I have run across an interesting quote from Peter Leithart from his book Against Christianity. Get a load of this;
“So long as the church preaches the gospel and functions as a properly ‘political’ reality, a polity of her own, the kings of the earth have a problem on their hands… As soon as the church appears, it becomes clear to any alert politician that worldly politics is no longer the only game in town. The introduction of the church into any city means that the city has a challenger within its walls.”
“I’ve got a tiger by the tail its plain to see…” Not the lyric you might expect to hear in Sunday School. But there I was in front of the class belting out the lyrics. The way the story was told to me, the teacher asked if anyone in the class had a special song they wished to sing. While older me can’t imagine myself agreeing to sing in public, apparently five year old me thought it was a good idea. Buck Owens would have been proud. My parents – not so much.
We began to attend another church soon afterward. Hopefully that decision was not related to my singing. But from early on I was part of a community called church. I had no idea what that meant at the time. I had no idea how belonging to church would shape me or where it would take me.
It is time to begin thinking about church for what it is – an adventure. As with other adventures, this requires direction. Without direction it is a guarantee that we will be all over the place. Probably more of us singing Buck Owens songs in Sunday School. That is why we read the logs of those who have gone on before. They help us navigate territory by reminding us where we’ve been and they help us understand what to expect along the way.
This becomes our primary literature. It invites us into its story and takes us on a canonical adventure. Sometimes I explore this literature alone. This can be enjoyable and a reasonably helpful exercise. This allows me to move at my own pace. I can reread parts that I like best. I can turn the page if the reading becomes too uncomfortable.
But this literature is intended to be relational. It is written for a group. It is best explored in community. It is to be read in twos and threes and even larger gatherings. It prompts conversation about what this adventure should be like. It encourages hearers to continue some practices and to change others. It expects our gatherings to become enactments of a new reality that is to spill over into other parts of the journey.
The primary literature reminds us that this adventure is not one that is safe. One does not join this narrative in order to stay out of trouble. The journey will take you to slave camp, through deep water, into the wilderness, and into battle with giants. Those who have traveled this adventure have suffered stoning and imprisonment. The narrative explicitly calls us to follow one who was sentenced to execution. If safety is what you desire, then maybe this journey is not for you. It is safe to say that when five year old me stood in front of a Sunday School Class and sang, there is no way I could have known what I had gotten into.
Each time I send in my quarterly taxes I can hear the Beatles singing in the background. “If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street, If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat. If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat, If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet. Don’t ask me what I want it for, If you don’t want to pay some more. Cause I’m the taxman…” It makes me want to cast my line in the lake and hope to catch a fish with the coin I need in its mouth.
At the same time, I hear a question asked Jesus “Do we pay taxes or not?” This reminds us that politics were alive and well in first century Palestine. The fact that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record this episode reminds us that the gospels have an interest in politics as well. And Jesus was right in on the political discussion. This is good for us to be reminded of. Especially those of us who want to believe religion is private and separate from politics and that Jesus only talks about spiritual things.
Considering the song his mother sings during her pregnancy, I suspect her lullabies may have been a little political as well. If that is the case then it is no surprise that when Jesus began ministry he began with a political announcement. A new kingdom is here!
The context we are given for Jesus birth is Caesar’s decree. At his death he is charged as a rival king. And then in between he is asked the question “Do we pay taxes or not?” There is simply no way to avoid the idea that to follow Jesus puts us in a political story.
Caesar has coins stamped in his image. Jesus asks for one of these and says something along the line of “Caesar can stamp his image on as many of these as he desires. But do not let Caesar stamp his image on you. You do not belong to Caesar.” Jesus wants to be sure we do not confuse God with Caesar. We are in a political story. And following Jesus complicates politics.
I am serving in Christ Reformed Church in Duncannon, PA. We are trying to be intentional about things like becoming a community and belonging to a community. We are reading texts like Genesis and recognizing ourselves as descendants of a promise. The promise of a worldwide family. For centuries followers and disciples have taken this seriously. We are following the same steps and praying the same prayers as these early followers.
We are practicing the promise given to Abraham so long ago and so far away, but we are practicing this promise in this place. What Abraham practiced among the Canaanites, we attempt to practice among the Duncannonites. We break bread together and remember who called us. We walk through the church year with the understanding we are on a journey.
Early in my relationship with this body, I was called to a meeting held in the downstairs of the building. Some referred to this as the dungeon. I was ok with this description. Some of the church’s best stuff has come from out of dungeons. We discussed details during the meeting. But what I remember most was the way the meeting concluded. John had us join hands and pray the Lord’s Prayer. I felt like part of something big. Like we belonged to a long history of people who have prayed these words in dungeons and church basements.
Virginia Stem Owens has written an interesting little volume And the Trees Clap Their Hands. The subtitle is Faith, Perception, and the New Physics. These things are discussed but this book reads more like a confession, Stem Owens reveals she is a spy. She is busy ransacking the world for secrets. She stuffs them in her pockets while going about her business undetected. It could have been titled A Handbook about Being a Spy. In this book it is her intention to pull the reader into a spy story.
She has been verified in the last census. The house she lives in, the clothes she wears, the food she eats, the cars she drives do not distinguish her from others. She disguises as an ordinary citizen, making her contribution of children, taxes, and casseroles while all the while she is up to something different. Stem Owens strikes a trail and sticks to it. She spreads her senses wide and pulls them back in to see what she may have snared in the wind. She is on a stake out, waiting in unlikely places “ready to pounce on reality should it choose to reveal itself.” She stalks and ambushes, wrestles and gouges whatever meaning she is able, “You must be ready when it comes flying at you.” Readiness is in contrast to self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is fatal for spies. “To ring bells and go barefoot is self-indulgent, and would only call attention to yourself.”
There is danger in this vocation. The greatest is not to be discovered or even to be tortured. The greatest danger for the spy is to forget the mission. The worst thing that can happen is to forget who you serve or to begin thinking that Babylon is all there is. The danger is real. She knows this because she is surrounded by many who have already defected. She is surrounded by others who have forgotten or even renounced the mission. The danger is real. The spy spends so much time and effort learning the language, adopting the customs, and practicing the habits of this land that gradually she becomes her cover. It is easy to forget what one is about.
She knows her way around. She does not need a map for where she lives, but one is necessary for what she hopes for “It is buried treasure that needs a map.” So she slinks out the gate with map in hand. She is disguised not by her own skills or cunning but by the blindness of those around her. She understands the constant danger. But if she winds up like John the Baptist with her head on a platter, she will not blame Herod or the headsman. They are only issuing the known penalty for those who commit such treason.
In case you haven’t heard, there will be an election in November. You may not be excited about it. Just thinking about the next president may make you anxious. You might not be convinced the candidates are strong. This may be the first presidential election in history where no one actually votes for a candidate, only against the other one. You might be planning to cast a ballot and then pray for four years of gridlock.
Even in the church, many are pulling for one candidate over the other. Or, as others are, planning to vote against one or the other. While making plans about whether to vote, or who to vote for, or against – we must not forget we belong to a political story that does not accommodate the mainstream political story. We must remember that no matter what happens in November, Jesus is still King.
When we say Jesus is King we are not talking about some metaphor, we are talking about the reality of “The Kingdom is at Hand.” When we say Kingdom we may picture a spiritual rule but we also recognize it as a political term that places the church smack dab in the middle of a political discussion. We cannot get away from politics when we talk about the church. Ecclesia is the word used for church in the New Testament. Interestingly, before the word was used for church it was used to describe local political gatherings. It seems that both kingdom and church take us into politics. If this puts you in the conversation of American politics, I pray you are able to behave as a follower of King Jesus.
Still it is easy at this point of the political cycle to bow to the politics of the world. It is easy to begin thinking that victory on the world stage is the same as a victory in the Kingdom. Yet, we are not called to be soldiers in the culture wars. We cannot vacillate between treating Jesus as King in the spiritual realm but Caesar as king in the public sector. We are not casting a ballot for Caesar; we have already given our allegiance to another. We may not be able to get away from political implications. But, whatever else happens in November, we will still be living under the rule of our King and by the expectations of His Kingdom. Perhaps our best political moves will be to gather in order to do the things we are called to do as followers of King Jesus.
I have been rereading The Fellowship of the Ring and can’t help but be drawn to the odds against the company sent out to destroy the ring and defeat the evil Sauron. The task must be done and yet it appears the wrong team has been chosen to do it. Tolkien gives an interesting adventure. As necessary as this adventure may be, success does not seem likely when we look at a company that consists of a dwarf, an elf, a wizard, two humans and four hobbits. The task is great, the company appears small.
I read Tolkien and think about the church. Sometimes you look across the congregation and wonder, considering the task at hand, if we will be able to meet the challenge. We are surrounded by evil. Our strengths seem small. Yet the task remains and we gather, little more than a dwarf, an elf, a wizard, two humans and four hobbits, and we step into this adventure. A company set out to change the world.
It is a good time of year to be in the garden. Or at least to think about it. Here is a garden thought from Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now.
I am in the garden, turning soil and mixing compost, planting onions and lettuce. I roll up my sleeves and reach into the earth. I breathe in the smell and look forward to picking vegetables from the back yard. I am thinking about Genesis, where on the sixth day, God rolled up His sleeves and reached into the earth and formed a human, an earthling.
Genesis says God gave the earthling a name and then breath. Genesis says God looked at this breathing, moving, artistic creation and, “behold, it was very good.” It is not recorded, but I suspect He also said, “Wow.”
I find it interesting that God planted a garden and placed the earthling there to cultivate and to keep the garden. Barbara Brown Taylor thinks that while working in the garden you remember “where you came from and why. You touch the stuff your bones are made of. You handle the decomposed bodies of trees, birds, and fallen stars. Your body recognizes its kin. If you have nerve enough, you also foresee your own decomposition. This is not bad knowledge to have. It is the kind that puts other kinds in perspective. Feel that cool dampness? Welcome back to earth, you earthling. Smell that dirt? Welcome home, you beloved dust creature of God.”
I, scooped from the earth, now flesh given breath, am in the garden, turning soil, mixing compost, planting onions and lettuce. I roll up my sleeves. I breathe in the smell. I reach into the earth. It gets under my nails. In my hair. It’s caked on my knees. I call it dirt. But I think about the sixth day when God first formed a human from this stuff and all I can do is say “wow.”
Each of the Gospels takes us to the cemetery on Sunday morning. A scene of some confusion and surprise. The Gospels bring us to this place so we know how much things have changed. In case there were doubts before, what happened in the Jerusalem cemetery suggests the world is different now.
In Mark’s Gospel we arrive at the scene alongside women who intend to perform a ritual for dead bodies. Perhaps it is noteworthy Mark has told us all along how difficult it is to be a disciple. Though readers are told from the start Jesus is the son of God, disciples still ask “Who is this?” One of them even offers Jesus advice on how kings should rule kingdoms. Of course, Jesus replies “Get behind me.” On this Sunday at the cemetery it seems they finally know what to expect from Jesus. After all, he is sealed in a tomb behind an extremely large stone.
Instead, Mark’s Gospel tells us that things have changed. Instead of dead Jesus we find a young man in a white robe and the women run away trembling, astonished, and afraid. Just the day before they thought they understood how things work. But on this Sunday morning we wake to discover the world is different now. And can never be the same again.
What if we viewed the story of the church as a rebellion? After all, that is the way it has been viewed through much of history. It is only because we have convinced ourselves we are part of the mainstream that we have lost sight of our connection with a historical rebellion.
The fact is, we have been at odds with what goes on around us for a long time. Abraham was an early recipient of information that things were not ok and a different way was necessary. Ever since, we have carried with us a promise of blessing and curse. Moses led a band of rescued slaves into occupied territory and they claimed it as their own. The prophets preached and wrote messages contrary to majority opinion for hundreds of years. John came preaching a challenge to existing kingdoms, announcing that a new king and new kingdom was at hand.
When the rulers of the majority kingdom realized they could not stop this king from his contrary ways, they crucified him. This was supposed to stop the rebellion. Instead, his following continued to grow and his news began spreading everywhere. Followers were often in danger, they sometimes met in secret, they shared their news from prison, and many were put to death. One was ostracized but even there he continued to preach how the ways of God are at odds with the ways of the world.
This story has not stopped and we are part of it. We still carry an old promise, stories of rescued slaves, and the words of prophets. We are participants in an ongoing rebellion that has been alive for centuries. We are recipients of information that things are not ok as they are. We still gather in the presence of a crucified king who sends us out with news of a better way.