Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Courage & The Kingdom

 For Israel, the time was dark.

They had been a vassal state for 600 years.

The old ways were being forgotten.

People were angrily divided along partisan lines

          – Roman collaborators versus violent insurrectionists.

Things were dark when the old priest, Zechariah,   

         entered the dark inmost sanctuary of the Temple.


In that darkness, the shining archangel Gabriel 

         surprised Zechariah with good news.

Gabriel’s message began, “Do not be afraid.”

But Zechariah was afraid 

         – too afraid to believe the rest of the good news

         about a future of joy and delight.

So he fell mute for nine months. 


 People are dumbstruck another time in Scripture.

In Mark, after the crucifixion, 3 women entered the dark tomb. 

An angel was waiting for them too.

The angel said, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.  

         He is risen. Go tell his disciples to meet him in Galilee.”

But Mark says, “They fled from the tomb 

         and told no one anything because they were afraid.”


In both cases, muteness was natural.

We are neurologically wired so that, when we feel threatened,

         one of our automatic responses is to freeze up.

Freeze can be fainting, dissociating, numbing out, or muteness.

Our Biblical characters froze because they were afraid.


They were afraid because God called them out of

         their secure Hobbit holes of habit to go on an adventure.

Starting with God calling Abram to leave his homeland

         and journey to a far-off place he did not know,

         the Bible portrays life as an adventure.

Adventures are not safe. They are risky, perilous.

Real life takes real courage.


Courage isn’t being reckless, 

         refusing to take realistic precautions.

It’s saying “Yes” to the abundant life God offers

         even with its ups and downs.

It looks like this: Gabriel said to Mary, Do not be afraid. 

         God calls you to be an unwed mother 

                in 1st Century Judea.

 And she said, 

         Let it be unto me according to thy word.

That’s courage.


Angels usually begin their messages 

         Do not be afraid because we must manage our fear 

         before we can hear God’s word and act on it.


The classic sci-fi book, Dunecalls fear the mind-killer.

That’s literally true.

In a state of fear, we are neurologically incapable

          of personal relationships, creativity, 

                  and even rational thought. 


Jesus said, Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.

Clinging to safety, we don’t dare to live. We lose our lives.

Life is an ongoing unfolding process. 

But when we freeze, life stops unfolding.

That’s why the Bible says Do not be afraid 365 times.   


Fear grips us today.

Terrorists disrupt democracy that 

          requires mutual trust to function.

Mass shootings from Oxford to Boulder frighten us. 

Politicians use fear of Mexicans, Muslims, 

         and miscellaneous outsiders to manipulate us.

Businesses spread fear to sell guns, gates, 

           and security cameras.

Even Flonase ads portray allergens as menacing monsters.


To make matters worse, fear is contagious.

Fearful people emit a subtle odor.

When we unconsciously smell someone else’s fear, 

         we catch it like a virus.


2021 feels like Narnia at the beginning

         of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

         It’s always winter but never Christmas.

So how do we thaw out? 


The Bible gives us three ways: faith, hope, and love.

Faith is trusting the good news that our mixed-up mortal lives         are just chapters in an epic novel.

Spoiler alert. Our novel ends in grace and mercy.

Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.

He said, Have no fear little flock. 

         It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.

When today’s chapter is scary,

         we trust the larger story, God’s story.

Tagore said, Faith is the bird that sings at night 

          because he feels the light.

Faith is trusting God’s bright promise even in the dark. 


Hope is taking a risk on today for the sake of tomorrow. 

Emily Dickinson called hope:

            . . . the thing with feathers -

            That perches in the soul - . . ..

            I’ve heard it in the chillest land – . . .. she said.

Europe was a chilled land when the Black Plague 

         spread fear and death.

 But at the height of the Plague, Lady Julian wrote,

         All shall be well, and all shall be well

          and every manner of thing shall be well.

It isn’t well now – but it shall be – everything shall be.

That’s hope. 


Love is appreciative attention.

In the first Frozen movie,

         Elsa’s love thaws her frozen sister Anna.  

We can listen to each other and care. 

That’s love 101 and it’s enough to unfreeze Narnia 

         one friend at a time.

But how do we thaw ourselves?

Three ways: 

 First, we notice the people who care for us now

         -- or have cared for us in the past, even briefly or long ago 

         – a parent, a child, a lover, or a friend.  


We trust that they saw beauty in us, 

                  even if we can’t see it ourselves. 

Their love tells us something more deeply true than any fear.

Even a memory of love sets us free. 


Second, each day, we locate where 

         we hold the fear in our bodies.

Is it a tight throat, trembling hands, or jumpy knees?

Find the bodily experience of fear.

Then enfold it with caring, gentle attention,

         holding it like a child, reassuring it 

          like an angel whispering, 

                  Do not be afraid.


Finally, we circle back to Faith

         because Faith is the opposite of Fear. 

We trust the gospel promise that Reality is reliable. 

Our unknown future, with all its risks and perils, 

         leads us inevitably into the heart of God.

God is our destiny and God is Love. 

There is no fear in love, John says,

         for perfect love casts out fear.

God is perfect love.

So, have no fear little flock 

         It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.        

Thursday, July 29, 2021


             The prevailing worldview in America today is neither Christian nor secular. It is that of the Qumran Community, a separatist cult living in the Judean Desert in Jesus’ day. Their core premise was dualism – dividing the world into good and evil. Zoroaster did that first. But the Qumran community eagerly anticipated a resolution of this division through an apocalyptic bloodbath in which they, the Sons of Light, would vanquish everyone else, the Sons of Darkness. In The War Scroll, the leaders anticipate the great day when the sons of light put forth their hands to make a beginning against the lot of the sons of darkness. (1qm 1:1). 


            The two key obligations of membership in the Qumran Sons of Light were love and hate. Members vowed to love all the sons of light, each according to his lot in the council of God, and to hate the sons of darkness, each according to his guilt in the vengeance of God" (1qs 1:9–11). The apostate is to be cut off from the midst of the sons of light. (1qs 2:16). 


            Beginning with the Enlightenment, but especially since the birth of nationalism in the 1930s, we define good and evil, light and dark, more by politics than religion, but it comes to much the same thing. Qumran dualism is the prototype for how the left and right view each other today. Each side sees itself as the Sons of Light and their adversaries as the Sons of Darkness who must be forced to convert or die. 


            Early Christianity included diverse views; but let’s focus on the three main voices: Jesus, St. Paul, and St. John the Evangelist.[i] Jesus does not set up an apocalyptic shootout. He makes two statements that recognize a division of ways of being. In Luke 16: 8, he says the people of this world are more shrewd..  . . than the people of light. At John 12: 36, Jesus teaches his disciples to believe in the light so as to become children of light. That’s it. No hating the world, no hating the children of darkness. To the contrary, Jesus said at Matthew 5: 43-48, You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. ...


            Paul, at Ephesians 5: 8 and I Thessalonians 5: 5 urged followers of the Way to live as children of light but did not call for war against anyone. In Chapter 4 of his First Epistle, John posits a spirit of Anti-Christ to be overcome, but it turns out that spirit is overcome not thorugh domination but rather love. Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.


            Now this is the point that gets confusing. What is the attitude for Christians to take toward Qumran’s Sons of Light? How are proponents of peace and justice to regard perpetrators of violence and injustice? Jesus said, (B)e children of you Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. ... Jesus prescribes a kind of equal regard, to use the term most common in contemporary Christian ethics to interpret agape.[ii]  Such equal regard is not about agreeing. It’s about caring, wishing well, acknowledging each other’s human worth. That attitude is in short supply among the adversaries in today’s political arena. Even Christian leaders are sometimes all too ready to cast out those who are not following Jesus. But Jesus did not cast out those who did not follow him. How then can lovers of the light of peace also love the violent and oppressive?

            Lucretius was a 1st Century CE Roman philosopher[iii] who wrote his philosophy in verse. He began his classic, The Nature of Things, in a rather perplexing way for one who did not literally believe in gods, with a love scene between Venus and Mars. He drew on the ideas of a 5th Century BCE Greek philosopher, Empedocles. In his view, the universe is governed by the interplay of two forces, Love (represented by Aphrodite/Venus) and Strife (represented by Ares/Mars). In Lucretius’ and Empedocles’ view, Strife is necessary to keep things moving, to stir the waters, to spark change necessary for life. So, like it or not, in this world, there will be trouble. Jesus knew that. He said, I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.[iv]

            Strife goes with the turf of earthly life. But if Strife is not contained, held, embraced within the larger context of Love, the universe falls apart. We need the centripetal power of Love to hold us together when our centrifugal impulses would hurl us into chaos. It is precisely Mars who must be embraced by Venus. The Christian way of being in the world is agape, equal regard, caring for the just and the unjust. But that is our way only for now. The Christian Faith and Hope is in Eternity. And in Eternity, Love wins. 


[i] St. John the Divine sometimes seems more in line with Qumran than his fellow Christians. 

[ii] Gene Outka, Agape: An Ethical Analysis

[iii] I admit it is ironic I am citing Lucretius since he was decidedly anti-religious and was anathematized by St. Jerome in the 4th Century. But I appeal outside the Christian box quite intentionally to show there is a solid philosophical foundation for our way. 

[iv] John 16: 33

Sunday, July 4, 2021



I.               INTRODUCTION

July 4 poses thornier issues for Christians this year 

    than it used to.

Things are thornier because religion and politics are mixed up 

        in a new way. 

Last January 6, one of the rioters charged into the Capitol 

            to stop the certification of the election 

               carrying a sign that said, JESUS SAVES.


What has Jesus Saves got to do 

              with seizing the Capitol building?

Since the early 1970s, 

           there has been a movement called dominionism.

In a nutshell it’s an attempt by some Christians 

             to impose the Kingdom of God by force of law.

The Karl Marx of dominionism, 

             also known as Reconstructionism, 

            and as Christian Nationalism was R. J. Rushdoony.

In the 1970s, he called for Christian fundamentalists 

           to seize the reins of political power.

Around that time, the Ayatollah Khomeini was calling 

      Islamic fundamentalist to do the same thing in Iran.


That Jesus Saves rioter didn’t come from nowhere.

In a 2006 sermon, Ohio pastor, Rod Parsley, said:

            Now this revolution is not for the temperate.

            This revolution – that’s what it is – 

             is not for the timid and the week.

            but for the brave and strong who step over the line . . .. 

            and become disciples of Christ.

            . . . . The secular media never like it when I say this 

            so let me say it twice. 

            Man your battle stations! Ready your weapons! . . .  

            I came to incite a riot. . .. 

            Man your battle stations. Lock and load!

Ron Luce runs a Christian youth organization called Battle Cry.

At a rock concert Luce told 25,000 teens,

         This is war and Jesus invites us to get into the action . . ..

The new Christian dominion movement has roots 

        in the distant past. 

So let’s look at some history.



Most people assume that religions have always been

            murderously intolerant and have caused violence 

           from the beginning.

Well, there is some truth to that 

          – but not as much as you might think.

In her study of so-called religious violence, Fields of Blood,

        Prof. Karen Armstrong finds religion’s hands are not clean

       but religion is usually more of a pretext 

       than a cause of violence.

The so-called Wars of Religion in the 16th Century 

            were ostensibly 

            between Catholics and Protestants.

But it turns out there were plenty of Protestants fighting 

             on the Catholic side

            and plenty of Catholics fighting 

            on the Protestant side.

It was more about turf disputes between new states 

          as the Holy Roman Empire came apart.


In the 1415, when the English army charged 

             into the Battle of Agincourt shouting 

            Cry God for Harry, for England, and St. George,

the French army, charging from the opposite side, was shouting,

            Cry God for the Dauphin, for France, and St. Joan.


So, what’s the real role of religion?

When humankind took up agriculture around 10,000 BC, 

             we established 

            domination systems so that the elite could own the land 

                        and control the people who farmed it. 

Religion provided a justification for that dominance.

The Pharaohs, kings, and Caesars of antiquity 

             were all gods or sons of gods or consorts of gods.

Statues of Augustus bore this inscription, 

            Augustus Caesar, the son of God.

Religious institutions supported the wealthy and powerful.

Priests were cheerleaders for monarchs.


All religions existed to serve the king until around 1300 BC 

            when Moses introduced a God for slaves, 

            a God who said to Pharoah, Let my people go.

Moses freed his people from Egyptian tyranny 

             and established an egalitarian society of shepherds 

             with very little political structure of any kind. 

But when the Israelites too up farming,

     they wanted a political order like their farming neighbors had. 

They wanted a king. That’s what lies behind today’s lesson.

The rest of the Old Testament is a running argument 

            between the monarchists,

            who saw the king as the son of God,

             and the anti-monarchist prophets who saw the king 

                       as a usurper and exploiter.


By Jesus’ day, Israel had broken apart and been conquered 

         by Rome.

Among Jews, there were Roman collaborators 

        who supported the Empire, good Roman citizens.

There were insurrectionists called Zealots 

            who wanted to kick the Romans out

            and restore the Jewish monarchy.

Others called Essenes wanted to escape both factions 

               and live in isolated communes.

All these groups wanted Jesus on their side.


The best biblical scholars, both liberal and conservative,

            say Jesus refused to join any of those parties.

He wanted a revolution too, 

             but he didn’t trust political, economic, or military power

            to make things better.

Instead, he called for a spiritual revolution of love 

               lived out in the world.

He called it the Kingdom of God breaking in.


That’s why the Early Christians kept their distance 

        from the Empire.

St. Paul insisted in Colossians and Ephesians 

            that our allegiance is to Christ

            over any powers and principalities of this world.

In the 2nd century, Hippolytus of Rome, 

            forbade Christians to serve as magistrates or a soldiers. 

Early Christians were martyred not for their religious beliefs 

             but for their refusal to burn a pinch of incense 

             to show their loyalty to Caesar.


Then Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion

            and that was confusing.

In the Middle Ages, Christianity was so mixed up 

            with the feudal system

            you couldn’t tell one from the other. 

Feudalism and Medieval Christianity fell apart at the same time.


Since then, we have argued over the proper relation 

           between Church and State.

They had not really existed as separate institutions before.

But now they did, so what’s the relationship?

Some places had state sponsored religions.

But the United States opted for religious liberty.


We never precluded religious people from expressing 

            a moral perspective in civic conversations 

                      about justice and mercy.

Religious voices spoke out on slavery, temperance, 

            women’s suffrage, war and peace, worker’s rights,  

            segregation, nutrition insecurity.

That’s gone on from the very beginning. 

The 1st Amendment doesn’t prohibit religious voices 

           in the public square. It protects them.

But it doesn’t conscience the government imposing a religion 

            or a religion imposing a government. 


III.             NATIONALISM

Then the 1930s changed things. Nationalism was born. 

Progressive politics and pragmatic philosophy 

        combined in a new ideology to unify the people.

They thought religions divided people, 

             so they insisted religion should be private, individual,

            a take it or leave it personal choice. 

But pledging our ultimate allegiance to the nation 

         would bring us together.

What united us and was expected of every citizen 

                was nationalism.


John Dewey, who gave us the decimal system, 

            was American nationalism’s principal author.

He saw that to evoke the kind of commitment religions 

         had once done, nationalism needed 

         to assume the trappings of a religion, 

         to become the new religion.

So there came to be nationalist rituals 

            like raising and lowering the flag,

            national creeds like the pledge of allegiance, 

            national hymns, national holy days, 

            national sacred documents displayed to be reverenced,

            national monuments and holy sites, 

            national saints like Lincoln and the Founding Fathers,

            and national martyrs like the war dead. 


We’d had some of this before.

But in the 1930s Americanism became 

         the core belief system expected of all Americans.

Other nationalisms were surging around the world 

           at the same time, 

            especially Spain, Italy, Germany, and Japan.

In the 1930s,  

             the America First Committee was formed 

             espousing American nationalism

            and appeasement of fascist aggression in Europe.

A Christian dominionist of our time, Pat Buchannan,

            praises the America First Committee of the 1930s 

            and says we should model our policies 

            on their monumental achievements.


Religion made a comeback in the 1950s with revivalism. 

But in the context of modern nationalism, 

            some revivalists were quite cozy with politicians 

            who wielded the real power.

Billy Graham fawned over and served various political leaders  

             through the decades, most of all Richard Nixon 

            whom he regarded as the model of a Godly ruler.

Then Watergate disillusioned him 

          about cloaking political power in the mantle of religion.

Graham apologized for his mistakes, 

       and when Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson

      took Evangelical Christianity full tilt into the political arena, 

            Billy Graham would have no part of it. 


All this leaves us with three points from history 

        that set the stage for today’s challenge:

1.     Politics has superseded religion 

       as our primary allegiance.

    Even in churches, people will get along 

          despite disagreements over religious belief,

      but political differences are a deal breaker 

            for relationships.

2.     Religious leaders who deliver their people 

           for political agendas driven by competition 

           for wealth and power are relegating religion 

           to the role it played as a pep squad for the powerful 

           in Ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Rome.

3.     Christian Nationalism is directly at odds 

        -- not just with the Constitution –                   

         but with the religion of Moses and Jesus. 



I acknowledge and respect the Christian tradition 

      that is leery of nations

      -- the Amish, Mennonites, Brethren, 

            and other Separatists.

But I notice that since the 1930s, 

       when push comes to shove,

      many of those folks will choose their nationalism 

       over their religious faith.


I offer instead some more moderate guidance 

       from St. Augustine.

 He used the metaphor of two cities, 

        occupying the same space 

      -- the Earthly City and the Heavenly City.

The Earthly City is governed by self-interest, greed, 

           and power.

The Heavenly City is governed by love.

We easily see the Earthly City in government 

          but it’s in the Church too.

We see the Heavenly City in the Church when it’s faithful,

      but it also makes surprising guest appearances 

                   in the government.


Augustine said government couldn’t create paradise,

      but it could keep order and do a bit of good.

He taught that Christians ought to be good citizens,

      to do their duty, and whenever possible 

       to infuse a little love into the world,

      even in the affairs of state.

But for Christians to try to impose the Kingdom of God 

      by way of government

      was futile and would only corrupt Christians 

       because that’s what worldly power does.

Power politics is inherently at odds 

         with God’s Kingdom of Love.


So, can Christians love their country?

Yes and no. 

If we mean a 1930s or 2020s brand of America First, 

      making nationalism our religion 

      and treating America like a god, 

                  the answer is no.


Christian Nationalism is an oxymoron.

Charging into the Capitol with a Jesus Saves sign 

         is a sacrilege.

The powers and principalities of this present age

       weaponize God for their own purposes. 

That betrays the gospel of Christ.


But love is the first and greatest commandment.

Loving our homeland is part of that.

Think of the Jewish Exiles in Psalm 137:

                  If I forget you, Jerusalem,  

                           may my right hand forget its skill.

                  May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth

                  If I do not remember you,

                  If I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.



                   2,300 years later, Sir Walter Scott 

                        echoed the Psalmist


                         Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
                         Who never to himself hath said,
                         This is my own, my native land!
                         Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
                          As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,


Just so, an American Christian loves America, 

      but what do we love and how do we love it?

Four things:

1.     We love the land, our native land. 

        America is a place.

America is purple mountain majesties 

          above the fruited plain.

The song says, I love thy rocks and rills,

            Thy woods and templed hills. 

To love America is to see it and appreciate it.

Loving America is seeing and appreciating the place 

            – but it’s more than appreciation.

It’s stewardship of the land, the waters, the air, 

          the wildlife, the climate.

We cannot love America and destroy it 

         at the same time.

Loving America includes a commitment 

          to the beauty & the vitality of the place.


2.     America is also the people who live here.

So crown thy good with brotherhood.

Loving America means loving the people here  

            -- people of all races, religions, 

            and gender identities.

It means loving people who are like us 

        and people who are different.

It means loving Liberals and Conservatives,

            Black Lives Matter protestors 

          and right wingers charging into the Capitol.

We can passionately disagree agree 

             but still find some spark of good 

            in each other and wish each other well.


There’s a particularly crucial part of loving our fellow Americans these days

            – compassion for those in despair. Here’s why:

Our time is soaked in rage.

One young Colorado man said he supported 

            a left wing presidential candidate

            because he was loud and angry.

In 2016, supporters of that loud and angry 

           left wing candidate in the primaries

           voted for a right wing candidate 

           in the general election 

           because he was loud and angry.

More and more, we vote for rage, 

          regardless of policies.


Journalist Chris Hedges says, 

           Stories of rage are first stories of despair.

He quotes Fritz Stern’s book on the rise of fascism 

         in 1930s Germany.

            Theirs was a resentment (born) of loneliness.

            Their one desire was for a new faith, 

            a new community of believers, 

            a world of fixed standards and no doubts,

            a new national religion 

           that would bind all Germans together.


Despair and loneliness underly the extremism of today

            as it did German extremism then.

Certainly, extremists have to be restrained 

           in their violence, sedition, and crimes.

But condemning them as ignorant deplorables 

             only make things worse.


New York Times journalist Charlie Walzer 

           has studied internet radicalization. 

He says conspiracy theorists are usually lonely people

              who feel disrespected.

They buy into QAnon in a desperate attempt 

         to connect with somebody.


At a Bishops’ meeting with House Majority Whip, 

       Jim Clyber, last week, he told us the story 

      of a young veteran who missed military comradery.

            so he joined the Proud Boys 

            -- not because he was a White Supremacist, 

                      but because he was lonely. 

Loving America means caring for those folks 

             and creating a community

            where they can find a place.


3.     We love the heart of America, our moral identity.

America’s moral identity is as a democratic society.

To love America is to love our core values 

         of liberty and justice.

            My country tis of thee

            Sweet land of liberty . . ..

            From every mountainside 

            Let freedom ring.


Many people today, both left and right, 

         are all too eager to curtail the liberty 

         of those who disagree with them.

They don’t just want to defeat them in elections.

They want to lock them up the way they do 

           in Russia, China, and Myanmar.

I understand why people wanted 

     to see Derek Chauvin convicted; but some 

     (and I mean White people) were angry 

    that his lawyer defended him.


Many who love America in a nationalist way 

            are all too eager to strip America 

         of its moral identity.

Loving America means loving freedom of speech,  

          freedom of religion,  the right to vote, 

           and due process of law.


4.     The fourth point is that we love the real America, 

                    not a fantasy wonderland.

We don’t pretend slavery, lynching, 

          and segregation didn’t happen.

We don ’t forget the Sand Creek Massacre 

            here in Colorado,

            the Tulsa Race Massacre, 

            Red Summer of 1919,

            the internment of Japanese Americans, 

            and the burning of San Jose’s Chinatown.

We don’t forget the 20,000 Nazis 

          at Madison Square Garden in 1939.


We face the truth of our story, 

           with both its glory and its shame,

            knowing we are all sinners and all saints.

We acknowledge both parts of our story.

Then we forgive, make amends, and reconcile. 

That’s how love works.


We don’t claim to be perfect.

We sing America! America, God mend thine ev’ry flaw.

            Confirm thy soul in self-control,

            Thy liberty in law.


To sum up, We love America as it is 

            -- a nation that often gets it right 

             and sometimes gets it wrong –

            and out of love we strive to mend its every flaw.

We love the land, democracy, and the people 

-       Black and White, left and right, 

       Christian, Jew, and Muslim,

One nation under God 

with liberty and justice for all.