The Psalm Jesus Quoted from the Cross

Mark 15:34- And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This is a difficult passage. Does God the Father forsake Jesus in this moment? How can we understand these words?

In order to understand them, you have to take a look at the Psalm that Jesus is quoting from. Jesus is quoting from Psalm 22. This is a Psalm attributed to David. It includes instructions with it—To the choirmaster: according to The Doe of the Dawn. These comment is marking the tune that the Psalm is meant to be sung to. It is a Psalm that was sung by the Jewish people in worship. It would be like saying “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound…” or “Great is thy faithfulness O God my Father…”

Maybe Jesus sang the Psalm, or perhaps the people just played the song out in their head. Either way, when we look at this Psalm, we find some amazing insights into what is going on in that moment on the cross. Let me show you a couple of the verses in this Psalm.

Verse 1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Verse 6ff:  “6  But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me they make mouths at me; they wag their heads; “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

The one thing that has to be said about crucifixion is that it is dehumanizing. You are naked and suffering before the whole community. Jesus is being scorned, despised, and mocked. In fact, Mark uses the exact phrase of the passage, that people are wagging their heads at him. Clearly Mark was thinking about this Psalm. 

Verse 12ff: 12 Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; 13 they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. 14I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; 15my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.”

People are yelling and taunting Jesus. They are all around him, opening their mouths wide at him. He must have felt poured out—exhausted and dehydrated from blood loss. We know he gets thirsty, as if his tongue might stick to his jaws. The line about bones out of joint is especially telling. In crucifixion, it was not uncommon for shoulders to become dislocated over time. And his heart is like wax within his breast. Doctors have suggested, from reading the Bible account, that Jesus actually dies from heart damage. This would explain the blood and water that come out when the spear goes into the chest cavity through the ribs. Jesus dies of a broken heart while quoting a Psalm that talks about his heart waxing in his chest.

 But it gets better. Verse 16ff: 16 For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet217 I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; 18 they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

Think about these words, written hundreds of years before Jesus is on that cross. It says that they have pierced his hands and feet. He can count his bones as he is stretched out on the cross, and none are broken. And they divide his garments among them, and cast lots for his tunic. When you read this Psalm, you can see how miraculous and stunning it is that Jesus would quote it. It is all happening to him.

 But the end of Psalm 22 is what is most important for our discussion about Jesus in this moment. Let me give you a few of the verses:

24 For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.

29 All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive.

30 Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation;

31 they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.

Psalm 22 moves from feeling forsaken to praising God that you are not forsaken. I think we have to consider the words of Jesus from this perspective. He feels forsaken, but the Father is still with them.

And this is so important to us, because we often feel forsaken. We have all had those moments where God seems distant for us. When we are in pain, or angry, or afraid, those things are all we can see. But they are not the final word.

And Jesus knows exactly what you are going through when you feel that…

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On Mary, Abraham, and John

26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to ahis own home. (John 19:26-27 ESV)

This is a great moment of compassion and reconciliation. At its most basic level, this saying of Jesus is not hard to understand. Jesus is trying to take care of his mother. They have not always had the best of relationships. You can imagine that it was not easy to be the mother of Jesus.

Mary is pregnant as a virgin before her marriage, but the community would not have believed that. She is forced to flee to Egypt as a young mother to save her son. Remember the incident in

Luke 2 when Jesus is 12. Mary and Joseph think he is travelling with the family back from Jerusalem, but Jesus remains there to teach in the Temple. They look for him for 3 days. When they finally find him, he says, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

We know from John 7 that Jesus brothers do not believe. We also see this incident in Mark 3, that Mary and his brothers come to see Jesus, but he won’t see them, and he says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus also says in Luke 14:

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.

These kinds of conversation would have been difficult to understand for Mary. And now, imagine this day for Mary. Now your son has been arrested, falsely accused, beaten, whipped. Was she in the crowd as those around her yelled to crucify him? Was she next to someone who asked for Barabbas to be spared?  Did she follow and see him stumble under the weight of the cross on the way to Golgotha?

We don’t know when she joined him, but we do know that she watches him on that cross. Can you now understand the healing and reconciling words these are from the cross? He is caring for his mother. He is trusting this disciple he was so close to with something so important as his own mother.

But we must also consider that these words are recorded in the book of John. John is not the historian or fact seeker that Luke is. John’s gospel is both theological and symbolic. For instance, he does not give a Christmas story, but instead talks about the Word becoming flesh.

John may have recorded these words to justify his care of Mary. They were certainly critical moments in his life, and perhaps the most honoring request he ever received. “John, take care of my mother as if she was your own.”

Yet I think this moment of compassion and care has symbolic significance. There is an interesting thing going on in the Greek. Most translations, including the one I read, say that from then on John took Mary into his own home. But the word home is not there in the Greek. It actually says that John took Mary into his own. That could mean home, but could also mean his own family, or as his own mother.

At times in church history, Mary has been called the second Eve. She is the mother of a new humanity through her son Jesus Christ. But Catholic priest Raniero Cantalamessa has pointed out something that I find very interesting. Mary actually has a number of interesting parallels with Abraham.

Abraham is called to leave his father’s house and go to a new land. Mary is called have a child, and ends up going to Bethlehem for a census, and Egypt to save her son. Abraham response to God in faith, just as Mary said “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

Abraham has son miraculously when he and his wife are too old to get pregnant. Mary has a son before the possibility of pregnancy, while she is still a virgin. Abraham’s son is promised to be the first of a new nation, and kings of peoples will come from Abraham’s wife Sarah. Mary is promised that Jesus “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

But now, on the cross, we see a significant distinction between Abraham and Mary. Abraham’s son is spared from being sacrificed. Remember the story, Abraham goes to the mountain to sacrifice Isaac, but God provides the ram instead. But Mary’s son is not spared. He is the ram that is provided for all of us.

And because of that sacrifice, a new covenant is written in his blood. A covenant that is bigger than Abraham’s covenant. Yes, Jesus taking care of his mother, but so much more is going on symbolically and theologically. A new nation, a new people is being born.

The author Dante called Mary “Virgin Mother, daughter of thy son.” Mary is, in this moment, not just being taken care of as the mother of Jesus, but she is also becoming a child of Jesus. And the family of Jesus—his followers—now take her as their own.

And this is great news for you and me. Perhaps you have lost your parents, or never had your parents. Perhaps you have lost a child. Perhaps you have lost yourself over the years.

Jesus takes you as his own. No matter what you have done or how difficult your life has been. You are now a son or daughter. You are Christ’s own. And because we are Christ’s own, we now one another’s. We take one another as our own. We are a family. The church. The faith. The followers of the Way.

Look around at one another today. Behold, your brothers, your sisters, your parents, your grandparents, your children, your grandchildren. These are your people.

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Story and the Order of Worship

            Throughout much of church history, and still in the Catholic tradition, communion was the climax of the worship service. In fact, in the early church those who were new to the church community were dismissed before the sacrament. People were known throughout history to stand at the doors or look in the windows just to catch a glimpse of the sacred bread.

            The early church generally followed a very simple outline for worship. They gathered in someone’s home, greeted each other, and ate a meal. Sometimes later in the meal or after the meal, an elder in the community would tell a story of Jesus or from the scriptures and give insights into the passage or event for the community. There was a collection for the poor—at first for Jerusalem but later for their individual communities. Then the sacred meal was taken before they left.

            This general shape of worship is still used today. The primary change came during the Reformation. The Reformers wanted people to have access to the scriptures and understand them for themselves. In some cases, like that of Martin Luther, they labored to give the scriptures in the common language. At the same time, the Reformers reevaluated the theology of the Eucharist. Their argument was that there was no need for another sacrifice since Jesus was the perfect sacrifice. They did not all agree on what communion represents. Perspectives ranged from something mystical, to ritualistic reenactment, to nothing more than a symbol.

            Though they did not agree on what the sacrament was, they did all agree that the proclamation of the Word should eclipse the sacrament as the center of the worship service. The emphasis moved from the sacrament of communion to the proclamation of the Word. Even the church architecture captures this change. Instead of the communion table being the center of the worship space, now large pulpits dominated the front of the sanctuary.

            I find the Presbyterian way of talking about this order particularly helpful. Worship happens in five stages. We “gather around the Word” as we have a prelude, call to worship, and opening hymn. Here we are also preparing for the Word by confessing our sin and being assured of our pardon. We “proclaim the Word.” This normally involves reading a scripture and interpreting it in a sermon, though a skit or musical cantata can also play that part. We “respond to the Word” often through an offering. We “seal the Word” with the sacraments, for it is in the practice of communion that the Word proclaimed becomes ours in a special way. Finally, we have a benediction as we “bear and follow the Word into the world.” I especially love that final phrase, because it implies that the process of worship on Sunday morning continues throughout the week.

            The question in many churches about this order tends to be about where to put the offering. Some pastors don’t like the offering after the sermon because they feel like they are preaching for a bigger offering. Some churches feel the sermon is a high point or crescendo that makes for a better ending to the service. I see both of these cases, and I tend to move the offering around a bit depending on what else is happening in the service. Wherever you put it, be intentional about where it fits in the story.

            Maybe you don’t think of the order of worship as a story, but it most certainly is one. The Reformed order matches the larger story of the Bible. There is the coming together of the community at the beginning of worship. Every week a new body is created. Then there is a confession. The Fall is remembered. The proclamation of the Word should always include proclaiming the central act of Redemption by the Word made flesh. We remember that Redemption in the Sacraments. The move into the world is act of Restoration as we go out into the world to work for God’s purposes.

            Many people do not understand this, but this order of worship also has a parallel in a biblical story. Do you remember the story of Jesus talking to two people on the road to Emmaus from Luke 24? Here is basically how the story goes. A disciple named Cleopas is walking with an unknown person (perhaps his wife) on the road to Emmaus.  A stranger starts to walk with them and asks them some questions about what is going on. Cleopas tells him the story in brief form. Jesus says they are foolish and slow of heart to believe. The Christ had to suffer. And then verse 27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” They get to the village and it looks like Jesus is going to keep walking. They ask him to stay with them, and they sit down at the table. He broke the bread and blessed it, and their eyes were opened in that moment. Then Jesus vanished. They were so excited they immediately got up and went back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples what they had seen.

            This is the basic story of worship. We are living our lives, and Jesus comes up and is present with us as we are present with each other. We are foolish and slow to believe, and we are forced in confession to acknowledge that reality. The scriptures are opened, and we see how they all have something to say about Jesus. After the Word is opened, we make an offering, the way Cleopas offers hospitality. Then we go to the table, and our eyes are opened to Christ in a special way in the breaking of bread. We recognize who he is there in a way we have not seen before. From there, we depart out into the world with the good news of our experience of Jesus.

            I don’t think the Reformed style of worship is the only way to do worship. I am not sure there is a right or wrong. I personally move the service around quite a bit. Sometimes my sermon is from the communion table. Sometimes the confession needs to be in response to the sermon. I find that to be especially true when I preach from the Minor Prophets. The point is not right or wrong. The point is to think through the story of worship. What story are people experiencing in this service?

            This is a critical question, because form communicates as much as content. You can talk about your service being meant to have people participate in an experience with Christ. But if your service feels like a concert, people will come to it with the expectation that they are supposed to be passive. If you just randomize hymns or service elements, then don’t expect your services to tell a coherent story.

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The Meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent

(This is my sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017)

What is Lent? The word simply means spring. It is a roughly 40 day period that leads from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week, as we walk with Jesus toward the cross. It is a time of self-examination and repentance. The church traditionally participates in prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Such a time is a little scary to protestants, who seem to fear returning to their catholic roots. It is also more and more counter cultural to believe in anything called sin that we may need to repent from. How depressing an idea? That idea does not have the beauty or the marketability of the Christmas message.I want to take a few minutes to develop for you what Lent is all about, and why we do this odd tradition with ashes. I am not just interested in understanding the traditions. More than that, I think it is critical for your soul that a Lenten spirituality be a part of your faith walk.

The Bible itself does not describe or prescribe the practice of Lent. However, the season is full of biblical images and themes.

The idea of 40 days of preparation is all over the Bible. Moses spent 40 days on Mount Sinai. Elijah spent 40 days and nights walking to Mount Horeb. Noah was in the rain for 40 days. Jonah prophesied that Nineveh would fall in 40 days. The Israelites wandered 40 years in the desert. Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry. It has even been argued that Jesus laid in the tomb for 40 hours.

Many of these experiences of 40 included prayer and fasting. By prayer, I mean more than grace. I mean talking to and listening to God. Sharing your heart and seeking to understand God’s heart.

Fasting is something that Protestants and Americans don’t like. I would guess that for many of us, the only time we have ever fasted is when our doctor told us we had to before a test or procedure. We do love our food, don’t we? The point, however, is not to starve ourselves of food. The point is self-denial. It is denying ourselves some of the things we want or think we need. In doing so, we acknowledge that our relationship with Christ is what we really long for. This works especially well with fasting our food or certain foods, because when we get hungry or we crave that certain thing, we are reminded to pray to God. But this could also be done with TV or social media, or certain stores, or certain habits. We deny ourselves to focus on our need for Jesus.

This kind of self-denial is also meant to slow us down so that we can take a look in the mirror of our souls. Often, we stay busy so that we don’t have to face our own sin. Lent calls us to self-reflection. We are to see that we are sinners, there are things that we are still a slave to. We do wrong things and think worse things.

Lent is not just a season to leave things behind. It can also be a season of taking up new things or replacing bad things. Many choose new devotions, better Bible reading habits, or new forms of prayer as a part of their Lenten spirituality.

But the period is not totally self-centered. There is also the practice of almsgiving. This means acts of pity or mercy. In can mean giving financially to another. It can also mean serving others or providing for others. Yet even in almsgiving we see our own sin. We recognize that we have so much that we could have done for others.

This leads us to probably the most important word of Lent—Repentance. Repentance is not simply saying, “I’m sorry.” To repent is to relent. It is to give up your opinion or position and turn the other way.

This is where the symbol of ashes comes in. Ashes are a sign of mourning. People in grief or sorrow would put on sackcloth and ashes. They would feel itchy and look dirty on the outside because of your sadness and pain on the inside. The image is rooted in two deeper symbols. First, cities that were destroyed produced ash and rubble. Ashes became a symbol of destruction and loss. Second, ashes related to the symbol of dirt. Humans are made from dirt, and to dirt we return. Ashes on our heads for Ash Wednesday remind us of our frailty, our sin and the destruction we should receive, and of the sorry we should feel for our sin. It is a symbol of repentance.

So we begin the Lenten journey with Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, the church would not sing any song with hallelujah in it, or sing the Gloria, until after Easter. The songs would be in minor keys, and speak of sin and the need for the cross.

In church history, Easter would be a time of joining the church. People would be baptized on Easter. And Lent was their preparation. And the palms of Palm Sunday we traditionally burned to be the ashes of the next year. The cycle back to Easter starts again.

The point of this journey would not be to morbidly obsess with our sin or make us depressed. They point was to create a sense of night, so that when Easter burst forth, it would be like a bright sunrise. At Easter, we are meant to put away the Ashes and put on joy. We are to stop our repentance and start our celebration.

 So may the words of Jesus be the cry of your heart this Lent, from Mark 1:14-15 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

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To a Discouraged Minister

I have been spending time every day in a book called the Minister’s Prayer Book by John W. Doberstein. This week, I came across this wonderful quote by Friedrich Zündel (1827–1891) under the titled “To a Discouraged Minister.” There is so much truth here:


“When difficulties pile up before you like insurmountable mountains… When behind you, you see nothing but failures.  When before you, you see nothing but trouble . . . 

1. Do what is at hand to do.  Consider each single day to be your appointed task.  Leave to God the care of the future.

2. Don’t desire to harvest.  You are only a sower.

3. Remember that on the island of Nias the missionaries prayed for 25 years for an awakening.

4. If you can be comfort and strength to even one single person, then even fifty years of no success have not been in vain.

5. It is no help to an unrepentant person for you to be annoyed with him (or her).  What he (or she) needs is seeking love.

6. Even for Paul, the “thorn in the flesh” remained.  His grace is sufficient . . . 

7. Christ can fight his battles even with broken swords.

8. It is not ability but faithfulness that counts (I Corinthians 4:2).  

He dared to believe his way through the deepest gloom.”   


I find these thoughts so encouraging. Let me interpret them with my own list, not coinciding with the above list, but my thoughts as I read them.

1. I see that pastor have always have difficulties ad down times. It is not new and it is never going away.

2. I think the emphasis of daily sowing is so valuable. What can I do today to plant seeds for the Kingdom? This is why I emphasize organizing for ministry so much in my life. I want to be sure and get the right things done.

3. There is always the temptation in ministry to focus on the harvest. We desire bigger numbers, fuller pews, and expanded budgets. These are worldly success, but not by God’s definition.

4. Ministry is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time, and often sowing comes decades before reaping. You have to take a long-run perspective.

5.  Having an impact on one person is significant. I also think that we need to learn how to celebrate our wins better. Enjoy the moments where your ministry has a visible impact. Sometimes those moments are sparse.

6. You can’t get frustrated or annoyed with people. It would be great if everyone was perfect, but we know that sin does not spare anyone. We are in the broken people business.

7. Those people, conversations, or issues that bug you don’t go away. When they do, another one is surely around the corner. Trust in God’s grace, not how you feel in the moment.

8. Even if you feel broken, God can use you. The great men and women of the Bible, and history for that matter, are often the most flawed.

9. Faithfulness is more important than skill or effort. You don’t have to be the best or work the hardest, in fact, sometimes those things get in the way. Just be faithful. Listen to God’s voice and obey.

 I love that line tagged on the very end in the devotional. Friedrich Zündel says, “He dared to believe his way through the deepest gloom.”  May that be said of you in ministry.

 

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I Defended my Dissertation

This week was a big week for me. I successfully defended my dissertation. I am now “The Reverend Doctor Jordan Rimmer.” This is the culmination of a lot of work.

I never cared about getting a doctor of ministry. I really wanted to learn, especially from someone who I thought could challenge and push me. Len Sweet was that person, and I have learned so much. I also loved that I got to research and write about things I wanted to study.

People ask me about what my dissertation was about. I normally just say it is about how pastors can think about their ministry through story. In reality, it was more than that. I looked at the identity problems that pastors have. It is hard to know who a pastor is and what a pastor should do. This ambiguity contributes to stress and burnout among pastors, which is having a negative impact on pastors, their families, and their churches.

Part of that problem is a problem of metaphor. The old metaphors like prophet or shepherd don’t connect with us anymore. New metaphors like counselor or leader/CEO don’t fit the tradition. We need new metaphors for pastors that are faithful to the tradition and fruitful in the world today.

My argument is that story can be that new metaphor or paradigm. People think in stories. We learn through stories. We heal through stories. By learning about how stories work, pastors can see new fruit in their ministry. More importantly, story provides a way for the seemingly disjointed work of ministry to feel more coherent. We are always finding stories, tending to stories, and weaving God’s story in the lives of others.

Part of my dissertation also included writing a book proposal and the first 5 chapters of a book called The Story Pastor. I am continuing to write this book, as well as developing other books and courses around the material.

This journey to a doctor of ministry degree has been a great story, and I, like any protagonist in a story, have had to change and grow along the way. I am thankful for that opportunity. I am also thankful to my family who supported me, as well as friends, classmates, and my church who kept me going. I also thank God who has been leading and teaching me all along.

I will continue to answer to “Jordan,” but I will also answer to “Rev-Doc.” I have been called Dr. J this week and I am not sure how I feel about that one.

More than anything else, I have learned on this adventure to keep at it, work a little every day, and don’t be overwhelmed by how huge the task is.  Anything you want to write can only happen one word at a time. Anything you want to accomplish can only be done one step at a time. Keep walking.

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Pray and Prepare- Learning Life from Nehemiah

I have been preaching the book of Nehemiah, and it has been very insightful for me personally. Nehemiah finds out about the challenges in Jerusalem and prays for months. Then he gets to talk to the king about it. It seems like a fortuitous conversation, until you realize that Nehemiah knows the supplies he needs, the permissions that he needs, and even how long rebuilding the wall should take. He has not just been praying. He has been planning.

This is a major theme in Nehemiah. He prays and prepares. He prays and plans. He asks God to help and then takes action. He trusts God to work it out and then works on it. He is the same way with the people he is leading. God will build our walls, and here is your shovel. God will protect us, so grab your swords.

There are people who are just pray-ers. They wait on God for everything. They pray and expect God to give them a new job or a better life. There are other people who are preparers and planners. They make plans and to do lists. They do vision statements. They make life happen with their own grit and effort. The problem with both extremes is the lack of the other side, but Nehemiah teaches us the importance of both together.

You can’t be a person that prays but never takes action. Sometimes God’s answer to your prayers is you. Sometimes God makes you stronger for what he is calling you to ado. You also can’t try to make changes or accomplish great things on your own strength.

This is a tough thing to balance, but we have to have both. We need to pray and prepare. We need to wait and to plan.

 Finding the balance is very beneficial for us. Part of the importance of planning is that you can then change the plan with opportunities or challenges arise. But to react, you have to hold your plans loosely. Prayer helps us take notice of these things that are going on beyond our plans, so that we do hold our plans loosely. At the same time, our planning helps our prayer by getting us to actively seek an answer. We are expecting God to answer. Planning makes our prayers hopeful instead of desperate.

Where are your praying without planning in your life? Where are you planning without praying? How can you find that balance?

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The Soundtrack of the Church

In any movie or TV show, the soundtrack is tremendously important. The songs chose for the background of the story set the tone for the movie. In many ways, they are critical to the story. The best soundtracks tell the stories themselves.

Let’s think about the famous soundtrack of Star Wars composed by John Williams. This soundtrack is instantly recognizable and immediately takes the mind back to the story. We recognize the theme song, and we automatically think of those credits scrolling across the screen off into the distance in space. That song has a grandeur and excitement to it that sets the tone for the whole movie.    


Darth Vader’s theme is called the “Imperial March.” It has a strong cadence and a seemingly relentless march forward. It clearly represent Vader’s strength and the Empire’s goal of getting everyone in cadence and marching in the same direction. It portrays the uniformity that the antagonists are seeking. Compare that song to the song of Luke Skywalker looking out on the desert. Luke’s song starts out quiet and slow, with long notes that are lilting and hoping for something to come. That is exactly what the rebellion is desiring in their fight against the empire, and that is exactly what Luke wants as he feels trapped where he is. The songs of Star Wars tell the story.

The church has always had a soundtrack. In some parts of the world this has involved chanting. There is something so holy about the chilling sound of voices echoing in a grand worship space. Still, throughout most of the church’s history, the Psalms acted as the soundtrack. Sometimes people would have the words in front of them. More often, a leader would say or sing a line and the church would repeat it back. People had to learn the tunes, since much of the singing was acapella. (Organs did not move into the church until the days of Martin Luther, when this bar instrument was repurposed for church music. Many people complained that such a worldly instrument would be used in church. Now, people argue for it as if it is the only holy musical instrument.) The Psalms have a great range of emotions and themes. Some Psalms are praising God for his works. Some are praising God for his attributes. Some are complaining to God in times of distress.  

We now have hymns—songs specifically written for the church. Sometimes these were bar tunes or popular tunes with new words written. Sometimes these were masterful pieces of art that were composed for worship. Whatever the case, these songs have become the soundtrack of our story. Songs like “Blessed Assurance” or “Amazing Grace” somehow seem to capture our whole story in just a few stanzas. There are many times when I get up to preach, and then find that the hymn following the sermon says what I wanted to say so much better than I did. Some songs even claim to capture the story. Blessed Assurance says, “This is my story, this is my song…” We sing that “We’ve a story to tell to the nations” and “I love to tell the story.”

The songs also help unpack the story. Some of the church’s best theological works are found in the hymnal. “The Church’s One Foundation” is one of the most profound creedal statements for the church. “Holy Holy Holy” is one of the strongest proclamations of the Trinity that the church has ever made. The hymnal is the soundtrack of our theology.

There is also something very symbolic about the community standing and singing these words in harmony. We have lost our ability to sing harmony for the most part, but my teacher Len Sweet points out the power when it does happen. When we sing harmony, we sing different things. We don’t have to all sing the same thing, in fact, it sounds so much better if we all sing different parts that complement one another. This is how the world, and how the church, was meant to be—we all sing our unique and authentic parts and the Holy Spirit puts them all together. 

 I am not against praise songs, but I could never go to a church that did not do some hymns. Praise songs are spiritual songs. They can be repetitive, and sometimes their theology needs to be better thought out. But what they do is give voice to praise and adoration from the heart. In this way, they do parallel some of the Psalms. What I find lacking in the praise songs is space for regret or for questioning God. Praise leaders hang onto “Blessed be Your Name” for its acknowledgement of down times, but there is a need for more of this theme. It is not sexy and will not sell as many records, but it is a theme in the Psalms that needs more exploration in our music today.

In my opinion, the church needs to be much more intentional about its soundtrack. The songs we sing can shape our church and our culture in ways that we are overlooking. The songs tell the story, and when we sing them we participate in them as our story. When we write the next chapters of the story, it will be the soundtrack that anchors us to the previous chapters.

The question for us as pastors and churches is—what story is your soundtrack saying about your church?

 

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Churches with Writer’s Block

People and organizations are living stories. Since live moves in days and season, it can feel like a movie or a play. Normally, the story naturally moves as we accomplishing things, try things, and learn and grow along the way. Sometimes, however, the story stops. As Graham Standish puts it, a church can get “something akin to writer’s block.”

Numerous obstacles can stop the story. Sometimes the church has conflict or crisis that consumes the story. Sometimes the church fails at writing the next chapter and loses their confidence to keep writing. Sometimes they are so focused on all their problems that they can’t see any way forward. Sometimes the church cannot agree on what the next chapter should be

Often churches lose sight of what has been written in the previous chapters. They forget their history. It is problematic when a church is obsessed with and driven by the past, but it is equally damaging to lose sight of the previous chapters. It would be like trying to write chapter 12 in a book when you have completely forgotten the previous 11 chapters. You forget the themes, the lessons, and the conflict that has brought the story so far.

It is tempting, I will admit, to forget some of the conflict. Who wants to revisit and think about the bad times? I think this is why so many people have warped memories of the church. They only remember “the good old days,” and leave out the bad days. It is critical to review the previous chapters. Often the way past writers block is to reread the previous chapters.  The way to the future is through the past.

I believe that churches have a spiritual DNA. Even people who come to your church who are not related to previous members will tend to be part of the same spiritual heritage. For so many churches, they need to discover what that DNA is.

I have found a lot of help in this area from the field of Appreciative Inquiry. AI is an organizational development theory that tries to focus on what is working rather than what it not working. Think about it this way: just because I know what is wrong with my car does not necessarily mean I can fix it. I have driven some pretty crappy cars, and I have had them break down almost every way possible. I am getting good at diagnosing what the problem is. I still stink at fixing the car. I can know that it is the power steering pump and still not know how to replace it. At the same time, I may not need to have an exact diagnosis to fix the problem. If I know that the water pump is not working properly, I can just replace the pump. I don’t need to dissect the water pump to find out exactly what is broken in order to fix the problem. This is why obsessing about problems does not usually fix them, but instead leads to stress and immobility.

Appreciative Inquiry asks organizations to tell stories and give examples of the best of the organization. Describe a time when you felt really good about what the church was doing. When did you feel that the church was fulfilling its purpose? Tell a story of a time when you were serving in the church and felt good about the contribution you were making. These kind of questions can help find the core values and key stories that exemplify what it means to be a part of this church.

I have found in using these kinds of questions in church that people often have trouble moving past a negative perspective. They want to complain about problems instead of search for solutions. I have found this response often works. Let’s say George is complaining about the worship service. I would say something like, “George, it seems like you have a good understanding of the worship service. Tell me, what would a great worship service look like? What would it look like it was working correctly?” I have found that reframing the conversation leads to much better ideas. Some people cannot make the switch and they can only complain. This question is also helpful for conversing with them because I realize that they will never be happy and will rarely be helpful.

Is your story stuck? Are you in writer’s block? Trying reading the previous chapters until the story gets going again.

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The Story Pastor: The Heart of Story

I am writing a book called The Story Pastor talking about how to think about ministry in terms of story. I plan to blog a few paragraphs every week for a while to see how people responds to the ideas. Here I talk about the heart of story:

The heart of any story is the journey of this protagonist. In the beginning, they are in one place. They go through the middle of the story which is filled with challenges. They then have a final battle or effort that reveal them to be different at the conclusion. This is why the three-part structure is so important. It marks the different stages of the transformation of the protagonist. The story is never about the journey that the character goes on. It is always about the journey that the character’s character goes on. It is about the transformation of the protagonist. Rocky always must get stronger. James Bond always must push himself to the brink. Marlin must get over his fear of the ocean to find Nemo. This transformation is often called “the story arc.”

The driving force of the transformation is conflict. Protagonists do not change on their own. They are forced to change by circumstances beyond their control.  Every story is based on a readily apparent external problem. The character must go to a place or retrieve an object or survive an ordeal. The conflict builds throughout the story. Often, the story is complicated by the protagonist’s own actions. Their attempts to overcome the external problem are met with unintended consequences. They make things worse.

For example, the external problem in the original, Star Wars: A New Hope is that Luke Skywalker (the protagonist) must get the droids with the stolen plans to the rebels. That is the clearly explained external problem. When Luke and Obi-Won Kenobi attempt to do that, they end up on the Death Star, taking the plans even closer to the Empire. Then they realize a new external problem: they need to destroy the Death Star.

Underlying this problem is the internal problem. This is what the story is really about. It almost always involves some variation of the question, “Does the protagonist have what it takes?” Is he good enough? Can she complete the task? Whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, a horror movie or a romance, the story is always, ultimately, about the change in the character of the protagonist as they rise to the challenges of the journey. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker has all kinds of doubts about himself. He is constantly trying to prove himself. Does he have what it takes? Can he learn to trust the force, and himself? That is the internal problem that is the central driver of the film.

Great stories also tap into larger problems. The internal problems point to larger dichotomies like good and evil, right and wrong, or love and hate. The protagonist must bump up against these larger problems. Luke Skywalker must not give into fear, or fall to the Dark Side.

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16 THINGS I LEARNED IN 2016

  1. The Difficulty of Finishing Large Projects– This year I finished my dissertation. That is about 180 pages, about 250 footnotes, and a 17-page bibliography. It was a major undertaking. To get it done, I had to keep pushing, doing a little every day, and not get overwhelmed by the size of it.
  2. The Challenge of Managing Projects– This past summer my church put in a vertical platform lift (think small elevator) so that people got get into our church and switch floors more easily. It was a pretty big expense and had a lot of working parts including architectural drawings, permits, a contractor, a lift company, and the work of keeping the building project from interrupting the work of the church. I had to be there almost every day to walk the deck, talk to the workers, and handle challenges or questions. Even though I was not building, I had to take a lot of time to manage the project.
  3. The Value of Vacation and Sabbath Time– This year I did two great trips—one to Orcas Island with my wife and one to Disney World with my family. They were both total escapes from normal work and life and were incredibly refreshing in a busy year. I learned that I need to have these kind of vacation (though maybe less expensive and closer to home) for my own health and well-being.
  4. The Weight of Constant Pain– This fall I tore my labrum—a part of the shoulder that helps keep the ball in the socket. It was a lot of pain that travelled down my arm and across my back. The other shoulder also get very sore as I compensated for the bad one. I have not had a lot of constant pain like that many times in my life. The only thing close was a month with shingles a few years ago. It was totally draining, and I have a different kind of sensitivity now for people that live with chronic pain.
  5. The Importance of Deep Friendships– This year I got a different appreciation for my close friends. There was not a particular moment or experience that led me to this. I have just really enjoyed my friendships this year.
  6. The Writing Bug– I figured out that I really like writing. Part of my dissertation was an academic essay on my topic. The other part was a book proposal and the start of a book about my answer to my topic. It is a book I am titling The Story Pastor. I did not enjoy the academic writing near as much, but I loved starting that book. I see a lot more writing in my future.
  7. The Difference between Writing and Editing– As part of the writing process, I also had to edit. My first instinct was to edit as I wrote. I learned that this slowed me down. I found it was better to write very fast with my screen covered so I could not even see what I was writing, then I could go back and edit the work later. I have started to do the same things with sermons. Get them on paper as fast as I can and go back and clean them up later.
  8. The Strength of Outsourcing– I hired and editor for my dissertation. This was not an insignificant expense, but it was an essential one. I am not a good editor. I can read a sentence 20 times with the word was instead of want because I am reading what I meant to say. I am getting better, but I learned that sometimes it is best to get someone else to do what they are good at and you are not.
  9. The Fun of Getting a Puppy– We got a golden-doodle puppy this year. His name is Geppetto but we call him Jep. He has been a fun addition and a great companion to the family.
  10. The Importance of Celebration– When we got to the end of the capital campaign and building project at my church, I talked my church leaders into doing a big celebration and dedication for the lift. We rented a tent for the front lawn of the church and had a big picnic outside. I learned that day the value of celebrating the big wins in life. That celebration made everyone feel really good and gave us momentum to finish the year.
  11. The Value of Reading Fiction– I finished the Harry Potter books this year and started into the Grantchester mystery novels. I have never been a huge fiction fan, but I have loved the escape and the fun of getting into fiction. I think it refreshed the mind and also stimulates the imagination in a way that television does not.
  12. The Relationship Between Exercise, Health, and how you Feel– Because of business and especially because of my torn labrum, I did not exercise as much this year or make physically healthy choices. I have felt the difference as I get tired and grumpy more easily. I want to get back on track in 2017.
  13. The Importance of a Soundtrack– I did a lot of research on story and film for my dissertation, and one of the things I learned in that study is how important a soundtrack is to a movie. I have tried to be more intentional about using music to set my own mood and productivity. It has made a big difference for me.
  14. The Human Struggle for Hope– I preached a sermon about faith and politics in September and I watched people’s response to the election quite closely. Some were ecstatic by the result, others were terrified. What amazed me was how many people are trying to find their hope in politics. We have a song that says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” We all struggle for hope, and I have seen too many people put their hope in something far less than Jesus.
  15. 15 The Brevity of Life and the Fleeting Nature of Time– I did six funerals in 2016 and went to viewing hours for at least three others that I was not doing. We don’t like to think about it, but we are all going to die someday. Life is short, and I am amazed at how fast it goes by. My son turned 11 this year. He is only going to be in my house for 7 or so years. I think this understanding reorients my priorities quite a bit.
  16. The Excitement of Expectation– It is strange to see 2016 leave. I am finishing up my dissertation and my doctor of ministry program. The program has consumed a lot of my time and energy for the last 2 ½ years. I am left to wonder, what is next? What does God have in story for me in 2017? At the same time, it is exciting to move on to other writing projects, new ideas at the church, and new adventures with my family.
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Christmas Skit: The Birth of Jesus from His Neighbor’s Perspective

The following is a skit I wrote after a Bible study where we were discussing the trouble that the family and hometown of Jesus had in believing he was the Messiah.

Narrator: Two neighbors in Nazareth chat in their back yard.

Phil: Hey Chuck.

Chuck: How’s it going Phil?

Phil: Fine, how about with you?

Chuck: Good. Did you hear about this Messiah everyone is talking about?

Phil: Sure did. My cousin was at a wedding a little while back. Said the guy turned the water into wine so the guests had the best wine last. Heard he has healed some blind guys and cleaned up some lepers.

Chuck: Well, I heard him talking down by the Sea the other day, and you are not going to believe this. It was Jesus.

Phil: Which Jesus?

Chuck: Jesus the carpenter. Son of Mary.

Phil: Jesus? Like from down the street.

Chuck: Yeah, that Jesus.

Phil: Like, the Jesus who built my deck? Man, he was a great carpenter. My deck is perfect. But I don’t think he is the Messiah.

Chuck: I know. Such a good worker. Built our manger. It is gorgeous. Kinda weird, though. He put some much time into building that manger. He cried when he finished it. What is so special about a manger?

Phil: That is weird.

Chuck: What was the deal when he was little? Remember how he didn’t live here for a couple of years.

Phil: I don’t remember. Hey, Gladys. Do you remember what the deal was with Jesus?

Narrator: Phil’s wife comes over to join the conversation.

Gladys: Which Jesus, hun?

Phil: The carpenter. The son of Joseph and Mary. Everyone is saying is doing all those miracles and drawing those big crowds.

Gladys: He is? Oh, don’t you remember that story?

Phil: I wouldn’t have asked you if I did.

Gladys: Well, Mary got pregnant before they were married. She said that the “spirit of God” came upon her.  Really, they must have, you know, and then there were three. Joseph did not divorce her or have her stoned. He married her. Her parents must have been so embarrassed. I think they sent him away to stay with her cousin in Jerusalem for a few months.

Chuck: I remember that, but why weren’t they around when Jesus was little.

Gladys: They went out of town for some reason… Oh, wait. That was the census, and Joseph is of the family of King David. He had to go to Bethlehem. So they went together and Mary had the baby there.

Chuck: Oh, I am starting to remember. Wasn’t there a coupe stories about angels and shepherds, and some wise men from out East somewhere bringing gifts. Some people are all about getting attention.

Phil: Hold on. That was right about when Herod killed all those Jewish boys around there.

Gladys: So tragic.

Phil: How did they keep Jesus alive?

Gladys: They went to Egypt. Got outta Dodge before the shooting started. Stayed there a couple years. I don’t remember when they came back, they just showed up one day and started their contractor business back up. Jesus took it over when Joseph died.

Phil: And now people think Jesus is the Messiah? The one who will bring peace on earth? The one who will lead us to overthrow the Romans? Don’t get me wrong. Dude was a great carpenter.

Gladys: I know. That deck was incredible.

Chuck: I heard him speak, and the guy had a lot of wisdom. I didn’t see any miracles, but I wasn’t there very long.

Phil: It is Jesus. We have known him for 30 years. My mom and Mary were friends. There is no way that guy is the promised savior. Especially if he was born out of wedlock.

Chuck: And isn’t it weird that his brothers and sisters don’t even follow him. You would think they would be disciples of their older brother, wouldn’t you?

Gladys: That’s right. His brother James is kind of a bum around town. And his brother Judas took a down payment for a new table and chairs, and ripped me off. I never got the set but I also never got that money back.

Phil: I always tell you, honey. Never trust anybody named Judas.

Gladys: Your dislike of people named Judas aside, is everybody saying that Jesus is the Messiah, or is Jesus saying it himself.

Chuck: I think he is saying it, or at least implying it in the stuff he is doing.

Phil: Maybe he has gone crazy.

Chuck: Well, I don’t know what to think of it. But I can’t imagine the that savior of the world is the same guy that built your deck.

Narrator: Matthew 13:53-58 tells us: “[53] And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, [54] and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? [55] Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? [56] And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” [57] And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” [58] And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”

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Hints for a Different Kind of Advent

Advent and Christmas can be a crazy time. We hang banners in the church that say faith, hope, joy, and peace. Yet so often we feel the exact opposite of those things at this time of the year. There is lots to do and a lot of pressure to look like you have it all together. So here are a few hints for have a different kind of Advent this year.

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Remember the meaning of Advent. The word Advent comes from the Latin meaning to come. It is a season leading up to Christmas were we are meant to think about Christ coming in three ways. First, we remember that Christ came in the past-tense. We sing songs and do liturgy in which we identify with Israel and with Mary expecting Jesus to come. This drives us to think about Jesus coming to us in the present tense and he comes into our lives. We also look forward during this month to the future coming of Christ at the second coming.

Pay attention to the traditions and the symbols. They are meant to connect you with the season.

  • Evergreens- represent the eternal promises of God that stay true no matter how much life feels like winter.
  • Wreath- evergreens weaved in a circle to further the idea of the eternal promises which have no beginning or end.
  • Christmas Tree- represents the evergreen symbol, but in our homes and filled with memories of Christmas’ past.
  • The Star- the symbol the wise men followed representing God’s leading in our own lives.
  • Lights- reminders that Jesus comes to bring light to dark times and dark places.
  • The Nativity- reminds us of the center of the story.
  • Songs- provide a soundtrack and, though we rarely pay attention to the words, holds a theology for the season.

Try to develop a devotional habit. Spend time daily reading and thinking about God’s work in your life. I have written a few devotionals for Advent, but there are plenty of others available.

Read the Christmas story. It is found in both Matthew and Luke in the Bible. You might be surprised how many elements that you think are part of the story are not actually in the text. I suggest you read the story multiple times and marinate in it for Advent.

Take times of silence and rest. This is a season where true Sabbath rest is rarely found. Schedule it. Plan on it, or it won’t happen.

Remember the difficulties of others. This is a season of deeper depression and higher suicide rates. Many people feel the sting of losses and regrets more keenly during the Christmas season. Look for opportunities to care for others during this season. This is also a season where people are more likely to accept an invitation to go to church.

Consider the practice of alternative giving. This is when you give a donation to an organization in honor of another person. It can be a meaningful experience for both you and the one who received the gift. Some ministries, such as Samaritan’s Purse who does Operation Christmas Child, allow you to give specific gifts. You can then print a card that says you bought a chicken or a medicine kit in the other person’s name and give it to them. You can see their options HERE.

I hope and pray that you can have a blessed holiday season.

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A Letter To Christians before Election Day

Dear Christians,

It is the day before the 2016 presidential election. I don’t think there has ever been a more divisive or worry-filled election. Tomorrow, some people will be exited that their candidate won and relieved that the other lost. Others will be devastated that their candidate lost and terrified that the other won. There will be Christians in both groups. I am not here to tell you who you should vote for, or who I will vote for. I want to remind us all of a few things to remember in the next several days.

  1. The world is watching us. The old-fashioned word that the church does not use a much anymore is witness. We stand as a witness in the world. We should be salt and light that stands out in the crowd. We need to be aware of our witness as we comment, post, and talk about the election. If we appear to panic, then we end up looking like we don’t trust God. If we are rude, it will only confirm for people the idea that Christians are judgmental and hate-filled.
  2. Following Jesus should be marked by grace and love. This election is full of a lot of emotion. There will be very strong feelings this week. Despite how we feel, the way of Jesus is marked by love and grace. Yes, we need to speak the truth, but we need to speak the truth in love. So, before we click send on that Tweet or Facebook post, we need to ask ourselves, “Does this post show grace and love? Does this post honor Jesus both in what it says and how it is said?” Gloating if our candidate wins is unkind and prideful. Complaining and griping if our candidate loses is disrespectful to others who voted the other way. Let’s let the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5) be our filter this week.
  3. Above all, we must realize where our true hope comes from. We sing a hymn that says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Too many of us have our hope in things that are much less than Jesus Christ. If the election gives you a lot of hope than I need to tell you that your hope is built on something much less and will let you down. If the election crushes your hope than I need to tell you that your hope weak and pops too easily. We need to vote. We need to seek the welfare of the city where God has put us (Jer. 29:7), but we especially need to remember where our true citizenship lies.

In the Bible, God works through pagan kings. God accomplishes history’s greatest triumph through an unjust execution. God even speaks through the mouth of an ass. God’s will is not negated by bad leadership. I worry that poor witness in the words and behavior of Christians in this election may take the church decades to overcome.

Finally, if you have trouble with your emotions in the next few days, remember the words of Job: “Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom!” (Job 13:5 ESV)

-Jordan Rimmer

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Disneyworld Church

I took a few weeks off from the blog for some much needed vacation and some much needed focus on my dissertation. I spent vacation with my family at Disney World in Orlando Florida. We avoided Hurricane Matthew and had a wonderful time. As I was there, I was caught up in the magic and wonder of Disneyworld. I have been reading a lot about Walt Disney since being down there. He was a total genius.

I was inspired by the way Walt Disney and his company understood the centrality of story. Disney started out by going back to old stories and retelling them in a new way. We forget how forward thinking this was when Disney created Snow White. No one thought cartoons could do more than make you laugh. Disney thought they could make you cry and tell a story. Everything in Disney is about the stories or creating new stories. goofy

Walt Disney understood symbol as a big part of story. He didn’t just create seven dwarves. He made them all quirky and unique. His stories were filled with symbols like poison apples and thimbles. Disney made money on merchandising before it was assumed you should do that. He understood that you wanted symbolic ways of remembering your stories.

When he built Disneyland, he insisted that the Sleeping Beauty’s castle be completed first. He wanted the park to be built around that symbol. Likewise, each park at Disneyworld has a central symbol that holds it all together—the Epcot Ball, the Magic Kingdom Castle, the Animal Kingdom Tree of Life, and the Hollywood Boulevard and the Great Move Ride in Hollywood Studios. The symbol is the anchor of the story.

Every aspect of each park or area is designed to help you experience the story. When Disney made Disneyland, theme parks were dirty and strange carnivals. Disney wanted to create a clean and wonderful place so that people could experience another world. They could go there and experience for themselves the stories that they loved like being a flying elephant or seeing Peter Pan. In Disney, you can live the stories and meet the characters that you love. Some of the experiences have even turned into movies or stories, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.

What holds it all together is a soundtrack. Everywhere you go in Disney you can hear songs that take you right back to the story. There are whole shows where you can sing along to your favorites. The soundtrack in the background holds the experience together.

This is also held together by the wonderful service of the employees. In Disneyworld they are called “cast members.” They are not just selling you food or organizing the strollers or putting you on the ride. They are part of the story that is being told. Disney employees are trained to see themselves that way and to play their parts well. I found them all to be kind and helpful. They switched out a toy that we had bought which came out of the package broken without any question. One cast member talked my youngest son into trying a ride that he had chickened out on, and it ended up being his favorite ride of the whole trip.img_5835

Story, symbol, experience, soundtrack, and service. This is a very Christian way to think. We are a faith based on a story. Unfortunately, the greatest story ever told if often the greatest story never told. We need to be more creative in telling that story. We have symbols like crosses, fish, and church buildings that help anchor the story. We have experiences like worship, Easter morning, Christmas Eve, and Communion, that help us make that story our story. It plops us down in the middle of this larger story. We have a great soundtrack of hymns and praise songs that can anchor us to the story. We should be people of service that play our part in the story of the world and help others with whatever they need.

 We need to be a Disneyworld church.

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Render Unto Caesar: Seek the Welfare of the City

This sermon is the final sermon of a 4-week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics. You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.

Today I finish my 4-week sermon series on faith and politics. I have tried to speak truth, but not give my own opinion. I wanted to give background to change how you approach politics as a Christian. It has been funny, as the series has gone on, that a few people have come up to me and said something like, “Jordan, I wish you would just tell me who you think I should vote for?” Now, I don’t think that everybody wants me just to tell me who to vote for, and I am guessing if I told you then you would just ignore it anyway unless it confirmed what you already wanted to do.

I am still not going to tell you who to vote for, but I think that some of these questions and others I have gotten are coming from a desire to some more practical advice on how to take this background and turn it into positions and voting decisions. So today I want to lay out the process that Christians should go through to think about their politics. In fact, this is not only applicable to politics, but also to our whole lives. This is my way of thinking about it, but I think it is a helpful start for your own thinking.

The problem begins with the very questions that we ask. We ask—who should Christians vote for? What should Christians think about partial birth abortion? We ask these kinds of questions about other things, too. How do we know if someone is a Christian or not? What do I have to do to be able to partake in communion? What does it mean to be a church member?

We want the boundary. We want to know where the line is. Where is in and where is out. Where is the point where we disagree with others? Other religions, like Islam, are defined by these edges. But the Christians faith doesn’t work that way. It is not defined by its boundaries. In fact, the edges are kind of fuzzy in our faith. (DRAW OUTSIDE CIRCLE IN DOTTED LINES)

model-on-flip-chartOur faith is a center-set faith. It is a faith based on a core, a middle, a center… Think about somebody who has children and lives in a house in the country. How do you keep your children from getting lost in the woods? You either have to build a fence and have clearly drawn boundaries, or, if they are older, you have to tell them to stay close to the house. Christianity uses this second strategy. It says, “This is the house. Stay close to the house.”

The center of our faith is Jesus Christ.  (DRAW CROSS AT THE CENTER OF THE CIRLCE) at the heart of our faith is the reality that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to earth. Jesus died on the cross to free us from sin and death and give us eternal life and right relationship with God the Father. We need to live with an awareness of how much God loves us and how much Christ has sacrificed for the world.

Supporting that center is the Bible. The Bible is the main way and the authoritative way that we can know Jesus. All other ways that we meet Jesus must submit to the Bible. (DRAW A BOOK UNDERNEATH THE CROSS) Anything we think about Jesus or apply from Jesus needs to be measured against the book.

But Jesus gave us a quick way to think about the book. Jesus was once asked the greatest commandment in the Bible. He answered:

[37] And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. [38] This is the great and first commandment. [39] And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. [40] On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)

For Jesus, all of the laws in the Bible are centered on the idea of loving God and loving your neighbor. Or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. So the core of this book, and the core of our response to Christ, is that we should love God and love our neighbor. (WRITE LOVE GOD ON ONE SIDE OF THE CROSS AND LOVE NEIGHBOR ON THE OTHER)

This is the core of the Christian faith—the saving action of Jesus Christ and our relationship with him, testified about in Scripture, and leading us to love God and love neighbor. This is the house. Rather than give us the exact boundaries around the faith, you and I are meant to stay around the house. That may mean that we can come to different conclusions on particular issues, and that is ok because it is the center that keeps us together.

Too many Christians have lost this center and they make the faith about their boundaries. Then, when someone disagrees with their view on an issue, they can’t stay in relationship with them because they have made the boundary the defining thing. The issue of homosexuality has been particularly problematic for Christians in this regard, as people on both sides of the issue have made that boundary the defining issue of the church. So when people disagree on the issue, they have no choice but to break relationship.

You need a strong core. You need a defining center. That allows you to critique your own views and to disagree with other people and still be in relationship with them. The church needs to make Jesus the center.

Now, outside of the center, but near the center, there are other core biblical values that should define how we think about our lives and our politics. These are fundamentally extensions of this core. They are reflections of how we lift Jesus high, follow scripture, and love God and neighbor. We could talk about these in different ways, but I want to talk about six core biblical values.

 Christians need to care about CREATION. The Bible is clear that [1] The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, (Psalm 24:1). When God creates Adam and Eve, he tells them:

[28] And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28 ESV)

Human beings were put on this earth for the purpose of being God’s workforce in creation. We have to do our part to pick up trash, recycle, develop and support sustainable farming, and be careful in our use of natural resources. We can disagree about pipelines and trade with Middle Eastern countries, or if we should be forced to drive energy efficient cars. Those are boundary kind of issues. What is not up for debate is that we should care about creation.

 In the Bible, CHARACTER is important. The Bible puts a high value on truth, on honesty, and on integrity. James 5 tells us to let your yes be yes and your no be no. Paul sees the importance of this development in Romans 5:3-4:

 [3] Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, [4] and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,

God is at work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God is changing us. God loves us as we are but God also loves us enough to not leave us like that. We need to be honest and moral people and to strive to develop character in the world around us. So, can you vote for candidates that are dishonest or brash? Those are boundary issues that we have to think about and pray about.

SERVICE is a critical element of the Bible. Jesus doesn’t rule over his disciples with power. He washed their feet. Paul develops this example from Jesus in Philippians 2:

[5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Jesus leads with Humility and Compassion. These are things we should value as Christians. We should people that go out of our way to help serve others, including the poor, the disabled, orphans, widows, and the elderly. How is it best to serve others? How do you prioritize serving Americans and also caring for those who are here illegally? Boundary issues.

 This is not a topic that people like to talk about in church, but the Bible has a lot to say about WEALTH and how people relate to money. The Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil, as it is often quoted. I Timothy 6:10 tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil. In the chapter before Paul tells us: “The laborer deserves his wages.” (from 1 Timothy 5:18 ESV) I like how the King James used to say it, “A workman is worthy of his hire.” People have the right to glorify God by creating value in the world, and they have the right to be rewarded for the value they create.

The Bible does not have positive things to say about greed, and especially greed at the expense of others. The Bible also does not care for the idea of debt. Proverbs 22:7 warns that [7] The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. (Proverbs 22:7 ESV) In Israel, debt was supposed to be forgiven every seven years in what was called The Year of Jubilee. People and nations getting strapped by their debt is contrary to the values of the Bible.

But what about tax breaks for the wealthy versus a flat tax, and what about economic regulation of trade with other nations? These are boundary issues.

 Issues of wealth are related to another core value. One of the critical words of the Bible that people frequently use but rarely understand is the idea of JUSTICE. Justice in the Bible is not equality or fairness. Justice really means that things are right and as they should be. The phrase that sometimes gets used in America that captures this well is the idea of “equal opportunity.” It means that people have the chance to make the life they want or God is calling them to. They are not abused and not held back because of the color of their skin, the belief on an issue, or where they are born. It means that you can work hard and learn things and make a life for yourself and be rewarded for your efforts, or you can be lazy and do nothing, but you can make your choice.

 I think that America has had a problem in that we have begun to think about equality instead of equal opportunity. We want everybody to have the same and equally distribute wealth instead of fighting for everyone to have equal opportunities. 

 One of the core and unmovable values of the scriptures is the inherent value of LIFE. In the Bible, people are made in the image of God and valuable not because they can offer something to society. The least valuable to the town can be the most valuable to God. We are accountable for what we do to others.

 For me, the issue of abortion is a core issue and not a boundary issue. You may not agree, but I think that the unborn are to be protected. Psalm 139 proclaims:

          [13] For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
[14] I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
          Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. (Psalm 139:13-14)

Abortion is not the only issue that I base votes on, but I think it is critical. If we do not respect unborn life, then what about the disabled? What about people who are elderly and in nursing homes? Please know, you can disagree with me, but this is one of my biblical convictions.

How can we disagree? Because we are not boundary set. We are center set. We try to stay close to the house. And all these other issues—immigration, taxes, education, marriage, welfare—these are all things we have to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider out of this core.

But how do you do that? How do you take these core values and turn them into votes and political positions? Let me quickly lay out how to think about these other issues.

 First, your overall goal in voting and in your political positions is to seek the welfare of the city where you live. I pick up this language from the book of Jeremiah:

[7] But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 29:7 ESV)

These are instructions to the people as they are in exile in other countries. Jeremiah instructs them with a message from God saying they should seek the welfare of the city where they live. What is the best thing for our nation on these issues?

I think that you should be informed and should vote. But also understand that voting is not the end-all-be-all of our involvement in the world. You need to be involved in the issues. For example, I have told you that I deeply care about abortion, but I think that there are practical ways to help with that issue. When women are asked about why they have abortions, they often feel like they don’t have the personal support, the medical services, or the financial ability to care for the child. I think those are issues that we as Christians can actually be helpful in. If we can help the poor and give support to mothers, then we can lower the abortion rate.

 Here is another example. If you look at the orphans in this country that are waiting for families, it is a pretty big list. But I recently saw a statistic that said that if every church in America could support one family to adopt a waiting child, the issue would be solved. No more orphans on the waiting children list.

We should submit to governing authorities. Paul makes this very clear in Romans 13:

[1] Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. [2] Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (vs. 1-2)

A couple of verses later Paul also makes it clear that we should pay our taxes:

[6] For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. [7] Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (Romans 13:1-7)

One of the other areas that we are responsible as Christians is to pray for our leaders:

[1] First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, [2] for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2 ESV)

Anytime I hear people complain about our president or a candidate, or post something very political on Facebook, or forward one of those emails, I want to ask them, “Tell me about how your prayers for that person are going.” Don’t complain about them is you are not going to pray for them.

So, let me address the topic that is the crux of the discussion right now. Did you know that there is an election coming up? Some people are really excited about one candidate or the other. Many people seem at least hesitant about both. Some are terrified of both.

Some Christians are not voting or are writing in a candidate. I am not sure that is the answer. I think there are two main people in this race and one of the two is going to win. I feel like we have to decide between the two whether we like it or not.

 I think what we all have to do, with all this background in mind (POINT AT THE DIAGRAM), is to look at each candidate as a whole—their character, their platform, who they have said they will appoint to their government—and prayerfully seek the welfare of the nation where God has planted you. I think one of the most important things in this election is who they will appoint as judges. The question is: which candidate do you think will do the best, or maybe the least amount of harm to our nation and our world. Pray about it. Think about. And vote.

 And I think I am going to vote for…Nope. I am not going to tell you. But listen to me as I tell you this: Don’t panic. Don’t freak out. Remember who your king is and to what kingdom you truly belong. You are part of God’s eternal kingdom. In the Bible, God uses storms to have his will be done. He uses pagan kings to accomplish his purposes. He uses a cross to give him victory. And he even speaks out of the mouth of an ass. Whoever is elected, find your hope in Christ.

 

 

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Render Unto Caesar: The Politics of Jesus

This sermon is the third of a 4-week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics. You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.

I have been shocked in my own work to prepare for this sermon series at how political the Bible is and, particularly, how political the life of Jesus is. Maybe I have just never looked at the text from this perspective before, but as I have been thinking and reading this month, I can see political realities and political implications on every page of the scriptures. Today, for this sermon, I want to explore how faith and politics mingle and move in the Bible and especially in the life of Jesus.

At the very beginning of the Bible, when God creates the heavens and the earth, we see two big political claims. First, people are made in the image of God. All of us. People are inherently important and valuable. They are not that way because of what they can offer to society. They are like that by their very existence. Second, people are meant to care for God’s creation—to name it, subdue it, and fill it.

This is why it is such a problem when Cain kills Abel. Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes. You are your brother’s keeper and you are accountable for whatever you do to those that are made in the image of God.

There is an obvious problem. Something goes wrong in the world. What was good is now decidedly “not good.” Society gets more and more evil. God floods the earth and later confuses people’s language at the Tower of Babel so that there will be a limit to the evil that people can accomplish in society.bible-1623181_960_720

But God also begins a plan to do something about the problem of sin and evil. He calls a man named Abram to begin a people that will be a blessing to the nations. The vision has a sense of global and political significance. God says in Genesis 12: [2] And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. [3] I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3 ESV)

Generations later, the growing nation of Israel finds themselves as slaves in Egypt. This is the pivotal moment in the Old Testament. It is the story that defines the people of Israel. God is not a God of slavery. God is a God of freedom. All people are made in the image of God are not to be treated as commodities. The Exodus defines how Israel should treat people—especially the poor, the disenfranchised, and the sojourner in their land. Deuteronomy 24:12-22 says:

 [19] “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. [20] When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. [21] When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. [22] You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.

So you are supposed to leave the sheaf of your field that you miss for those in need. You were supposed to leave the crops left in the ground for the poor. You were not supposed to harvest the edges of your fields for those living in your borders that could not support themselves.

Don’t go back over the trees again and get what you missed the first time. Leave the extra for those in need. It is the responsibility of all of God’s people to help those in need.

Israel did not have a political structure that looked anything like ours today. Israel was a theocracy. God ruled. He would raise up people like Moses or Joshua to the lead the people, or judges like Gideon or Deborah to guide the people, or prophets like Elijah and Elisha to speak God’s word to the people. These agents of God would lead his kingdom.

But as the people of Israel settled into the land and look at all their neighbors, they began to think that they should have a king. But the prophet Samuel, bringing a message from the Lord, warns them that having a king will mean a lot of sacrifices for them:

[11] He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. [12] And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. [13] He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. [14] He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. [15] He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants (1 Sam 8:10-15)

One of the problems with rulers and leaders is that they take what they want and what they need. They can be captivated by greed and power and a desire for more. People end up becoming a commodity for them to use for what they want to do in their reign. In fact, this happens to the kings of Israel. The kings are corrupted by other religions. The nation follows their lead away from the things of God and towards cruelty and abuse of others. In response, the God raises up prophets to speak out against the king and the in justices of the people.

When we turn to the New Testament, the focus moves from the story of a nation to the story of a person. Jesus steps on the scene and lives a very public and political life.

Before Jesus is even born, his mother sings a song magnifying the Lord for what is happening in her womb. Listen to how political her song is:
[46] And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
[47]   and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
[52] he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
[53] he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
[54] He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
[55] as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”  (Luke 1:46-55 ESV)

Mary rejoices because her son will bring the mighty from their thrones and exalt those in humble estate. He will upset rich and poor. Mary sees something politically significant happening inside of her body.

Jesus is born in the midst of a genocide, as King Herod kills all the male children in the region of Bethlehem under two years old. Jesus, in his very existence, is interpreted as a threat to the ruler of Israel. Jesus is not killed, though. Joseph is told in a dream to take his family to Egypt. Think about that—Jesus was a Middle Eastern refugee who immigrated in his childhood to another country.

The entire life of Jesus on earth is a critique against the political structures of his day. Think about the people Jesus spent time with and cared for. He is constantly helping the poor and the disabled. He touches untouchable lepers. He pulls children onto his knee. He crosses racial and ethnic lines in his dealings with Samaritans. Jesus has a relationship with women in his ministry that would be shocking in his day. And he did not care what the established laws were about work on the Sabbath. He just wanted to help and heal others.

Jesus had one disciple named Simon the Zealot (Lk 6:16) who was probably an extremely nationalistic Jew who wanted to rebel against the Roman oppression of Israel. Jesus also had Matthew the tax collector who had sold out to the occupying Roman Empire by collecting the Roman taxes from his own countrymen.

Think about the teachings of Jesus. In his teachings, people are valuable. Sheep are worth finding. Coins are worth tearing the house apart for. Samaritans can be examples of love. The last will be first. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the mourning, the peacemakers, and the persecuted. Jesus said, “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” No wonder the elites and those with power had to get rid of him. His way of living in and seeing the world upset their power structures.

Jesus uses kingdom language as he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of God. That may not strike us as political language, since we don’t live under a king or in what we would typically call a kingdom. But Jesus did live in a kingdom. Perhaps, if Jesus was born today, he would talk about the republic of heaven, the democracy of God, the nation of heaven, or the presidency or administration of God. When Jesus says kingdom, he is using the political term of his day.

When Jesus comes into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday, he does so with nationalistic symbols of palm branches waiving. But he doesn’t come riding a horse like the king would have earlier that day. Jesus comes humbly on a donkey. His kingdom is different.

The language of kingdom becomes important at his trial in John 18:

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38a ESV)

Understand the political power of this moment. Jesus has already been tried by the Jewish authorities, but they want him killed, and they have no power to give the death penalty. So Pilate has to do a trial, and his question, because it is the crux of the case against him, is “Are you the King of the Jews?” But Jesus answers that his kingdom is not of this world, obviously, since his disciples are not fighting. Pilate is not convinced of guilt, but, under the pressure of the crowd, he gives Jesus the death penalty. He is crucified, a sentence reserved for political traitors. This was a brutal and public killing that was meant to deter any political rebellion. It would happen at a prominent place outside the city, so that everyone would be reminded what happened when you rebelled against the Romans.duccio_di_buoninsegna_027a

Jesus dies with a sign above his head proclaiming him to be a king. This moment on the cross is the Exodus moment of the New Testament. It is a sign of freedom and a call to treat others differently because you too were once a slave to sin and death. The resurrection is the ultimate sign of this freedom and new life.

The rallying cry of the followers of Jesus became, “Jesus is Lord.” This is a strong political statement in and of itself, because at the end of public assemblies in the Roman Empire the people would all say, “Caesar is lord.” In fact, a gathering to hear the reports or commands of the Caesar was called an ecclesia. This is the same word that the Christians used for their gatherings. The church is named after gatherings to proclaim that Caesar was lord. The church is named after a political gathering.

Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this world, but the understanding of the end of the Bible is that it would not always be that way. Revelation 11:15 proclaims, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” People from every nation and tongue will someday bow and confess Jesus as Lord. Some of the disciples thought it would happen right away. They asked him before his ascension, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They were wrong that it would happen immediately, but it will happen someday.

Until then, we sit here as the followers of Jesus and the people of this Book. It is our job to look at the politics of our day and critique them. We need to do so in a way that is #1 informed by the Bible and #2 inspired by the example of Jesus. What do I mean by that?

To be informed by the Bible means that these stories and ideas shape our imagination about the world and what the world should be. It means having our priorities be set by its priorities. To be informed by the Bible means realizing that the Bible, from start to finish, pushes us into public life with our faith in hand. Our faith is not a private thing. It is such a central part of who we are that it must touch everything we think about it. For every position we take, we should be able to make a case for it out of the Bible.

To be inspired by the example of Jesus means that we approach our public life and political involvement in the mold of Jesus. John Howard Yoder calls Jesus “a social critic and an agitator, a drop-out from the social climb, and the spokesman of a counterculture.” (Politics of Jesus pg. 1) Jesus did not hold political office or become a priest. He was not a centurion. He did not do any picketing or political lobbying. The authority of Jesus did not come from this earth.

What Jesus did do is create an alternative community that looked very different from the world. The citizens of the kingdom cared about people and were based on service. These people lived lives of joy and gratitude because they understood what Jesus had done to save them. They were once slaves but they are now free. They understood where their identifying citizenship truly came from. And it was a community based on humility. Humility—that is not a word that we can use about much that is going on in politics today.

I think that many of us are like those disciples at the ascension, wondering if Jesus is now going to break in and have an earthly kingdom. We want Jesus to break in and make things right in the world. How bad is he going to let things get? But, the thing about the kingdom of Jesus is that it doesn’t come by power. The reign of Jesus moves in this world as he reigns in our hearts, and as we with our lives proclaim that “Jesus is Lord.” We have to learn to accept his kingship in our own lives, because that is how the reign of Christ will change the world—moving from heart to heart to heart. The revolution that began on the cross is perpetuated in the love and service of those that let Christ be Lord in their lives.

The early church followed Christ’s example and was guided by the Bible. They built the first hospitals, the first orphanages, and developed systems of adoption. They served others and worked for the betterment of the kingdoms that they lived in. They built strong churches to care for needs and to develop better citizens for the world. Later, a number of Christians would be influential in forming this nation around the biblical themes of freedom and liberty.

The best thing that we can do for our nation and our world is to be faithful Christians and be faithful churches. What we desperately need right now is for Christians to put Jesus first and to be guided by his Word. Then, heart to heart to heart, the reign of God can change the world.

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Render Unto Caesar: Some Trust in Chariots

This sermon is the second of a 4 week series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics.You can listen to audio of the sermon HERE.

Today is September 11. Fifteen years ago today, a terrorist plot was executed to use planes to attack important American symbols and take American lives. Planes were flown into the Twin Towers—a symbol of American business, the Pentagon—a symbol of American defense, and perhaps the White House was the target of the fourth plane that never reached its destination—the symbol of America’s leadership. Many lives were lost and devastated by this attack—2,996 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured, but the damage of that day continues.

Most of us remember where we were when we heard the news. I was in college. I got up early to get breakfast across campus. As I passed through the lobby, I saw several students gathered around the TV. This was an unusual sight, so I stopped to see what was happening. Apparently a plan had crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers. This sounded like bad news, but I was hungry so I went into the cafeteria. When I came out, I found that there were a bunch of people crowded around that TV. Everyone was silent, and people were crying. The other plane had just crashed into the other Tower. This terrible accident was now seen to be what it was—an act of terror against America and on American soil.

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These kind of things have happened around, but not here. Not on our soil. A war was declared in the days that followed. It was a War on Terror, the focus being on taking the fight to terrorist that sought to come after us. Yet, in the 15 years since, we have continued to lose the war on terror within our own hearts. We are nervous about terrorism, mass shootings, and the global economy. Things only seem to be getting worse.

Let us look, for example, at the staggering numbers related to gun violence in our country. According to an article from NBC News, every year, an average of more than 100,000 people are shot.[1] That means that every day about 289 people are shot. On average, about 86 of them die—30 are murdered and 53 kill themselves. Every day two people die accidentally and one person is shot in a police intervention. The city of Chicago has led the way in shootings. Last year, 424 people were killed with guns. As of August Chicago was already above that, with 90 people killed by guns in August alone.

Between 2000 and 2010, 335,509 people died from guns. For a point of reference, Pittsburgh has 307,484 people. More than the population of Pittsburgh died from guns during that 10-year period. A person is killed by a firearm every 17 minutes, 86 are killed every day, and 609 a week. Three times as many kids (15,576) were injured by firearms in 2010 than the number of US Soldiers wounded in action in the war in Afghanistan (5,247).

And just think about that number—5,247 soldiers wounded in action in 2010. We don’t think of the sacrifices that our armed forces are making around the world right now. After all, there is no war or world war going on. But still, there are conflicts that are costing soldiers their lives and limbs as we sit here today.

We are concerned today, and we should be. We have a loss in our sense of security. Perhaps this is accelerated by access to news and social media, since now that we can constantly be in touch with the bad things going on in our world

This poses some real challenges for Christians. How should we feel about defense? Should Christians be pacifists? If we do believe in war, what limits should be placed on the fighting? What should followers of Christ think about the police? Should Christians be in favor of guns, own guns, or believe in more gun control?

The Old Testament is certainly not a book of pacifism. Israel is told to wipe people out and not even let women, children, or animals live. In fact, Israel gets in trouble throughout the Old Testament for showing mercy to people that they were supposed to kill or remove from the land.

The New Testament is also very violent. Babies are killed. People are beheaded, stoned, beaten with rods, and crucified. But this violence is not commanded by God, and it is not carried out by the people of God. Instead, it is carried out against Jesus and his followers. Jesus had some very strong things to say about turning the other cheek, forgiving people 70 times 7 times. His followers were to love their neighbor as themselves, to love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them.

Bible seems paradoxical on the matter of peace. Psalms declares, “The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.” (Ps 29:11) But another Psalm says, “Blessed by the Lord my Rock, who teaches my hands to fight, and who trains my fingers for battle.” (Ps 144:1) Jesus says so much about peace, but also said that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Mt 10:34)

Shouldn’t we love the terrorists? Forgive shooters in these mass killings? Turn the other cheek to muggers and thieves?

To help us think through these issues, let me tell you the story of one of my heroes—Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian whose writings are widely read among Christians. He was a pacifist who opposed war and always looked for peaceful solutions to conflicts. He was a big fan of Gandhi and even had plans to meet with him to talk about his peaceful work in India.

But Bonhoeffer had a problem. He was a German pastor, born in 1906, who was a church leader as Adolf Hitler was coming to power. He had a brother-in-law who was Jewish, and a number of friends who worked very hard to resist Hitler. Bonhoeffer came to America before the war began, and had opportunities to stay here and avoid the conflict. But Bonhoeffer did not think that he could sit aside while his people went through so much. So he returned to Germany.

Bonhoeffer was still travelling to do some preaching and teaching, and so the Gestapo ordered him to be a spy for Germany. At the same time, Bonhoeffer began to feed information to the allies and report false or unimportant language to the Germans. Bonhoeffer became a double agent.

Bonhoeffer saw the cruelty of how people were treated. Jews, Gypsies, gays, the disabled, and anyone who resisted the work of the Nazis were taken off to camps to be tortured and killed. Bonhoeffer watched as the church did little to nothing about it. There were a few heroes, people like Corrie Ten Boom who helped hide and protect the targets of this abuse. But, for the most part, the church did nothing, and even participated in rounding people up and in taking the belongings and businesses of those who were put into camps.

As the war went on, Bonhoeffer moved from pacifist to accomplice. He was actively engaged in a plot to kill Hitler. But the plot did not work, and Bonhoeffer was implicated for his part in the attempted assassination. He was arrested and set to Auschwitz. After two years, just before the end of the war, Hitler sent word to the camps to have his enemies and conspirators against him killed. Bonhoeffer was hung, naked, on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old. His final words were reported to be “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, but, when faced with the atrocities and evil of Hitler’s Germany, he felt forced to act. Yes, as Christians, we should be about grace, love, and forgiveness. But our scriptures also take seriously the existence and persistence of evil. We may read the Bible and see it as archaic and violent, yet think about what happened in Germany during the lifetimes of people in this room, or the attempted genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, or Darfur. We have to acknowledge that the Bible is perhaps one of the most realistic books ever written. Evil does exist.

People are capable of truly terrible things, and yes there is always the possibility of grace and forgiveness. But part of the reconciliation process in the Bible is repentance. Repentance is more than saying you’re sorry. It means relenting or turning the other way. It is a term of changing your ways.

Someday there will be peace. The lion will lie down with the lamb. We won’t need guns anymore. But, until that day, there is evil in this world, and sometimes force is necessary to keep it in check. On this side of heaven, there will always be a need for police, for guns, and for armies. There will always be weaker people in society that need protection and advocacy.

Jesus was once asked to sum up the law. He said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Who is your neighbor? Everybody around you. Everything we do needs to be about loving God and loving neighbor.

It is a very high standard to justify war and violence, then, because war is not very loving to the neighbor you are fighting. But, at the same time, there are sometimes when loving your neighbor will mean defending your neighbor from another neighbor. And sometimes loving your neighbor will mean not allowing them to do damage to the neighborhood.

So, how should Christians feel about war and about guns? It is messy. It takes a lot of prayerful consideration. We have a right to bear arms, but can we find out how people are getting these guns and maybe help curb some of these killings? More guns will not stop the issue, and many of these guns are stolen, so I am not sure how legal gun control will help illegal gun sales. I am also not sure that gun control fixes the real problem. If we had less guns, then people would be less sinful, right? We see in the Bible that Cain kills Abel and Judas hangs himself, and they did not have access to guns.img_1861

And what of wars? On September 11, we are reminded of the devastation that hatred can cause. We cannot deny on this day that evil exists. We need a defense system and a military in a broken world, but can we also be careful about our foreign policies, work for the betterment of the world, and try to be ethical in how force is used. If we bomb children or attack homes, then we are terrorists. That is not loving our neighbors.

Maybe the best way to love our neighbors and to stop violence is to address the underlying spiritual issues at play. What kind of nation and world do we live in where so many people want to take their own lives and the lives of others? When our neighbors here and abroad are filled with that kind of despair and hatred? What happened to our families that were supposed to give love and care? What happened to our church that were supposed to teach love and forgiveness?

Those are not government issues. The government cannot strengthen families or help people who are lonely. That is the church’s job. And the answers to these problems are ultimately messy and complicated. They involve taking care of people’s real world problems.

But people don’t want the messiness. When we start talking about politics, and especially these issues of defense, we like things that are black and white or right or wrong. Either you are with me or against me. It becomes very adversarial.  When we are afraid, we want simple answers. We don’t want nuance. We don’t want deep thinking. We don’t want complexity. We want to survive.

But this insecurity exposes the heart of the issue: where does your trust and your hope truly lie? Listen to these words from Psalm 20:

[6] Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy
heaven with the saving might of his right hand.
[7] Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
[8] They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.
[9] O LORD, save the king! May he answer us when we call. (Psalm 20:6-9 ESV)

I love that line: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” This is a royal Psalm that the people would sing before King David. It is saying that some other kings and other nations trust in the number of chariot and horses. Those were the tanks, stealth bombers, or nuclear bombs of David’s day. The key question of any battle would have been how many chariots and horses do you have. Chariots and horses could mow down an army on foot. The Psalm says that while some people trust in these things, Israel trust in the name of the Lord their God. Some trust in chariots and some in horses…

Some trust in guns and some in gun control, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in politician and political platforms, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in big government and some trust in smaller government, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in police and some do not trust in police, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in one candidate and some trust in the other candidate. Some trust in neither candidate, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in nuclear weapons and some trust in peaceful negotiations, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Some trust in national defense and some don’t go on planes anymore, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Or, as the song says, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Too many Christians have staked their hope is something way less than their true hope. Maybe, if we can set our anchor back in our true hope, we can stop acting out of terror and start acting in faith. Maybe then we can have the clear-mindedness to make a real difference in our world.

Let us pray,

Lord, on this day, 15 Septembers later, we remember the loss and devastation we felt as we saw America attacked. We remember those that lost lives. We pray for the families—wives, husbands, children, grandparents, extended families, and friends—for whom this day marks a day when someone they loved was stolen from them. Continue to grant peace and healing in their lives.

We remember those that were heroic that day. Those that ran into the buildings, and those that helped others. We thank you for police, for fireman, for political leaders, the coast guard and national guard, for the military, and even for those who just simply acted bravely. We pray your blessing and protection on those, at home and abroad, as they protect and serve.

We remember today those brave souls on Flight 93, who, rather than letting their plane be another tool in the hands of the terrorists, sacrificed themselves to take over that plane and forced it to a crash landing.

Lord, help us to be brave in our world. Help us to wade into the messiness of loving our neighbor. We long for the day when you return and war and violence will be no more. May we honor you while we wait. Be our true hope. Amen.

 

[1] http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/01/16/16547690-just-the-facts-gun-violence-in-america?lite

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Render Unto Caesar: Two Kingdoms

This sermon begins a 4 week sermon series I am doing on faith and politics. My goal is not to tell people what to think or who to vote for, but rather to address some of the underlying spiritual issues at play in our national and global politics. I want to help Christians learn how to think about politics.

You can listen to audio of the sermon at http://jordanrimmer.podbean.com/e/render-unto-caesar-two-kingdoms/

One of my life verses comes from 1 Chronicles 12:32, which is in the middle of a list of the people that were in David’s mighty men. It says, “Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command.” I see myself, as a pastor and also in my own personality and wiring, to be called by God to be of Issachar—to understand the times and know what the people of God should do.

I am not a political person by nature. I do not follow politics very closely. I normally avoid talking about it. But I feel that I need, as a pastor, to take a look at what is going on in the world and to talk about how Christians should respond. I am not going to tell you what to think or who you should vote for. Instead, I want to provide some biblical and theological perspective on how Christians should approach their opinions and actions in the political arena. I would guess that in all your years going to church, you have heard pastors and church members tell you what to think and who to vote for, but you have never been taught how to think about issues and how to approach politics.RenderUntoCaesarFlyer

Several people have told me that I am brave to talk about this, which, frankly, freaks me out a little. I did not know I was being brave. I guess I just feel like we are living in a time of such angst and upheaval, and that the heart of much of this worry and fear is actually spiritual in nature.

Can you remember a time of more fear, more polarization, and more fighting? Where the discussions were filled with such hate and dishonesty? Where government seemed so much like the opposite of servants of the people? Where people disliked the main presidential candidates so strongly, and many dislike both of them? Racial tensions are high. This is one of the first times where freedom of speech and freedom of religion seem like they may not be an American staple forever.  And we are very unsure if the America that we inherited from our grandparents will be the same America that our kids and grandkids will know.

Now, the danger in wading into these topics is that people do get emotional and defensive over their politics, their political parties, and their beliefs. We live in a time when people are quick to be angry, to attack, or to jump to conclusions. Fear has a powerful influence on our behaviors. But we live a faith that talks about grace and forgiveness. The fruit of our lives are supposed to be love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. I do not see these things much in the world today, especially in politics, but I think we need to nurture and develop them in the church. Let’s do that first through this sermon series as we wade into these difficult issues.

To begin, let’s look at a conversation that Jesus had with some Pharisees.

[15] Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. [16] And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. [17] Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” [18] But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? [19] Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. [20] And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” [21] They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” [22] When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away. (Matthew 22:15-22)

The Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus, so they ask about whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar—the ruler of the Roman Empire. It is a trap, because if Jesus says yes then the Jews will get mad at him for supporting the Roman Empire. On the other hand, if he says no, then the Pharisees can get him in trouble with the Romans.

Jesus sees right through the test, and reacts brilliantly. He says to get out a coin. They pull out a denarius, which has Caesar’s picture and name on it. Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” They marveled at the answer, because it escaped the problem.

Jesus’ response not only shows his brilliance, but it is also very informative for how we approach faith and politics. There are two kingdoms. There is the Kingdom of this World and the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. Caesar does have some authority in the kingdom of the world, and so people should pay taxes. But we are part of another kingdom.

Listen to how Jesus puts it in his prayer for the disciples on the night he was betrayed in Jn. 17:

[14] I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. [15] I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. [16] They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

We are in the world, but we are not of the world. We are supposed to stay in the world, but we do not belong there. Listen to how Paul says it in Philippians 3:20-21: “[20] But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, [21] who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” Paul uses political language—we are citizens of heaven. We are here waiting for our savior to transform the world.

This is the interesting second part of Jesus’ answer. Yes, we are supposed to render unto Caesar, but we are also supposed to render unto God what is Gods. And everything is Gods. As Psalm 24:1 says, “[1] The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,…” Or, as theologian Abraham Kuyper put it, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

We live in this world, but we are citizens of another Kingdom. We live here as an outpost or colony of this other kingdom. Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon call Christians “Resident Aliens.” We live here, but our citizenship is actually somewhere else. And we believe that someday the Kingdom of God will take over the Kingdom of this world. We wait for that day and try to care for the world and the people that will eventually bow to their true sovereign.

There is a difficult set of questions that follows these biblical convictions—what is the relationship between these two kingdoms, and how do we live in both? How do we live as citizens of heaven and still render unto Caesar? How can we stay in the world, but not of it, but also not out of it?

These questions have been at the heart of the American experiment since America declared its independence. Many of the people who came to this New World were fleeing the persecution of state religions. The Puritans, the Presbyterians, and even the Catholics had found themselves persecuted in Europe in places that had established religions that were tied to the governmental structures. Part of the vision of this new nation was to be sure that there would never have a state religion.

Thomas Jefferson said it this way in a letter in 1802: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” This is the place where the language of separation of church and state comes from, though it was not original to Jefferson.

In light of this, why is it that America has been described as a Christian nation? Well, to be clear, there was never a moment when everyone in America was a Christian. Christianity was never the accepted religion of the American government. While the founding documents of our country do refer generally to God and a Creator, there is no specifically Christian language in those documents.

The Forefathers were not all Christians, but many were. For example, John Witherspoon was a Presbyterian minister who was a very influential Founding Father and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Many of the Founding Fathers were deists who believed in a general God but not specifically in the Christian faith, like Benjamin Franklin.

Thomas Jefferson would probably be described most accurately as a Unitarian. He actually published a book called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth in which he literally took a razor and glue to the gospels and took out anything miraculous, including the resurrections, so that you could have the moral teachings of Jesus without all that unbelievable stuff or without believing him to be the Son of God.

Despite the fact that America was never all Christians and was not made to be a Christian nation, America was founded on a strong and agreed upon Judeo-Christian ethic. The Fathers saw religion and morality as critical for a society to work well. George Washington said it this way during his Farewell Address, September 19, 1795:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them.

For society to work, it needs moral people. Moral people must be developed by religion, because government cannot develop moral people. The church must do that.

Here is what has happened in America. Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, has always had a place of prominence and dominance in this country. I think the number of true believers who were genuinely trying to follow Christ has always been relatively small, but for generations people were nominally Christian.

The world is different. We are not living in anything resembling a Christian nation anymore, and I think Christians are in denial about just how morally corrupt we are. Can you remember the blue laws—when things had to be closed on Sunday? When I was a kid, restaurants were open for lunch on Sundays, and people would dress up so that people would think they went to church even if they didn’t. Pastors wouldn’t do marriage if people were living together. If we had that rule today, pastors would never do marriages. How the times have changed!

You see, the church began as a fringe movement—a minority position that gained strength as it was shared between cultures and peoples. Since that time, whenever Christianity has been linked with political power, it has eventually been disastrous for both the church and the government. The church relies on its political power instead of trusting in Christ, and the church gets weaker. The weak church leads to moral indifference, which is devastating to the nation. The nation then tries to control morals, but their only means is by trying to control all behavior.

Compare that to the church around the world. The church is booming in Africa and Asia right now, and even growing in secret in many Muslim countries. But here and in Europe, where religion is free and has been privileged, the church is very stagnant and homogenous.

This problem is exacerbated by the way the church has outsourced much of its work to the government. It is our job to care for the poor. It is our job to care for orphans. It is our job to care for widows. And we get mad when the government does not do a good job at those things or does not do them with the kind of love and compassion that the Bible calls for. But of course the government isn’t going to work like the church. That is the church’s job. And our churches are struggling financially, but we have to pay taxes to the government for doing the things that the church should be doing.

I wish I had more answers for you today, but for today we primarily need to have some context and understand how we got here. For now, let me just end with a few core or baseline convictions for Christians about politics.

  1. Christians should care about what goes on in the world around us. It is God’s world, after all, created by Him and bought back from sin by Jesus on the cross. He is going to come back someday and take it back. We should care about it.
  2. Christians should be engaged in politics. You cannot just say you care or complain about things. You have to act. Christians should know what is going on, vote our convictions, have dialogue about the issues, consider running for office, and pray for our government officials.
  3. The best thing that Christians can do for our nation and our world is to be a strong church. We have the responsibility to develop moral people, build community to talk about and deal with issues, and take care of the poor, the orphaned, and the disenfranchised.
  4. This is probably the most important thing for Christians to hear in our world today: remember where your ultimate citizenship lies. That is where your hope really lies. And no matter who the president is or what the policies are, your hope is Christ.
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