Since that fateful early morning announcement on 11/9 that Donald Trump had been elected president, I have felt like we have been living in the opening scenes of one of those movies. You know, the ones where oblivious and unassuming people are living in a world that is about to be completely changed for the worse, but no one believes it. You know, a disaster movie.
And in the days since the election, news continues flooding out with so many scandals relating to the Trump transition (he isn’t even in office yet) it is hard to know what to focus on, from Trump’s White Supremacist Chief Strategist, to an unhinged National Security Advisor, to global uncertainty, to Obama having to deal with a flood of concerned world leaders, to Trump’s ties to Russian interference in the election, to Trump’s insane list of conflicts of interests, to Trump’s inexcusable treatment of the press, to even suggestions of vote rigging (he did say it was rigged!). And let’s not forget his pre-election scandals like the misogynist Trump Tapes and Trump University law suits.
It is surreal to say the least.
With this hurricane of insanity around us, I keep coming back to the question of what this means for the church, specifically for mainline Christianity. For the portion of Evangelicals that elected trump, I actually think this was the final step in turning White Evangelicalism into a nationalist political movement. While many evangelicals may still be believers, Evangelicalism can no longer claim to follow the Triune God of the Bible.
American Evangelicalism is no longer Christian by any meaningful measure.
But for mainline Churches, whose American members may or may not have voted for Trump, but whose leadership did not lineup behind him for a chance at power, Donald Trump may transform us in ways we would never have imagined.
If the Trump administration’s transition to power continues down this rocky and convention defying path, taking the next government deeper into racist behaviour and policy, isolationist attitudes, questionable ethics and attempted censorship complete with Orwellian double speak, we can only imagine what the world will look like after January 20th.
People are already afraid as the incidence of race related attacked and violence increases. Protests have been going on since the election and people are talking about how to survive the new regime. Many political and public leaders are advocating a wait and see approach, but many others simply don’t want to make the same mistake that the appeasement period before World War Two did and are already speaking out.
And so as Churches and communities of faith, where does this leave us?
To imagine how this new world might collide with the church consider this example I have been using for a while now:
Imagine going back to a church in 50s or 60s. If you told the average person in the pew that in 50 years many churches would be shells of their former selves with aging and declining membership, you would be laughed at. Churches were full of young families and programs. Families had 4.2 kids and church attendance was socially required.
But why were they full? Because people were better Christians back then?
Or was it that the world had just come through two world wars and the Great Depression? Was it that society had collectively stood at the brink and glimpsed our collective demise for 5 years straight before the first good news for the allies on D Day?
Church was a place where hope was found, where grief, anxiety, struggle, pain and fear could be handed over to something bigger than ourselves. Churches proclaimed that there was something more powerful than huge armies marching over nation after nation, than governments who were sending millions of husbands and sons to war, than the threat of oppression and even extinction.
Churches didn’t have to do anything special other than be communities that proclaimed the Good News as they had been for nearly 2000 years. They were naturally what so many people needed in that world.
Now imagine telling anyone who has regularly been in a pew for the past 15 years that it is possible that our currently declining and aging church may be full and bustling again in a few decades. They will laugh at you.
Well, maybe they would have laughed before November 8th.
But now all the things we thought were important in reversing decline like flashy worship, entertaining sermons, lattes for sale in the lobby, Nickelodeon night for the youth and all the other things we think will “attract” people mean nothing now.
Churches, especially mainline ones, will need to focus again on the core things that we have always been:
We will need to be communities of refuge because people will have fewer and fewer safe spaces.
We will need to be communities of resistance in a world that is demanding division, conflict and violence.
We will need to be communities of hope because we cannot just go back to sleep and pretend the government will have our backs while we spend our time mindlessly consuming stuff and entertainment.
We will need to be proclaimers of the gospel.
Of course, God has always called us to be all these things. But lately we have been delinquent in that call because we couldn’t see all that which we needed saving from. The world told us that our only problem was not having enough.
But now the threats and dangers, both external and internal will be obvious. We will now see what it is that we need saving from more clarity.
And we will see how God is using us to proclaim that salvation with more clarity.
And this new world will make what the church has always done subversive to the established order. Just by being the church we will declare that bigotry, hatred and self interest are not virtuous.
Just by doing what we have always done we will be seen as contrarians who believe that forgiveness of sins, life and salvation are given to us freely by God. Things that didn’t seem to mean much when the world’s biggest problem was not having enough stuff. But now are things that will mean everything to people suffering under a kleptocratic regime.
Just by being people of Word and Sacrament, we will birth a reality completely different than the one dictated by power.
A reality grounded in Christ and rooted in defiant hope.
For a while now, many churches, church leaders and Christians have been wringing our hands over decline, wondering what it might take to get people back. And we foolishly thought it would be trendy programs and music selection.
Now, we are discovering what may actually drive a resurgence in mainline Christianity and what will be truly important for the church to be about.
Are we ready for the kind of world that will finally give us what we have been longing for?
Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,for yours is the kingdom of God. (Read the whole passage)
We find ourselves coming near the end of church year. All Saints Sunday is a herald of the closing year and the coming of Advent. In only two weeks, comes Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of this church cycle. And so in this regard, All Saints takes us to places of beginnings and ends, birth and old age, life and death.
In the past two weeks, we have already marked the occasion of All Saints as we laid to rest members of our community. And today, we will broaden the occasion. We will remember both with joy and grief, those saints who have gone before us, those loved ones who have died. But it is not just the saints whom we have buried in the ground, but also those whom we have drowned in the waters of baptism this past year that we remember and pray for as well.
Saints, so to speak, can be a fairly broad category. The Church of Rome, has compiled their list of saints under strictly maintained standards. Other protestant churches often avoid saint talk all together. Lutherans have a favourite phrase to identify ourselves: ‘ Sinner and Saint’.
All these different definitions of who and what saints are, muddy our understanding of what a saint is. But probably we could agree that a saint is someone holy, or in other words a blessed person. And blessings is what Jesus is talking about today.
For All Saints Sunday, we hear Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Plain. It is a sermon that is well known and often quoted. Blessings and Woes. And these are not the heavenly minded blessings of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount which reads: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Luke is concrete and direct. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. These are concrete blessings that have to do with rich and poor, hungry and filled, laughing and weeping, hate and respect. And more specifically, they have to do with you… and me, and us… they are not about some abstract group of people.
The thing is, that lately, the version of the blessings and woes that we have been hearing in our world are quiet different than Jesus’. As the US elections looms over the entire world, we all know the version of blessings and woes that one particular candidate seems to be preaching. But just for fun, maybe we could imagine them going something like this:
“The poor are a bunch of losers,
for they deserve to be poor. Get a job! Which I alone can give.
“The hungry, what a bunch of lazy bums,
just get some food, I mean c’mon.
“Sad people, the worst, the worst,
sad poeple haven’t done anything for the world, let me tell you.”
“But rich people, I love rich people,tremendous.
I love just ‘em. I am really rich, by the way.
“And people with lots to eat,We gotta protect people with lots to eat.
We gotta do something for them.
“And happy people, happy people are the best
I will be the greatest president for happy people. No one else will be a better president for happy people”
“Now listen, we are going to make things great again, trust me.”
The beatitudes according to today.
But before we feel too smug because we would never preach this version, this perspective on what it means to be blessed and cursed is one that we all have the capacity to believe. The old sinner within each of, the part of us that carries our fears and anxieties and desire for security and control, that part of us want to hold on to what we have, even if that means those around us go without. The part of us is controlled by fear and anxiety worries that sharing with others who don’t have as much might make us miss out.
And yet, the world’s version of the beatitudes are held up to us like a mirror, and we start to see how destructive they truly are. We begin to see that a world that operates according to this version is not a world we want to live in.
And so when Jesus offers his version of blessings and curses, it challenges this accepted version of things that exists in our world. It challenges the idea that the rich and happy are blessed, while the poor and persecuted are cursed. So what are we to do Jesus’ version?
Unlike the world’s version of the beatitudes which tell us what should try for – try to be rich and avoid being poor.
Jesus’ beatitudes are not a prescription on how to be blessed. Rather they are descriptive. They are poetic words about life. They are a painting of joy and suffering. They are music that speaks to our hearts and minds. They are reminders of where God is through the blessings and woes of life.
When Jesus talked about blessing, he is naming God’s presence. Jesus is telling where God shows up in life.
We can hear what it means to be blessed in the words that are proclaimed at the end of every service:
The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord’s face shine upon you with grace and mercy.
The Lord look upon you with favour and give you peace.
We bless each other to say that God is with us. We pronounce blessings at baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, on normal green Sundays, on Christmas Eve and Easter Morning, at the beginning and end of the day. We bless each other in times of joy and sadness, in times of celebration and grief. Because God goes with us at all these times.
Yet, God does not stop there. God does not simply promise to be with us. God shows us the way through the blessings and woes of life. God, through Jesus, comes down from heaven and into flesh to be blessed by us. To bring us close to the divine. As Jesus preaches blessings and woes, he points to the cross. He points to the cross, as he foreshadows the weeping and mourning and persecution to come. The cross is where Jesus earns our sainthood. Our sainthood is earned in Christ’s death and resurrection.
On the cross, Christ declares us saints. Because to be saints, is not really about being holy as far as God is concerned. It is not about being rich or full or happy. It is not about security and power and control. Because one of the truths about the world’s beatitudes is that the longer and louder they are preached, the more obvious it becomes that no amount of wealth, power and security will actually make us feel blessed enough. And in fact, it becomes clear that we all belong to the cursed group. We all need to be blessed, we all need something, someone bigger than ourselves to bring us real hope and real grace and mercy.
The truth of the Beatitudes is that they are are not about blessings as we usually think of them. To be blessed by God, is to be loved. And it is divine love that we discover on the cross. It is the Crucified God who blesses us and claims us as his own. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted… they are blessed because God is with them. God is with us.
The beatitudes of Jesus that we read today are the true hope of All Saints Sunday. As we remember, and as we continue to grieve all those who have died, God blesses us and keeps us. As we struggle with being poor or being rich, with being blessed or being cursed, God shines his face upon us with grace and mercy. As we search for peace in a troubled world, God looks upon us with favour. And God promises peace that will carry us and all the saints until the end.
Header Image: https://onehundredbillionsuns.com/2016/08/05/the-beatitudes-by-donald-trump/
Jesus said, “…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: (Read the whole passage)
Wow… Jesus is on a roll today. We have been making our way through the teachings, parables and ministry of Jesus for a number of weeks now, and so far we have heard familiar stories like Mary and Martha, the Lord’s Prayer, the Good Samaritan.
Last week things took a turn for the less familiar, but at least Jesus seemed much nicer, ‘Have no fear little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.’
But today we get some of the harshest words Jesus has in the gospel of Luke.
And yes, they make us uncomfortable. Jesus isn’t supposed to speak this way, Jesus is about uniting and bringing people together right? Not about setting people against each other. Jesus sounds almost like Donald Trump with all these talk about division and doom.
And the difficulty with this passage from Luke is that there isn’t some neat trick of context that explains what Jesus means. It isn’t like the verses before or after explain what Jesus is really talking about. This passage on division comes in a chapter where we are given quote after quote strung together will no real details or information connecting them to each other.
I don’t know about you, but when some gun toting christian on some cable news show quotes this passage as justification for hate, violence, intolerance, and yes, division, it makes me want to curl up and hide under a rock. It is one of those passages from the bible that you almost wish wasn’t there. But it is, and it get used as justification for some Christians to be jerks. “Do you think that I have to bring peace? No, but rather division.” And a lot of embarrassing blowhards claiming to speak on behalf of all Christians say this passage shows that Jesus would be an assault rifle carrying bigot were he to come to today.
And so the question becomes, what do we make of this divisive Jesus? Where does he fit with the loving, compassionate, and caring Jesus that we know?
Of all the places and people who could perhaps offer and explanation to these strong words from Jesus today, it was a late night talk show host talking about the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games that provided me some insight.
In HBO’s John Oliver’s recap of the opening ceremonies, he showed a portion of IOC president Thomas Bach’s speech where he said, ‘In this Olympic world, there is one universal law for everybody. In this Olympic world, we are all equal.”
Sounds like the usual lofty speeches that get made at Olympic games.
But John Oliver, who was having none of it, replied,
“Okay, that is simply not true. If that were the case, you wouldn’t need to have an olympics. The whole reason we do this is to find out, who is better than everyone else, so that we can make them stand higher [cue photo of athletes on a medal podium] than the other people who are not as good as them. Because the point of the games is not to celebrate equality, but individual’s excellence.”
Cheeky, but he isn’t wrong.
As I have been watching my fair share of olympics this week, I haven’t been spending much time cheering on the athletes destined to come in last. It is the ones who win medals, who come in first, who defeat the rest of the competition who are the focus. Everyone knows who Penny Oleksiak is the week, but does anyone know the name of the Canadians who didn’t place in archery, or shooting, or judo, or race walking, or discus or other sports where our country isn’t competitive?
The Olympics in some measure are a safe way for nations to go to war with other nations without dropping bombs or sending soldiers, they are hardly about equality.
And this is where the Olympics and John Oliver gives us insight into what Jesus says today.
Sometimes our rhetoric, the fancy words and ideals that people throw about in the name of unity and equality don’t really express or name reality.
The reality is that we are human beings are compelled by conflict. We live to fight, it is in our biology – the reptilian parts of our brains are primed to override rational thought in order to Fight, Flight or Freeze when the opportunity aries. And Jesus know this. Jesus knows that sunshine and roses is not what the world is about. Rather that our world is full to conflict and division and sin and suffering and death. And these things are what catch our attention, these are the things that are the foundation of our established orders, these are the things we use to categorize and understand ourselves and our world.
And so when Jesus, God in flesh, comes to meet humanity on our turf, it has to be in the midst of division, because that is where we live as human beings. You will notice that Jesus doesn’t say that he has come to CAUSE division, but simply that he BRINGS it. Division will follow Jesus wherever he goes, because Jesus is going into the human world.
And Jesus is coming into our world, with a message. A message about God, and God’s love for us, and how God is turning our world upside down.
And Jesus represents a threat. A threat to the established orders, to the conflict and division that we love so much, a threat to making people stand higher than those who are not as good as they are. Because in God’s world everyone is equal, and there wouldn’t be an olympics because the medals and podiums would be not be for the first, but for the last. And those in first would be about as interesting to us as those in last are in our world.
And so today Jesus brings division. And yes it sounds terrible and probably makes us uncomfortable… but it is also what we know. And we are uncomfortable because we realize that Jesus really does know us, and knows that conflict and division is where we live.
But Jesus’ words also make us uncomfortable because they aren’t plastering over our conflict and division, our olympic battles with lofty rhetoric about equality and unity. Jesus words instead tell us that God is coming into our world, to find us, and this will cause real division. Because God is going to change everything. God is going to change us. Change us with love and compassion, with true equality and true unity.
God is coming to change us with the good news of Jesus in our world, division and all.