A TL, DR Sermon: The Lost Sheep

Matthew 15:21-28
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Going into my final year at Asbury Seminary, I did an internship where I worked with some of the homeless population in Lexington, Kentucky. The experience was a profound eye-opener that had a major impact on my life and my ministry. Among the lessons I learned was that much of what we think we know about the homeless is untrue and there are many systematic problems that prevent them from more quickly getting back on their feet. I was also reminded that the homeless that society – and the church – tends to often shun are seeking God and are just as precious in His sight as anyone else. Oh, that we would all be reminded of this from time to time!

The texts I chose to preach on this week were part of the Lectionary, but I also believe that choosing just one for such a time as this was not adequate. I believe these texts give us two important truths: All people are beloved by God and are worthy of being invited to His table, and the calling to seek the lost sheep never expires.

The gospel reading starts soon after a group of disciples is sent off on a missionary trip for the first time. Jesus instructed them not to go among the Gentiles. This text can often be used to justify bigotry but I do not believe Jesus did this as a judgment against the Gentiles. Rather, I believe He knew that the disciples were simply not ready ready effectively minister to the Gentiles and Jesus needed to show them that the prejudices that Jews held against Gentiles were wrong and sinful.

This is where the Gentile woman comes in. The fact that Jesus illustrated to His flock that she, too, was worthy of love and receiving grace and mercy. This was the beginning of their eyes being opened to the reality that God’s kingdom is not just for certain people, but that He desires for all to have a chance to know Him.

In the reading from Romans, Paul is teaching that not only does the call to seek all of the lost sheep never expire, but that God has not abandoned the Jews in favor of the Gentiles as many of them thought. Paul was saying that, yes, the Jews still matter to God, but so do the Gentiles. Until they understood this, the Jews would continue to hold these age-old prejudices against the Gentiles and consider them inferior. Yes, the Jews still matter but so do the Gentiles and so does anyone else made in God’s image (Spoiler: That’s everyone!).

In God’s eyes, no one is inferior. I believe these two texts together are trying to teach us that. Who are the lost sheep that you need to invite to the table? Let’s stop acting as gatekeepers to the Kingdom and instead act as guides who show people the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

A TL, DR Sermon: “YOU Give Them Something

(I’m at new appointment – more on that another time – and we have not been meeting in-person for nearly a month due to COVID-19. For people in my midst who don’t have reliable internet access and are unable to watch our worship service recordings, I’ve been including condensed versions of my sermons for the worship bulletin. Here is this week’s. I will be sure to include them here starting now. I hope you find a blessing from my ponderings. – Jonathan)

Text: Matthew 14:13-21 (NLT)

One of the most common questions for pastors right now is, “How should Christians respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? What should our witness be?” I believe this is an excellent question, because what we see playout on social media and elsewhere by people who state that they are followers of The Son seem to be anything but a positive response. I believe Jesus calls us to exhibit sacrificial compassion in the face of a crisis like COVID-19.

I believe this is just one of the lessons we learn from what we call the Feeding of the 5,000. First of all, we need to know that the number was actually much higher because only the men were counted (the women and children present were not counted at gathers back then). Jesus likely fed closer to 10,000 – or more – people with five loaves of bread and two fish! People tend to get lost in the “how” of this miracle but I believe the more important question is, “Why?”

The writer of Matthew tells us why in verse 14: “He had compassion on them.” We have to remember that this is just after Jesus found out that John the Baptist had been executed so He was in the midst of grieving the loss of his cousin and friend. This grief may not be unlike the collective grief we’re experiencing now.

I believe there are several reasons why Jesus responded in the way that He did and I’m sure I could preach several sermons on this passage. The lesson we most need now is His example of sacrificial compassion. When Jesus told the disciples, “You give them something,” He wasn’t trying to pass the buck because He didn’t feel like performing a miracle, rather He wanted them to know that sending people away in their time of need is not how a disciple ought to respond to a need.

How do we respond in the midst of crisis, whether it’s a pandemic, natural disaster, or something else? We show compassion, even to the point of personal sacrifice. That’s why we do things to protect our neighbors: It’s not out of a desire to make a political statement but out of a desire to make a moral statement, to give a strong witness for the love of Christ. We are called to be imitators of Jesus and showing compassion is one of the ways which we do this.

Remember: Even Judas ate, had his feet washed, and sat at the right hand of Jesus – the place of honor – at the Last Supper. If Jesus can show the one who would betray Him this much compassion and mercy, what could we do?

Let’s go and do likewise.

Sermon: Real Talk about Racism

More or less, what follows is the sermon I gave this morning at Druid Hills UMC in Meridian, MS (Lost Gap had a different sermon because they were voting on closure today). I’m sharing this here because I believe this is a message that we all need a reminder of right now. The recent racial unrest has underscored that we have a long way to go in racial equity, much farther than we probably want to admit. I hope you will take my attempt to articulate what has been on my heart and “chew on” these words. Allow God to work on you and what your part may be in breaking the church’s silence on racism and how we can combat this sin.

If you’d like, you can watch the worship service from Druid Hills here.

LUKE 10:24-37 (NLT)
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

27 The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[c]

28 “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

29 The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Parable of the Good Samaritan
30 Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

31 “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant[d] walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

33 “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins,[e] telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Last week we celebrated the day that the Holy Spirit was sent to this world with a video worship service featuring clergy, laity, and children from all over our Mississippi Annual Conference connection. Did you notice the diversity that was represented? Men, women, white black, and everything in between coming together with but one two-fold goal in mind: To lead us in worship and to give glory to the Lord’s name. As I watched the video with you all last week, the sheer beauty of how wide and deep our own state is in terms of the different people we have in our midst brought tears to my eyes. In my mind, it was truly a reflection of God’s kingdom – the way the kingdom was always intended to be and will be someday when Jesus returns.

We live in a fallen world where diversity is not always celebrated and, in many cases, is discouraged and even ridiculed. The killing of George Floyd sent shockwaves through our nation, just as such an unjust and evil event ought to do. While Mr. Floyd’s death may have been an event that brought our racial tension to a head, this was hardly the first time that we have seen unjust killing of people of color. Another recent example is the shooting death of Breona Taylor, a young black EMT from Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed when police executed a raid at the wrong address – her apartment – looking for a suspect who was already in jail on another charge. I resonate with the cries of our brothers and sisters of color when I say that enough is enough and it’s time for an end to these senseless deaths. As a white man who has family members who are biracial or of another race entirely, I must stand up for my loved ones. As a Christian pastor, I know we are all children of God. The children’s song says, “red or yellow, black or white, we are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” So why are we not doing that for each other now? We are all loved by God. And God taught us to love our neighbor, as we heard a moment ago. So, now above any other time in our existence, God is calling us to love our neighbors. We must love the most threatened among us. We should stand with our black brothers and sisters and protect them, love them, treat them as our equal… because anything less is a sin in front of our Lord and Savior.

Now I say all of this as a pastor among a white congregation. I say this, knowing that this is not the popular belief in this area, but brothers and sisters, Jesus did not preach to what was popular. He preached to what is right.

On Friday, Bishop Swanson sent out a video that was both a rebuke against the church for its long and deafening silence on racism as well as how we can begin to respond. Bishop Swanson is absolutely correct: The church has remained silent for far too long and this needs to change. The reason the church is often silent on racism is because we don’t want to seem to be preaching political topics or we don’t want to make people uncomfortable. The truth about the gospel is that the truths within it often are uncomfortable because we are forced to see ourselves for who and how we truly are. So, today, I do my part to change this trend of silence in the church. Today, I stand here and tell you that we’re going to get uncomfortable. I declare from this pulpit that racism is a sin. Racism is incompatible with Christian faith – you cannot call yourself a follower of Jesus if you are a racist. To remain silent is equally as sinful. Our baptismal vows that we make before God and His people include standing up for the oppressed and to resist evil in whatever form it takes. That starts with us acknowledging the sin of racism.

And that brings us to our scripture today: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. The legal expert who is questioning Jesus is really wanting to justify himself. While I fully admit that I’m using some conjecture here, I would speculate that the man that Jesus was talking to was one of the Jews who really hated Samaritans. Back then, Jews and Samaritans simply did not get along. Jews viewed them as inferior and as beneath them. Perhaps the justification that the man was seeking was really that which would affirm his hatred toward someone simply because that person looked different than he did. And as we see through the rest of the passage, Jesus is not having it. The fact is, a story where the Samaritan was the hero was very scandalous to the Jews who heard it.

The belief back then was that touching certain people or people experiencing certain conditions would make one unclean and this certainly would have included touching a man who was beaten and bloody and left in a ditch to die. The Levite and the priest would have been considered to be ceremonially unclean had they touched him. It was because of those crazy fears that they went so far as to cross the street. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech using the story of the Good Samaritan as an example. He had this to say about it: “The first question the priest and Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop and help this man, what will happen to him?’” In other words, the priest and the Levite were putting themselves first. Instead, the Samaritan chose to put the man before him and to in turn take care of him.

One thing I have seen over and over again is that children do not seem to have a racism gene. If you go to a park in most cities, you can see white children playing with children who are black, brown, and everything in between. Comedian Denis Leary says, “Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a two-year old son. You know what he hates—naps.” Children are not born to hate other people. Instead, this behavior is something that is learned. When children are raised in ignorance about other races, that’s how they learn to hate. And simply, this is not ok.

More than anything, racism is not a skin issue, it’s a sin issue. The problem is not the color of one’s skin or their national origin, the problem is that the person who is racist is giving in to sin. James 2:9 says, “But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.” When the command handed down says, “Love the Lord with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself,” there are no qualifiers attached to that. There is no asterisk with a list of who our neighbors are not at the bottom of the page. Our neighbors are all people, period, full stop. There’s a meme that goes around from time to time where Jesus is telling those gathered to love their neighbors as themselves. Someone from the crowd goes, “What about my black neighbor?” Another says, “What about my Jewish neighbor?” And then Jesus says, “I’m going to start over, tell me where I lost you.” When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he’s telling us that we are to love all people no matter what.

So how can we neighbor those who look different than us? Well, it starts by taking a good look at the person in the mirror. We have to confront our prejudices. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute: We all have them. We all have those pre-conceived judgements about other people that are not based on any sound reason or experience (which is the definition of a prejudice, by the way). Some examples might be, “All rich people are snobs.” Or, “Old people are mean.” Or, “Which men can’t jump.” I could go on and on. Or maybe we say things like, “I’m not racist because I have black friends.” Well, that’s great! But do you truly see them as your equal? Are they just as much deserving of the love of Christ as you are? We have to confront those prejudices. We have to get real with ourselves.

Next, we have to see to understand others. This is another hard part because this means we will have to get even further outside of our comfort zones than we did when we took a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror. This means that we have to actually pay attention to our neighbors, take the time to get to know them, really listen to them. This is the one that is the easiest to ignore because it takes real effort on our part, but it’s so vital. We can not simply look at people different from us who are on TV or read some data about what works in one place. We have to know how to love people and help them right where we are. This is where they live as well and it’s vital that we take this seriously enough to truly listen to them in order to find out how we can best show them the love of Christ.

After we listen to them, we have to do the hardst thing of all: We have to love those who are different from us. This is not simply telling someone that we love them, it’s actually doing it. It’s putting our faith and our words into action to show them that we mean it. This is hard becasue it involves a lot of sacrifice. In 1996 in Michigan there was a rally by the Ku Klux Klan and the police in the town were doing their best to keep the Klan and the protesters separated. One of the Klansmen snuck over to the protesters side. Next thign you know, they started to beat on him with shouts of “kill the Nazi” being hurled. 18-year old African American girl named Keisha Thomas threw her body on top of the man’s to stop beating. She put herself at physical risk protect man that likely wanted to harm her.

Who does this? Committed believer. “I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”

Crossed the street—protect someone different from her.

Thomas says she tries to do something to break down racial stereotypes every day. No grand gestures. She thinks that small, regular acts of kindness are more important. “The biggest thing you can do is just be kind to another human being. It can come down to eye contact, or a smile. It doesn’t have to be a huge monumental act.”

Radical love is what she showed to that man. The best way to combat racism is with love because racism is not the presence of hate, it’s the absence of love! Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God loves all people. He loves Americans. But he also loves Nigirians, Cubans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Choctaws, Jamaicans, Turks, Iranians, Russians, and all other people. He loves white people, black people, brown people, and everything in between. Heaven will be the most diverse place you will ever see. If you hate diversity, you are really going to hate Heaven. Ultimately we will all be together and it will be a beautiful sight.

We have to face the sin of racism and combat it head on. Racism is not a Christian value. It is not acceptable to God and racism should therefore not be acceptable to us. Jesus said for us to love our neighbors with no qualifiers attached to that. He told us now to neighbor those who are different than us. We simply love.

Racism and Conspiracy Theories are Incompatible with Christianity

As I scroll through social media, I’m disturbed by much of what I see. What we’re seeing is an unprecedented time in world history where information is so easily shared and, at least for the most part, this is a good thing. Unfortunately, this also means that the ease of sharing false and misleading information is also easy. Constantly, I’m seeing Christians share articles that call into question whether or not COVID-19 is real and even how the entire virus was a conspiracy by the Democrats (how this would even be plausible, I have no idea). One video even went to great lengths to try and connect Kobe Bryant’s death to COVID-19 (the mental gymnastics needed for that gave me a headache).

The sharing of racism is also easier than ever. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery has exposed a lot of racism on social media. The father and son who claim they believed he was responsible for burglaries in their neighborhood have been arrested due to a viral video clearly showing that all that occurred was the senseless killing of an unarmed man of color who was only jogging through a neighborhood. Yet, people are defending the actions of these two men, actions that amount to a lynching, which were fueled by the ugly sin of racism. Ahmaud Arbery was shot for being a black man in a white neighborhood.

I’m shocked at the number of Christians who participate in these hijinks. And, pastors: Some of you are the worst.

People are dying because of racism and the denial of medical science. There have been numerous killings of young black men in particular simply for being black and for being in the “wrong place (people like Ahmaud Arbery have just as much right to be jogging down the street as anyone else). People are believing the pseudoscience and outright lies contained in conspiracy articles and videos such as “Plandemic” and are dying because of their distrust of valid, peer reviewed scientific fact (in addition to common sense). The Christians who are sharing these articles are bearing false witness, a false witness that can literally end with someone needlessly dying.

Scripture is clear about a lot of things and speaks clearly to the larger issues surrounding racism and the spread of conspiracy theories. Moses gave this as part of the law: “You must not testify falsely against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16 NLT). Jesus further clarifies in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 that all people are ultimately our neighbor. In other words, to quote the great philosopher Harry Potter: “One mustn’t tell lies.” When we spread conspiracy theories or partake in racism, we are telling lies about our neighbors, in addition to putting our neighbors at risk. God’s law can be boiled down like this when he was asked which commandment was the greatest: “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NLT)

When we hate our neighbor because of the color of their skin, we are breaking God’s law. When we share conspiracy videos that foster distrust of the medical community and are based on nothing more than a series of coincidences, quakary, and are motivated by personal gain from fame, we are breaking God’s law. We are failing to love our neighbors when we refuse to accept facts that don’t fit our wants and desires because we are putting them at risk.

Christians, we have to do better because to do otherwise is sin.

Pastors, I want to talk to you (and myself) for a moment: Our words have a lot of power. People will take what we say as gospel more often than we perhaps realize. If we use our social media to shed doubt on a racially motivated killing or to spread lies that deny established medical facts then we are leading our people astray. People could die because of your actions. Have you ever considered that? Have you considered that people could not take precautions against COVID-19 because you share a video or an article that sheds doubt on a global crisis? Have you considered that could lead them to their death? Pastors, stop spreading these articles and videos. Stop being silent in the face of racism. Doing otherwise does mean that you are neglecting your office, abusing your power, and being irresponsible with your flock. Fact check. It takes all of thirty seconds to disprove almost all of the conspiracy theories floating around by simply using Google. As for racism, scripture is pretty clear on that. If you cast doubt on racism, it’s not me you have a problem with.

Are we truly disciples? Are we truly committed to Christ? Then we must be committed to loving our neighbors regardless of the color of their skin. We must be committed to sharing the truth and encouraging people take pandemics seriously. We have to practice what we preach and claim to believe.

Racism and conspiracy theories are incompatible with Christian teaching and belief. There’s simply no way around that.

We're Not Called to be Selfish

True disciples of Jesus are not selfish people; we are called to be selfless

Yesterday, I ran across an account of a priest in Italy who was stricken with COVID-19 and on a ventilator. USA Today ran an article about him and his sacrifice.

Don Giuseppe Berardelli, 72, was the archpriest of Casnigo, a town in northern Italy about 50 miles northeast of Milan.

According to Italian news site Prima Bergamo, Berardelli died sometime between March 15 and 16 and was being treated at a hospital in nearby Lovere, as his condition worsened.

A health care worker at the hospital told the Italian online news outlet Araberara that Berardelli was given a ventilator but the priest refused it so someone who was younger than him could use it.

USA Today https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2020/03/24/covid-19-italian-priest-who-donated-his-ventilator-has-reportedly-died/2906351001/

This is who I want to be when I grow up.

We’re not all called to give up a life-saving machine for the sake of another but Christians are called to show sacrificial love to our neighbors. After all, sacrificial love is the example that Jesus gave during His ministry in this world and at the cross. This is love in action, proving that love is not a mere emotion. To draw inspiration from prominent theologians Toby Mac and dc Talk: “Love (I can’t misspell it like they did, sorry) is a verb.”

COVID-19 has revealed a lot about the world. As for whether these things have been good or bad, I believe we can agree that the result has been a bit of both. We have seen so many people coming together for the common good, doing whatever they can to make sure children continue to have food and that other vulnerable persons are taken care of. Unfortunately, we have also seen another side: Jacking up prices on essential items in light of a crisis. And, perhaps even worse, we have seen people hoarding items such as bottled water, frozen food, and even toilet paper out of fear of the items running out. I have found myself at a major loss in light of these events. The term I used just today in response to Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick saying that our grandparents should be willing to be sacrificed for the good our economy was, “I’m out of evens. Completely out.”

Last week, I took to Facebook Live to encourage my friends not to respond to our current crisis with fear but out of a place of love. I used the account out of Exodus 16 to illustrate how God had always provided for our needs and always would. But God something something else: He instructed the people to to take only what they needed for the day and no more. If they gathered more than they actually needed…

Then Moses told them, ‘Do not keep any of it until morning.’ But some of them didn’t listen and kept some of it until morning. But by then it was full of maggots and had a terrible smell. Moses was very angry with them.

Exodus 16:19-20 (NLT)

God gave them the instructions to only gather what they actually needed for a reason: He was always going to supply the manna (bread) and the quail that they needed and would never forget to feed them. If they gathered more than they needed – that is, if they hoarded – then the leftover would rot and no one would be able to benefit from it. Later, Jesus said to His disciples (yes, that includes those of us who want to be His disciples today), “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19 NLT)

Friends, disciples don’t hoard. We are people of faith, not fear. We know that God is always going to look out for us and that he will never forget to feed us, clothe us, or to give us implements for the cleanliness of our tush.

We are called to share, to give sacrificially. I encourage you to please only take what you need so that others can benefit. God could be using you to enable the provision for one of your neighbors. We are not creatures of fear, we are creatures of hope and love. This is the example that our Lord gives us.

Let us go and do likewise.

It’s Time to Return to Jesus

“When the crowds came to John for baptism, he said, ‘You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath? Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God. Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. Even now the ax of God’s judgment is poised, ready to sever the roots of the trees. Yes, every tree that does not produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.’”

Luke 3:7-9 (NLT)

Dear Fellow Christians:

We gotta talk. And this isn’t going to be easy.

We all know about the recent goings-on with ICE raids and immigration issues lately so there’s no need to rehash that here. That isn’t the point of this letter anyway. What I want to talk about is how we have responded to these situations. Just to make sure you’re aware: People, children, actual human beings made in God’s image are impacted by these raids, deportations, and detainments. I have to be blunt: We have been anything but Christ-like in how we have addressed the people involved. Many of us seem to believe that it’s perfectly acceptable to consider immigrants to be sub-human and even to condone their mistreatment. Here are just a few actual statements from people claiming to be Christians that I have witnessed on social media just over the last several days:

“They’re illegal! They have no rights!”

“I shouldn’t have to feed children of ILLEGALS!”

“The Bible says to obey the laws! God is judging them and their children!”

“Illegals have to sleep in cages? BOO HOO!”

Seriously, church? Seriously?

When John the Baptist made his proclamation that I quoted from Luke 3 at the top of this post, people like that were what he was calling a “brood of snakes.” Pharisees. People who saw other people who were different from them as less-than. People who said that people deserved to be treated poorly. God’s word teaches us many things about how we are to treat immigrants, children, and people in general. But lately, it seems that we have been willing to put all of that aside and to trot out some verses from Romans 13 (out of context at that) as justification for treating people as if they are trash with the argument of “they shouldn’t have broken the law.”

We have committed a grave sin and it’s time to repent. That sin: Trading our humanity and compassion for political ideology. We have sold our souls for party allegiance. We have made Jesus into a muscle-bound, American flag-waving caucasian in order to fit our political aspirations.

The facts are: All people are made in God’s image and are worthy of dignity and respect regardless of their citizenship or immigration status. Children should not be traumatized on the first day of school by coming home to find out that mom and dad have been taken away. And for Christians, there is simply no justification for thinking that anything to the contrary is acceptable. It’s not. I’m not arguing against having laws (though I believe our immigration laws do need an overhaul), I’m simply pointing out that we have gone down a very dangerous road of denying dignity and basic rights to people. This is not what Jesus would find acceptable. If you actually read the gospels and pay attention, you may find that Jesus has more in common with these immigrants than He does white America.

It’s time to repent, church. It’s time to remember who we are and to go back to our first love. It’s time to take off our hats, put away our torches, stop being afraid of people who are different from us, and truly be people who love. We simply can not claim to be Christians and continue to believe that conflating our faith with a particular brand of politics is acceptable in God’s eyes. It’s not. In fact, we are taught that this is dangerously close to the line of idolatry.

May God forgive us.

Jesus and Swords

 

if-you-dont-own-an-ar-15-sell-your-cloak-and-buy-one-luke-2236
Filed under “Thing Jesus Never Said.”

Earlier today I was involved in a discussion about gun policy and then it happened: Someone said, “Jesus would be in favor of guns, he told his followers to buy a sword! SEE! LOOK!” They then quoted Luke 22:36: “‘But now,’ he said, ‘take your money and a traveler’s bag. And if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one!'” This was something I expected, as many Christians have used this one verse to try and state that Jesus would be against gun control. There’s just one problem with this line of thinking: That is not what Jesus meant. As Dr. Ben Witherington III is fond of saying:

 

A text without a context is merely a pretext for a proof text and it can be whatever you want it to be.

The problem with employing an ultra-literal interpretation of scripture and a hermeneutic of “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is that such interpretations ignore important items such as context, cultural considerations, and good old-fashioned common sense. Using so-called “gotcha” texts to make a point that goes beyond any reasonable context for scripture is a poor witness for Christ. Further, while scholars believe that literal interpretation of scripture is considered a high view of scripture, I believe that such is actually a low view because an ultra-literal interpretation does a great disservice to the authors and intended ultimate message of scripture: The story of God’s love for us.

Simply stated: Jesus is not telling his followers to arm themselves. He is not calling for any sort of armed insurrection, revolution, or otherwise telling Christians that employing violent tactics is the way of a disciple. Here is what noted new testament theologian – and professor at Asbury Theological Seminary – Craig Keener said about this passage in the IVP Bible Background: New Testament.

By mentioning the “sword” here Jesus is not inviting revolution like the Zealots did (cf. Pseudo-Phocylides 32–34). Instead, Jesus calls for a temporary and symbolic act—two are sufficient (v. 38)—so he may be charged as a revolutionary and hence “reckoned among transgressors” in accordance with Isaiah 53:12… To be without one’s outer cloak at night would leave one cold; yet Jesus suggests that it is better than being unprepared for the conflict these disciples are about to face.

So, no, Luke 22:36 is not a call for Christians to arm themselves. It’s about the fulfillment of prophecy, specifically a prophecy that said that the messiah must be charged as a criminal. More proof of this comes from verse 37: “For the time has come for this prophecy about me to be fulfilled: ‘He was counted among the rebels.’ Yes, everything written about me by the prophets will come true.” Being with people who were armed with swords would certainly give the Romans cause to allege that Jesus was planning an armed revolution against the Roman Empire, therefore fulfilling the prophecy from Isaiah 55.

To think that Luke 22 calls Christians to arm themselves is just plain wrong. Such a notion also flies in the face of the other teachings of Jesus where he encourages peace, non-violence, and to put down their weapons (remember the scene where Jesus stops a stoning?). Further, one taking scripture completely out of context in order to fit their own belief is tantamount to re-constructing God into their own image. Let us remember that the will of God is not violence, but peace. I close with the words of the prophet Isaiah, and also long for the day when this prophecy is fulfilled. May it be during our lifetime.

“They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

Sermon: Love One Another

Here is the sermon I preached this evening at an ecumenical Holy Week service here in Stanton.

Love One Another
A Sermon Preached at Grace Fellowship Church – Stanton, KY (PCMA Holy Week Maundy Thursday Service)
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
April 13, 2017

John 13:1-7, 12-17, 31-35 (NLT)
Before the Passover celebration, Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave this world and return to his Father. He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end.[a] 2 It was time for supper, and the devil had already prompted Judas,[b] son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. 4 So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, 5 and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him.

12 After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. 14 And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. 16 I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. 17 Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.

31 As soon as Judas left the room, Jesus said, “The time has come for the Son of Man[a] to enter into his glory, and God will be glorified because of him. 32 And since God receives glory because of the Son,[b] he will give his own glory to the Son, and he will do so at once. 33 Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. 34 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

There is an old legend that after his death Judas found himself at the bottom of a deep and slimy pit. For thousands of years he wept his repentance, and when the tears were finally spent he looked up and saw, way, way up, a tiny glimmer of light. After he had contemplated it for another thousand years or so, he began to try to climb up towards it. The walls of the pit were dank and slimy, and he kept slipping back down. Finally, after great effort, he neared the top, and then he slipped and fell all the way back down. It took him many years to recover, all the time weeping bitter tears of grief and repentance, and then he started to climb up again. After many more falls and efforts and failures, he reached the top and dragged himself into an upper room with twelve people seated around a table. “We’ve been waiting for you, Judas,” Jesus said. “We couldn’t begin till you came.”.

On the traditional church calendar, today is Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday is where the church traditionally remembers the last supper in the Upper Room just before Jesus was betrayed by Judas. In addition, we remember that Jesus came not to be served but to serve. He demonstrated this by humbling himself and washing the feet of his best friends. In doing this, Jesus demonstrated what it means to truly show someone love. It was after he washed their feet that he revealed that it was by the way we love one another and how we love the entire world that people will know that we are his disciples. Love is the first and most visible fruit that a Christian can and should display.

Last night at Shiloh we concluded a study of a book called Final Words From the Cross by a pastor and theologian named Adam Hamilton. During last night’s lesson, we discussed metaphors and how much metaphorical language was used in Jesus’ teaching and ministry. A metaphor is a figure of speech. If you were to look at me and say, “He’s as big as an ox!” Well, I am big but I’m not as big as an ox. I don’t think my wife, Jessica, would allow oxen in her bed. But my point is, to compare me to an ox is a metaphor for my perceived large size.

A lot of what is contained in scripture is metaphorical in nature but not all of it. I’m a student at Asbury Seminary in Wilmore and there is a coffee shop just off campus called Solomon’s Porch. I go there between my morning and afternoon classes. Being in Wilmore, there is almost always a discussion about the Bible going on. One day I overheard two people talking and one of them made a statement like this: “I think everything in the bible should be taken literally, just as it was written.” The other person said, “Well what about where Jesus said to love everyone, including our enemies?” The first party thought for a moment and said, “Well, I think that was just a metaphor. Jesus couldn’t have possibly meant to love everyone.” I couldn’t help but laugh. It seems funny that people feel this way. They believe everything in the bible and believe it should be followed to the letter… Until they come to a part they either don’t like or don’t agree with, suddenly it’s open to interpretation. Yes, some things are metaphorical in nature and are there to illustrate a point, but the overall message of scripture is sound.

Either you believe that the message of the whole Bible is true, or you don’t. You either believe the entire spectrum of the teachings of Christ or you don’t. And put your steel toes on because now I might step on your toes: This includes the teachings that you don’t particularly like. Did Jesus often use metaphors in his teaching? Of course. But when he says things like “they will know you are my disciples by your love,” he meant just that, full stop.

I happen to believe that one of those things that is far from being a metaphor and that is part of the very message of the gospel is contained right here in John 13. Jesus made it clear to me that we, as Christians, are to love one another and to love all of the beloved of God – hint: It’s everyone! – and that is far from being a metaphor. Jesus said himself after he washed the feet of the twelve: “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” The example that Jesus gave is one of ultimate sacrifice on the part of putting aside our pride and even casting aside what society considers to be normal in order to truly love someone. Just as Jesus humbled himself, we are expected to do likewise.

Now, for us, showing love to someone may not actually include washing someone’s feet. Don’t touch mine, believe me, you don’t want to anyway. But what Jesus did was put on a seminar about how to wash feet but he demonstrated the kind of love that we are to show to all people and by not only saying that we are willing to do this, but by actually doing it, we are proclaiming His love to a world that no longer knows how to love with true sacrifice. The kind of Jesus that Jesus demonstrates and wants us to show to others does involve sacrifice, being willing to show a radical form of hospitality even to a stranger. In order to fully understand this, it may be helpful to know the significance of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

In the New Testament times, there were no planes, trains, or automobiles. The only way to get from one place to another was to either beat feet or to get there by donkey or camel. There were no paved roads back then, either. The roads were dusty, dirty, and even had animal droppings on them. And if you stepped in it, well, you just stepped in it. It was because of these dusty conditions that it was expected hospitality for a host to provide water so that a guest could wash their feet off. Actually loosening a person’s sandals and personally washing their feet was considered the work of servants, or submissive wives or children. In other words, it was something that was not done by proper people if you will. Jesus actually wrapping a towel around himself and bending down to wash the feet of his disciples was a big deal because this just was not done. It was a scandal in Jerusalem for him to serve the people who respected him the most. This was a big deal because Jesus was actually foreshadowing the nature of his coming death: He was the suffering servant.

Even those of us who think ourselves to be above certain things should remember that as disciples of Jesus Christ we are to count ourselves as servants first. Jesus laid out the example of how we should treat others by being willing to humble ourselves and show people the most powerful love that we can muster. Jesus being so willing to humble himself is an example for us to follow. Can you show someone love so radical that it could even harm your reputation? Such would have done that in Jesus’ day because social rank was important and a person of high stature just did not wash someone’s feet. And yet, Jesus did. What does this tell us?

Here’s something else to chew on: Jesus did not give us a choice this matter. It is not optional for a Christian to love someone. Let me say that again: It is not optional for a true Christian, a committed follower, and disciple, to love others. It is a must. Jesus reinforced this by using such strong language in verse 34 when he said, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” The usage of the word “commandment” gave his words all the much more authority. The Greek word that is translated “commandment” can also mean “orders.” Jesus has given us our orders and those orders from the table at the last supper are to go love as I have loved you and that is how people will know that you are my disciples. It’s not by who you vote for, by what bumper stickers you have on your car, how much of the Bible you can quote, or even by how much you pray. Jesus has said, “your orders are to love. Love is your mark, your signature stance as a Christian.”

I mentioned a few minutes ago that in the traditional church practice, today is known as Maundy Thursday. That seems like a very funny word and for a long time, I had absolutely no idea what it meant. I always thought it was just a funny name that some Pope or bishop or monk gave to this day hundreds of years ago because he must have liked that word for some reason. But, given the context of what we remember on this day in Holy Week, there is a very good reason why today is called Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum.” Let me say that word again: “mandatum.” If that word sounds a little familiar, that’s because mandatum is where we get our English word “mandatory.” Mandatory refers to something that is absolutely required, like a mandatory meeting or a mandatory assignment in school. Here’s where the Latin plays into what this day is called: It’s taken from the Latin translation of verse 34 which begins with the word “mandatum.”

James said, “Faith without works is dead.” To put it in the context of Jesus’ words in John: Faith without love is dead!
For a Christian to love is not optional, it’s not something nice to do, it’s not even just a good idea. For Christians, to love as Christ loves us is mandatory! And to make the choice to not love others for any reason is

or a Christian to love is not optional, it’s not something nice to do, it’s not even just a good idea. For Christians, to love as Christ loves us is mandatory! And to make the choice to not love others for any reason is a sin. If we have hate in our heart and we are not willing to love, then we have some problems that only repentance – asking forgiveness and turning away from the desire to hate – and embracing the mandate to love will solve.

Do you have hate towards anyone? Whether their family, people who were once friends of yours… People who are different than you… Christ requires us to love them sacrificially and intentionally. Just as Judas would be welcomed back to the table as in the story I told at the beginning, so we must welcome all people to our table, no matter what, period, full stop. If we want revival to sweep across our land, and I think we all do, then it starts with us taking this new mandatory commandment that Christ has given us seriously. We don’t have a choice. We must love. Let’s pray.

On the Election

Lots of people want to know if the Bible has anything to say about an election. Some say that it does. I agree. So, here are some verses I would like you to keep in mind tomorrow as you go to the voting booth:

“No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 NLT)

Jesus: “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. 30 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’[g] 31 The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-30 NLT)

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. 3 If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it;[a] but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NLT)

These are the most important things we need to remember as we prepare to vote. I don’t have to tell you that the rhetoric that has been spread throughout the campaign has been nothing short of toxic. The nation is polarized more so than it has been in my entire life. I don’t know about you but I’m tired and am looking forward to an end to all of this garbage (although I know that regardless of who wins there will continue to be toxic speech from the other side). Frankly, we have been anything but Christlike to one another. We have not been kind. We have failed to show grace to one another and we have been judgmental of our political stances.

No one is going to Hell for voting a certain way. One’s salvation is not demonstrated by which candidate they vote for or by which political party they align with. God is not a member of a political party. God is not on the side of one candidate over another. God is on everyone’s side. All people – be they Republican, Democrat, or whatever – are equally loved by God and are of sacred worth. No one is going to be condemned to a lake of fire because they vote for certain political parties or candidates. To suggest otherwise is not Christlike and unbiblical.

Above all, pray. Pray that God will guide you as you cast your vote. Ask God to give you grace for your part in the election fray. And show grace to everyone, especially those with whom you do not agree.

Blessed Are the Peacemakers

I won’t recount the tragedy in Baton Rouge in detail because you already know about it. It may seem strange but even British media report on these events and I found out about the officers in Baton Rouge being killed while in line for the loo at a pub in Bath. I have to be very honest about my response: I was filled with anger. Yet again, police officers – the majority of whom have had absolutely nothing to do with injustices against people of color – were targeted, ambushed, killed senselessly.

This has to stop.

I have seen many people on social media – including some clergy – who have been trying to rationalize these attacks on our law enforcement officers. To me, such rationalizations are just excuses and, possibly worse, exhibit inaction and an unwillingness to actually work for justice. There is no possible solid rational reasoning for police officers to be killed by vigilantes. None. Zero. Zilch. There is no acceptable excuse for taking life without just cause; “guilt by association” is not just cause. You should also know that EMS and fire crews have been targeted over the last few weeks because people claim that “they’re on the same side as the cops.”

This has to stop.

I know that there has been injustices committed by some police officers. I know that innocent people have died who did not have to. I agree that there should be changes made to procedures and laws so that these tragedies can be eliminated to the absolute best which can be achieved. I grieve when an innocent person is killed when they did not have to be. I am not saying that all law enforcement officers are innocent but I am also not going to condemn them all unlike so many others. I acknowledge my own privilege and I acknowledge that people of color have been harmed. However, killing other innocent people solves nothing, changes nothing, and only causes more animosity. Violence only brings more violence.

This has to stop.

During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9 NLT). Note that he did not say that those who take the law into their own hands are blessed. He did not say that those who shed more innocent blood are blessed. He did not say those who exact revenge are blessed. The ones who are blessed are the ones who work for peace. What have you done to actually stand in the gap and make injustice into justice for someone? What have you done to bridge the divide between us and our neighbors? How have you ministered to the “least of these?”

If you have taken any actions such as snarling racial slurs, hurling insults based on stereotypes, or picked up a weapon and spilled innocent blood, then you are part of the problem.

This has to stop.