Growing up in the church, I would often hear the phrase, “We’re just pilgrims passing through,” usually in response to someone’s passion for changing the world. It means that since this is not our “true home” (heaven is), we shouldn’t worry about what happens to our world other than keeping our family safe. Hebrews 11 talks about the Israelite patriarchs who “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” (v. 13), not because they considered earthly life irrelevant compared to “heaven,” but because they “desired a better country” (v. 16). Those who see our lives on Earth as a brief visit are tourists; those who are seeking a kingdom of God that requires more than one lifetime to build are pilgrims. Which are you? Continue reading
We’ve just started a sermon series in the spirit of Easter called Rewrite in which we talk about people from the Bible and from our church whose lives have been rewritten by God. Our first Biblical character was Abraham who really was just a regular guy that God decided to build a nation from. Abraham did some dumb things, like prostituting his wife to the Egyptian pharaoh and then impregnating his wife Sarah’s slave girl Hagar upon her request only to let Sarah abuse Hagar and run her out of their home. But God wasn’t going to let Abraham’s mistakes get in the way of his plan. In addition to Abraham’s story, we heard the testimony of Elsa Kuflom, a member of Burke UMC who came here as a refugee from the war in Eritrea.
One of the struggles I have with the word “covenant” is that it seems to be used to describe two entities which are quite different: God’s unconditional, unilateral promise to Abraham and the elaborate set of rules and practices given to the Israelites in the Torah. In Romans 4, Paul pits these two “covenants” against each other in order to radically redefine what it means to be God’s people. Paul argues that God’s people are more essentially those who share the faith of Abraham than those who follow the law of Moses. If we understand righteousness to mean trusting in God’s unconditional generosity rather than following rules flawlessly, this means replacing an ethos of retribution with an ethos of mercy. I think that the reason evangelicals so egregiously misinterpret Romans is because we don’t want Paul to be replacing contractual rules with trust, since that means giving up both retribution and our autonomy; we would rather make “faith” into a new rule that we get punished for not following, so that we can continue to deny our dependence on God and judge others, which completely sabotages Paul’s entire point.
This summer, Pastor Larry and I are doing a sermon series about the deep roots that we have a Christian people. Our roots go back further than Jesus Himself. That’s why our Bible has an Old Testament. Jesus was Himself born into the people of Israel, so looking at the story of Israel’s founding fathers – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph – is critical to understanding who we are as Christians. Being a Christian means more than just having a personal relationship with Jesus; it means becoming part of the story of God’s people. And we can’t get our story right as God’s people without going back to our roots, which start in the call of Abram.
In a similar way, we often get the story of Abram wrong by overlooking his own roots. This is largely because of the way that the chapters in Genesis are numbered. If you start talking about Abraham at the beginning of Genesis 12, you miss out on what he and his family were doing when God called him to head over to the promised land of Canaan and start a new nation. You have to go back to the final verses of Genesis 11 to realize that Abram and his family had already been on a journey to Canaan when God called. It was Abram’s father Terach (whose name means “the wanderer”) who originally set out from the ancient city Ur of Abram’s birth to journey to the promised land of Canaan. But Terach’s family for whatever reason couldn’t make it all the way to the promised land. They couldn’t make it further than Haran, which was the halfway point between Ur and Canaan.
The word “Haran” in Hebrew means “unquenchable thirst.” The town was located on the banks of the Tigris, the same river that ran down past Ur into what is now called the Persian Gulf. Perhaps Abram’s father Terach was fearful to leave a familiar river behind to cross through a desert wilderness to the promised land. We don’t know. But regardless, when God called Abram to hit the road, he was not calling Abram to a completely new journey out of the blue; he was calling Abram back to a journey that his father had started.
Our life journeys are often built from the journeys of our parents. That is to say that most of us, particularly when we’re young, live under the shadow of our parents’ dreams and expectations, whether this refers to our careers, the people we befriend, or what generally counts as happiness. We either accept these expectations or rebel against them, but either way they tend to define us. Either we accept the Canaan for which our parents set out and continue in their journey or we rebel and replace their Canaan with our own.
Over the past few years, I have discovered how much my identity is derived in the dreams of my father. He will always be the smartest man I have ever known and my greatest intellectual influence. He’s taught a Baptist Sunday school class continually for the past thirty years. My father’s passion is to find a way to explain the gospel to people in the scientific world where he spends most of his time as a medical researcher. For as long as I can remember, he’s been trying to reconcile God and science in the form of several brilliant manuscripts that he wrote in his spare time which have never been published.
This year, I’ve had some ideas I thought God wanted me to share with the world so I’ve been sending them around to Christian magazines. Nobody has even emailed me back except for the senior editor of Christianity Today, who actually responded very positively at first but has been backpedaling in every follow-up email since then. It’s been a tough experience, and I’ve filled up pages and pages of my journal asking God what He wants me to do. I want to get to Canaan so badly, but I’m stuck in Haran with this unquenchable thirst. Perhaps I’m chasing after the wrong Canaan of worldly success and respectability and relevance. I don’t feel like my calling to write is reducible to that, but maybe those motives need to be purged some more and that’s why God hasn’t let me leave Haran yet. In any case, the dream that I inherited from my father is interrupted for now.
Do you feel stuck in a place that’s far short of the promised land you were hoping to get to? Maybe your job feels like a dead-end. Maybe your life is whizzing by too fast for you to enjoy it. Maybe you’re just tired and thirsty all the time and you’ve mostly forgotten the dreams that you had when you started out except sometimes when you’re stuck in traffic or trying to get to sleep at night. Well, I think that God’s got some use for the dreams we decided to lay aside. He wants us to dust them off and pick them up again so that He can transform them into better, deeper dreams.
We don’t know what Abram thought he was doing when he first set out with his father Terach en route to the promised land of Canaan. What we do know is that when God tells Abram to pick his father’s dream back up, He turns it into a much deeper dream. God doesn’t just promise to take Abram to a certain physical location. His command to Abram is completely open-ended: “Go to the land I will show you.” Abram has to trust that God will explain as he goes along. And the land of Canaan that had been calling Abram’s father isn’t even what’s important. God tells Abram that He will make him into a great nation through whom all the people on Earth will be blessed. God takes the dream that Abram’s father had passed down to Abram and transforms it into the foundation for the Israelites that He will create to draw the world into His family through the Messiah Jesus Christ who will be born into this people to show all the nations the love of His Heavenly Father.
Maybe we’ve been dreaming too small. That’s okay because God can use the smallest of dreams for His purpose when we trust Him enough to hear His call and obey, just like Abram did, not knowing where we’re going but believing that God will show us where to go while we’re on the way there. Have you been chasing after the wrong promise land? Have you been stuck in a place of unquenchable thirst unsure of what your next move will be? Well God is calling you right now just like He called Abram to give yourself completely to the nation that God started through Abram, to become a branch on the vine of Israel’s Messiah and our Savior Jesus Christ who makes us into the people who exist to bless others. If we will trust and go like Abram trusted and went, we will find the promise land that God has prepared for us, and it might not look any different than the world that we’re walking through now except that our eyes will be opened by faith to see God’s kingdom all around us. God will show us the real dream that we’ve really had all along underneath the cheap and tacky dreams that the world has talked us into. So dream deep, put your trust in the Lord, and He will show you the Canaan that you never knew you were seeking.
Sermon for 7/24/2010
Texts: Genesis 18:20-32; Colossians 2:6-19
To say that Abraham was bold would be an understatement. How did he have the guts to nickel and dime God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah? But what’s even more remarkable is the fact that Abraham is not pleading God’s mercy for himself, his family, or even his political allies. This was Sodom and Gomorrah. For those of you who don’t know the story, two angels visited Abraham’s nephew Lot in Sodom, and a mob surrounded the house demanding that the strangers be given to them so they could “get to know” them. The Sodomites weren’t just a rival desert tribe; they were thoroughly despicable people. And Abraham is asking God to have mercy on them. Abraham raises the bar on what it means to love your enemy. How in the world can we have the kind of heart Abraham had?
Loving our enemies. Doesn’t every Christian do that? It’s one of those aspects of Christian teaching that we point to when we want to argue that Jesus is better than Buddha and Mohammed and all the rest. But what does it really mean to love our enemies? How do you love your enemy when he’s shooting at you? Are we supposed to send weekly care packages to the other side of the war on terror? How do you live out Jesus’ command when your job is to protect people your enemy is trying to kill?
I think it’s naïve and arrogant to pretend that these questions have simple answers. Some of you have had to face these questions very concretely in difficult circumstances that most of us will never encounter. Christian thinking on this subject has evolved throughout the centuries. In the beginning, Christians were a persecuted minority. When they were being tortured and thrown to the lions, people started asking whether they should raise arms in resistance to Roman imperial authority. Christian leaders consistently said no. Paul argues in Romans 13 that we should submit to sinful governments like the Roman Empire, since they are part of God’s plan. Peter writes in 1 Peter 4 that if you’re martyred, let it be for no reason other than your Christian faith, so that God can use your unjust death to conquer the heart of your enemy.
The remarkable thing is that this radical stance in which early Christians loved their enemies to the point of accepting martyrdom was ultimately the means by which Christianity conquered the most powerful empire in the history of the world. What Paul says about Christ’s victory in this week’s reading really happened; it wasn’t just a theological claim. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” We would not be sitting in this church today were it not for the victory that Christianity won over the Roman Empire through the martyrdom of not only Christ but also the thousands of his faithful followers who took up their crosses to follow him. Though they would have been decimated had they ever taken up arms against the empire, their innocent blood was too much for Rome to handle. They basically won a wrestling match with an enormous, infinitely more powerful opponent by allowing themselves to get pinned over and over.
First, the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Then, the Roman Empire fell altogether and was replaced by a new political order called Christendom in which the church gained authority over all the nation-states in Europe, an arrangement that lasted about a thousand years. Yet Christendom’s success was paradoxically its demise, since its power created the corruption that rotted its core, sparking Martin Luther’s Reformation and ultimately the separation of church and state.
The question of how to love your enemies becomes a different one when your people are in power. It’s easier to let your enemies martyr you when you’re in an outsider religious sect than when a nation of people have entrusted you with their protection. Martin Luther wrote that we have to live in two kingdoms simultaneously. Among Christians, we inhabit the kingdom of love in which we turn the other cheek and resolve our disagreements with love. But when we’re in the outside world, we have to live in the kingdom of the sword where there are rules and consequences to maintain the civil order.
Luther’s two-kingdom concept mirrors the way that many Christians parse out our overlapping identity as citizens of both our earthly nation and the kingdom of God. In the private sphere of our friendships and church families, we follow the commands of God’s kingdom, while, in the public sphere, we deal with the world according to the world’s terms. It has become so natural to compartmentalize our lives in this way that it’s easy to forget we’re still members of the body of Christ when we’re on the job with our human bosses.
Not all Christians accept the idea that we’re supposed to live in two kingdoms at the same time. The Amish reject it so radically that they remove themselves from society so that no social role will compromise their fidelity to Jesus’ commands. Some might say that it’s irresponsible to remove ourselves from the world as the Amish have. But what a witness it was how the Amish in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania responded four years ago when a disturbed man named Charles Roberts opened fire in a schoolhouse and killed five Amish girls. That same night, several girls’ families walked to the house of Charles’ family to say that they forgave Charles and to offer his family their love and support. Throughout their grieving process, the Amish community placed the utmost importance on reaching out to Charles’ family to love and comfort them through such a terrible time. That’s what loving your enemy looks like.
So what about the rest of us who feel called to live immersed in a world whose way of doing things is hostile to the gospel? It is precisely to our challenge that Paul responds when he writes to “see to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy” derived in worldly thinking rather than in Christ’s teachings. In today’s world, people play to win. When we’re kids, we compete for the best grades, the best positions on sports teams, and the best extracurricular activities, so that we can get into the best colleges and then get hired at the best jobs to raise the best families and start over again.
Our politics have taken the form of a sports competition as well. There’s no such thing as a win-win solution anymore, in which people with very different philosophies learn from each other and come up with solutions they couldn’t have thought of on their own. Our politicians play to win, and the only victory they recognize is for the other party to lose. So politics turns into a game of trying to weaken your enemy by tape-recording all the embarrassing things that they say. And the parties rise and fall according to who digs up the better scandal with the only real losers being the American people.
Paul is warning the Colossians about being taken captive by these poisonous worldly attitudes. It’s easy to fall into this trap. I have. Partly because I grew up in a moderate Southern Baptist family, I spent much of my life in a self-perceived battle with fundamentalist Christianity. And it always seemed like they were winning. They had the bigger churches; they dominated the media. I wasted a lot of energy trying to prove that I was better than the fundamentalists. Whenever I had conversations with other believers, I used all sorts of litmus tests to help me decide whether they were fundamentalists or real Christians.
Well what God did to conquer me was to put people in my life who I might have called fundamentalists before, but now I know they just love the Lord and want what I say that I want – for God’s kingdom to win – despite the fact that we differ on some details. Now I can love people that I wasted so much time trying to one-up before; and I realize that they’re not my enemies but my brothers and sisters.
See, the problem with the play-to-win attitude is this: when we’re trying to conquer others, we can’t be conquered by God’s love. That’s actually why Christendom fell in the 16th century. To use Paul’s words, they “lost their connection with the head” of Christ’s body. They were so focused on conquering the Muslims and the Americas and Africa and Asia that they forgot they needed to be conquered by Jesus. And the way that Jesus conquers is not the way the world conquers.
Jesus doesn’t conquer by making other people bleed; He conquers us, and our enemies, through His own blood. See, it’s not the case that we’re supposed to conquer our enemies so that we can stand over them and say, by the way, let me tell you about Jesus. Jesus is at the center pulling us and our enemies both towards Him; and the closer that we and our enemies get to Jesus, the more we realize that we’re not enemies but brothers and sisters.
Now it would be dishonest to act as if we don’t live in a more complicated world than when Christianity was a persecuted minority. When you’re deciding between denying your faith or getting thrown to the lions, at least the choice is clear-cut. Just because we’re people who want God to conquer us with love doesn’t mean that there aren’t hurt, angry people out there who can cause a lot of harm if there’s nobody to stop them. Some people face the ultimate challenge of loving their enemies while doing the work that somebody has to do to protect society.
But even when our life gives us choices that neither Jesus nor we are happy with, we can choose not to fall captive to worldly ways of thinking. We can avoid getting fixated on ideas we believe in so strongly that they turn into idols that “disqualify us for the prize.” We can remind ourselves that God’s prize for us is not a reward for sacrifices we made or feats we achieved, but a gift we only gain when we stop trying to earn it and prove that our enemies don’t deserve it.
And when we receive that gift of knowing that we don’t have to be right all the time and we don’t need to prove that we always had the right motives because Christ has nailed all the world’s judgments to the cross; when we receive that gift, we do “overflow with thankfulness” just like Paul says and we want others to receive that gift too, whether or not they deserve it, because we know we don’t deserve it, and all of our worldly arrogance and cynicism get washed away in that thankfulness. And we stop worrying about whether other people have the right theology or whether they used the right prayer to pray Jesus into their hearts.
All we want is for God’s mercy to reign over all the earth so that all people will have the same gift that we’ve got. And the best part is this: the more we love our enemies the way that Abraham loved those Sodomites, the more that we fall in love with God. God uses our love for our enemies to conquer us with His love. To be truly free, we don’t need for God to conquer our enemies; we need Him to conquer us. Do you have the courage to be conquered by His love?