The Point of God’s Power

1 Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD!
2 Blessed be the name of the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore!
3 From the rising of the sun to its setting,
the name of the LORD is to be praised!
4 The LORD is high above all nations,
and his glory above the heavens!
5 Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
6 who looks far down
on the heavens and the earth?
7 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
8 to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
9 He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.
Praise the LORD! (Psalms 113 ESV)

Our God is an awesome God. We know that. We praise and acknowledge the glory and power and might of God in worship — in word, in song, in feeling.

Why? What is the point of God’s power and might? This psalm tells us — God’s power is to raise the poor from the dust, to elevate them from the place where they have been cast off, discarded, put aside. Where they are not important.

These cast off, discarded people have been raised — to a place of honor among those who rule, among the wealthy.

And those who have no family, no children, no safety, no protection, no one to make a home with — God gives them the children who will care for them, protect them, and make them a home.

When we praise God’s mighty saving acts, especially that primordial act of redeeming captive Israel from Egypt and drowning Pharaoh — who dared compare himself with God as one worthy of being served (עבד) and compelling service — we forget this was God’s act on behalf of a powerless, dispossessed people. A people who could not save themselves, weren’t entirely sure they wanted to be saved, and once redeemed, appeared to regret almost every minute of it.

It’s easy for us, as American Christians, to forget this. Or worse, to think we understand it when we we don’t. Because, generally speaking, we are not a powerless, dispossessed people. (Regardless of what our politics or culture tells us.) We may feel powerless, but we aren’t. Not like Israel was in Egypt. God acts not to confirm the order of the world, an order all too often built on someone’s exclusion or subjugation, but to upend that order, to take those we have crushed and cast aside and raise them to a place of glory and honor. To take those lonely and alone, ignored and unwanted and unprotected, and surround them with children, descendants, with those who love and value them.

This, and this alone, is the point and purpose of God’s power. This alone is what Jesus does on the Cross. And in rising from an empty tomb.

To the Church in Philadelphia

7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:7–13 ESV)

Power. Δυναμις. The ability to act. To be strong. To do anything. But especially anything good, or virtuous, or meaningful, or wonderful. This church has none. It is powerless. It does little good in the world. What works Christ knows, and remembers, are probably few.

The church today worries about power. Conservatives lament the end of a social order they built and that made sense to them. Having had power, they taste their powerlessness all that more intensely, and they fear the end — they fear death and irrelevance. The world has turned its back on established and eternal truth.

The progressive church laments a world still governed by prejudice and structures of discrimination, a world that seems almost impervious to change and reform and abolition despite our best human efforts and many years of good intentions. They taste powerlessness too, even as they pick up that power which seems to be slipping from the hands of others. Because so many still suffer, so much remains to be done, and we are so far from the goal.

“You have but little power.” This is a church that cannot do much, cannot change much, cannot accomplish much.

And yet, Jesus says, “You have kept my word and not denied my name.” In the face of utter powerlessness, in the face of that “Synagogue of Satan,” those who say they are Jews, those who say they are God’s people, but are not — difficult words for us to hear given how Jews have fared in Christendom and at the hands of Westerners — Jesus is reminding this church that he, and not their works, have opened whatever doors, accomplished whatever works, done whatever good, they are called to do.

… [S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 ESV)

This powerless church, however, is promised something — it will be spared the coming tribulation. Hold fast, be faithful, remember the promise of our Lord.

Because no matter how powerless we are, how little we can do, we can still trust God. We can still be faithful. We can still love as we are loved.

No Place for Outsiders

Matthew Sheffield over at The American Conservative notes something very interesting about the GOP, and as it turns out, the American church of just about any political persuasion:

As conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, a Christian immigrant from India, has described it: “Whenever a Gujarati or Sikh businessman comes to a Republican event, it begins with an appeal to Jesus Christ. While the Democrats are really good at making the outsider feel at home, the Republicans make little or no effort.” That’s also true of people who do not believe in any faith.

Even if non-Christians do not take offense to being excluded, at the very least such public displays of Christian belief at ostensibly secular events certainly do not encourage them to participate or to become enthusiastic. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg (who is Jewish by ancestry although he is non-practicing) described the phenomenon well in a 2012 column:

I’ve attended dozens of conservative events where, as the speaker, I was, in effect, the guest of honor, and yet the opening invocation made no account of the fact that the guest of honor wasn’t a Christian. I’ve never taken offense, but I can imagine how it might seem to someone who felt like he was even less a part of the club.

Sheffield notes a problem that appears to plague the GOP — that it has become the conservative churches at prayer with little room non-Christians in its midst. I would go farther and note this is a problem with virtually all American churches, conservative and progressive. They still embrace an understanding of the culture that demands church and culture work in tandem, that the culture do most of even much of the work of “catechesis” and forming believers and belongers. Nearly the whole of the culture war has, I think, been over this ground. The church — and this includes the conservative church — wants to operate from a position of power and privilege, having mobilized the culture on its behalf to do the essential work of forming people to be followers.

Followers of what, I’m not sure, since American churches have gotten the story of America mixed in with the story of Israel and the story of Christ, the promises of America mixed in with the promises of God, and have come to tell a tale of glory and power in which God and Grace are present only in mighty and powerful acts of state.

American Christians want people who have already been formed when they show up for worship. This, I think, is why the church does not know how to welcome unbelievers, non-believers, and post-beleivers into its midst. Why the church is so cold and callous toward strangers who aren’t recipients of charity. It doesn’t really know how to help people meet Jesus. It doesn’t really know how to

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19–20 ESV)

The church is slowly and inexorably becoming a minority in America. Does it become a withdrawn, frightened, angry, and resentful minority as Sheffield seems to suggest? Does it seek influence and importance only in activism and progressive politics, as too many slowly dying liberal churches are? Or does the church confidently proclaim the truth, knowing that the work of forming believers and belongers is returning to the people it has always rightfully belonged to — the church itself? A generation will likely have to pass away before the church in this country can stand on its feet with some confidence that it proclaims a truth dependent neither on political success or social acceptance.

I’m occasionally asked what being Muslim in America gave me, and the answer has always been (more or less) clear — I was a member of a religious minority that could not rely on a sympathetic culture to teach and reinforce what we taught ourselves and our children at all the mosques where I worshiped. I knew Muslim immigrants who feared and resented what that meant for their children’s faith (I appreciate the concerns of religion conservatives), but we had no choice and had to forge ahead anyway. To live and worship openly knowing our neighbors feared and mistrusted us and that the culture worked against us.

And to be glad about that. Because we were being God’s faithful people.

Christians in America need that kind of courage. A confident, relatively cheerful courage that doesn’t panic when Starbucks changes its cup designs. And too many don’t seem to have it.

SERMON Not All There is to the Glory of God

I did not preach this last weekend, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Transfiguration Sunday (Year C)

  • Exodus 34:29-35
  • Psalm 99
  • 2 Corinthians 3:12–4:2
  • Luke 9:28-43

28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”— not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. 40 And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41 Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”42 While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astonished at the majesty of God. (Luke 9:28-43 ESV)

And they kept silent and told no one in those days.

You’d think the disciples would have told the whole wide world who and what Jesus was, especially given that the entire light of heaven shined upon him, that God has — again — formally and very publicly adopted him. Proclaimed Jesus the Chosen One, the one at lease the disciples should listen to.

Here, after all, on this mountain, eight days after asking his followers who the crowds thought he was, who they thought he was, and then telling those same disciples about his coming fate — “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” — Jesus has again gone to pray alone. And again, he has been followed by his closest disciples.

But instead of Jesus telling them what is to come, God shows them. Instead of Jesus questioning his disciples, “who do you think I am?”, God shows them. In a brilliant, overwhelming flash of light. “This is my son, the one I have chosen, listen to him.” And where Moses and Elijah — the giver of the law of the prophet of Israel who showed all of us how to live faithfully in the face of our own faithlessness, who showed the enemies of God’s people “that there is a God in Israel” by healing them rather than striking them down — stood, there is just Jesus. Alone.

And they — the disciples — kept silent, and told no one in those days.

We remember the Jesus of the Great Commission in Matthew, who goes and tells his disciples to preach, and teach, and baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We remember the Holy Spirit setting a crowd on fire, we remember public testimonies and mass baptisms and crowds following. None of this was accomplished by silence.

But Jesus, at times, commanded silence. When Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One of the God, Jesus sternly commands them to tell no one. Early in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus heals a leper, and commands him — tell no one. Go make the offering to the priest, he says, but tell no one.

It didn’t help. The fame of Jesus — as a healer, as someone who could command and cast out demons, and as a man who could a feast miraculously appear from a few loaves and fishes — spread far and wide. This was the kingdom, and this drew the crowds.

Even in his own day, no one kept silent about Jesus.

But Jesus is reminding his disciples, and reminding us, there is more to glory of God then a brilliant white light, than the power to cast out of demons and make the sick and the broken whole. I’m not denying this is the glory, the grace, and the love of God at work in the world. But it isn’t all there is.

There is suffering. There is weakness. There is helplessness. There is pain. There is despair, and loss, and loneliness, and isolation. There is fear. And there is death.

These things too are the glory of God. It’s hard for us to see God in suffering. It is hard for us to understand God in fear. And it is nearly impossible, I think, for us to really grasp the presence of God in death.

We want the 5,000 fed, and we want to see it and do it every day. We want the demons cast out into the swine heard, where they drown themselves. We want the power to make the world right. We want to get even, see our enemies underneath our feet, take some pleasure in their fear, in their suffering, in their defeat. We want the power and glory of God from on high to make us strong, mighty, rich, in charge. We want to be great, whether it is for the first ever or simply great again.

But that is not all there is to the glory of God.

Jesus told his disciples, tells us, that he will suffer many things, and that he will die. This is what it means for him to be Χριστος, Christ, the Anointed One of God. Today we may see glory, and tomorrow we may tell of it, but right now, we understand — sometimes silence is better. Because sometimes we don’t understand everything.

We haven’t seen all of God at work. We haven’t held God dying, ministered to a lonely and frightened God, or just been with and cared for a God who languishes unloved and unwanted in prison or on the streets or in a foster home without any real family. Because there too is the glory of God.

Because Jesus also tells Peter, as he commands silence, that the Son of Man will be raised on the third day. But to be raised from the dead, he must die first. We must kill him. And so there he is, the beloved Son, the Chosen One, lifted high upon a cross, a God who suffers torture and death to show us — to show the whole world — that death has no power and no hold over us, and is no real end.

Resurrected life, eternal life, out of death. The promise and the glory of God.

We do not keep silent about this, about an empty tomb, about the Beloved Son claimed and loved and given to the world. But too often we are silent about the suffering God — and the very human suffering he became a part of — because we see no glory and no power and no good end in any of it. And we want no part of it.

But the glory of God is right there. In front us us. To behold.

So, do not be silent. Do not be silent about the wondrous deeds of power, of healing, feeding, and casting out demons. Tell the world what you have seen. Remember, however, the cross, and the God who suffers with us. That too is a wondrous deed. And that too is the glory of God.


The Fundamental Injustice of the Cosmos

Is the universe just? Is God just? The Guardian today has a couple of pieces which examine these two separate — but interrelated — questions.

First, Oliver Burkeman considers the matter of a just world:

The world, obviously, is a manifestly unjust place: people are always meeting fates they didn’t deserve, or not receiving rewards they did deserve for hard work or virtuous behaviour. Yet several decades of research have established that our need to believe otherwise runs deep. Faced with evidence of injustice, we’ll certainly try to alleviate it if we can – but, if we feel powerless to make things right, we’ll do the next best thing, psychologically speaking: we’ll convince ourselves that the world isn’t so unjust after all.

As we seek to explain the world, Burkeman writes, our desire to find meaning in things we cannot stop meets our desire to believe that things happen for a reason. Bad things happen to someone? Well, it must be their fault. This gives some order to the universe, Burkeman says, and helps us make sense of what is, at face value, senseless.

But it’s a lie that allows us to blame those who suffer. Continue reading

Holding Power Accountable… Somehow

This isn’t really much of a surprise…

Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence related to adolescents keeping the faith into their 20s, according to new findings from a landmark study of youth and religion.

Just 1 percent of teens ages 15 to 17 raised by parents who attached little importance to religion were highly religious in their mid- to late 20s.

“No other conceivable causal influence … comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth,” Smith said in a recent talk sharing the findings at Yale Divinity School. “Parents just dominate.”

I appreciate that I am something of an outlier here, being a very religious person despite my parents’ lack of overt religion (though my mother and I talked of faith and ethics a fair amount when I was a teenager). And I won’t add much to this, except to say that some community and institutional practices always seemed to bother me. The church I did my first internship, for example, had a fair number of confirmation students (junior high schoolers) who were dropped off for obligatory religious education by parents who otherwise rarely or never attended worship. I wasn’t entirely sure what the point of that was, except to impart a very limited understanding of the role of faith in life. That belief and practice play no real part, save a basic body of knowledge that help form some kind of identity.

“I am a Lutheran,” as if somehow there’s no content, no practice, no way of living greater than cultural or social belonging or expectations, to that declaration.

“Mothers and fathers who practice what they preach and preach what they practice are far and away the major influence…” A little on this. One of the things I’ve noticed about those with power, having spent much of my life on the wrong side of such people, is the sense so many of them have that they must be judges only by what they say about themselves. That their actual deeds, they way the treat people, are actually not open for critique or judgment.

I realize this is wandering a little far afield from the original subject of this blog entry, but this is actually a big deal for me. One of the things I’ve observed most of my life is the sense that somehow power, and the powerful, are never accountable, and never should be accountable, and that power, how it is used, and who uses it, can never be held to any standard save the standard that power pronounces for itself. “Do as I tell you to do, and not as I actually do.”

This seems to be a very human desire, and I’ve experienced it among all sorts of people, religious and not. But it’s most articulated in my understanding of Law & Gospel, and particularly the uses of the Law (the teaching of God, torah), that the Lutheran confessions teach.  Since I’m no longer in any formal Lutheran church ordination process, I can admit — my biggest disagreement with Lutheran teaching is with law and gospel, and the uses of the law. I don’t think “law and gospel” as Lutherans have outlined it accurately describes what actually happens in scripture or how God really acts. (“Gift and response,” using Matthew Frost‘s words, better describes how God interacts with God’s people in scripture.) My disagreement is primarily with the civil use of the law. I don’t see much restraining of sin by anyone or anything but other sinful human beings. This understanding of “the law” is somewhere between deluded and wishful thinking and an outright lie. (This is also the root of my objection to anything that calls itself Natural Law.)

From all I’ve seen of the world, the sins of those with power, privilege, and position will always go unrestrained. In fact, half the time, such sins will be called righteousness. Because they are the sins of the people enforcing the law. They are the sword, and they can do no wrong.

But back to why this is here. This confessional approach to the law makes it the consequence for which there can never be judgment or consequence. The law, in this understanding, is never unjust, never wrongs anyone. Because anyone on its wrong side has it coming — they have sinned. In reality, however, It becomes the theological, intellectual, and moral justification for the kind of exclusion, marginalization, or brutality that claims to be lawfulness, but really is only the abuse of those who have little or no power and no recourse.

And yet, those who are wrong end of the law and the baton, on the wrong end of constant moralizing, hectoring, and abuse, we watch. And we judge. We know the different between words said and deeds done. Even if we cannot hold power, and the law, meaningfully accountable — cannot stop it from being callous and brutal.  We can always walk away.