We've talked the Enemy making machine. Banners, reverse definition; perverse pleasure.
In the church, we create us's and them's through Scripture (do you take it seriously or not); through conversion (have you made a decision). And now one more.
The church itself.
In the 1800s, the mainline churches were pro-slavery and against abolition. But then a new group called the Evangelicals became vocal and demanded that denominations and churches changed their stance on slavery.
Then, in the early 1900s there was something that historians called "The Great Reversal." The Mainline churches now beginning emphasizing "the social gospel"—that churches should work for practical good in society—while the evangelicals focused on the so-called fundamentals of personal conversion, sin, heaven, and hell.
But then there was another reversal in the 50s and 60s where the evangelicals realized they were losing their century long influence on society. Thus began the Moral Majority Movement and other political organizations focused on keeping Christian, family values at the center of American politics and life. Mainliners thought the mingling of religion and politics was inappropriate and stayed out of it.
But then, as evangelicals began to lose their influence in the past 20 or so years, progressive Christians began to make their moves to influence society once more, so that their social gospel of inclusion, food, healthcare, and creation care is voted for in politics.
And around and around we go.
We keep playing out the same antagonisms over and over again. We keep repeating the same us's and them's, though we occasionally switch sides, or end up with more power or influence than the other.
And we keep getting the wounds and battle scars as well. I'm well aware that we are church made up of a lot of people hurt and wounded by other churches. Our defensiveness and our cynicisms and our wounds are real and earned. And if we're not careful, will shape us into the kinds of people who end up repeating the same mistakes of our spiritual fathers and mothers. Where we were made into a Them; and now we all got together, and now we're Us. And in a generation, there'll probably be more Us's then the Them's that we escaped from. And in the process we'll start Them-ing someone else, and out of their hurt and pain they'll go and start a new group of Us, and the whole thing will just start all over again.
So what do we do?
I've got 4 Scriptures for us to ponder. I won't pretend like these thoughts are particularly organized, but I think they at where we're meant to be going as a people.
The Church Has A Calling
Ephesians 3:10, "God's intent was that now through the church the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms."
God has a mission to bring healing to the sickness of the world. And that healing is not coercive. It is not instant. And it is not top-down. Rather it is through the church that that healing comes. And we are to declare and enact that wisdom to the rulers and the authorities.
Now, if you read "in the heavenly realms" and think, Oh that just means like angels and demons and stuff, then that means you're applying a 21st century materialist world view onto a 1st century spiritual worldview. The heavenly realm wasn't separate from the material world; it was what animated the material world. Caesar was Caesar, the Roman generals were in charge, the imperial army was always threatening to keep you in line because the heavenly realms put you there.
So when Paul says that the church is supposed to declare the wisdom of God to rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, it means to Caesar, to the city governor, to the captain of the guard.
It means that the church is meant to have real and practical effects on society and confront and challenge the powers that be so that justice flows like a river.
The old us vs. them of "social gospel" vs. "personal gospel" is unknown in the New Testament. Jesus and His disciples went around bringing healing and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. Jesus fed the masses and confronted individuals of their brokenness. He decried systems of religious oppression and asked individuals to make things right that they had broken.
The church today is meant to do the same thing. We proclaim the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities to that the way society organizes itself looks more just; and so we can invite every single individual into following Jesus, which I believe is the best possible way to live. We can and we must do both!
So, do we proclaim this wisdom to the rulers and authorities so that we can become the rulers and authorities? Let's go to our next Scripture.
Power Is Not the Calling
Mark 4:31, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and become the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade."
It's slow and secret and it requires faith that whatever is happening under the ground is worth while.
Now the last thing the world needs is another straight, white, Protestant cis-male saying, "Hey, just be patient." Last I checked, my rights have never been questioned, the Supreme court has never made a decision on whether or not I get the same rights as everyone else. When questions like "Who's allowed to get married?" and "Why are Black citizens arrested, murdered by the state, and imprisoned at a higher rate than anyone else" are up in the air, I sure as hell don't get the right to tell y'all to be patient about the whole "make the world a slightly more just place."
When I look at the New Testament, I see a few things. First, where Jesus-followers showed up, the poor, sick, slave, children, and women (aka all the marginalized people) were "filled with joy." Why? Because the church was there to take care of, protect, and create community for them. The church was a place where you knew you would be cared for if you were sick, disabled, divorced, widowed, orphaned, a runaway slave, a marginalized ethnicity or sexual identity. Of course the city was filled with the joy.
But you know what else happened when Christians showed up? The empire and the powers that be that actively oppressed all the people I just mentioned threw the Christians in jail and threw literal riots because the Christians had gone and actively disrupted the systems of oppression.
So, when I say mustard seed, I certainly don't mean "Be patient. Shut up, slow down." The first, second, and third generation of Christians, many of which were killed for believing what they believed and acting in the anti-empire, anti-oppression ways that they acted would shut me off the stage if I meant "Be patient, shut down, slow down."
What I do mean is that a Mustard Seed Kingdom is subversive, underground, and foundation cracking. It's grassroots, bottom up, not top down. It's God coming down in the flesh as a human and refusing to coerce or govern anyone into submission and obedience.
I think part of the disorientation I'm feeling right now—I won't speak for you—is that I had this hope that things we're going to get better. That we could look forward to things being made set right all at once. That all those times I read on Instagram and Twitter, "Come on, we're better than this" would come true. And I had hoped, not for a mustard seed, but for a tsunami.
And then I realized, oh wait. We're not better than this. We never have been. That's a lie that my ancestors passed on to me to make me feel better about my nation's history. The fact is, we're still as divided as ever. We still have a thousand disagreements, a thousand Us's and Them's and Banners all certain on what we disagree on, all hoping for the pleasure of someone else losing. I probably too often put my hope in the top-down, power-hungry approach. I want to be the ruler and the authority, not have to speak truth it.
The Mustard Seed Kingdom is slow and kinda hard to see and not very sexy or cool and it doesn't go viral. But, to desperately mix my metaphors, it's the tortoise that's going to ultimately put the Hare to shame.
So, the church has a mission to proclaim the wisdom of God. It does this in the upside-down, inside-out way of the mustard seed. Next:
The Church Will Bring Division
Matthew 10:34-36, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against his mother...a man's enemies will be the members of his own household."
Following the way of Jesus has consequences. When you believe in the goodness of creation, the depth of its brokenness, and the mission that God has to bring reconciliation to all things—you will get pushback! When you believe that creation is not disposable; that systems of racism, sexism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, ableism, colonialism, are real and need to be demolished like the idols that they are; when you believe that sin is real and must be dealt with on both a personal and a societal level—when you believe those things, you will have enemies.
As we've said, and I think has become the theme of this series—Live in such a way that reveals enemies; not makes them.
Forgiveness Will Heal the World
Matthew 18:21-22, Peter asks, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?
Jesus answered,"I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times."
Now, listen, there is ton of bad teaching on forgiveness. And I'm certain a large portion of you want to turn the sermon off right here. How can we talk about forgiveness when we have been hurt so badly, when there are those who actively fighting to take away our rights, erase our stories, and don't mind if we die in higher numbers at younger ages.
So, let's set the record straight on forgiveness.
Loving your enemies doesn't equal, "Pretend like we don't have enemies." Jesus didn't say, "Don't have enemies." Jesus didn't say, "Pretend like no one has ever harmed you." That's bull.
There's two false narratives out there that can get tossed around:
- Let's just all get along. We're not enemies. Let's just set our differences aside. Unity is the most important thing.
That erasure. That's denial. That's actually the opposite of forgiveness. Forgiveness isn't about ignoring the hurt and acting like it didn't happen. Forgiveness names the pain, names the hurt.
Narrative 2 is this: Forgiveness is for chumps. In the least, we can never be friends. I want nothing to do with you. In fact, for some of you, I will hurt you, harm you, and get vengeance on you for what you've done.
This takes the hurt, pain, offense and makes it superhuman. It means that what you've done, how you've treated me, how you voted, what you post on FB, the nasty text you sent me—it's more important than the fact that you are human created by God. And instead of my self-determination being driven by God's Spirit, instead I'm going to let how you act and speak define the kind of person that I'm going to become.
Now, forgiveness is a whole other thing. Forgiveness is not a middle path between the two. It's not a compromise. It's a 3rd dimension in a 2-dimensional world.
"The point we desperately need to grasp is that forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance. It is not the same as indifference, whether personal or moral. Forgiveness doesn't mean that we don't take evil seriously after all; it means that we do.
"In fact it means we take it doubly seriously. To begin with, it means. a settled determination to name evil and to shame it; without that there is, after all, nothing to forgive. To follow that, forgiveness means that we are equally determined to do everything in our power to resume an appropriate relationship with the offender after evil has been dealt with. Finally, forgiveness means that we have settled it in our minds that we shall not allow this evil to determine the sort of people we shall become.
"Forgiveness doesn't mean, I didn't really mind, or It didn't really matter. I did mind and it did matter, otherwise there wouldn't be anything to forgive at all, merely something to adjust my attitudes about.
"Nor is forgiveness that same as saying, "Let's pretend it didn't really happen." This is a little trickier because the point of forgiveness is that I am committing myself to work toward the point where I can behave as if it hadn't happened. But it did happen, and forgiveness itself isn't pretending that it didn't; forgiveness is looking hard at the fact that it did and making a conscious choice—a decision of the moral will—to set it aside so that it doesn't come as a barrier between us. In other words, forgiveness presupposes that the thing which happened was indeed evil and cannot simply be set aside as irrelevant. Along that route lies suppressed anger and a steady distancing of people who no longer trust another. A much better plan is to put the thing out on the table, as indeed the New Testament commands us to do, and deal with them."
"When we’ve been hurt, when we’ve been battered, sometimes anger and bitterness give us a sense of control. But the truth is, our bitterness and anger often control us. They keep our perpetrators close at hand, keep the wrongs they’ve done to us in the front of our minds. In choosing bitterness and anger, we hand power back over to those who’ve harmed us. That’s true whether we’re discussing family pains, church pains, or the pains wrought by racism, classism, or sexism. How do we get free of that power?
"Through the practice of forgiveness.
"Practicing forgiveness doesn’t mean simply ignoring or glossing over the evil and injustice we’ve experienced. It also doesn’t mean that we deny or spiritualize away feelings of anger or grief, the normal emotions of a wounded heart. In fact, Paul’s teaching to the Ephesians seems to show the opposite. He wrote, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” Take a close look at the passage and consider these questions:
"How can you get rid of rage until you’ve taken the time to feel it?
How can you get rid of anger unless you’ve made space to recognize it?
How can you forgive without first understanding the wrong and hurtful actions you’re releasing the perpetrator from?
"See? Only when we’ve made space for our emotions, when we’ve honestly evaluated them, can we move into true Christlike forgiveness.
"Bridge builders don’t deny hurt. They experience it. Sit in it. Feel it. But they don’t stay in that pain. They don’t allow those who’ve wounded them to control them or constantly drive them back to anger and resentment. Instead, they allow that pain to continually push them into forgiveness."
Not pain that we deny. Not pain that pushes to division and enemy making. Pain that pushes us to forgiveness.
Friends, I'll admit that I haven't been part of this church for a long time, and the time I have been here, there's been a pandemic, so I'll admit my perceptions could be way off. But, I'll say that my perception is that The Table Church may have had a history where we were more sure what we were not, what we were against, then what we are for. We don't have to do that. We can be a church FOR the Good News that Jesus is setting up a Kingdom where we all play; where we will make known the wisdom of God the rulers and authorities and powers and the cities and the systems.
But we will not do through seeking power for power's sake. We will be like mustard seeds, fomenting Christ-like, cross-shaped, justice-for-others-oriented revolution from the ground up.
We will discover that we have enemies. That there are those opposed to the Divine forces of righteousness and justice rolling down like a river. Those who would rather side with oppression and hunger and chains and violence and vengeance than freedom and love and kindness and peace and a cross-shaped determination to love those enemies.
And we will be forged in the fires of forgiveness. Our pain and our hurt and our heartache will not drive us to bitterness and divisiveness and nursing wounds until they fester and kill us from the inside out. Rather we will let our pain push us towards forgiveness, naming the evil that has been done against us and against our loved ones and against our neighbors and declaring, What you did was wrong. I don't have to let you do it again; and I also don't have to let your wrong define who I am.
Let us together refuse to be the church of us vs. them. Let us be the church of Us For the World.