“He has chosen the lowly things of this world: the despised ones and those who are not, to bring to nothing the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:28). It isn’t just my heart’s tattoo; I really believe it’s one of the most important prophecies of the Bible. Jesus was the ultimate despised one, a king whose reign is defined precisely by his utter social rejection. When we are truly saved, we become despised ones with Jesus, being “crucified together with Christ” so that “it is no longer [we] who live but Christ who lives in [us]” (Galatians 2:19-20). What are we saved from? Legitimacy, which is “friendship with the world [and] enmity with God” (James 4:4), since it is a declaration of independence from God. How do the despised ones that Paul describes “bring to nothing the things that are”? By destroying the categories of legitimacy constructed by the normal majority (a.k.a. “the world”) as a substitute for reliance on God’s mercy.
To paraphrase that annoying hit dance song “Party Rock,” everyday we’re posturing. What I mean by “posturing” is that our conversations are constant performances of self-definition, at least those that happen in cyberspace where words are all that we are. Because conversation itself has turned into a primary object of our analysis, we do a lot of meta-conversation, talking about talking about things. The Christian blogosphere talks a lot about talking about sin, which is different than talking directly about sin. It is in these meta-conversations that a tired debate cycles endlessly: “Why do we need to talk about talking about sin all the time? Jesus ate and drink with sinners.” “Ah… but he would always tell them to go and sin no more.” Understanding the distinction between talking about sin and talking about talking about sin is critical if we are to avoid talking past each other as seems to have occurred in a recent sin meta-conversation between Rachel Held Evans and Kevin Watson. Continue reading
I used to build enormous towers out of blocks when I was four years old. My mom’s fridge still has a picture of me standing next to one of my towers beaming with pride. I built it. It’s a phrase that embodies the essence of human pride. Building something permanent was the ancient pagan form of immortality — to leave a legacy, hopefully with an engraving or a statue, so that no one would ever forget you. This is why the people of Babel decided to build their tower: “so that we may make a name for ourselves“ (Gen 11:4). For the ancient pagans, pride was a virtue, because pride was the anchor upon which good social behavior was built. To some degree, this is still the case today; people who want to be known as respectable try not to behave unseemly because of their pride. However, there is also a very pernicious side to pride. It can very easily mutate from dignified self-confidence into a neurotic neediness that makes us unsympathetic to others and dishonest about our flaws. Pride becomes a very lonely prison in which our ambitious agenda of self-promotion keeps us from having authentic, vulnerable relationships with other people. That is why one of the greatest gifts God gives us is to teach us to say, “God built it; we didn’t.” Continue reading
In contemporary Christian worship, a distinction is often made between worship that is “really worship” versus “just a performance.” For example, does the music invite authentic congregational participation or is it filled with guitar solos, pyrotechnics, and fog machines that make the service a concert that gives people goose bumps for cheap manufactured reasons? I want to look at a different contrast between worship and performance that I see at the heart of the gospel. I believe we were created to worship every moment of every day. The purpose of gathering to sing and pray and learn each weekend is merely to retune ourselves for a week of worship. The problem is that we misunderstand what worship means: we think it’s performing for God, putting on a show to prove to Him that we really believe in Him so that He won’t throw us in hell. But performance is actually the greatest obstacle to true worship, the definition of which is summarized in a single verse — Psalm 37:4: “Delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” It’s not hard to learn how to worship; my three year old son knows perfectly how. The impossible challenge that Jesus died on the cross to make possible is unlearning performance. Continue reading
I come from a long line of Texas Baptists, growing up in a world where there may have been a few closet Democrats but not many. One of my greatest influences has been my grandfather, who grew up during the Great Depression and ended up being successful in the oil business but has always dressed and lived like he was still a poor country boy from Premont, Texas. So when people stereotype Texas Republicans as being cigar-chomping fat cats with some nefarious plan to rule the world, I know they’re not talking about my grandpa. Continue reading
Sermon for 2/27/2011
Text: Matthew 6:25-34
Not to make anyone jealous, but last weekend my family went to Florida. I was actually on the beach as I was looking at the sermon text for this week on not worrying. And it made sense, down there where the temperature is so perfect that you can leave your windows open at night. Nobody is in too great a hurry or too big a worry. Except for one thing! If there’s perfect weather almost the entire year, you can’t just let your lawn go in the winter because it’s supposed to stay lush and green all year long. At least that’s what the radio said on half a dozen ads for a lawn care company offering “therapy” for homeowners frantic about their lawns.
Those advertisements reminded me how essential worrying is to our economy. If people weren’t worried, they wouldn’t buy insurance or service protection plans or antivirus software or burglar alarms or a thousand other products that depend on our worries to get sold. We worry about our health, about the stock market, about our children’s self-confidence; and there are entire industries built off of each of these worries. Even beer is a product of worry, because despite however many people say they drink beer for the taste, its primary function is to douse out the worry that we don’t have anything interesting to say at the parties that we go to.
So when Jesus says not to worry, he’s really cutting against the grain of our culture. Now some of you might be saying, “I don’t really worry that much, what’s this got to do with me?” I guess I’m biased because I have a type-A personality, which means I have a lot of nervous energy to use up. How many of y’all are type A like me? How many of y’all are more laid back? I can understand how laid back people might see Jesus’ advice as a no-brainer, like that song from the 80’s – Don’t worry, be happy. Is Jesus saying that we can just put some beach music in your ipods and we’re done?
Not quite. There are actually two things that Jesus is telling us in this passage. On the one hand, he is telling those of us who bite our nails too much to take a chill pill. There’s a difference between being worried and being concerned.
Everyone has legitimate concerns, whether it’s searching for a job, finding a significant other, staying healthy, or raising a family. These concerns turn into worries when we dwell on them to the point that we can’t let go. So part of what Jesus is saying is stop stressing out so much because your Daddy in heaven loves you just like He loves the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.
And this is an important message. Our lives are in God’s hands. Trusting in God won’t keep the trouble away, but it will make the trouble less troubling. But there’s another layer to Jesus’ message. If all we hear in this passage is not to worry, then it’s easy to go a step further and say that it’s okay not to care. Is Jesus giving us permission to become lilies of the field and sit around like hippies blossoming in the sunshine? Or to put it differently, since this world is not our true home as Christians, is it okay not to care about the world and focus on raising our families right and keeping them out of other peoples’ way? Jesus isn’t telling us not to care; he’s saying not to worry about worldly things so we can care about Godly things.
At the beginning of the passage, Jesus talks about the way that we have to choose between two masters – God and success. Now any Bible nerds out there know that wealth is the standard translation of the Aramaic term mammon that Jesus used. Mammon does mean a person’s wealth or property but it also means might or strength in more ancient usage, so I figure it means literally the evidence of your might, which in the ancient world meant how many sheep are in your herd, but in our world includes not just your bank account, but your social standing, how civilized your children behave, or even how green your grass looks in the wintertime if you live in Florida – in other words, your overall success in life.
Here’s why this translation makes a difference. We can have wealth and be true Christians as long as we know that God is the true Owner of our wealth, which means letting God tell us how to spend it. What is incompatible with being a servant of God, no matter how much money you have, is to be a slave to your own success. Living for your own success whether it’s spiritual, material, or otherwise is completely incompatible with living for God’s kingdom. I might do all the things that Christians are supposed to do – praying, reading my Bible every day, volunteering to help the homeless – but as long as I am doing these things for the sake of my own glory rather than God’s glory, I gain nothing from them.
The problem is that most of us come to church as part of our plan for leading successful lives rather than taking church out into the world in allegiance to God’s plan for establishing His kingdom. A church that exists for our personal success rather than God’s kingdom is not really a church at all; it’s a self-help club. It’s true that we all start out coming here for our own success: to meet friends, to learn how to cope with stress, to teach our children good values so they can have good careers. The reason I went to church in 2004 was to find me a wife, and I did! But as my brother Bryson Smith used to say: “Come for the girls, but stay for God.”
God knows that we all start out with selfish reasons for coming to church so He reshapes us through the Holy Spirit into Christian disciples and kingdom-seekers when we do His will with open hearts. When we allow ourselves to be converted from slaves of our own success into God’s servants, then we stop worrying about things related to our own success, like how green our grass is, and worry instead about the things that God worries about, which are all the obstacles in our world – like sin, poverty, injustice, or addiction – that keep people from experiencing God’s love and knowing their place in God’s kingdom.
Three years ago, I went on a mission trip to Peru where we met a woman named Soledad who lived in a shanty on the beach. Soledad is one of the least worried people I’ve ever met, despite the fact that several months before we came, a tidal wave knocked over her shanty and swept away the family pig which was the most valuable property they had. Somehow through God’s grace, the pig survived the ordeal and Soledad found it about three blocks away. Like many people in Peru, Soledad doesn’t have a regular job. Instead, she spends her days cleaning, cooking, and teaching at her neighborhood Methodist church. Soledad was totally at peace in sharing her confidence that God would continue to provide for her.
Soledad lives for God’s kingdom, and God provides for her through the body of people who seek God’s kingdom first. Soledad doesn’t have to worry because other people with more means than she has have put aside their worries to offer their wealth to the kingdom in which she lives. And yet it’s not as though Soledad needs people like me to visit her or even buy her things. Because she’s poor, she will probably get to heaven long before I do. The question is how much time God will have to use people like Soledad in the lives of people like me who need freedom from worrying about our success so that we too can enter God’s kingdom.
It’s pretty hard for us to live like Soledad in our world here. But there are things we can do to wean ourselves away from the worldly worries that keep us from putting God’s kingdom first. This weekend, about 14 youth and 4 adults from our church fasted for 30 hours. It was more than just a fundraiser or an awareness-building stunt. Fasting is a practice that Christians have always used to learn how to depend on God and free ourselves from worrying about food. As a form of prayer, fasting forces us to slow down and listen to what God has to show us about how we can give our lives more fully to His kingdom.
We are approaching a time in the Christian year called Lent in which we will all be invited to a form of fasting. For those of you who are unfamiliar, during Lent, we give up something we like, such as chocolate, in order to break ourselves of our worldly worries and addictions so that we can turn our attention completely to God’s kingdom. Giving up chocolate for a few weeks is not going to save the world, but God can use it to make us better disciples. To be a Christian disciple is to be someone who wants to live all the way in God’s kingdom and longs to be liberated from worrying about things that don’t matter. We can’t save the world; that’s God’s job. But He does it by gathering disciples who seek His kingdom first.