The things I’ve heard people say (or pray) in the name of Jesus, leading up to and after the assault on our nation’s capitol help me understand my non-church going friend’s ambivalence about the Church. Sometimes I wonder if I would go to church if I weren’t the Pastor. I do feel obligated to show up on Sunday morning since it’s part of the job description . . . Or is it?
I wonder if “going to church” is what Jesus had in mind when he talked with Peter about his plans of building a church? He told Peter his church would be built on a rock; it would resist the forces of evil and stand against the gates of hell. If simply “going to church” was the point why did Jesus give Peter a set of keys to the “kingdom of Heaven?” These keys were intended to open life-giving forces that needed to be set loose in heaven and on earth. With the keys Peter could also lock down anything and everything that diminished life. I fear many church-going folk have forgotten the purpose of the keys.
I’ve been wondering here lately, “What are the keys that release blessing from heaven and bind evil on earth?” Psalm 85:10-11 helped me name two of the keys.
Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.
Steadfast Love and Mercy is the name of one key to the kingdom of heaven. This is the key that casts out fear, sees the dignity in every human being, and is keenly aware when others lack what they need to live an abundant life. This key opens the heart to generous living, creating a desire to give of oneself to meet the needs of others. This key unlocks compassion and sets people free. With this key forgiveness is granted to those who offend; grace is extended to fill in the gap when another is unable to meet an obligation.
Righteousness and Peace is the name of the second key. This key opens the door of justice for all and affirms the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” With the key of Righteousness and Peace in our hands we will not rest until all forms of injustice are exposed. We will work diligently to lock down any form of evil that oppresses our fellow human beings. This key will bind all forms of racism, bigotry, social injustice, and hate.
When I read the red letters in my Bible I see Jesus paint a picture of a community that has the capacity to bring light to dark places, joy to those who mourn, hope to hopeless situations, release for the oppressed, freedom for the captive, and good news to the poor. It seems like “church” is more of a thing we do than a place we go. When I hear Jesus talk, it sounds like “church” is a community of ordinary people who are entrusted with a set of extraordinary keys.
That’s why I keep hanging out with a community of Jesus followers who focus their attention on the red letters in the Bible. I want to learn how to use these keys to the kingdom of Heaven. I want to know how to release the kind of mercy that sets people free. I want to stand with people who love justice and spend their lives binding up the forces of evil that oppress people and cause harm to our neighbors.
If you put me in a community of people who remember the purpose of the keys to the kingdom of Heaven I’ll go to the church meeting . . . even if I’m not the pastor.
I’m wondering this morning, as the sun rises over our nation, what would Jesus do during the inauguration of our 46th president? Would he turn on the news and observe from a distance or would he buy a bus ticket and travel to DC? If he were there would he wave a flag to prove his patriotism or would he use it as a weapon to bring harm to those who see the world different than he does? Perhaps Jesus would find a few friends and go fishing. I’m tempted to think the latter because that’s what I want to do. I want to go to my “happy place” and deny the mess we find ourselves in.
To help get some clarity on my thoughts I read the Palm Sunday story—the day Jesus was inaugurated as the King of Kings. Do you remember the story? Jesus was traveling into the city of Jerusalem and a spontaneous parade erupted. All the trappings were there for a grand inauguration. The colt he traveled on, the songs the people sang, the palm branches, the cloaks people laid on the ground before him were prophetic signs to announce the Messiah had finally come and a new era was dawning.
The story says, “When Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.”
On his inauguration day Jesus wept. He lamented that peace was in their grasp, yet the people he loved couldn’t—or wouldn’t—receive it.
With his eyes still red from tears, Jesus enters the temple courts of the city and performs a prophetic act; he drives out the opportunists who turned the outer temple court (the place of worship for gentiles) into a market place. He registers a complaint for all to hear: “It is written, my house will be a house of prayer for all nations; but you have made it a den of robbers.”
First Jesus laments and then he rebukes the religious leaders for abusing their power and neglecting their mission.
I believe Jesus was patriotic. He loved his nation and wept over it. He saw the forthcoming collapse of its economic, political, and theological center and it broke his heart. But he was far from being a nationalist. He never embraced the narrative of exceptionalism. On the contrary, when the religious leaders and those in charge of the temple allowed the court of the gentiles to become a center for consumerism rather than a place of prayer for people from other nations, Jesus disrupted their enterprise and corrected their behavior. As always, Jesus acted to ensure all people, especially those on the margin of society, had access to the center of community life.
If you’re like me, wondering how to participate in the inauguration, may I suggest we follow the example of Jesus: prayers of lament for our nation and a strong rebuke of Christian nationalism are in order.
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Walter Brueggemann rightly critiqued the North American Church when he said, “The crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.” This generic U.S. brand of Christianity has left the world with a bad taste for the Church and a lack of trust in its leaders.
The world needs to see a Church that looks more like Jesus and less like the political ethos of our nation. After four years of fear based politics and demonizing rhetoric—coming from both sides of the political spectrum, liberal and conservative, we find our country at an extremely vulnerable place. (From my perspective the demonizing rhetoric comes more from the other side than mine—but isn’t that how the algorithms work?)
It is far past time for those of us who call ourselves “Christian” to splash water on our face and wake up. As the water runs down our face and drips on the collar of our shirt, let us remind ourselves of the vows we made at our baptism; vows to love God and love our neighbor; to place our trust in Christ and his kingdom; to grow in Christian character, in order to become mature disciples who live and love like Jesus.
God help us all, both those who have been lead astray by conspiracy theories and those duped with a lust for political power. Help us repent. When we have been mesmerized by the lure of affluence and neglected your call to love the poor; Lord, help us realign our values with yours. If we have settled for a watered down Christian nationalism and think those who look like us and vote like us are better than others . . . Lord help us stop and change the way we think! Today, we lament and weep! Our country and the Church are in dire need of your grace. Lord, have mercy.
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Biblical laments most always end with words of praise for God’s goodness, coupled with an expression of hope in God’s promises.
My hope in Christ inspires me to pray for our new President, Joe Biden and our new Vice President, Kamala Harris. God’s promise to make all things new encourages me to pray for the Church, believing she will rise up and lead the way forward, not with political power or militant force, but with love. I see a new brand of extremists on the horizon—extremists for love and justice who will rebuild what we have broken.
My son took me to a bar over the holidays called Flying Axes. The idea of mixing alcohol with axes made me a little uneasy. I think everyone there, except for me, thought the two things were made for each other—like peas and carrots. As the night went on, I was aware everyone in the room had a goal. For some the goal was to hit the bullseye with the axe and win the game. For others the goal was to see how much alcohol they could drink. For me, the goal was to return home with as many fingers as I left with.
If you put a target on the wall, paint a red dot in the middle of the target, and place an axe in close proximity—axes will start to fly! People like setting their sights on a goal and then hurling themselves towards the target. I believe all humans are hard–wired to pursue goals and dreams. Unfortunately, many of us have forgotten how to set goals that incite passion or create dreams that add value to the world.
Consider the typical New Year’s resolution. They stand as an indictment that most of us have forgotten how to dream and set life inspiring goals. Most New Year’s resolutions will focus on exercising more, saving more money, eating more healthy, and losing more weight. Yuck! No wonder people break their resolutions before mid January.
Over the past decade, I set at least one or more of these goals as my resolution for the New Year. I still weigh about the same as I did ten years ago—give or take twenty–one pounds. I still prefer eating chips on the couch rather than riding my exercise bike, and I still spend more money than I save. After ten years of failed attempts at keeping my New Year’s resolutions, I’m wondering if this year I should set a more grandiose goal, one that adds adventure to my life and value to the world. Would a whimsical dream generate the passion I need in order to hurl myself towards the target?
This year, I want to learn how to live and love like Jesus. How’s that for grandiosity? Jesus is the most passionate person I know. He lived a whimsical life, filled with grace and truth. He paid no attention to the social norms that suggested some people were better than others. On the contrary, Jesus was drawn to people who were pushed to the margins of life and considered “less than” by those who populated the dominant culture. He exemplified radical generosity—giving everything he had, including his own life, to express his love for people. He was a man of peace who loved playing with children, telling great stories about adventures in a kingdom, and sharing food with hungry people. He showed hospitality to strangers and included people in his inner circle who were typically excluded. He was courageous and spoke truth to power, even when those in power were plotting to kill him. Jesus was a champion of forgiveness and new beginnings, especially when people failed at hitting the target of what others considered a successful life.
With a man like Jesus set as the bullseye for life you can’t go wrong; even if you miss the target you wind up at a better place than where you started. Here’s my three–part plan for chasing my goal:
The plan of learning how to live and love like Jesus sounds simple enough, but it feels a little risky; especially now that I’ve written it down and shared it with my friends. Even though it feels risky, I’m encouraged by this truth: a goal worth pursuing assumes risk, like throwing an axe at a target next to a guy who’s had too much to drink . . . somebody could lose a finger.
I was a teenager in the seventies, and like most adolescents from any decade, I was clueless. I didn’t think about existential matters. What I believed about life, why I was alive, or where in the world I was going didn’t get much of my mental bandwidth. I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to be liked by the people I thought were important. When you’re a teenager, in order to fit in you put on clothes that look like the people you admire.
I had a friend named Ricky—no doubt the coolest guy on campus. Ricky wore platform shoes with six–inch heels and elephant leg pants. Elephant pants are best defined as bell–bottoms on steroids. One Friday after school Ricky took me shopping and I bought a red pair of platform shoes with white stitching, bright red elephant pants, a white turtleneck, and a multi–colored polyester shirt with puffy sleeves and a wide collar. When Ricky and I showed up at the football game all of his friends couldn’t stop talking about how groovy the two of us looked.
It took a while, but shortly after high school I discovered life is more than the clothes we wear. Perhaps more importantly, I discovered relationships, built on fictional personas put on to impress others, is not the stuff true character and genuine friendships are made of. More than anyone else, it was my friendship with Jesus that taught me the value of being true to my self.
When Jesus invites people to be his friend he usually says something like this: If you want to learn about life from me, deny yourself, take up a cause that adds beauty to life and follow me. For me his invitation was a little more blunt: Larry, put away all the fake and cheesy ways you’re trying to impress people and be real. Be the person I made you to be and love people whether they like you back or not.
Being friends with Jesus helped me discover the real me and I actually like the person I found. I packed up all the “groovy” clothes and dropped them off at the Good Will store. For kicks, I kept my red shoes and put them in a box in the back of my closet. I started wearing Levi Jeans and Chuck Taylor tennis shoes. Forty years later my wardrobe looks the same. When I buy new shoes the only choice I have is whether to buy a black pair of Chucks or a gray pair. I usually go with gray, but the other day I bought a red pair. I wanted to add a little whimsy to my life.
Wearing red tennis shoes reminds me to “Think Red” in the words I write and the ways I walk. For me, “Thinking Red” means to honor the words of Jesus, the ones printed in red. This year I plan to write and reflect on the words of Jesus every week. But I want to do more than reflect on the red letters; I want to walk them out with my friends. If you want to Think Red together you don’t have to wear red tennis shoes, simply "like" this page and share your comments. Together, we will reflect on the words and ways of Jesus and see if we can put them into action.
If you’re wondering about the red shoes in the back of my closet . . . when my son was five years old he liked to play dress up. One day, after twenty minuets of rummaging through my closet, Ryan came out wearing a paisley print necktie, a bathrobe, and my 1970’s platform shoes. He looked at the shoes and then he looked up at me and asked, “Dad, were you a clown?” I bent down on one knee, put his cheeks between my hands, and told him the truth, “Son, as strange as this may sound, before I married your mom your dad was a real clown.”
Larry Stoess is an author, public speaker, and urban church planter. He loves telling stories about how dreaming with God will empower people to make old and broken things new again. Larry and a band of friends founded the Church of the Promise in Louisville's Portland neighborhood; The Table, a pay-what-you-can community café; and Promise Housing Plus, a non-profit construction company. He has written about their experience of dreaming with God in his new book: Think Red.