Ordination Testimony

This summer I’ll be ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant Church. On Friday I gave the following testimony about my call to ministry to a regional gathering of Covenant pastors.

The best thing about the call to vocational ministry is also what makes this call so hard. In Ephesians 4:11 Paul writes, “Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers.” It’s not the work of ministry that is the best and the hardest part of the call- it’s the One who calls who makes it so personally, comprehensively complex. Christ himself.

The idea of vocational ministry in a general sense was always an appealing possibility. There are pastors and missionaries in previous generations of my extended family. My parents experienced their own, individual calls to missionary service when they were teenagers. Our family life in Venezuela and Ecuador was good and reinforced for me the significance of lives dedicated to equipping to church for works of service.

It was only when I began wrestling with the particular call to plant a multi-ethnic church that I began to understand just how hard this call can be. Again, I don’t mean the different tasks and rhythms of planting and pastoring; rather it’s the One who calls – Christ himself – who has made it hard. As we began planning this new church in 2008, I had no idea that I would eventually be its pastor. As a relatively well-read person, I just knew that a multi-ethnic church planted in predominately Black neighborhood would require a Black pastor. But as the day to launch weekly services approached, and as we exhausted our list of candidates, our sending church decided that if God wasn’t going to provide the ideal church planter, then I would have to do.

As I took my first wobbly steps into this call I began to experience something disturbing: For the first time in my life, my white male-ness was not an asset. Week after week I wondered – with varying degrees of despair – why God hadn’t called a woman or man of color to serve and lead this church. Surely this diverse congregation would benefit far more from a pastor who was from the neighborhood, someone who instinctively knew the joy and pain of being Black or Brown within the context of our racially segregated city.

I’ll never forget sitting in my spiritual director’s office as I expressed my growing conviction that I was the wrong person for this call. This older, African American woman listened as I described my worry, the near-constant sense of being out of place, of wondering whether I’d ever be seen and accepted. She listened and then, when I finally stopped talking, she smiled and said, “This is good. You’re describing how I feel much of the time as a Black woman in a white world.”

I’m sure it sounds ridiculously remedial to you, but it was as though the heavens parted when she said this to me. I realized that my race and gender had conditioned me to expect God’s faithfulness to feel a certain way- like acceptance and affirmation. Yet, as my spiritual director was pointing out, because it is Christ who was calling me, my expectations would need to change dramatically. The call to ministry – if it is modeled after Jesus – must require me to be emptied of power and privilege; it must come to embrace my weakness and foolishness as the locations of God’s display of faithfulness and salvation.

In 1978 Zenos Hawkinson preached a sermon to a people he feared had forgotten God’s faithfulness to them during their times of weakness and need. He said,

If you have come out of the pilgrim tradition of the children of Israel, from Egypt to the promised Land, and have used that magnificent opportunity only to become a Philistine, then take heed. Do you live comfortably behind high walls and bronzed gates, and worship regularly at the altar of Baal? Are you pleased with the prospects of Social Security and a special pension plan, or the apparent security of America’s nuclear deterrent and the overwhelming power of its society and technology? If that provides comfort, then live in fear and trembling, because it will all be taken away from you as surely as the security of our forebears. I proclaim it.

He’s preaching to me. This Philistine culture has formed me to desire its high walls and bronzed gates, to worship at its altars of safe privilege and divisive power. But Christ himself is calling me to something different- to the way of weakness and foolishness.

This is so hard. But it has also been so very good. My wife and I find ourselves woven into a community of people who we never could have hoped to know and love outside of our diverse congregation. Our two sons – both adopted, neither of them white – are growing up in a community that reflects the gifts of their ethnicities. I know friendship with neighborhood colleagues whose acceptance and loyalty still surprises me. And best of all, every impossibly hard thing about this call has always been surpassed by the impossibly good Gospel of Jesus.

A Sermon: Take Up Your Lynching Tree and Follow Me.

A lightly edited version of yesterday’s sermon from Mark 8:27-9:1 at New Community.

Our passage begins: “Jesus & his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi.” This geographical context is important. Mark wants us to remember that Jesus is first recognized as Messiah near Caesarea Philippi, that he Jesus first predicts his execution near Caesarea Philippi, and that Jesus first explains the costly nature discipleship near Caesarea Philippi. To understand why the location of these first-time events matters, consider this photo of Pastor Michelle from this winter. Without the context, you see someone praying publicly, but not much more. But when you know that she’s at Chicago Police Department headquarters less than a week after the video footage was released of Laquan McDonald’s murder by an office footage… well, then you see much more in this photo. Caesarea Philippi is the context that let’s us see the snapshots in our passage with greater clarity.

Philip, one of Herod the Great’s sons, was allowed to rule this region by the Roman Caesar and so he built the city of Caesarea Philippi in honor of the Caesar. Unlike Galilee where Jesus and his disciples came from, this region was home to many Gentiles and was symbolic of Rome’s occupying power. In fact, the entire region was dedicated to Caesar’s lordship.

With this in mind, we begin to see why Jesus chose this region for these first-time events. With the huge expectations for the coming Jewish Messiah, it made sense for Jesus to elicit Peter’s confession away from the hype and tensions. Similarly, with the prediction of his death it was better to be out of their earshot when Jesus told his disciples about the religious leaders’ complicity in his eventual suffering and execution. Caesarea Philippi served practical purposes for these first-time events, but when it came to his teaching on costly discipleship, the region provided a symbolic backdrop for his disciples and, if we’re paying attention, for us.

The disciples who followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi were mostly young Jewish men from Galilee. These men shared at least two relevant things in common. First, there were perceived as a threat by the occupying Romans. Insurrectionists and rebels came from Galilee and the region’s strong accent made it hard to blend in. These disciples had likely been stereotyped and harassed by the authorities since their teenage years. Second, these young men had experienced very real and deadly oppression. The most grotesque example of this came in 6 AD when 2,000 Galileans were crucified by the Romans four miles from Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. Jesus and these other young men would have grown up with this and other examples of what would happen to them if they stepped out of line.

Being a young, Jewish man from Galilee meant much more than being perceived as a threat & experiencing oppression, but it didn’t mean less than these things. It is these young men who followed Jesus to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus then says to them: Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. Their families have been taxed into poverty by the Romans. Their friends have been murdered violently by the Romans. They themselves have been harassed by the Romans… and Jesus brought them to the center of regional Roman power to tell them that following Jesus meant carrying a Roman cross. These were men who knew that their accents and zip codes make them targets for state-sanctioned prejudice… and Jesus brought them to symbolic center of that state tell them that following Jesus meant taking up a cross.

Do you see how hard and confusing this would be for disciples to hear? But it’s even deeper! When Jesus talked about taking up a cross, he wasn’t speaking abstractly. The cross didn’t hold any spiritual significance for the disciples. Jesus had just told he’d be executed, but hasn’t said anything about crucifixion. For the disciples, a cross was just a cross: a crude, Roman method of execution, something that had been used to murder their friends and family members.

But the cross was more than an execution method, it was an intentional form of terrorism. When Romans hung a young Galilean Jew from a cross their first goal wasn’t execution- there were faster ways to kill a rebellious Jew. No, the goal of hanging a suffering, dying, humiliated peasant from a tree was to terrorize everyone who knew him or her. New Testament scholar Paula Fredrickson writes, “The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”

With the cross, the Romans’ goal was to remind the occupied Jews of their subservient status. Their goal was to protect the privileged status of Romans. Their goal was to keep the Galileans from even trying to resist or rebel. A cross was an obscene political gesture, an unmistakable reminder of whose lives did and didn’t matter. When Jesus told his disciples that following him meant taking up their cross, they would have heard: take up your instrument of state-sanctioned terror and follow me. What would you have thought if you were one of Jesus’ disciples in that moment? What would you have felt?

According to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877-1950, 3,959 black people were lynched. EJI calls these “racial terror lynchings” because, like crucifixion, the goal was to terrorize. During slavery, women and men of African descent experienced unimaginable cruelty, but generally they were not killed by their so-called owners. They were simply too valuable. Slavery represented a 3.5-billion-dollar economy, more than all manufacturing & railroads combined. Our nation’s prosperity was literally being built on their backs. It was only after emancipation was declared that the lynching of black bodies began in earnest. In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes,

White supremacists felt insulted by the suggestion that whites and blacks might work together as equals. Whether in churches, colleges, universities, or in the political and social life of the nation, southern whites, who were not going to allow their ex-slaves to associate with them as equals, felt that if lynching were the only way to keep ex-slaves subservient, then it was necessary.

If we ever think about lynching, we probably imagine white mobs surrounding black bodies. But in fact, anyone who didn’t conform to the standard of whiteness was vulnerable: About 600 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were lynched in the southwest during this same time period for a variety of reasons, including speaking Spanish too loudly and, in the case of women victims, refusing sexual advances of white men. In October, 1871, 18 Chinese men and boys were lynched by a mob of 500 white Los Angeles residents.

For most white people during this period, lynching was necessary tool to maintain order. Cole Blease was a senator and governor from South Carolina who wrote that lynching was a “divine right of the Caucasian race to dispose of the offending blackamoor without the benefit of a jury.” Newspapers printed announcements about upcoming lynchings; up to 20,000 spectators would show up for these terrorist events. Postcards were made: white men standing proudly next to the corpse; white mothers prodding their children into the photo.

Considering similarities between crucifixion and the lynching tree helps us feel some of the horror the disciples must have felt as Jesus’ call to follow him by taking up their crosses. Cone writes,

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals, and insurrectionists- the lowest of the low in society. Both Jesus and blacks were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity and cruelty. They were stripped, in order to be deprived of dignity, then paraded, mocked and whipped, pierced, derided and spat upon, tortured for hours in the presence of jeering crowds for popular entertainment. In both cases, the purpose was to strike terror in the subject community. It was to let people know that the same thing would happen to them if they did not stay in their place.

To be clear: I’m not using the lynching tree as a sermon illustration. I’m not using it as an object lesson to help us mentally grasp the horrors of the cross. The lynching tree is the cross. I’m saying that being lynched was the equivalent of being crucified. I’m saying that if Jesus was talking to a group of American disciples in the 1920’s, he very well may have said to them: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their lynching tree and follow me.”

This is an incredibly hard word – a seemingly impossible word – and we can’t water it down by spiritualizing what was, in fact, an act of dehumanizing terror. Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe. And though we’ve been focusing on the young Galileans who personally experienced Roman terror, we must see that following Jesus is demanding for everyone.

In 8:34 Mark tell us that just before his teaching on costly discipleship, Jesus “called the crowd to him along with his disciples…” The crowd in Caesarea Philippi included representatives of Rome, those whose ethnicity and privilege allowed them to benefit from the Galileans’ oppression. Jesus does not choose a different discipleship metaphor for them. There is not one way of discipleship for the oppressed and another for the oppressor. The cross is also for the powerful and the privileged. The women and men who profited from Rome’s campaigns of terror are now called to take up that very symbol of terror.

To these privileged women and men, citizens of an empire that had conquered the world, Jesus asks a rhetorical question: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” [8:36-37] The word Jesus uses for soul can also be translated as life. Jesus is implying that those who’ve succeeded because of another’s oppression have in fact lost comprehensively; their lives are bankrupt and they have no trustworthy hope. Their power and privilege have blinded them and they are in a desperate situation. They have satisfied themselves with the fruit of others’ oppression; they have become accustomed to cruelty and blind to their prejudice. They cannot even see their sin because everything around them normalizes their injustice and idolatry.

Jesus’ costly call to discipleship includes these men and women. The land owner, the business person, the government official, and the tax collector is each called to take up this symbol of terror. No longer can they claim ignorance. No longer can they keep a respectable distance. No longer can they explain their privilege aside from those they have oppressed. No longer can they let themselves off the hook with the hollow claim: “But I haven’t personally crucified anyone.”

No. If they desire the salvation Jesus offers they must swim against every expectation the Empire has for its favorite citizens. They must offer themselves to the cross. They must offer themselves to the lynching tree. Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe.

In 8:29 Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” The disciples still had a very small vision for what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. The same is often true for us. They had a specific political agenda for Jesus, we have specific spiritual agendas for him. They limited him to specific political and religious agendas. We limit what we expect from Jesus to our hearts and our hopes.

But our agendas are too small because Jesus came to save the world from all that terrorizes it. Which means that those who follow Jesus must follow him to the cross, to the lynching tree, and into the contemporary terrors of today. He calls us to take up the sources of our oppression, to take up the tools we’ve used to oppressed others. Reflecting on his opposition to the Vietnam War, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “When I took up the cross I recognized its meaning. It is not something that you merely put your hands on. It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.”

Following Jesus is far more demanding than we’ve been led to believe, but if Jesus is in fact the Son of God who rescues the world, than following Jesus will also be far better than we’ve come to expect.

Once we grasp the great cost of following Jesus, it can be hard to see how such discipleship can be good. To understand why these same horrified disciples came to embrace the cross and called others to do the same, we must consider the one who issued such a costly call. Because the life of faith to which we’re called isn’t a call to an ideology, a political theory, or to a particular theology. We are called to and by a person. We are called to and by Jesus.

We are called to and by the one who held the power of the universe gave it up, the one with the privilege of deity who gave it up. He took on humanity’s flesh, but not a generic, color-blind flesh. He took on terrorized flesh. He took on oppressed flesh. He took on occupied flesh. He took on accented flesh. He took on abandoned flesh. He took on ridiculed flesh. He took on ethnically invisible flesh.

In the eyes of the Romans, Jesus was no different than his Galilean disciples. In their eyes he was a statistic and a suspect; a coward and a criminal. At best he was a backward peasant who needed to be kept in his place; at worst he was a thug who would only respond to the empire’s violence. He is the one who calls his disciples to the cross; to the lynching tree. And though they don’t yet see it, he called them to this terrorizing symbol aware that he must go there first.

What does it mean that Jesus willingly allowed Rome’s apparatus of terror to crush him? It means that the Father allowed the evil that had long terrorized humanity to crush his son instead. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” On the cross, Jesus absorbed our sin & our suffering; our prejudice & our pain; our complicity and our devastation by this world’s terror. As Cone writes, “A symbol of death and defeat, God turned the cross into a sign of liberation and new life. Christians must face the cross as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation.”

The only reason that taking up our cross can be good is because Jesus took up the cross first, and in doing so he robbed it of its power to terrorize his followers. This is why Jesus can call us to simultaneously take up our cross and follow him. It should be impossible to go anywhere with a cross. You don’t take up a lynching tree and move ahead! The cross, the lynching tree, and every other form of terrorizing evil are meant to destroy us and instill fear in others. Coming into contact with the cross is supposed to kill you. Coming into contact with the lynching tree is meant to terrify you and everyone you love. And yet because Jesus has already allowed evil to exhaust itself on his body, these evils have lost their ultimate power over us. Like Paul proclaims in Colossians 2:15, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

In other words, because Jesus was crucified, the cross has no power to terrorize his followers. Because he was hung from a tree, the lynching tree has no power to terrorize his followers. This doesn’t mean this world’s powers and authorities aren’t up to their old tricks, it just means that Jesus has already exposed their impotence.

Jesus has picked up the cross. Jesus has hung from the lynching tree. Jesus has been stopped and frisked. Jesus has been locked up and forgotten. Jesus has experienced educational malpractice by an underfunded school system. Jesus has known the terror of drone warfare. Jesus has felt the fear of a vulnerable body. Jesus has been demonized because of his accented English and immigrant roots.

By calling his disciples to pick up the cross, Jesus has placed himself within every terrorizing tactic this world and its evil prince will ever use against you. And though he was crushed, he rose; though he was pierced, he rose; though he was battered and bruised, still he rose. And because our faith is in this Jesus, because we follow this Jesus, we too will face this world’s terrors and live.

Weeping on Friday. Rejoicing on Sunday.

Over the next few days of this Holy Week I plan to reflect on two simple questions: What might keep me from weeping on Good Friday? What might keep me from rejoicing on Resurrection Sunday?  Weeping and rejoicing aren’t the only appropriate responses on these days, but the testimony of the Church has been that they are certainly primary responses as we consider the death and resurrection of Jesus in the most personal terms. So, contemplating the crucifixion this Friday without experiencing the grief of my complicity might indicate a heart that has been distracted from its own selfishness and sin. Likewise, if I don’t experience joy on Sunday – not, mind you, a manipulated happiness – then it’s likely that my heart has found its hope and meaning somewhere other than the empty tomb.

There is, thanks be to God, always time to repent. But maybe this last week of Lent, with the anticipation of tears and joy, provides a useful urgency to our prayer: Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24)

 

Waking from the Dream

A panel discussion about race and reconciliation.

I love our church for many, many reasons, but this panel discussion about race and reconciliation highlights a few that are especially close to my heart. First: I was away this particular Sunday and, as you’ll hear, the church didn’t miss a beat. Second: I love our commitment to balance theological reflection with courageous action. Two weeks prior to this panel I did my best to make the biblical case for racial reconciliation and then this panel helped the church imagine how that theology actually plays out. Third: We have amazing people! Pastor Michelle Dodson was a phenomenal moderator and the panelists were brilliant. Every time we do something like this I learn so much.

You can listen to all our sermons including the panel discussion via our podcast or just the panel discussion below.

Lucado, Trump, and the Gospel

Last week in the Washington Post Max Lucado, a well-known pastor and author called out Donald Trump for his lack of decency.

We can only hope, and pray, for a return to verbal decency. Perhaps Mr. Trump will better manage his comments. (Worthy of a prayer, for sure.) Or, perhaps the American public will remember the key role of the president: to be the face of America. When he or she speaks, he or she speaks for us. Whether we agree or disagree with the policies of the president, do we not hope that they speak in a way that is consistent with the status of the office?

It’s an entirely reasonable critique and Lucado is right to call out Trump’s verbal bullying. But by focusing his critique solely on decency, Lucado misses the more significant issues that Trump should raise for Lucado and those like him. So I was glad to read Skye Jethani’s recent post where he raises two of the three issues that bugged me about Lucado’s critique.

First, unlike Lucado, Skye thinks pastors should talk about politics more, not less.

Being a pastor is hard enough. Most have no interest in upsetting more people by talking about politics, but that may be precisely the problem. By not tackling the complicated intersection of Christian faith and politics, pastors have abandoned this area of spiritual formation to the “Christian” voices on the radio and cable news claiming to speak for the church. The average Christian, therefore, has her political ideology shaped more by pundits dressed in a veneer of Christian faith than by her pastor or local church community.

Skye helpfully differentiates between politics and partisan politics and I couldn’t agree more. Second, Skye thinks Christians should be more concerned with Trump’s ideas rather than his indecency.

By focusing on Mr. Trump’s uncouth language rather than his anti-Christian ideas, we perpetuate a problem within American Christianity—a focus on style rather than substance. If Donald Trump was a soft-spoken, mild-mannered politician but advocated the same unchristian, bigoted, and illegal policies would he still attract the concern of Christian leaders? I fear he would not.

Absolutely! By focusing on the messenger’s style rather than his content we betray the ways our churches have adopted the American value of style – buzz, hype, etc – over substance.

To Skye’s two critiques I’ll add a third: By making Trump’s ugly and destructive rhetoric the focus, pastors like Lucado (and me!) are let off the hook. By calling out his indecency we don’t have to consider our own complicity in his success. While Skye rightly wonders about the impact of what we pastors don’t say, we should also wonder about why what we do say seems to have so little impact on whether those in our churches see Trump as a legitimate candidate.

Is the gospel we preach weekly robust enough to take on the likes of a Donald Trump? For many, it seems, the answer is no. While white, evangelical pastors like Lucado are great at showing the gospel’s personal implications, too often the personal becomes private and those under our care are underexposed to the universal implications of Christ’s lordship. The result is that people can attend church regularly, utterly believe that Jesus has saved them from sin, and see nothing contradictory about supporting a man whose deficiencies go far beyond his lack of decency.

A Sermon: Waking from the Dream

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1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of Godin order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” [Acts 6:1-4]

As the pastor of a multi-ethnic church, I’m regularly asked about the reasons our congregation regularly talks about race, racism, and reconciliation? I’ll do my best to answer this question today.

The Acts passage shows the early church facing some of its first divisions. At this time, it was common for converts to Christianity to be disowned by their families. The radical care shown by the early church that we read about in Acts was an expression of the church acting as a new family. This was especially important for widows who relied on family members for their wellbeing. Our passage reveals that a disparity was growing between the Hebraic Jewish widows and Hellenistic widows. The Hellenistic Jews had taken on much of the surrounding Greek culture while the Hebraic Jews had maintained much of the culture and tradition of their ancestors in Palestine. In Jerusalem, where our passage takes place, Hebraic Jews would have had a higher status than the Hellenistic Jews.

From our perspective maybe this division doesn’t seem so big. In a country like ours where a white officer can shoot a 12-year-old Black boy with impunity; in a country that singled out Chinese immigrants for legal exclusion; in a country that vilifies Latino women and men while depending on their labor; in this country a disparity based on culture between those with a common ethnic and religious background might not seem like a big deal. And maybe that’s true. We could find more obvious threats to the family of God later in the New Testament, but this is the first division faced by the church so it’s worth paying close attention to three things about how they faced potential divisions.

First, they expected justice. They expected equity within this new family that God was creating through Jesus. This might seem small, but do we expect justice in our churches? Don’t we expect that churches in wealthier communities will have budget surpluses while churches in poor communities struggle? Don’t we expect that predominately white churches will be ignorant of the struggles experienced by black, brown, and immigrant congregations? Don’t we accept as normal that those in our own church who have access to generational wealth and cultural acceptance will have greater wealth and health? But early church expected justice to be exhibited between its members. Which leads to the second thing we should notice.

They told the truth about injustice. When it was clear what was happening, people spoke up. They could tell the truth because they expected, within God’s family, that justice would be done.

And third, when injustice was revealed, they organized for justice. The injustice was identified and the church organized itself so that justice would be done. In this case, widows who had been abandoned by their families would be cared for with dignity regardless of their cultural background.

Hopefully all of this sounds very straightforward, simple: they expected justice, told the truth about injustice, and organized for justice when necessary. As the church grew and came to include not just Hellenistic Jews but actually Greeks, Romans, Africans, and Asians, this would only get more important. How is it that what seems like such a simple and effective strategy seems impossible for churches and Christians in America to grasp? Or, to put the question more positively: What allowed the early church pursue relational justice with such clarity and courage?

We could answer this from a variety of passages, but Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a helpful starting point.

16 If the part of the dough offered as first-fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches. 17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. 22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree! [Romans 11:16-24]

Gentiles Christians were wondering whether the Jews would have a place within Jesus’ kingdom. Paul begins with a sacrificial metaphor about first fruits- those Jews who have submitted to Jesus are proof that the way remains open to Israel. He then switches to an agricultural image of a cultivated olive branch being grafted into the root system of a wild olive tree. This was a common practice to increase the olive harvest; two distinct trees became one, but the grafted branch was dependent on the original roots.

Paul says a lot here, but one important thing for us is this: For Gentile Christians there must always be a visceral memory of our inclusion into God’s family through Jesus. The roots of this family are God’s election of Israel as his means of redeeming the world. Jesus stands in for Israel, receiving the consequences of her rebellion and fulfilling her vocation to bless the world, and through him makes possible Gentile inclusion into God’s family. To say it more simply: Unless you are a Jewish Christian, you were an outsider to God’s family who has been graciously and radically welcomed into the family by Jesus.

This is important because Paul explains and the church in Acts demonstrates that relational justice is not peripheral to the gospel, it’s not a distant implication of the gospel… relational justice & reconciliation are central to the gospel because they are evidence of what God has done through Jesus. Our being grafted into God’s family tree demonstrates the power of the gospel. The welcome we outsiders have received into the family of God is the immediate outworking of Christ’s atoning death and victorious resurrection. This reconciling gospel was at work among the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem as they pursued justice for their widows. This same reconciling gospel would be at work in the first multi-ethnic church in Antioch, a congregation made up of Jews, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, and Asians.

Throughout the NT we see the Gospel grafting outsiders into God’s family tree: the Gospel overcomes divisions between ethnicities, cultures, and classes. And when relational injustice appears it is confronted by appealing to the logic & power of this gospel, this gospel that has made outsiders and enemies into members of God’s family.

Of course you won’t find any mention of the gospel overcoming racial divides. Race, as we think of it, hadn’t been invented when the NT was written. Tragically, race as a social construct, was birthed from heretical Christian theology. This theology replaced the Jewish roots of God’s family tree with European whiteness. There are theological terms for this heresy, but what matters for us is that when the powerful European church traded God’s specific redemptive movement through Israel for a racial construct that was built on privilege and oppression, the gospel itself was undermined.

With whiteness replacing Israel as the roots of God’s family tree, not only were racial divides impossible to overcome, they were actually created. And the cultural, class, and ethnic diversity that proved the gospel in the early church also became unbridgeable chasms. And from this heretical foundation was built an entire social science that categorized and divided people based on imposed racial categories, categories that were compared to whiteness to determine how entire cultures and ethnicities would be treated. No longer was it God’s grace that opened the door to God’s family, a family that expected relational justice within its diversity as evidence of the gospel. Now it was whiteness with its languages, cultures, social norms, and warped theologies that became the doorway to Christianity.

The ugly consequences of this heresy are all around us, from politicians who can, in one speech, proclaim their Christian credentials while articulating xenophobic and nationalistic policies to public schools that can safely be ignored and dismantled by the powers that be because the black & brown students they represent were never supposed to attain the American Dream in the first place. But most tragically is the way this heresy has immobilized so many churches from expressing the full power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For this reason we must regularly and intentionally make plain the beautiful truth that generations of warped theology and blind practice have obscured. We must wake from the dream that is in fact a nightmare; we must wake to the gospel with all of its implications.

This means that those of us who find our socially constructed race affirmed and normalized by a society built on white supremacy must come to church and hear the call to repentance. We must come to rejoice in our complete unworthiness and in God’s complete grace, that he would graft us into his family.

This means that those of us who find ourselves dehumanized and illigetamized on a daily basis must come to church and hear the old story about how, in Christ, there is no hierarchy, there is no privilege, there is no prejudice; we must hear how, in Christ, the beauty of our God-given humanity as expressed in the particularities of our bodies, languages, cultures, histories, and struggles is a reason to celebrate and take pride.

This means that those of us who have been made invisible by a black & white society must come to church and find the space to remember what has been forgotten, reclaim what has been stolen, and restore the memory of God’s presence to previous generations whose culture was tied not to deceitful racial constructs, but to the creation itself- to geographies and landscapes that bear witness to the Creator.

This is why racial righteousness & reconciliation are so important to us. One the one hand, a diverse and flourishing community that is rooted in the One who grafts us into God’s family, is repentance and resistance to the heresy that has wreaked so much havoc. And on the other hand, a reconciled community bears powerful witness to our segregated and devastated city that the living God will make all things well. More simply put, we care about racial righteousness and reconciliation because we are captivated by the gospel that has made strangers and aliens into family and friends.

A Christmas Sermon: Humility or Humiliation

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. [Luke 1:46-56]

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Photo credit: CJ Matulewicz

There are things that happen every single year: birthdays, taxes, the collapse of the Chicago Bears. These are normal things that will happen every year whether or not we’re paying attention. Christmas is one of those things that happen each year and, like anything else that occurs regularly, it can become normal.

It’s so normal that we can forget that there were once people who were the first to respond to Jesus’ birth. Of course there were plenty who knew the infant Jesus as simply that, the infant with a rather common name, born to a seemingly normal couple. But there were some who had more information, who knew that this infant’s birth was different, that in the birth of this baby they were seeing God’s long-awaited salvation. For them, this particular birth was in no way normal.

Given how ordinary – almost mundane – Christmas is for us, it is helpful to notice how these women and men responded to Jesus’ birth. What can the different responses by those who had some idea of the significance of this baby show us about our own predictable, ordinary, and tame responses?

Matthew and Luke tell the longest, most detailed accounts of Jesus’ birth and so from them we can quickly survey some of the responses. Right away we notice that some receive Jesus with joy, while others respond with doubt and rejection. This is not a simplistic observation; there are a variety of dynamic experiences within these two kinds of responses. For example, the joy Mary expresses in her song can’t be confused with temporary, superficial happiness. Her experience with the announcement of Jesus’ birth contains mystery, fear, and the promise of suffering. Or, to take an example from the other kind of response, Mary’s relative Zechariah the priest, when told of the birth of his own son who would prepare the way for Jesus, responds initially with cynical doubt. But later, at the birth of his son, he bursts into joyful song: Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. [Luke 1:68]

So there are two primary responses to the birth of Jesus: joy & rejection. And the question for those of us who have become too accustomed to the Christmas story is this: What is the difference between those who receive Jesus with joy and those who reject him?

We hear the answer in Mary’s song. Here it is the humble whom God is gracious to: For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant; His mercy extends to those who fear him; He has lifted up the humble; He has filled the hungry with good things. On the other hand, in Mary’s song God opposes the proud: He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts; He has brought down rulers from their thrones; He has sent the rich away empty.

This is what matters. Those who are humble receive God’s salvation with joy. Those who are proud reject God’s plan of salvation, especially when it comes in the form of a helpless baby. The logic behind these responses isn’t complicated and both Mathew and Luke give us a few opportunities to see it play out.

While Zechariah is humbled and changes his response, another prideful rejecter goes to his grave. King Herod, whose massive building campaigns and paranoid murders take pride to another level, opposes the news of the infant king. His violent response forces Mary, Joseph, and Jesus into Egypt as refugees. Matthew records his eventual death in passing, evidence that God’s plan will move forward despite a megalomaniac like Herod. Luke, in the book of Acts, similarly records the death of Herod’s son as mere passing background to the Gospel’s spread throughout the world.

Thankfully there are many more examples of humble women and men who received Jesus with joy. There is Anna and Simeon, faithful warriors of prayer who knew their God’s salvation when they encountered the just-born Jesus in the temple. There are the shepherds – young, ostracized, and barely visible in their society – who were granted pride of place at the stable in Bethlehem. Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about. [Luke 2:15] And there are the Magi – possibly astronomers from Babylon – who, despite their wealth and status, traveled a vast distance to worship this new king. Their great humility overcame the temptations of their wealth and station; it overcame cultural and religious differences; their humility even overcame what must have been the great surprise that this new king was not at the palace in Jerusalem but in a small home in Galilee.

In these opposite responses we see why the humble receive the Lord: they know their great need. In their humility they know that it must be God who acts on their behalf. So Mary sings: For the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name; He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors. And because they know their great and terrible need, these humble men and women receive their Savior with joy and so they are rescued by him. They are filled by him. They are lifted up by him.

But the proud oppose this infant king because his birth threatens to unseat their own authority and agendas. They see no need for a Savior. Not this kind at least. They would be ok with a bit of spirituality added to their lives, maybe some religious practices to legitimize their selfishness. But not a king whose birth is announced by angelic warriors, whose agenda is articulated as a cosmic reversal of the rich and the poor; whose mandate is the completion of Israel’s agenda to rescue the world. No, for the proud this is too much by far. This king will require too much and so must be ignored, discredited, and opposed.

How do you respond to birth of God’s son?

Here we have a helpless infant, born into poverty and imperial occupation. Despite the soft-focus filter we put onto the nativity, this child will grow into the one who calls our allegiance into sharp contrast: Follow me; Sell everything; Let the dead bury the dead; If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off; Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

Given the surprising and almost embarrassing way God enters our world, and given the completely alternative kingdom-of-heaven life that Jesus invites us into, it should be clear that only the humble could receive Jesus with joy. Only those who by experience or choice can see through this proud world’s lies can welcome the infant king. The proud will, of course, reject him. His arrival is undignified and his call is too costly. Mary’s song shows us who will welcome her son and why; who will reject her son and why. But her song also reveals what happens to the humble who accept their Savior with joy and the proud who reject him.

The humble find that their hope and faith have been well placed. They are lifted up. They are saved. Their lives are given meaning and dignity that cannot be coopted or stolen by this world. The proud, on the other hand, because they do not receive their Lord humbly will finally be humiliated by him. Zechariah is humiliated when is speech is taken from him; he’s left in silence to consider God’s surprising way of salvation. The Herods, despite all of their accomplishments, are remembered for their neurotic egos; they become the examples of all that is wrong in the world.

The humiliation experienced by those who reject Jesus is not the result of a petty, vindictive, and insecure God. It is, rather, the natural consequence experienced by those who oppose the very essence of God’s redemption in this world. Because, you see, it’s not that humility is some arbitrary perquisite for salvation. No, our humility places us within the very heart of God’s presence in this world. As Paul writes, And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! [Philippians 2:8] Author Brennan Manning, in keeping with this season, puts it this way: On a wintry night, in an obscure cave, the infant Jesus was a humble, naked, helpless God who allowed us to get close to him.

Our humility in response to the birth of Jesus is an imperfect but essential reflection of the humility of our God. The only one with the rationale for pride instead chose humility so that we could know and be known by God; that we could love and be loved by God. Do not let the birth of the world’s Savior be normal to you this year. Remember your great and desperate need for a Savior. Humble yourself with Mary, with the shepherds, and with the Magi. And if you find humiliating this old, strange, somewhat embarrassing story of God enfleshed as helpless, dependent infant… let even this turn you to the humble God, who for us and our salvation chose the humiliation of our humanity.