every person is coming into the world?

Repentance is a tough word. It’s a word that has been severely damaged by two thousand years of human religion. We’ve turned it into a moralistic, goody-two-shoes word that is mostly focused on personal sin and feeling bad about our naughty deeds. But the original meaning of repentance is far deeper than that. It’s not just about changing our behavior and doing fewer bad things.

Repentance, in the biblical sense, is about a total transformation of character and perspective. It is about becoming a member of the revolutionary God movement. It’s about being baptized into death, and emerging into another life altogether. It’s about awakening from the slumber of this numb and stupefied world, to see reality as God sees it.

Repentance means we have to stop in our tracks and refuse to participate in the everyday evil that surrounds us. Even if it costs us greatly. Even if it puts us out of step with everyone around us. Even if it means discomfort, being socially ostracized, losing our jobs – or worse. Repentance means that we have left the kingdoms of this world and entered into the sovereign power of the crucified savior.

This kind of repentance is not mere pietism. Repentance is not a matter of sentiment or emotional catharsis. It is the very mechanism by which the gospel can be enacted and experienced in our lives, and in our shared life as the people of God.

We learn from the prophet Jonah that repentance is essential to survival. For as Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”

The wrath of God is real. In the face of violence, oppression, deceit, and abuse, God’s anger is real and justified. Just as God sent Jonah to proclaim judgment on the city of Nineveh, he is sending prophets to our own city. God is sending the prophets to preach repentance, before it is too late.

Because this path we’re on as a nation, it leads to death. The wickedness of our city, of our nation, cries to heaven. We’re no different from Nineveh, or Sodom, or Rome. In his very great love, God is sending his prophets to call us to a different way of life. God is calling us out of the death-ways of Babylon and into the beauty and love of the New Jerusalem. As the apostle writes in Second Peter:

“The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.”

The day of the Lord is coming. Darkness will give way to the light. What has been hidden will be revealed. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Will we be like the people of Nineveh, who heard the judgment of God and turned from their evil ways? Or will we be like the people of Sodom, who tried to abuse and humiliate the angels who were sent to warn them? Will we cling to the comforts of complicity and silence, or will we become instruments of transformation so that our city might be saved? God promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if he could find even ten righteous people in it. Are there ten righteous among us today?

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” This is an invitation to a radical new way of life. “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” We have an opportunity to embrace a kind of love and joy that is presently unimaginable.

What would it look like for us to be a fearless, repentant people in the midst of an empire even greater than Rome? What does it mean for us to repent and proclaim the gospel message to the culture around us? Could we be the prophets that God wants to send?

We must not underestimate the urgency and reality of this call. The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. The power and justice of God is present with us, and he will judge us. He will judge us, and he will judge this society that we live in. Are we ready to stand before him and receive that judgment? Is our city, nation, and world ready? How does God want to use us to ensure that every person, every power, every institution will hear the gospel message and have an opportunity to repent?

God is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but that all to come to repentance. But have no doubt: without repentance, we will perish. Without God’s love, we will self-destruct. Without the light of Jesus, we will drown in the darkness.

Will we become the light?

JUSTICE IS COMING (IT IS JESUS)

Human Rights Sunday

2 Peter 3:8-15a, Isaiah 40:1-11

 Nate Hosler

The second Sunday in Advent

Anticipation. Waiting. Agonizing? Uncertain. Advent—waiting for the promised One. On Thursday we rose early for our 3-4 hour drive and hit the road. Rutted. Through dry, mostly flat land with low trees except for the palms. Security checkpoints with men with big guns and barricades. Road blocks of barrels or tires or logs at checkpoints which jut, maybe half way, into the road. These alternate—one from the left, right, left, right—which slows traffic. This traffic slowing strategy is also used through villages which are lined with market stands. This works-sort of- but at times it generates a certain careening as cars coming opposing directions navigate as quickly as possible. While we barreled through one such obstacle course a gas tanker kept pace with us leading our way, weaving wildly, looking a little like the Joker in Batman driving the tractor trailer. Then, passing Gombi, we tighten a bad sounding wheel before engaging the long smoother straightaways (regularly hanging at 85 miles an hour) to Yola and the airport. As a mere passenger rather than driver, I wait. Bracing myself, observing, talking—but waiting.

 My last 5 in-country flights have been delayed but just in case this one isn’t we get there early enough. They aren’t boarding yet and aren’t even checking us in. So, I wait. It’d be nice to be productive, but the uncertain waiting is distracting. Once the check-in begins, it will be a scramble. Anticipation. Sort of poised, ready. No word on the delay, but that the harmattan dust in the air from the Sahara is too thick. Another flight arrives…hope is sparked. The airport assistant guy, Abdul, suggests I might want to get a seat on this flight. Wasn’t sure, but they were filled anyway when he checks. Maybe an hour or so later it is starting to get uncertain if we will get out before they shut down flights. I text him and ask for my paper ticket print-out so that I have it if he leaves. Not minutes later, they begin checking in. He makes a mad dash towards me across the empty room to retrieve the paper and dives into line. Our hope is restored. Anticipation. Checked in. Through security. Waiting. One hour. Maybe another. Text the Ambassador to say I’ll probably miss our meeting.

Then high above, through a strangely garbled PA system, something is announced. Through deciphering or sleuthing we learn that the flight will arrive from Abuja by 5:50 pm (flight was to depart by 12:15). Relief. Hope at the first bit of information passed on to us in 6 hours—the masses who wait. 5:45. 5:50. This is the story of Advent. Of the waiting and expectation of the coming Messiah who will free the captive, heal the blind, cast off the oppressor, and proclaim reconciliation with God.

Another slightly less garbled but still incomprehensible announcement. A young messenger of doom walks around and confirms. The flight has been canceled. Which means I also miss my flight home.

At the time of writing parts of this I remain in the anticipation of both Advent and getting a flight home. Though we are still weeks from the coming of Jesus, we may remember from last year that we will not be disappointed. The messengers will not be my young airport messenger of doom but the angels to the shepherds. But that is getting ahead of where we are today. Today we wait.

Our passage is 2 Peter 3:8-15a.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 

The passage begins by challenging our notions of God’s time and patience. If 1000 years = a day for God, then what does that break down to per minute? Per second? However, if a day is like a thousand years then what does that mean as the reverse? This sounds less like a common math problem (unless of course this is what one learns if one majors in math) and more like the Matrix or Inception, movies in which time and space bend in unusual ways. This is not simply asserting that God experiences time in a very accelerated or very slow manner.

 This number 1000 came back to me this week while I was at the daily—that is every day at 5:00 at the Unity Fountain next to the Transcorp Hotel in Abuja—vigil marking the abduction of the school girls from Chibok. This past Monday was 1330th day. Today, Sunday December 10th, is 1336 days. How has God experienced these days? There is some old-timey philosophy that Christians have occasionally been influenced by that states that the divine must be above change and above being influenced by the merely human. Our God, however, (which is most scandalous), becomes incarnate and joins us in our existence and joy and pain.  

That Jesus is coming (since we are in advent we refer to it in the future) and will show up in this world as God incarnate—God having taken on flesh and blood and pain and joy—that this is our God then means that God has not been distant from us nor the school girls of Chibok these 1336 days. Jesus came healing and serving and feeling and calls us to the same—or should I say, will call us to do the same once he is born.

Jesus, and thus God, is not above pain and the agony of the kidnapped and their families but with them. God is with us. God is with you. This is a type of hope. The passage continues on, expounding on the timeliness of God.

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,[a] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 

The Lord is not patient out of lack of concern but as an act of mercy. The act of mercy which allows for repentance. This call to repentance is both urgent and marked by delay. Delay for repentance and turning. There are many horrible things in this world. I noted the Chibok Girls. There have been many others. Dr. Rebecca Dali has, during her work of humanitarian relief, collected some 4,000 names, dates, and locations of people abducted.

On my flight back from Maiduguri I was wearing my Office of Public Witness t-shirt. On the back is our tag line—“Seeking to live the peace of Jesus publicly.” The man sitting beside me said he liked it…it turned out that he was EYN. We talked for the whole flight to Abuja about his research in public health and how people cannot access it. Towards the end I learned he has 4 children. The youngest is a boy and named after his father. Even later in the flight he revealed that his father had been kidnapped and killed. Not by Boko Haram but by the Nigerian military.

So, when the Office of Public Witness works with the Nigerian Working Group which we convene on military accountability and human rights, raising concerns about the sale of weapons by the US, it is not an abstract thought. It is not a sterile appeal to theoretical legal frameworks, which are useful and regularly used, but it is because we follow a God who feels the pain of people and calls us to a ministry feeling this pain—and then acting in response. God’s patience is for repentance. God’s patience is for repentance. Jesus the one whose birth we anticipate in advent is the embodiment of this justice.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Note that this dissolving is not simply destruction but a process of revealing. It is a disclosing of acts done. Because of this we should live accordingly. Because of this we can also trust that acts of injustice will be brought to light.

11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening[c] the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Where righteousness is at home. Righteousness can also be translated justice. “We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where justice dwells”

14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Because of this being made known—this revealing work—we recognize that that this is good news for those on the side of justice. However, it is concerning for those who are not. Advent is the marking of the coming of Jesus—the justice of God. This is the good news that the angels will proclaim. While this is concerning for some—which may be us—we should consider the patience of the Lord as our salvation. So, this coming and revealing is good news for both the just and unjust for both the righteous and unrighteous.

The patience of God leaves room for repentance. This is not the same as those clergy whom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. rebukes. It is not patience in the face of wrong. There is both a patience leading towards repentance and an impatience with abuse. “everything with be disclosed” in the last day–God reveals what is hidden and brings to justice.

 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God….

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed..

YOU ARE MISTY

James 4:13-5:6, Job 38:4-21

Nate Hosler

This is the eighth sermon in our sermon series on the book of James. Due to technical difficulties, there is currently no audio for this sermon.

Writing this, I was sitting on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Below me closer to the water on my left and right are spots that mark many significant points in Jesus ministry. The ancient village of Capernaum, a chapel marking the Primacy of Peter, and a chapel with the famous mosaic of two fishes and 5 loaves from the year 480 marking the spot where Jesus multiplied these meager foods and fed the crowds. In Capernaum there is a house that then became the site of a church in 5th century. The house is thought to be that of the mother-in-law of Peter where Jesus would stay and where the mother was healed. It was also the site of one of the earliest house churches. Maybe 50 yards away there is the remains of a Synagogue for the Byzantine period. This synagogue is built with stone imported from Jerusalem but built on an earlier foundation of local basalt stone—Some archaeologists assert that this earlier synagogue is from the time of Jesus.

To my left (to the north) 20 miles is Syria whose civil war and refugee crisis requires no introduction. Back south is the West Bank of the Palestinian territories. Most of the week to this point has been hearing from an assortment of political, religious, NGO, and peacebuilding workers struggling in a situation of conflict that feels rather intractable. The significance of the land both present and past is of incomparable magnitude.

Along the way I have been reading and meditating on our passage in James.

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” 14 Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. 17 Anyone, then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, commits sin.

Narrowly, this and the following verses are about wealth. I think however, that money stands in for the assumption that we are in control or our desire to be in control. Though God (and the world with its histories and cultures) are big, you are misty—mist-like, ephemeral. This assertion is not negative, not an insult, it is simply honest. Though those of us who are at least relatively well-off may forget this, our lives are indeed contingent. Our lives are dependent. They are based in God. James addresses the one who confidently says they will do this or that. The hearers of the letter of James were likely not the well off—or the overly wealthy. So, it may not be that this or the next portion are as directly applicable to the immediate crowd. The general assertion, however, is very applicable, hence its inclusion. To those who are well confident that their plans will succeed, James asserts—you are mist—misty—mist-like in the fleeting quality of your life. Because you cannot know what will happen you should always acknowledge that even the best laid plans rest in God. The habit and practice that James exhorts is to, in all things, acknowledge that one’s life is held in God.

Your existence is in God

As I’ve been reading James I have also been thinking about a similar passage in the Sermon on the Mount. Given my writing location if felt particularly relevant to note this. In the 6th chapter of Matthew, Jesus teaches. Why worry about your life?—about what you will eat or drink or wear. Are not the flowers of the field more splendid than Solomon, the most extravagantly dressed of all kings?

The sign by the entrance says, “We refuse to be enemies.” The Tent of Nations (http://www.tentofnations.org/ )  is a Palestinian farm on a hill top in area C. Area C is part of the West Bank, the land of the future Palestinian State. It is also the site of many settlements, which are illegal in international law, undermining the possibility of a future state, and more like towns or cities than anything makeshift that is indicated by the term “settlement.” To get to the Tent of Nations we left our van and climb over boulders that have been place on their road a few hundred meters from their farm in order to impede access. The farm is on a hill top. Every other hill top surrounding has a massive settlement.

We met with Daoud Nasser whose family has lived there for generations. Unlike most Palestinians whose land is at risk they have a clear line of documentation of land ownership going back to the Ottoman Period in the early 1900s. Since the land is documented but still deemed very desirable they have been fighting in courts since the early 1990s. The case keeps getting passed back and forth between the Supreme Court and Military courts. They must keep fighting and filing because if they don’t they will be forced out. They can’t build any new structures and the structures they have—even the tent like structures—have demolition orders on them. Daoud Nasser, though, seems to be full of joy. He told of their struggle just to keep their family’s land. He demonstrates a trust in God and in others to continue on.

Again, your existence is in God. You are mist-like but God is steadfast.

Unsurprisingly the rich also have this problem. They also easily forget that their existence is in God.

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.

James doesn’t discuss if there are righteous ways to be rich. Certainly, our congregation isn’t rich compared to much of Capitol Hill. Because of this and certain prophetic inclinations we may find it easy to speak critically—to speak “prophetically.” However, though we are not that rich we are comparatively rich in relation to much of the world. And as such may be indicted. The rich people that James addresses have built their riches on the backs of others. For white America the legacy of slavery of Africans and genocide of Indigenous communities is a clear example. But also, immigration, trade, and foreign policy often continue this pattern.

What we don’t know is if James has certain rich folks in mind or assumes that all those who are rich have earned it through injustice. It is also unclear if the “rich” are those who meet a certain income bracket (which seems unlikely) or if it is short-hand for those in power.  This call is a call to repentance. It is a call towards being rightly oriented toward God and others. The call to repentance and to acknowledging that one’s existence is based in God rather than in one’s own might or smarts or good looks or cunning is not against but for the one being challenged. Only when you care about that person or entity can you fully embrace the uncomfortable confrontation. Repenting of this is in the interest of both the oppressor and the oppressed.

Let’s suppose that riches and power are somewhat interchangeable. During the past two weeks the question of power and who is criticized in what manner has been close at hand for me. For Palestinians living under Israeli occupation the restricted rights, living under military law, limited ability to move freely, and lagging infrastructure is clearly unjust. For many Israelis their existence as a small country surrounded by the much bigger and often hostile Arab world, history of the Holocaust, and repeated abuses throughout history lead to a strong emphasis on “security” at any cost. Many wars in the past decades as well as an enforced separation which does not allow interaction with Palestinians in normal life keeps these fears alive and well.

One morning on this trip we met with Defense for Children International. They explained that there are 500-700 cases of Palestinian children being convicted in Israeli military courts. Many times, the kids (usually but not always boys) are arrested from their beds at night. Regularly they are beaten on the way. Harshly interrogated. And sign confessions written in a language which they can’t read in order to get out sooner. Rarely can they see their parents or actually meet with a lawyer to know their rights. Because of this work of documentation and exposure DCI is declared an enemy and traitor of the state of Israel because it highlights these abuses. Many Christians in the US would harshly criticize me for repeating these things—claiming that the Old Testament commands me to “Bless Israel.” However, as noted earlier, criticism is not the opposite of blessing. Criticism may be part of blessing.

Even as I recount these few notes from an hour long meeting I think back and begin to feel overwhelmed. And this was only one meeting out of the whole week. It is easy to feel the mist-like character of my life when held up against the enormity of the world. The enormity of the ancient stones and places of Jesus. The enormity of Syria just down the road. The enormity of the so called Israeli and Palestinian conflict. I’m not sure that this is what James intends, but getting to the point of realizing our mistiness—our mist-like nature—is half the struggle. The second half is recognizing that our existence is in God. We are mist but our existence is sustained by the God who has mysteriously created us and called us. Our existence is in the God that has created and called us beyond ourselves.

THERE WILL BE NO TOMAHAWK MISSILES IN THE KINGDOM OF GOD

Philippians 2:5-11 & Matthew 21:1-11

Micah Bales

Our gospel reading this morning is about Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem, just days before he would be arrested and executed.

Jesus is riding on a donkey, and the people are all around him. There were massive crowds in town for Passover, and Jesus’ arrival in the city is perfectly time to cause a stir. The thousands of pilgrims are waving palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

The crowd was hopeful that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that the king of Israel would ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. As Jesus enters this city, this is a royal procession. He is the Messiah, coming king of Israel! The crowds welcome him, waving palm branches and laying them down on the ground before Jesus.

It wasn’t an accident that the crowds were waving palm branches. I know most of us grew up seeing palm branches as part of Palm Sunday, but Jesus didn’t invent palms as a religious symbol. In fact, palm branches were a very potent political symbol throughout the ancient world. Think about the wreaths and garlands that ancient athletes and rulers would wear. Think of the laurels of Olympic champions. The palm was a similar symbol for the ancients. The palm was a symbol of victory.

It was also a sign of resistance. The palm branch was a major symbol in the Macabeean revolt (167-160 BC) that freed Israel from the rule of the Seleucid Greeks. Waving palm branches was a symbol of power, resistance, and Messianic expectations. It was a big middle finger to Rome. It expressed the hope that this Jesus of Nazareth might be the one who would finally throw off the yoke of the Roman oppressor. Would Jesus finally establish the long-awaited Jewish kingdom in the mold of King David? That was the burning hope and desire of thousands of Jews that day.

Our other reading this morning is from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This passage provides us a deeper understanding of what Jesus is going through during his entry into Jerusalem. Paul talks about how Jesus rejected the way of power and domination. He writes about how Jesus was willing to be humbled and take on the form of a slave to serve others. Because of this humility and self-emptying, God highly exalts Jesus. He went as low as you can go, and God lifted him up. The one who suffered and died was given the name that is above every name. Absolute power, joy, triumph.

With Paul’s words as background, I want to take us back to the Passover crowds in Jerusalem. Hear their cheers. Feel the hope they have for Jesus. The desire to see Israel become a great nation again. To have a king, a military ruler who can end the Roman oppression and bring justice to the land. That’s what the crowds are expecting from Jesus.

But God never desired his people to have a king like the nations. God has always wanted to lead his people himself. For generations, the Hebrews wandered with God in the wilderness. He lived in a tent – no temple built by human hands could contain him. He was a mobile God. A mysterious God. A God who dwelt among his people and guided them directly.

It was only after Israel got a king that God “settled down.” It was only during the time of Solomon that God moved from the tent to the temple. And it was never clear that God was entirely willing to make that move. The God who says, “I AM what I AM,” will not be contained, immobilized, and idolized.

Before Israel had a king, the people got their marching orders directly from God. They listened to God together – when they were still in the desert, it says that Moses would speak to God at the Tent of Meeting, and everyone else in the camp would stand at the entrance to their tents and look on as Moses spoke with God. He spoke with God like one speaks to a friend.

When Israel became a monarchy, there was no more speaking among friends. Instead, one man would call the shots, according to his own judgments. One man would be exalted above all the others, and Jewish society would begin to take on the pyramid shape of the social order that God had liberated them from in Egypt.

When Israel instituted a kingship, the prophet Samuel warned them: “OK, you can do this. But this new king you’re asking for, he’s going to take your daughters for his harem and servants. He’s going to take your sons for military service, and get them killed in foreign wars. He’s going to demand huge taxes and tributes to feed his royal court. By the time this is all over, you’re going to wish you’d never asked for a king. This isn’t what I want. It’s definitely not God wants. But if you insist on going this way, he’s not going to stop you.”

Despite his warnings, Israel decided to anoint a king anyway. This was really depressing for Samuel, who know what this decision represented. But God told Samuel, “Don’t make this personal. This isn’t about you. They’re not rejecting you, Samuel. They’re rejecting me.”

To have a king is to reject God.

But when the people of Israel looked at Jesus, a king is what they wanted to see. They saw a military leader. They saw a strong man. They dreamed of a new King David, someone who would fit into this kingship model that so displeases God. They all knew the story. They knew that kingship was, at best, a compromise solution. And yet it was the best outcome they could imagine.

But Jesus isn’t the Messiah they’re looking for. Jesus isn’t a messiah at all, according to the Davidic model. If anything, he’s an anti-messiah. Rather than doing the killing, he’s going to be the one getting killed. Rather than doing the humiliating and torturing, he’s going to be the one being humiliated and tortured. Instead of being in a position of strength, he’ll be in a position of weakness. He’s not going to be the master, he’s going to be the slave – the slave of all.

Things haven’t changed that much in two thousand years. We’re still looking for a king. A military messiah. A strongman who can shout orders, sit on top of the pyramid, and bring order to a hierarchical, unequal society. What was true for the Jews is true for all of us: even in our dreams of liberation, we sow the seeds of tyranny and oppression.

We were reminded of this reality last week, when the president ordered missile strikes on another country. This was a revealing moment – not in what the president did, but in how our country reacted. We all know that American presidents wield almost godlike destructive power without any apparent checks and balances. They can drop high explosives on another country without most of us even considering it an act of war.

We know this. We know that America is the most powerful empire in human history. It’s not surprising that the president can throw his weight around and attack weaker nations with impunity. What is remarkable, is the way the American elites view this kind of violent action. As Donald Trump rained millions of dollars in high explosives on Syria, the news media and virtually the entire US political establishment praised his actions as “presidential.”

Politicians on both sides of the aisle who had long been pushing for military strikes in Syria cheered the president for dropping the bombs. News outlets that are normally critical of the president lined up to endorse this new war. The New York Times praised Trump for “following his instinct.” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said that, with this attack on Syria, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams waxed poetic about the beauty of Tomahawk missiles. He quoted Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, “I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

“I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.”

Those crowds waving palm branches 2,000 years ago – they were guided by the beauty of their weapons. The Romans with their legions were most definitely guided by the beauty of their weapons. By the beauty of their weapons, they nailed the prince of peace to a cross. By the beauty of their weapons, they embraced the kingship of Caesar and rejected the living presence of God. By the beauty of our weapons, America is embracing the broad way of death. By the beauty of our weapons, we will inherit the legacy of Assyria, Babylon, and Rome.

The kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of this world. As followers of Jesus, we know this. Yet it’s so hard to break away from the mentality of death that grips our society. God has called us to be his people in this world. But just like the ancient Israelites, we’d rather have a king. A winner. A champion who will deliver us from suffering, even if it means forcing others to endure it.

I’ll be honest, I’m more comfortable with the way of Caesar than with the way of Jesus. Most of the time when I’m looking for salvation, I don’t want someone who’s going to be humbled. I’m not looking for someone who’s going to be put to death.

When I’m picking my leader, I want someone who’s going to triumph. I want someone who’s going to defeat my enemies. I want someone who’s going to establish a new kingdom, a new political order based on coercion and violence. Because that’s the only way I really know how to deal with human beings.

“But from the beginning it was not so.” That’s not the way God wants to deal with us. The God we serve is not a violent God – though we have often imagined him to be so. Our God is a creative intelligence. He wants to build and grow and cause life to flourish, not to break down and destroy.

The way of kingship is built on aggression, coercion, violence, and threats. It’s built on the unequal distribution of wealth and power. It’s founded on the beauty of our weapons and the arrogance of our intellect.

But God’s intention is for us to live together as one family, with one Father and Mother. God calls us to become humble servants to one another, to put the interests of others beyond our own. God calls us to lower ourselves, so that we all might be lifted up. Not by the beauty of our weapons, but by the life of the Spirit.

True greatness in the kingdom of God doesn’t look like triumph in the eyes of the world. It doesn’t look like being a billionaire. It doesn’t look like launching Tomahawk missiles on distant lands whose refugees you have denied hospitality. It doesn’t look like becoming popular with politicians and having the corporate news media singing your praises.

Greatness in the kingdom of God looks like being willing to receive suffering out of love for others. It’s being willing to lay down your own prerogatives so that others can get what they need. The kingdom of God doesn’t always feel like joy and light. Sometimes, it can seem like darkness.

We’re in the midst of that darkness this morning, together with Jesus. We’re with him as he marches into Jerusalem, marching into this city that will put him to death in the most terrible way. We also know that, because of his humility and yieldedness to the Spirit, God will exalt Jesus and give him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will confess, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.

Jesus has the victory. It’s not a victory that the world understands. It’s a victory that comes through compassion, service, and emptiness before God. We can share in this victory. When we reject the pyramid scheme of Empire and embrace Jesus’ upside down kingdom, we experience the triumph of the resurrection.

In the midst of all the darkness this morning, I want to celebrate. I want to celebrate the victory of Jesus. Even though the world misunderstands him. Even as our nation’s leaders insist that they want a King David rather than a King Jesus. Even as Jesus marches into this city that will be his judge, jury, torturer, and executioner. Jesus is victorious.

We can participate in this victory. We can embrace his humble way of self-emptying. We can be set free by his fearless love, without regard for the consequences. Despite this world’s bombs, lies, and terror, we can be God’s bold, peaceful, and triumphant people.

Victor, King, Servant?

Victor, King, Servant? – Jennifer Hosler

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29; Matthew 21:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, as we have already seen and heard and waved our palm branches. Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, is the name that the church has given to mark the events in Scripture which are referred to as the Triumphal Entry.  The Triumphal Entry, which we just read, involves palm branches waving and coats flying and people shouting, “Hosanna!” Something big is going on with what Jesus is doing: the people around him realize it and rejoice.

What is the Triumphal Entry, besides a fun excuse to order palm branches and wave them around in celebration? What does it tell us about who Jesus is? What does it mean for us as followers of Jesus?

I spent a few moments this past week musing on the word triumph. When we use a word or phrase phrase regularly, we can forget the meaning within. Triumph—the word indicates victory, glory, overcoming, winning. “Triumphal Entry”, then, isn’t just any old entrance. It’s not casually walking into a room or strolling into town on a whim. A triumphal entry is a victor’s entrance into a crowd or a setting or place.

What is a modern example of a triumphal entry? The first one I thought of involved sports teams, athletes coming home after winning a national championship.  It is usually a very big deal when the winning baseball or hockey team comes home: there are parades of victory throughout the streets.  The streets are decorated, signs go up. Everyone gets talking about the victory. Everyone is celebrating the glory of the team and of the city.  While this isn’t something that DC knows much about in recent years, we can all picture the excitement there would be if the Nats won the World Series or the Capitals won the Stanley Cup.

While DC might not be too familiar with sports team glory in recent years, DC does know another modern form of a triumphal entry. Every four years, the city rolls out an impressive extravaganza for the Presidential Inauguration. After battles in primaries and in the general election, the electoral victor is finally sworn in at the US Capitol building, surrounded by crowds and dignitaries. There is then a processional march from the Capitol to the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue. Thousands and thousands cheer and celebrate and strain their necks for a glimpse at the new President of the United States.

People in Jesus’ times were familiar with triumphal entries of leaders. In fact, there was a typical format each entry took: there was victory; the victor rode into the city on a steed and with an entourage; the crowds welcomed and rejoiced; the victor moved toward a temple or religious site, and then gave a sacrificial offering up to a deity (Losie, 1992, pp. 854-855). Small heroes and large entered cities in this triumphant fashion after military conquests, including renowned warriors like Alexander the Great and Judas Maccabeus.

For Jewish people in first century Roman times, triumphal entries had historic and cultural implications but also eschatological or end time significance. Since the end of the prophetic period (when prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and others preached to Israel), the Jewish people had been oppressed by Greek and Roman occupation. The prophets had spoken of a Messiah, a person sent from God to deliver the nation of Israel, to restore its faith, and to usher in God’s kingdom and reign over the whole earth. As the oppression continued year after year, the hope and longing for a Messiah grew and grew. Various people claimed to be messiahs and Jewish political revolts rose up and were crushed down. The words of the psalmist (Ps. 13) rang true for many, “How long, O LORD, will you forget us forever?” Some yearned for freedom from foreign occupation, some for yearned political domination and a Jewish empire, some yearned for the presence of YHWH to once again dwell in the temple.

When we meet Jesus in Matthew 21, Jerusalem was teeming with people. Thousands and thousands were making their way into the city from all over the country, in order to head to the temple for Passover. As DC tourist season is once again in full swing, you can picture what it means for a city to be teeming with people (especially if you walked along the tidal basin this past week). The temple was the center of the Jewish faith and Passover was the holiday most central to the peoples’ existence: Passover marks YHWH’s deliverance of the people from slavery in Egypt.

Jesus’ request of his disciples in Matthew 21 seems strange to us. “Go and get me a donkey, please.” Jesus isn’t tired of walking (but he probably should be, since they’ve come from 80 miles north in Galilee over many days). This donkey riding is “a deliberate act, meant to be noticed” (France, 1994, p. 931). Jesus knows his scriptures (as do the crowds, apparently) and chooses to finally present himself and claim the role that the LORD God has bestowed upon him. The prophet Zechariah had spoken long before that the future King of Israel would come riding on a colt (a young donkey). In the passage, the LORD proclaims that he will rescue Israel from warring and violence and that the LORD would reign through the Messianic King.

By riding into town on a donkey—and by coming into Jerusalem via the Mount of Olives, a place linked in Zechariah to YHWH’s deliverance—Jesus is symbolically claiming to be the King of his people, the promised heir of David, the Son of David.

We enter the scene in Matthew amidst the throngs of pilgrims. Jesus pulls aside and sends his disciples in search of a donkey, in a specific location. The colt is brought with its mother, the disciples place their coats on its back, and Jesus begins to ride to Jerusalem on a young donkey. The crowds around Jesus—probably pilgrims and disciples, interested people and hangers-on—recognize what this means and embrace his act. They throw their coats on the ground for Jesus to pass on, just as people did for King Jehu in 2 Kings 9. People grab palm branches and other tree branches and spread them out on the road and wave them in exaltation, shouting praises. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens.”

It is clear that the celebrating crowds were only a portion of Jerusalem. They may have primarily been people from Galilee, Jesus’ northern region that was not of the highest esteem. Matthew writes that “When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” There was a commotion in the city. Not everyone knew who Jesus was but word spread quickly, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Mt. 21:10-11)

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was not always verbally open as to who he was. Jesus would heal the sick and raise the dead—but often stopped short of saying who he really was. With the Triumphal Entry, Jesus is openly declaring that he is the Messiah—but is also relying on people to make the symbolic connections from Scripture. The Triumphal Entry is a picture to illustrate that Jesus is the One whom the prophets foretold, come to deliver God’s people and to usher in the Kingdom of God’s reign.

The Triumphal Entry is theologically important because Jesus claims his role as the Davidic King. The Triumphal entry is also important because it shows us what type of King He is—not an oppressive king, not a violent king, but a servant king.

Pope Francis, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, has enthralled the world and media over his first year. He has chosen modest housing accommodations over a palace, simple garments over lace and gold and handmade shoes, and a twenty-year old used car over new, luxury models. These steps have been a welcome change by many who saw the Vatican as overflowing with wealth.

Yet perhaps the most meaningful actions by Pope Francis have been ones that diminish the distance between the everyday person and the Pope. Personal phone calls, unannounced visits, refusing to be encased in the Popemobile bubble, footwashing of prisoners, embracing a disfigured man: Pope Francis clearly tries to be a humble servant. Humble servants are not in large supply in this world and we are used to people using their power and privilege to support themselves and their own comfort. Pope Francis is a contrast to our dominant culture and values. People around the world are moved by his actions, by a person in power, with great means, who chooses humility, simplicity, and service.

Jesus comes into Jerusalem, not on a mighty steed or warhorse, but on a donkey. He comes as Lord and King not for his own privilege, but to serve and deliver others. Jesus’ ethic of service and humility can be seen throughout the book of Matthew, particularly in passages close to the Triumphal Entry and the Cross.

In Matthew 20, the chapter prior to today’s text, the mother of disciples James and John comes to Jesus with a request. Basically, “Give my sons glorious positions of power when you come into your Kingdom.” Jesus says no and the other disciples, when they hear about it, are furious. Jesus takes it as a teaching opportunity, “Rulers and kings lord their power over their subjects. But not so with you. Whoever wants to be great should be a servant” (paraphrased, Mt. 20:25-26). Commentary author R.T. France states that, “Not so with you well sums up the theme of this whole section of the gospel; the kingdom of heaven creates an alternative society which challenges conventional values” (1994, p. 930). Jesus’ Kingdom is defined by service, not privilege or power.

Another passage in Matthew 20 reminds me of Francis’ acts of caring for the sick (or rather, I should say that Francis reminds me of Jesus). On the way to Jerusalem (but before the donkey), the crowds are following Jesus and two blind men on the side of the road hear who is coming. The two men cry out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The blind men realize who Jesus is. Yet the crowds shout them down: Jesus doesn’t want anything to do with you, blind beggars on the side of the road, literally on the margins. But Jesus doesn’t look at outward appearances and everyone is worthy of his care, his healing, his grace. The blind men are healed and begin to follow Jesus.

After the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus heads to the temple. He looks around and sees that the temple area (about 30 acres) was filled with money changers and animals for sale. These commercial activities were crowding out the main purpose of the area—worship, prayer—and were probably exploitative. Jesus clears out the money changers and merchants and, soon after, “the blind and lame” come to him there and he cures them (21:14). Jesus’ acts illustrate that he is a servant king, using his authority to bring justice and grace.

From the Triumphal Entry and the clearing of the temple, we move forward to the Upper Room on Thursday. Just a few days after arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus the Servant King holds a Passover meal with his disciples. In the book of John, we read that Jesus, knowing that he would be put to death, took the last opportunity to teach his disciples by choosing to humbly serve them.

In New Testament times, people would have their feet washed upon entering a room, probably by a servant. The disciples and Jesus didn’t come with servants and no one had apparently been moved to be the one to serve. So the teacher Jesus girds himself with a towel, bends down, and washes his disciples’ feet.

After he is done washing, Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you not know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live out Jesus’ example of service. Our lives are meant to be defined by gratitude, simplicity, humility, and service, rather than clutching onto status or privilege or some authority that we might have. We are called to live our lives by Jesus’ ethic of service—and also to model his act together. This week, we worship together on Thursday for Love Feast, where we, like Jesus and the disciples, partake of the bread and cup, share a meal together, and wash one another’s feet. As we go through this week and as we join for Love Feast, may we meditate on Jesus our model, the Servant King. AMEN.

 

 

References

France, R.T. (1994). Matthew. In G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, & R.T. France (Eds.), New Bible Commentary (pp. 904-945). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Losie, L.A. (1992). Triumphal Entry. In J.B. Green, S. McKnight, & I.H. Marshall (Eds.), Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (pp. 854-859). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

WORSHIP, JUSTICE, AND A ROTTEN GRAPE

Worship, justice, and a rotten grape

Micah 6:1-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

Last week I couldn’t be here because I spent two days with the National Farm Worker Ministry. The Farm Work Ministry was formed by Christians who read passages such as Micah 6:8 and saw the injustices done to many farm workers. That they formed such an organization is a testament to their heeding the call to justice. They rightly understand that our Bible, the way of Jesus, and church teaching calls on us to seek justice.

When I landed and was waiting a few hours in the airport there were literally tumble weeds blowing across the airport parking lot. While driving between Bakersfield, Tehachapi (where we stayed), and La Paz (where we met) we passed desert hills and plains where irrigation had turned dry grass into orange groves and green fields.

We heard stories from board members older than me who were deeply involved in the campaigns for farmer work rights with César Chavez. These were stories not unlike John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath.

We also heard stories from farm workers who were struggling to make enough money to support their family’s basic needs. One man talked about how his supervisor would threaten and manipulate to make workers go faster under the threat of punishment. Another woman saw workers working hard and then the supervisor give them a ticket—three of which cost them their job—in order to increase output. One that I remember particularly well was with harvesting grapes. If one rotten grape was found in a case of grapes, and there are many cases in a day, then the worker was not allowed to work the rest of the day. Not only this but since the shuttle, which the worker needed to pay for, only came in the evening the farm worker needed to wait the entire rest of the day to get home.

Certainly they were right to think that Christians ought to care for justice. The argument even in its simplest form is hard to miss—If you eat you should care about farm workers. Or another way– farm workers who provide food for our families should be able to afford food for their families. The justice in this is clear.

While I am certainly in favor of working for justice I would like to raise a few questions around our notion of justice. By this I mean to challenge our thinking on justice to not necessarily change our idea towards something more correct or to criticize but to put it into the context of the passages but also run it alongside the other passages we read today.

First, perhaps is the notion of rightly worshiping and being with God in a particular manner. “Do justice” is in the 8th verse of our passage which is in the 6th chapter of Micah which is the 33rd book out of 39 in the Old Testament. Justice certainly shows up before this verse found deep in the Hebrew scripture but it is not alone. Micah 6:1-8 is not a passage about justice per se it is about Israel’s relationship to God. It is not justice in an abstract form but justice woven tightly into all that is Israel.

The scene is set as a courtroom with the world, particularly nature, as the witness of the proceedings.

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
God then lays out the case and recounts the history of his saving action on their behalf

3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
4 For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
The writer then poses a rhetorical question concerning sacrifice. 6 “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high?Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? We must remember that at this point sacrifice was a primary form of worshiping God. Additionally for this people their standing before God was in many ways contingent on sacrifice. Sacrifice was the way of dedicating oneself or a child to the Lord, it was the way of dealing with sin, it was the way of giving thanks for the harvest. Sacrifice was not a novel or non-necessary aspect of Israel’s relationship to God. The answer to this question, however, is no—or at a very least this is not the sole requirement.
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the
Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

While not getting rid of the more formal aspects of relating to God Micah highlights the core of what the “Lord requires of you”– Nothing less than to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.

Let’s hold this thought of Micah and turn our attention to the passage in 1Corinthians. Here we see the wisdom of God compared to the foolishness of the world’s wisdom. The Apostle Paul writes that when Christ appeared and then was preached this message was seen as foolishness by some—he says “those who are perishing” but to those who believe it is the wisdom of God.

Perhaps nothing sounds more foolish than the Beatitudes—the “Blessed are….”statements in Matthew 5. “Blessed are the meek…Blessed are those who mourn…blessed are the merciful….blessed are those persecuted, reviled, and lied about because of Jesus. “

Whereas we [modern Christians] may tend to justify our more eccentric practices such as singing together or meeting on Sunday by noting that our community is really about seeking justice or feeding the homeless—that is we try to explain our oddness by showing how we are really for improving our communities….in these passages relation to God is the primary focus but how we live in the world —that is seeking justice, loving kindness, embodying the beatitudes—qualifies how we are in relationship with God.

I have three propositions relating to justice and worship that will hopefully help us explore the relationship between these practices and virtues which we see in these passages.

1. Justice is part of worship

We have a tendency to quarantine what we call “worship” which is usually thought to primarily include singing or the Sunday morning meeting from “justice” or perhaps more broadly ethics. If we admit a link we often think of these as related such that worship prepares us in some way for living ethically or acting for justice. Sometimes worship is used as part of acting for justice. Faith-based activists sometimes note that clergy are often wanted for rallies—they call it “rent-a-collar”—clergy need to wear their distinguishing garb to put on a good show. [I noticed that at the Religions for Peace World Assembly this fall that I was more likely to have the event photographers pause to take a picture if I was, along with my beard, wearing this olive wood cross from the West Bank and sitting near one of the other young adult delegates who was wearing a hijab—the Muslim head covering]

This not only is the case for non-religious activist groups. This is regularly part of overtly religious organizations engaged for justice. My most recent experience of this was at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture prayer vigil on Tuesday evening. The vigil was to mark the 5th anniversary of Obama saying he would close the Guantanamo detention center. The vigil was essentially for pictures to use in line with the State of the Union address.

From this we can observe that many people feel that religion has some connection to justice –this is likely a residual effect of religion—in this country, Christianity—have a great deal of social power. This is not the moment for reflecting on whether or not the institutional-political power of the church was a good thing, though as an Anabaptist, I doubt we should mourn the passing of this assumption.

Whatever the legitimacy of using symbols of worship in seeking justice we note from our passages that our commitment to seeking justice qualifies our worship. To undermine or disregard justice is to undermine our relationship to God.

But this talk of actively seeking justice raises a question–How do we square working for justice with the beatitudes seemingly more gentle tone? While these two may seem at odds, at least in practical terms, a positive reading of Matthew 5 and Micah 6 could be –Seeking justice cannot be divorced from virtues that appear at odds with gaining power for change. That is, seeking justice does not automatically condone the means.

Those of us who attend to Micah’s call for us to seek justice and who do this in an active way—especially those of us who do this for our job are familiar with tactics for gaining the ability to change attitudes, policy, and practices toward justice. There are tactics and ways of getting attention. This attention is for the purpose of power. In politics that have not devolved to war this power typically lies in public opinion and politician’s fear of the poll.

So we set the active seeking of justice—which is at least in part—a matter of gaining power for those without power alongside the beatitudes. Think organizing for a protest and listen again to Matthew 5.

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

It has been observed that these “Blessed” statements are not so much commands as characteristics of the Kingdom of God. The people that God has constituted will be identifiable by these traits. —If this is the case and Micah 6:8 is an indictment of peoples’ walking with God wrongly then these two are not in opposition–or at least not in irreconcilable difference.

Not only is the manner of justice seeking critical but the end that is sought changes everything. The collaboration and action for justice are on a second look perhaps not entirely what it seems. For we seek to gain power—and certainly this can be done in ways that are not godly—but this is not for our own benefit.

2. Seeking justice cannot be divorced from virtues that appear at odds with gaining power for change. That is, seeking justice does not automatically condone the means. A good end does not make the means beyond reproach.

Not only is the how important—and this how is challenged by the virtues of Matthew 5 but the direction of our action is important. While this town is full of people hired to defend the good of their employer—which are often the powerful and moneyed—when we seek justice, whether in our personal relationships or on the national and international stage, we are primarily focused on others. While there are certainly many very legitimate cases of people fighting for justice for themselves, their family, or their group as people of God we are primarily focused outside of ourselves. When we seek justice–

3. We prioritize seeking justice for others.

A Gallop Poll, noted in the Christian Century magazine, ranked public perceptions of certain professions ranks lobbyists near the bottom of a list of 20 professions—While my office engages in lobbying we are not registered lobbyists. We have friends and colleagues at FCNL and Network (Nuns on the bus) who are registered lobbyists. One critical difference is that most lobbyists are trying to gain something for their employer. Weapons companies, health care industry, wheat growers association—almost any big industry that has a vested interest in policy. This is quite distinct from the people I work with who are seeking to be a voice for people without a voice.

Worship turns us away from ourselves. Seeking justice and caring for others turns us away from ourselves. Given the typically mild winters of DC this stretch of relatively cold weather has caught many people’s attention. As I go from meeting to meeting a question in refrain is “how is the cold?” At a meeting on Wednesday a colleague from the Presbyterian office asked this familiar question. Since the big repeating event for us in this cold is our gas line freezing and heat going out, I mentioned this difficulty. I noted, however, that we have found ways to keep our house relatively warm and noted that that while this has been an irritation many of our guests at the Brethren Nutrition Program are without adequate shelter—this knowledge has affected how I feel about uncertain heat. When you know people and are working to help–working for justice–it becomes less easy to simply think about yourself and complain about whatever happens to be on your mind. Our worship and our justice seeking turns us toward God and toward others.

In the face of all sort of causes and injustices—we can get caught up in making the world more just and…miss “loving kindness.” Last night—I must confess—I failed at kindness. I was a jerk.

What is justice without kindness? What is worship without justice? May God grant us the wisdom and strength to do justice, love kindness , and walk humbly with our God and one another.