Citizenship

I have never been comfortable with the word “sermon.” It sounds too stuffy and distant. So, I have never been satisfied with calling the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7 “The Sermon on the Mount.” That title does not even come close to capturing the weight of what he was saying. This is not just a collection of moral instruction. It is a charter, a constitution for a new nation, a new kingdom. The kingdom of Heaven.  Israel was not the kingdom of Heaven. America is not the kingdom of Heaven. These are nations of men. Jesus calls us out of our national identity and citizenship into a citizenship in a new nation. It is a spiritual kingdom that transcends the physical borders of land, ethnicity and human culture. We are called to allegiance to this kingdom of Heaven first, foremost, and solely.

This “Sermon on the Mount” is, in essence, the political platform of this new kingdom. It is the spiritual infrastructure of kingdom culture. As Brian McLaren called it, it is a “Kingdom Manifesto” – a public declaration of intentions, opinions, objectives, or motives, as one issued by a government, sovereign, or organization. This manifesto is our platform. It is our political agenda. We are not Republicans, Democrats, or Libertarians, we are Kingdom Citizens. We espouse a greater agenda than any party platform compromised by the failings of men.

The nations of men honor the politically powerful, wealthy, and attractive. They consider athletic ability a blessing, give awards to each other, and clap for the successful.
In the kingdom of Heaven, the meek, peacemakers, seekers of righteousness, neglected and hurting are to be honored. These are the characteristics of those worthy to lead, to be celebrated and to be voted for. (Matthew 5:1-11)

In the nations of men, the truth is hard to discern. Deceit and spin are the norms.
Kingdom citizens are to be illuminators of clarity and goodness. If we compromise, we lose any effective influence. (Matthew 5:13-16)

In the nations of men, one’s character is often defended by comparing it to the actions of another accused of worse infractions as if “not as bad” is an acceptable assessment.
Kingdom citizens are not satisfied with control over our actions, but with eradicating from our hearts that which is not of God. A man is not accurately assessed by reviewing his rap sheet. His heart and mind are where his true character resides. (Matthew 5:20-30)

Technicalities, loopholes, confusing contracts and the easy way out clog the courtrooms of men. The short-lived relationships of celebrities clutter our headlines and infidelity is a multi-billion dollar business.
Kingdom citizens are people of kept promises to our spouses and to everyone we deal with. We forgo personal expedience and honor our commitments. We do not settle for half truths. (Matthew 5:31-37)

In the nations of men “Kill them all” and “Bomb the heck out of them” are common mantras, fear rules and the humanity of others is devalued. In the nations of men, we brag about our abilities to kill others and take pride in our capacity for violence.   
Kingdom citizens end the cycle of violence by loving our enemies and not seeking revenge. (Matthew 5:38-48)

Men seek fame and status. Public servants often become nothing more than sociopathic power mongers. Their good deeds are little more than self-serving political stunts. Preachers become tv personalities and stylish, whitened-teeth figures. 
Kingdom citizen’s religious practices are free of selfishness and attention seeking. When our faith communities become narcissistic, pats on our backs from each other are all we get. (Matthew 6:1-18)

The nations of men worship the dollar and build fragile economies. They are concerned with the clothes worn on the red carpet, climb the ladder of greed at all costs and their stomachs are their gods.  
Kingdom citizens live life from the greater perspective of the larger story. We transcend the smaller stories of fear and worry written by men and our shallow, consumeristic desires. (Matthew 6:19-34)

In the nations of men, the line between good and evil runs between us and them. We are the sophisticated and they are the savages. We are “the legal” and they are “the illegal.”
Kingdom citizens look at others through the lens of grace. (Matthew 7:1-5)

Pledging allegiance to Jesus means embracing this kingdom manifesto and participating in this God-culture that is counterintuitive to the culture of men. But, I am afraid we have diluted this message with the influence of political parties and nearsighted, man-made agendas.

I acknowledge the difficult position followers of the way of Jesus find ourselves in as we attempt to navigate our political landscape. All of this is much more complex than an 800-word blog post can address. But, my point is not to tell you how to vote or to present answers to our most difficult challenges as a nation. My point is to remind us to not sell out, not to compromise, not to justify and to not let anyone person or group commandeer our voice. I seek only to remind you of the nation of your true citizenship. As you physically reside in the kingdoms of men, you yourselves are aliens. Live as such and do not fail to maintain the culture of the kingdom.

The Crutch of Christianity

This was less of a provocation and more of a question. It was a question of his identity. “If you are him, prove it.” But typically, when we read that weird story of Jesus going into the desert and being asked to provide a proof of identity, we read it more as a story of resisting sin. The lessons we can take from this story when read as an example of sin resistance are good and beneficial. But, I do not believe this is first and foremost what is happening here.1

Christianity is often maligned as a crutch, as simply a way for people to create a mental and emotional context that enables them to deal with life as we know it. Unfortunately, I think this criticism is accurate. It is an accurate judgment of the faith we have most broadly made known.

Essentially, we have pared down a globally transformative movement to a personal relationship –  a personal relationship founded on morals and therapy. It is what we are known for; the parsing of every action and choice in order to label that which is sin and that which is not. Our moral conclusions have become our mission statements. Amid the struggles and pain of life in this sinful world, we turn to God for therapy so we can cope. Our language is deluded with corny clichés and our music has become little more than love notes from God written by us to ourselves. But, Christianity is not a crutch. We have just made it one.

Morals, therapy, personal relationship… these all have a place in a larger context. Apart from this context, they are inadequate fragments.  The story of the testing of Jesus is not just about resisting sin. To take heart in the part of the story where the angels attended him in his weakened, but victorious state and to declare “Glory, hallelujah!” as we are filled with hope that God will do the same for us is missing a larger framework. At times our faith is little more than therapeutic deism.

In refusing to prove himself to satan, Jesus declares his identity to us. He is authoring a new faith. It is a faith of renewal and restoration back to the original intentions of God – God’s intentions for all of creation. This new faith holds out the promise of being fully realized in the future as we realize it incrementally now. It is a faith that speaks to our economy locally and globally, our education, our business practices, our community priorities and every aspect of life as we know it. This faith includes us as individuals for the benefit of all and not just ourselves.

Morality and therapy fit within this framework. This faith is a decision that begins with you personally. Will you personally be a part of this movement of restoration? Being a part of it will demand a new, counterculture way of living. It will require a commitment to being pure of heart and peacemaking. It will be emotionally depleting. You will need a place to recover where you are reminded that you are loved.

Social justice does not happen without individual transformation. Apart from moral development, justice is short lived. Moral development separated from creative altruism2 is nothing more than fundamentalism. To argue from one side against the other is missing the comprehensive point. Something that I believe our current Christian narrative does far too often.

 

1 Matthew 4
2 “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Disillusioned Bohemian

It’s always something. There is always someone. Some way to be better. Someone better. The new healthier way to eat. The latest in intentional parenting. That book you have to read. That speaker that you have to listen to. There is that friend who seems to live so free, off the grid. The other friend who you see traveling every time you make the mistake of checking your news feed. There is that one couple’s marriage that seems a thousand times happier than yours. That one guy with that unbelievable career.

Then there’s you. You don’t have enough time to chop all those vegetables so you can eat clean. You do not live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and you can’t make your own bio fuel out of used cooking oil. Your kids watch a lot of Netflix. That last time you went to the mom’s group you knew for sure you had to be the very worst mother of them all. You want to escape the rat race and live free in the woods or on the beach, but you love amazon prime, showers and your kids have too many toys for that tiny house.

That other lifestyle is so much more hip, healthier, exciting, deeper souled…than yours.

Simplifying, eating heathier, becoming a more soulful person…enhancing your lifestyle is good. We can all become better. But, do not believe the lie.

Bohemian – having informal and unconventional social habits. We generally stereotype them as hippies, writers, artists… he was less peacenik and more activist. He grew up in the system. He was all set to be a revered leader in the system. But, the system was flawed and he would have felt like a sellout if he just played the game. So, he left. He went all bohemian, left town, wore weird clothes and ate organic. He had an edge though. He was kind of an angry bohemian who did not leave to simply break free and live quietly. He left because it was time for a revolution. He railed against the flawed status quo and the people who upheld it. He called out the abusers of power and exposed them for what they were.

It was his destiny and he fulfilled it. He was a pioneer – a path forger, but he was cognizant of his limitations. The movement was bigger than him. He brought the matches. Someone else would ignite the fire.

“Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?”1 John, from prison sent this message, this question to Jesus. What did he mean “Are you the one or should we expect someone else?” He had to know he was the one. They were related. Undoubtedly, he heard the prophecy about him too. And, when Jesus came to be baptized by John, he not only recognized Jesus’ greatness, but God declared it.2 He knew who he was.

This was more of a respectful way of John saying “I don’t get it Jesus. This revolution is anemic. Is anything happening? And hey, I am in jail. Are you the Messiah or not? Get me out! Make something happen.”

Sometime it all feels like talk. They simplified and then they had kids and minimalism became much more elusive. She ate healthy, but still got cancer. Their cool, adventurous marriage ended in divorce. That diet ended up not being the best after all and everyone has moved onto the next fad. Sometimes we try to get all bohemian, reinvent our lives and break out of the status quo. It might work for a while, but then the jail door of reality shuts and we are stuck again.

It is the same with churches. We use words like vision and talk about attacking poverty and “doing” social justice. Sometimes it just feels like we talk a lot and accomplish little. Sure, we fed them, painted their house, or provided Christmas. They got hungry again, the paint eventually peeled, Christmas came again and their finances were not any better. What is this Jesus? Does anything ever change? Are we throwing pebbles in the ocean hoping we might create a wave when we barely generate a ripple? What are we doing?

Jesus sent John an answer.

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”3

To the disillusioned He says “Take heart. It is happening.”

Your effort matters – to be healthier, less stressed, more generous and soulful. Our efforts as faith communities to participate in taking care of others in our neighborhoods, spiritually and physically, matter. Often our disillusionment comes from missing the point of idealism. The ideal will never be fully realized here and now. Idealism is a direction like East or West. There will always be a “West” no matter how vigorously you chase it. So, move, but not to the peril of your own psyche, contentedness and presence in today. Look to the horizon, but maintain perspective.

 

1Matthew 11:3
2Matthew 3:13-17
3 Matthew 11:4-5
4 Matthew 11:11

 

Sleeping with the Fishes

To the contemporary ear, it sounded like something from The Godfather, but with an ancient twist. Dumped in the ocean with concrete shoes. Left to sleep with the fishes. But, it did not come from the lips of a Sicilian crime boss or a short, stocky hitman. Jesus said it.

“It would better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and drowned in the depths of the sea.”1 Concrete shoes. Sleeping with the fishes. He had moved surprisingly quickly from a gentle moment of encouraging his disciples to be more childlike to a brutal warning of a gruesome end. A gruesome end for the exploiters, abusers and deceivers of children.

His disciples were once again arguing about their own greatness. Self-consumed full of themselves. So, Jesus had a child come and stand among them. Immediately shaking them back into an awareness beyond themselves as they stared into the eyes of innocence and vulnerability. He calls them down from their towers of aggressive, self-assuredness and into peaceful, benevolent trust. In the kingdom of heaven, the uncorrupted soul of a child is honored.

And if you corrupt it, there will be hell to pay. As soon as Jesus himself took his first breath on earth, he was under the threat of violence from men. Children were massacred at the hands of a man who perceived his power was threatened. Threatened by a child. In our violent and savage world, children are indeed innocent victims. They are the casualties of our warring desires.

They are the innocent victims of poverty. The blameless victims of war. They are the orphaned and discarded. They are powerlessly and unknowingly corrupted by those in authority who should know better. Then, they become like us. They become us. For this, we deserve millstones tied around our necks and left to sleep with the fishes.

It all seems so complicated. Politics, foreign policy, healthcare, poverty, education, religion, culture wars… There are no simple answers that provide immediate remedies to our matted, dread-locked societal problems. But, this is where we go wrong and get bogged down. Finding a solution is not the starting point. We begin with finding the appropriate posture.

In the middle of the argument, Jesus invites a child to stand among them and calls them to a childlike ethos. Here, in this innocent, vulnerable, authentic and uncorrupted state, viable, just and generous answers to our most convoluted problems are found.

So pause. Stop the words, the brainstorming, the typing, the inner dialogue. Interrupt the meeting and invite in a child to stand among you. Be reminded not only to approach each other with the essence of a child, but to think deeply about how your words and decisions will ultimately affect the souls of our young. Bring a baby into the elder’s meeting before you decide what to do with the minster. Bring an underprivileged 2nd grader into the booth when you vote on the levy or vouchers. Bring someone’s kids into the board room before you make that policy decision that only benefits the investors.

If we were to lay everything else aside and assess ourselves as individuals, churches, states, and as a human race solely on the state of our children, would we have any case to make before God? We would not. And in act of redeeming grace, He would patiently loose each knot that we have tied from around the necks of our children and slip the millstone necklace slowly over our heads. And rightly so, we will all sleep with the fishes.

 

1 Matthew 18:6