When Babies Threaten Empires

Some days get lost in the shuffle. Days like the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

While some of us return to work and return unwanted gifts and continue pretending we’ll start resolutions next week, the historic Church has chosen this week (various branches observe it on different days) to remember the innocent lives lost around the nativity of Jesus.

In the story that has led to candlelight worship and caroling and God With Us, there is a tragic chapter. The local puppet king is not thrilled that a rumored new king has been born. New kings and claims to the throne are a threat to his way of life.

So he does what empires do and destroys those who might weaken his image, wealth, and prominence. And he does it without any regard to collateral damage. Herod has all the boys in and around Bethlehem murdered. Anyone 2 years and under is killed.

The complete and utter agony of it all. The pain of mothers who have nursing babies torn from their arms. The grief of fathers who were just helping guide first steps. The lives extinguished. The long hoped for and dearly loved, gone in act of raw evil carried out by petty, powerful men and their complicit followers.

The Church asks us to remember.

And in our remembering, we are brought face to face with the reality that the way of Jesus is a threat to empire. It is a threat to any who hold or achieve power through corruption or violence.

We remember that the birth of Jesus is not just a cute story we tell before exchanging gifts. It is inherently political. It points to a different and better Kingdom. One without backroom deals or borders or bombs and one where the King serves rather than demands, loves rather than fears, dies rather than kills.

The way of Jesus and the way of empire are incompatible. They are opposites.

Our struggle is empires didn’t fade out with Herod or Rome. They operate in our world with impunity, gripping power and trampling others in the name of “the greater good.” The way of empire is seen in our political structure, for certain, but also shows up in our homes and ethics and churches.

Sure, we’d never condone the mass murder of children but the values and motivations of empire appear long before any blood is spilled. Empire quietly shapes our why and our what and quickly deviates from the way of Jesus.

When those unlike us automatically become enemies. When we are willing, as one pastor put it, to leave bodies behind the bus. When we ignore the plight of the desperate. When we believe the myth of scarcity over the abundance of grace. We are on the path of empire.

When the old or young or different or messy are pushed aside. When folks chase power and prestige at nearly any cost. When we are more machine than human. More warrior than healer. We are more like Herod than the baby he feared.

We see threats around every corner. We cling to comfort. We look out for number one. We take short cuts to get to or remain at the top.

But the way of Jesus is down. Is as vulnerable as a newborn. Is as slow as a child learning to walk, then read, then grow into an adult. It washes feet and welcomes children. It is not self-seeking, even when seeking self might lead to more privilege or prowess or influence.

We can pray and evangelize and build cathedrals and sing the songs and still be caught in the web of empire. It is sticky because it is practical. It get results, pads resumes, and keeps us fed. It convinces us we are the chosen ones. We are the rightful leaders, rulers, party, church, or whatever.

Which of course is a lie, a scheme to help us sleep at night. An end to justify any awful means.

Ultimately we have a choice: We can reflect Herod or Jesus. We can follow the slaughterer of toddlers or the Prince of Peace.

In our workplaces and worship centers and politics and boardrooms and around our dinner tables. We have to decide which kind of kingdom we want and which kind of king we follow. We have to decide if we will abandon our claims to the throne. The martyrdom of these children, and the victims of any and all empires from then till now, ask us to pick a side, to choose a way forward.

May we remember the Holy Innocents. May their deaths redirect our minds and hearts from the things of empire to the things of God. May we be repulsed by the way of Herod in all its forms. And may we be captivated by the way of the helpless babe, laid in a manger.

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Good News for All the People.

I’ve been radicalized to believe that “good news of great joy that will be for all people” is actually true.

That what God wants to do in the world and for the world is truly good. For everyone.

Too often we hear only good news for me and people like me. Good news for those who toe the party line. Or behave. Or those who believe the right things (read: agree with my narrow theological interpretation).

Which often means bad news for those unlike me. And those who interpret the Bible differently. Or doubt. Or behave in ways I don’t. Or don’t fit my preconceived ideas. Or subscribe to another or no faith.

Those of us who believe the story of the first Christmas should ask ourselves, were the angels lying or being hyperbolic when they said it was good news for everybody?

Or when the prophet Isaiah said God will prepare a feast for “all people” and swallow up death and wipe away tears from “all faces,” do you think he actually meant… all the faces?

Or when God told Abram that “all the families of the earth will be blessed” or when the Psalmist wrote “Every part of the earth will remember” and “every family among all the nations” will praise God, was that accurate? When John the Revelator sees every tribe and tongue or says “All nations will come” to give God praise, is that not real?

There are certainly places in Scripture where God showing up sounds like bad news. Where people experience judgement and get what is coming to them. Even in the Christmas story Mary says God “pulls down the powerful” and “sends the rich away empty handed,” which doesn’t sound all that great for them. I could easily compile other examples to say the exact opposite of what I am trying to say.

The question is, which version of events do I believe? Which do I hope for? Which one do I live toward? And which one looks most like the God revealed in Jesus?

What I believe God wants and who I believe God loves and how I believe God works and where I think this world is heading impacts my attitudes, politics, church, spending, biases, and all the other things. In the (fantastic) book Everything Sad is Untrue, Daniel Nayeri says, “What you believe about the future will change how you live in the present.”

Do I believe in a future that is good for all creation? Do I even want to believe in something like that? Can I trust in the goodness of God and rest in the mystery that with justice and grace everything is being made new?

If I can’t, perhaps I become more prejudiced and circle the wagons and view others with suspicion and look down my nose in judgement at those not like me. Maybe I build bigger walls and drop bigger bombs and draw harder lines. Perhaps I announce, in word or deed, bad news for anyone not on my team or anyone who doesn’t look, act, or believe like me.

However, if I see God’s coming as life giving and redeeming for the whole world, if I’m bent toward “good news of great joy for all people,” I will at least find myself walking the path of Jesus, who models again and again the expansive love of God. For lepers and tax cheats and prostitutes and criminals. For zealots and religious leaders and the demon possessed and the pushed to the margins. For insiders and outsiders, foreigners and skeptics, those making a mess and those on whom the mess has spilled.

Perhaps in walking the way with Jesus and longing for the Kingdom of God to be made real everywhere and for everyone, I find myself experiencing things like hope, peace, joy, and love. Perhaps it allows me to drop my defenses and the need for control and the anxiety inducing habit of trying to convince everyone to do and believe what I do and believe. And, just maybe, it makes it harder and harder to exclude anyone, even my enemies.

Perhaps this is when I am most Christlike. And where I find freedom and transformation and salvation.

Good news. Great joy. All people.

Could it be that simple?

In his book Nayeri also says, “Maybe we get the endings we deserve. Or maybe we get the endings we practice.”

What if that is the truth? And what if we and our neighbors actually deserve good? And what if we practiced wiping the tears from all faces and throwing the most inclusive feasts and inviting all the people and offering extravagant amounts of mercy and grace and then in the end find we have practiced our way right into the world of God’s dreams?

What if what happens at Christmas is an invitation to believe that all will be made right? That God is really, truly with us and for us. That everything sad is untrue and the worst things will not be the last things?

And what if that is the message the angels want the shepherds and townsfolk and pagans and religious elite and screw ups and put together and doubters and weepers and burned out and smug and oppressed and kings to really hear?

May we be captured by the deep and real good news of Christmas. May our dreams for the world align with God’s. May all people, all of em’, find exactly everything they possibly need to belong, flourish, and have abundant life. And may we hope and practice for the day when all things will be made right.

The Weary World Rejoices

This year I am weary. Maybe it’s my cynicism flaring up, but I feel the weight of our present reality more acutely than in years past.

I’m worn out by our political climate. I’m tired of the name calling and the line drawing, the hypocrisy and the partisanship. I’m tired from holding my tongue and I’m tired from speaking up (however infrequently). I’m fatigued by our lack of decency and our infatuation with power at any cost.

I’m worn out by the Church too. From our political idolatry for sure, but also our constant bickering over petty stuff. I’m tired of watching people walk away from faith because they were shown an inaccurate view of God. I’m drained by self-appointed gatekeepers intent on keeping people out. I’m worn out by church as entertainment and the pull to chase crowds and celebrity. I ache for congregations doing their best to be faithful in a world that has no time for them. And I’m tired of story after story about how we who are called to bless the world have instead wounded God’s beloved.

I’m exhausted from grief as I see people limp through life. From those who are denied justice to those who have made a mess of things.

I see friends and family and strangers on the internet who carry heavy loads. Who battle trauma and depression and estrangement. I watch as people wrestle with doubt and hardship and diagnoses that suck the life right out of them. People we love and people who are us have struggled in finances and bodies and loneliness and child rearing and every single other thing. It has run us ragged.

I’m tired from the 24 hour news cycle. The constant outrage. The constant apathy. The refugee crisis and gun violence and racism and terrorism and war and suicide and consumerism and all of it.

I’m weary from all the times I’ve blown it and all the times I wish I had chosen differently. I am even tired from knowing I have it better than so many others and my seeming inability to bring about progress.

I am weary.

And yet.

The old song sings, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn.”

A thrill of hope that Jesus is here. On our side. At work. Restoring. Redeeming. Re-orienting us.

Despite our brokenness. Despite our shame. Despite our constantly screwing it up and never getting it all right, God is with us.

God sees our mess and moves toward us to show us the way. The way out of and away from all the things that beat us down. A God who comes not to burden us but to carry our burdens for and with us.

A God who comes to the bedraggled and barely making it. To battered souls and threadbare faiths. A God who comes and offers unconditional love and incomprehensible peace even in the midst of all that is wrong.

I believe there will be a day when weariness will be no more and darkness will be banished and justice will roll like a river. I believe in a day with no more sickness or political pandering or shattered hearts.

However far off that day feels, Christmas reminds us that it isn’t out of reach. A better world is on the way. The someday we await is just over there, as close as the next dawn.

The light of eternal sunrise is waking from its slumber. It creeps across the horizon, slowly stretching its warm fingers and chasing away all that is shadow. It will not, can not be held back.

When we look for it we can see it. When we are uncertain we can walk toward it. When we are undone by the weight of it all we can rest in and celebrate the goodness of God’s coming.

Even our longing for rest and wholeness serves as a reminder that God is on the move. With us. When we hurt. When we fail. When we want to crawl into bed and sleep for a decade. When hope feels more like an ache than an excitement.

God is near. The sun will rise. The angels will sing. Our tears will be dried. And life and light will bring all that we need.

So rejoice, weary world. Lift up your head. You are not forgotten. You are not alone. All will be made new. Love has come.

The Gospel of the Magi

three kings

Three Kings by Mary Tere Perez

Plenty of people have been packing up their Christmas decorations since December 25, but the celebration of Christmas continues for twelve days. It only ends at the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th.

And then at Epiphany we remember the visit of the magi, or the wise men, to young Jesus.

Sometimes we rush past this remembrance as we put away our trees and head to the gym armed with New Year’s resolutions. But we need Epiphany. The magi are essential to the Christmas story and essential to our faith.

They are not essential because they were there on the night of Jesus’ birth (they likely weren’t) or because they were earthly kings who bowed to the one true King (they likely weren’t kings either). They aren’t essential because they round out our  nativity scenes and Christmas pageants and greeting cards.

They are essential because they carry the Gospel. They themselves are an announcement, a proclamation, a living, breathing sermon about who our God is.

See the magi were not Jewish. They weren’t part of the chosen people. They were Gentiles, outsiders. Strangers.

Worse, they were likely priests in another religion. Pagans. Idolaters. False prophets.

They studied and/or worshiped the stars looking for signs and wonders. They were astrologers, they were magicians and sorcerers, not the kind of people who get much applause in Scripture or Christianity.

They were from foreign lands and spoke foreign tongues. Potentially from people groups who were enemies of the Jews. Definitely from other cultures and values.

These folks did not belong.

And yet here they come.

Present before Jesus. Included in our celebrations. Sign posts of the good news.

This is the Gospel of the magi: God has come.

God has come not just to a select few but to every person on the face of the earth. God has come for those who are close to the truth and those who are far from it. God has come for pagans and sinners and saints. God has come for us and them and those people over there.

God, in Jesus, has come for us all.

Jesus is the revelation of God’s character – he is what God looks like, the Bible says.

And Jesus is revealed not just to his people, the Jews, but to Gentiles and pagan priests and shepherds and wise men and midwives and governors and janitors and kings and presidents and teachers and bus drivers and pastors. He is revealed to insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, right and wrong, poor and rich and everybody in between.

The magi are an announcement about the wideness of God’s mercy.

The love and grace and mercy and heart of God don’t stop at national borders. It is not reserved only for those in the right religion. It doesn’t have a specific language. There are no prerequisites or hoops to jump through.

The grace of God shows up first.

This is good news.

In the magi we can see ourselves. We have been wrong. We have been outsiders. We have been far from God. And yet the grace of God has come for us anyway. Calling, wooing, changing us.

And in the magi we can see every person. Every skin tone and every language. Every religion and political party. In every stranger on the street. And in the person who we’d least expect (or hope). The love and grace of God has shown up for them as well.

Yes, Epiphany is essential. Epiphany reminds us of our story. It comforts us and challenges us to be faithful to goodness of our God.

We need reminded that ours is a God who comes for each person, no matter how far away they have started. We need Epiphany to keep us accountable so that our own love doesn’t sputter out at borders and church signs and party platforms. We need it to keep us from thinking we’ve somehow earned something because of our position or denomination or family of birth.

The magi are preaching the Gospel to us today: God is for us all. For you. And for me. And for them.

May we know and follow and trust this God, the God who draws the whole entire world in. May we find ourselves aware of the presence of God’s grace right here and now. And may we embody the good news of God’s love to all those for whom God has come.

On Bad Eggs and Good Fruit.

Julie Dawn Cole as Veruca Salt in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971

In Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory he has fancy geese that lay golden eggs. He also has an “educated eggdicator” that can differentiate between good and bad eggs. Good eggs get shipped out. Bad eggs go down the chute.

Spoiled little Veruca Salt is found to be a bad egg and ends up down the chute as well. I’m afraid there are a whole lot of us like Veruca who would fail the eggdicator’s inspection.

We are a mess. We struggle with simple things like truth and kindness. We continually lower the bar on what is acceptable behavior and language for a civilized society. We are less and less reasonable while more and more bombastic and hostile.

We see it on the news, in the White House, on the streets, around our tables.

We not only disagree, we degrade and bite and devour each other. We’ve lost mutual respect and we’ve stopped searching for common ground or decency.

Bad eggs.

While this troubles me a great deal, what is most alarming is that the church has jumped headfirst into this mess.

We claim that every person is made in the image of God and in the next breath curse them for disagreeing with us.

We gather on Sunday hoping our neighbors will come to Jesus, then spend the week calling them names on the internet.

We teach our children that words matter and then unflinchingly applaud people who have no control over their tongue.

We are quick to excuse and condone ugly behavior as long as the person doing it agrees with our politics or worldview. “We aren’t electing a pastor,” we say. “No one is perfect.”

“They just say like it is,” we repeat, appreciating their bluntness. We laugh when they insult or cut someone down. We pretend this is leadership. We think this is just.

But the eggdicator doesn’t lie. Bad eggs. This is not who we are intended to be.

We are the ones who are the light of the world, the salt of the earth. We are those who claim to follow Jesus and his “love God and love people” message. We are people who proclaim grace and mercy and forgiveness.

Yet it feels like we are disregarding all this at a time when the world desperately needs us to embody these very things. I’m convinced the world is starving for something better. Something more than a continuous supply of bad eggs.

And the solution to bad eggs is, of course, good fruit.

Kindness and gentleness are dismissed by many as political correctness. Silly things that slow us down and show our weakness. But kindness and gentleness are neither silly nor weak, they are Fruit of the Spirit.

They are the result of the Spirit of God at work in us. They show up when we’ve allowed God to show up and have authority in our lives.

The same with self-control. And patience. And goodness. And faithfulness And love. And peace. And joy.

When God leads us, these things sprout up. We move from bad eggs to good fruit.

And they aren’t optional. We don’t get to turn them on or off depending on who we are talking to or about.

Sure, we won’t do this perfectly and every one of us has room for improvement, but lately I’ve been wondering if we even desire these traits anymore. Do we hunger for God to do this work in us? Or do other things have our attention?

Do I want peace or power?

Power corrupts while peace leads to life. Jesus says blessed are the peacemakers, not blessed are the power holders.

Is gentleness needed when we can just say it like it is?

Friends, if “saying it like it is” means being rude and callous in how we talk about other people than Christians are not permitted to say it like it is.

Is goodness going to help us win when the world is so bad and broken?

Church, goodness is the solution to the brokenness. It is the only way to truly win.

Patience? Do we have to?

I’d rather skip it myself but here I am, a recipient of God’s patience. I’ve been given chance after chance and time after time. In my best moments I’m eager to give others the same opportunities.

There is no joy in shaming others. No love either. There is no faithfulness without these other things. This is what we signed up for.

I do believe there are times for causing a scene and getting loud. Particularly in cases where we are being a voice for the voiceless and confronting injustice. But even then our motives must be pure. Are we motivated by the work of God in our lives or are we hungry for things like position and control and acclaim?

Do we have the stench of a bad egg or the sweet aroma of fresh fruit?

“You will know them by their fruit,” Jesus says. The things we bear in our life, from our words to our actions, will demonstrate who we will really are. That should cause us to pause. Who are we known as? When someone disagrees with our positions who do we act most like? When you bump up against us who spills out? Who is leading us? Who is at work in our hearts?

May it be the God who is love. May it be the God who is slow to anger and full of mercy. May it be the God who turns grief into joy and who is faithful from generation to generation. May we be people under the influence of the Prince of Peace. May we desire the gentleness of the Lamb who was slain. And may we be so full of this God’s goodness that it can’t help but show up in all we say and do.

May we bear good fruit in a world full of bad eggs. And may we show that there is something purer and higher and worth pursuing when we are tempted to follow others down the chute and up the ladder. May we have the courage and faithfulness to choose a better way.

Amen.

The Law is the Law

Getty Images, thehill.com

“The law is the law.”

That is what I keep hearing.

The law is the law and there is nothing we can do about it. If the law is bad, well don’t break it, ’cause the law is the law.

Good or bad doesn’t matter. Just or unjust don’t factor in. Cruel or unusual are not the issue at hand.

Because the law is the law.

Which is why Christians don’t celebrate or study the person of Moses and his family’s blatant law breaking by hiding him from the army as a child.

And why we don’t mention the magi, commonly known as the wisemen, at Christmas time, who explicitly broke the king’s orders so that they could spare the life of the boy Jesus.

Because the law is the law.

It’s why we don’t read or study or preach from the letters of that scoundrel the Apostle Paul, who wrote from prison. The guy just couldn’t follow the rules and, hey, the law is the law.

It’s why we don’t mind Jesus being crucified, his disciples being martyred, or the Roman persecution of the early church.

The law is the law. Our hands are tied.

Which is why you’ll never hear of Christians working to change abortion policy. We have laws in place already. And laws are laws.

It’s why we shrug at slavery and Jim Crow.

It’s why we condemn all who harbored Jewish people against direct orders in Nazi occupied Europe.

Law breaking is law breaking is law breaking.

It’s why we don’t lament when folks are arrested or killed for sharing their Christian faith in countries where such an act is illegal.

The law is the law folks, sorry. Shouldn’t have broken it.

And it’s why we apparently shouldn’t speak out to ask our government to stop separating children from their parents at the border.

Because the law is the law.

Regardless of the hurt and hardship. Regardless of the long term consequences. Regardless of the shattered hearts of real life human people desperately searching for a new life.

The law is the law, apparently.

That’s what many of my friends keep saying in defense of this policy. That’s what my friends say who are unable to criticize anything associated with people they voted into office.

But, there is a better way, a better law.

In Romans 13, the text often used to excuse our passivity and the country’s ugliness, the Apostle Paul (who would later be executed for breaking the law) also says:

“…whatever other commands there may be are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Love does no harm to a neighbor.

Love fulfills the law.

This is the law we should be living by. This is the law we should be defending. Particularly if we say we are Jesus people.

I’m not suggesting we have open borders. I’m not suggesting anarchy or doing away with any and all laws. I’m not suggesting that previous administrations haven’t had a hand in unjust practices.

I’m suggesting that this particular policy (which isn’t actually even a law) be stopped. Simple as that.

It does harm. More harm than good.

It is not restorative. It is not just. It is not loving. It is not necessary.

We already have family detention centers. We have ways to make this right while still ensuring people come to our country legally.

We have ways to impact the laws of the land and, even if we didn’t, there are times and places and reasons to oppose laws on the books.

Spare me “the law is the law” and give me “love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Give me concern for our neighbors. Even the ones from across the border. Even the ones we like to dismiss as illegal. Even the ones we think don’t belong.

Because this is the way of the Lord Jesus Christ. The entire law is summed up in this one word:

Love. Your. Neighbor.

He gave no qualifications. No loopholes. No exceptions.

Just one law to sum up all the others.

And hey, the law is the law.

Jesus Is Just Too Impractical

White-Jesus-1200x500

We like to invoke his name and wear his cross around our necks, but if we are honest Jesus is a little over the top. We want him to bless us and forgive us, but when it comes to ordering our lives we do just fine ourselves, thank you very much.

Jesus is just too impractical.

I mean, turn the other cheek? Are you kidding me Jesus? Someone hits me I’m hitting them back. In fact, I’m hitting them first if they disrespect me, my mother, or my country. That’ll teach them.

You might have said not to resist an evil person, but I can probably skip that one. I’m sure it was a metaphor.

Don’t charge interest? Lend without expecting something back? Jesus. You were a carpenter, not a banker.

Love your enemies? Don’t even get me started. How can I love a person who wants to hurt me? Our enemies are bad people and they should be blown to hell. Do you expect me to just stand there, and what, get crucified?

Bless those who persecute me? Maybe if they sneeze, but that’s about it. People who persecute me should be persecuted themselves.

Love my neighbor? Have you met my neighbors?

Blessed are the merciful? Jesus you can’t become the CEO or the president or prom king by being merciful. It’s a long way to the top and I have a car payment.

Blessed are the poor? Not in this economy.

Don’t call people names? BUT THEY VOTE THE WRONG WAY.

Seek the kingdom first? No, I gotta do me first. God helps those who help themselves (I read that somewhere in the Bible, didn’t I?).

Tell the truth? Okay, but this meme confirms all my worst suspicions about people who disagree with me, so who cares if it literally bears false witness?

Don’t lust after people? Come on, I’m not hurting anyone. Plus times are different. Liberate yourself Jesus.

Wash feet? Gross. Sell my stuff and give to the poor? I could donate this can of lima beans to a food drive.

Be cautious with my words? Sounds like some snowflakey PC nonsense.

Visit prisoners? I’m busy, they’re sketchy. Feed the hungry? They should get jobs. Welcome strangers? They don’t even speak my language. And what if they are dangerous/make me uncomfortable?

Forgive? Please. I’m not a doormat. Save the sappy sentimentality for those who deserve it.

I mean, all this stuff sounds good spiritually speaking, but Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant for us to live this way, right? Its way too impractical. This is not how the world works.

This is America. We have rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I have the right to defend my house and my family and my stuff. I have the right free speech and the right to vote and the right to compartmentalize my faith as much as I want. I have rights Jesus!

You expect me to deny myself? Take up my cross? No thanks. That’s your territory.

I’ll go to a worship service on Sundays (when I have time and a full 9.5 hours of sleep and it’s not the playoffs). I’ll drop some cash in the offering plate. I’ll even consider volunteering in the nursery. I’ll try to stop lying (in person that is, social media doesn’t count) and I’ll post a verse of the day once in a while. I’ll work on being a decent person.

That should be enough. I’m only human after all.

I’m not actually interested in following you because following you looks nothing like the life I want for myself. It doesn’t look like the American Dream. It doesn’t look easy. It is the opposite of what I would choose to do if left to my own devices.

Which is exactly why I should go ahead and do it anyway.

Because left to my own devices I make a mess. Because the American Dream isn’t as fulfilling as we think. Because idols dress themselves up in things we admire. Because calling something Christian doesn’t make it Christ-like. Because the stuff that works in this broken, unjust world doesn’t work when it comes to what matters most.

Because somewhere deep down inside of me I know that those who cling to their life will lose it and those who can give up their life will find it. Because in my best moments I know that the redemption of all things includes the redemption of me. Because I believe in resurrection and know that evil does not get the last word.

I need to follow Jesus. Not just in words, but in action, in practice, in reality.

Following Jesus and implementing these teachings might get us killed, might cost us a promotion, might mean we have to give up something we really want. It might mean we put ourselves or our families in less than perfect situations. It might mean foregoing my own pleasure or my own rights. It might even mean we have to, ugh, be nice to people who annoy us.

It is all completely, perfectly impractical. And it’s just what we need to set things right. To find the freedom we desire. To find our find purpose. To discover hope and peace. To bring about justice and restoration. To defeat darkness. To see his kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

May we be foolish enough to set aside practicality in order to follow Jesus. Amen. May it be so.

Christmas is Messy

sheep

source: davide ragusa, unsplash.com

Christmas is messy.

Just look at the shreds of wrapping paper and the stacks of receipts. Look at the scattered stocking stuffers and the crumbs of quickly consumed cookies. Look at the half eaten candy cane stuck to the carpet and the Pinterest fails and the exhausted in-laws. Messy.

But Christmas was messy long before any gifts were unwrapped or mixing bowls were left in the sink.

Christmas has been messy from the very start.

Christmas is centered on a human birth. I’m not sure if you’ve ever witnessed one of those, but I can testify to this fact – they are quite messy. Messy with blood and amniotic fluids and tears and sweat and other, well, messes.

This is the way Christ comes into the world. This is the way God shows up. A messy miracle.

And the mess wasn’t contained to just the biology of it all. The mess included livestock’s sleeping quarters, which smell about as good as you might imagine.

Christ comes not into a sterile hospital room or even a well-prepped master bedroom. He comes into the equivalent of an oft used garage. Nevermind the animal feed and draftiness and random goat or two.

And then the messy welcoming committee arrives. Not kings or princes or the head of the local chamber of commerce. Shepherds. Night shift shepherds at that.

Shepherds who likely hadn’t had a proper bath or used copious amounts of hand sanitizer in some time. Dirt under their fingernails, sheep poop on their sandals, long stained clothes. There is that smell again. What a mess.

And of course, there is the mess involving his parents. Mary says the child isn’t Joseph’s. Rumors swirl and the folks in town give knowing glances. “Who is the father?” the gossipers ask. Joseph plans to stay with Mary and raise this child as his own, despite laws and opinions suggesting otherwise. What a mess.

And then there is Herod. He fears the child so much that he will order all boys under the age of two to be killed. The heartache. Little Jesus and his family will flee their home and escape to Egypt to ensure his safety. The chaos and mess seem to never end.

Back then and still today, Christmas is messy. And that is good news.

Because our lives are often messy. And our world is often messy.

We make messes out of our relationships, messes out of our futures, messes out of our finances. Our faith gets messy, our pasts are messy. We have an incredible knack for messing things up.

We do what we don’t want to do. We don’t do what we do want to do. We are slow to learn our lessons. Quick to find new ways to blow it. Messy.

Rather than avoid the chaos, our God jumps right into it. Moves toward it. Enters the mess.

Rather than avoid it, because the mess is gross and God is above all that, a God whose holiness is rooted in love dives in after us.

To help us. To clean us up. To lift us out of our mess.

To forgive all the messes we have created. To heal all the messes that have been set upon us.

Christmas is messy. And grace is messy. And love is messy. People are messy.

And it is here in the mess, not above it, not once the mess is cleaned, right here in it, that Christ is found.

Here in the mess Christ comes, not to scold us for the messes we’ve made or keep a suspicious watch as we work to clean ourselves up.

He comes and stoops and washes and tends to needs and makes right what is wrong.

He enters the mess not to remind us of how bad we are, but to show us a better way. To lead us out of darkness and into light. He comes to the mess and offers us his presence, his tenderness, his understanding, his unmessiness.

So when the mess is so bad that you don’t know where to begin the clean up, remember Christ comes to messes.

When you buy the lie that you have to clean yourself up first, remember Jesus is deeply familiar with messy people and situations.

When you nervously wonder if perhaps you’ve missed a spot or left something untended, remember God is more concerned with the position of your heart than what you’ve stepped in.

When you feel unworthy or too dirty, remember Christmas is messy.

And that’s the point.

The love revealed at Christmas is intended for you and all your dirty, stinky, bloody messes. Joy to the whole messy world!

We Have No King But Caesar

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Credit: Scarlet Ellis, unsplash.com

We have no king but Caesar.

I know it is 2017 and Caesar and his ilk have been dead for a while. I know we are no longer under a monarchy, but still we have no king but Caesar.

I know we gather in sanctuaries and sing about our devotion to Jesus. I know we declare our hope in Christ alone, but if we are honest, we have no king but Caesar.

Despite our modern sensibilities and our religious persuasions, we have given ourselves over to the ways and priorities of Caesar. Our loyalty, our allegiance, our worldview largely belong to him. Our hearts, our eyes, our minds belong to Caesar and his earthly kingdoms.

I am convinced that we have discarded the Kingdom of God for the kingdoms of this world, and all the baggage that comes with them.

The ways of Caesar or Pharaoh or Babylon operate in a distinctly different manner then the ways of Jesus and his Kingdom. As we’ve blurred the lines between these kingdoms and tried to force a shotgun wedding, we’ve ended up embracing one and neglecting the other.

We are left with no king but Caesar.

We have lost our holy imagination. We no longer dream God dreams of peace and justice and wholeness. We dream Caesar dreams of power and wealth and security.

We say we believe God will give us the desires of our heart and then we waste our desire on what corrupts and rots and rusts away. And what leaves us estranged from God and neighbor.

We have no king but Caesar.

We’ve lost our taste for a kingdom that is upside down. We’ve lost our stomach for the way of the cross. Those things are just not practical enough for us.

We have no time to wait for the last to be first.

Like the clumsy disciples we still argue over who will be great while unable to imagine that greatness comes through serving, not economies or privileges.

We have no king but Caesar.

We have been convinced that the only way we can impact the world is through the power of law and might. We have been sidelined from our mission while we campaign for Caesar and all of his friends.

We swallow party platforms and turn them into religious convictions.

We have no king but Caesar.

We make enemies out of people who vote differently than us. And justify it. All while ignoring Jesus’ command to love even our enemies.

We excuse our support of terrible candidates by pointing to their worse candidates. We are certain this is the only way to win.

We have no king but Caesar.

We will trade any and all values for the promise of accommodation and favorable votes. We will look the other way at evil and deception as long as we get what we want. We will make back room deals with the devil as long as he promises us political freedom.

We will sell out the way of Jesus for thirty pieces of silver or better unemployment rates.

We have no king but Caesar.

We’ll take racists and sexual predators and murderers and cheats as long as they promise to vote like we do and kiss our babies.

We have no king but Caesar.

We’ve been deceived and it is time to wake up, Church.

I am not suggesting that we never vote or run for office. I’m suggesting that we take a long, hard look at how we have been doing those things and then repent, turn from anything that doesn’t look like Jesus.

I’m suggesting we say no to a lot of the things we have been saying yes to. Even if it costs us a vote or the Senate or the approval of our neighbors or a manger scene at city hall.

The way of Caesar may look appealing and make sense and offer tangible goods, but it leads to death. It leads to tramping over our neighbors. It leads to pride and idolatry and emptiness.

It destroys our witness to the world.

There is a better way. His name is Jesus.

He tells us that we could gain all the world and it wouldn’t be worth our soul.

He invites us to imagine the world as it could be, to not conclude that Caesar’s is the only way we can operate. He shows us that through love and mercy, truth and grace, service and humility that we can bring about all the change the world might need.

His way tells us that in losing our life we will find it.

This way is harder, but this way is worth it. This way is dangerous, but this way is holy.

May we be found faithful to this way, to this Kingdom, to this King… for we have no King but Christ!

There Is Another Kingdom

I’ve heard about a kingdom where justice rolls like a mighty river. Where enemies become friends and captives are released from their chains. It’s a place where the stranger is welcome and the wayward is pursued. Where the hurting find comfort and the broken find healing.

It is a kingdom full of peculiar people. They listen before they speak and do all they can to live at peace with everyone. They are quick to confess and always seek to be humble. They are known by their love. They keep no record of wrongs.

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In this kingdom weapons of war are transformed into tools for farming. Here debts are forgiven and resources are given away freely. In this kingdom the last go first and the first go last. It is like a feast where all the people we wouldn’t think to invite are the guests of honor.

This kingdom is upside down.

It is not a kingdom for the self-sufficient or the capable or the best of the best. It is given to the poor in spirit, those who find themselves at the end of their rope. It is kingdom that belongs to children. A kingdom where prostitutes and tax frauds often find their way before the pious do.

It is a kingdom of people tasked with the ministry of reconciliation. Where folks move to the margins to be with the looked over and left behind. It is a place where worship looks like meeting the needs of the least and lowest and setting the oppressed free.

Here the people seek to change the world with towels and basins rather than horses and chariots. In this kingdom people hunger not for power or privilege but for righteousness and justice. Here doing right and loving mercy are inseparable.

Here the works of darkness are exposed in the light. This kingdom has no room for selfishness or hate, greed or lust. It is a place where all people are cherished and equal. Here love purifies from all -isms and phobias and pride.

This borderless kingdom shares no common language or dress or flag. Their people are united by faith, hope, and love. Their anthem is, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain” and their pledge is, “Jesus is Lord.”

Their most sacred site is an empty graveyard. They model the belief that laying down their lives is the only way to truly live. And they wouldn’t trade the whole world for a single, solitary soul.

This kingdom, they believe, never ends.

It is not fully realized but it is not some far off fantasy. It’s breaking in, here and now. It is at hand. Close enough to touch. Among us.

If we are not careful, we will be so consumed with other, earthly kingdoms, that we will forget our roles as the citizens of this one. We will lose our imaginations. We will give into despair. We will look for salvation in all the wrong places. We will begin to look and think and act just like any old kingdom in history.

We can’t do that because there is another way.

There is another kingdom. We’ve been invited to be participants and ambassadors. To take it to our neighbors and to the ends of the earth.

This is what we belong to. This is who we are.

God help us to remember. God help us to be faithful.