Here’s the audio of the sermon I preached from Mark 10:35-45 last Sunday. The disciple brothers, James and John, boldly ask Jesus if he will grant them the privilege to sit on his right and left hand when he comes into his glory. Jesus addresses their ambition and desire for power, privilege, and prestige. Our 21st century problem is identical to their 1st century problem. Here’s my take on Jesus’ reply:
Last Sunday, I preached from 2 Samuel 11:1-15, which is the story of David’s abuse of power when he saw, sent for, and violated Bathsheba. To further compound his sin, David sought to cover it up, and eventually had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed.
It is a shameful story, but it is also a story that is a current as today’s headlines. In the sermon, I moved from the story of David’s abuse of power to the history of the abuse of power in American life during the era of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and today. I offered this sermon treatment because that Sunday afternoon, white and black congregations were scheduled to gather for a meal and conversation together about race relations in our own community. This sermon prompted our congregation to examine our historical past, so that we could move forward to a more hopeful and inclusive future. Here’s the podcast:
The epistle reading for today is Colossians 1:15-23. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Colossae contrasting the good news of Jesus with the claims of the first century Roman empire.
In their book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, authors Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat contend that Colossians contrasts the violence, inhumanity, and corruption of the Roman empire with the new imagination of Christian community centered around Christ.
As a Roman outpost, Colossae participated in the emperor cult which asserted that the emperor was the son of god and the deity around which the universe revolved. The Roman empire was also the undisputed example of political organization and military might. From Rome’s dominance came what was ironically called the Pax Romana — the Roman peace. However, the Roman peace was secured with overwhelming violence against those nations and city-states Roman legions pacified by force.
Paul challenges the ideas of the emperor’s supremacy, the empire’s legitimacy, and the Pax Romana with the assertion that Christ is the image of God, the creator of all things, the sustainer of the universe, the first-born from the dead, the head of a new community called the church, and the true prince of peace.
The point of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was to contrast the misplaced confidence they formerly had in the Roman empire with the new hope they found in Christ. Prior to following Christ as Lord, the Colossians had placed their trust in the Empire for their security, happiness, and fulfillment.
Today millions have misplaced their trust, too. If Paul were writing the letter to the Colossians today, he might contrast the trust we place in power, money, and technology with the supremacy of Christ.
Power is still the currency of international relationships. Mao Zedong said, “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” That philosophy is shared by virtually all of the nation-states on the world stage today. While the United States is still the most powerful nation on earth, countries like North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and others project the power they have in order to influence international events. Just as the Roman empire used its military, economic, and political power to shape the course of history, nations continue to be seduced by the promise of power today.
The second member of our illegitimate trinity is money. China is relocating 325-million peasants — rural farmers — into newly-created cities. Why? Because China’s economy, according to the IMF and other economists, doesn’t have enough consumerism. The key to growth in the Chinese economy in the near future, economists say, is creating a new class of consumers who will buy TVs, refrigerators, cell phones, and cars. In a world where one billion people live on less than $1 a day, money is a seductive force, often coupled with power.
However, a new player has entered the arena as a close partner to power and money. Both power and the quest for money are being driven by technology. We now have the technology to instantly deliver books, newspapers, and magazines to personal computers, tablets, or mobile phones. In 2007 Steve Jobs of Apple introduced the iPhone and revolutionized the mobile phone industry. Today over 5 billion cell phones are in service, and 1 billion of those are smart phones.
The NSA surveillance programs leaked by Edward Snowden showed us that the US now possesses and uses advanced technology to track every telephone call, email, and cell phone location everywhere in the world; scan those communications for suspicious links to suspicious characters; track users by location; and, know who everyone everywhere in the world is talking to and what they are talking about.
Technology is our Pax Romana — both the new security savior and cyber weapon in our war to be safe from terrorism. Our trust in technology compels us to give out our credit card information, our personal history, our family and friend connections, the schools we attended, our workplace, our daily routines, even where we eat, shop, and travel. Why? Because we cannot live without the always-on, always-available world at our fingertips. We depend on technology for friendships, for commerce, for security, and even for our faith (yes, there are online churches and faith groups). Increasingly, we give away our own privacy in pursuit of friends, followers, page views, and search rankings.
But power has not brought peace, consumerism has not brought satisfaction, and technology has not brought with it the authentic life we yearn to live.
We have separated our faith from our function as human beings, believing that we, too, can place absolute trust in power, money, and technology. By doing so, we are letting those things shape us.
Paul reminds us that we ought to be shaped by the radical good news that this world system, whether the Roman empire of the first century or the internet of the 21st century, are not the legitimate gods of this world. They are the pretenders, the interlopers, and the pale substitutes for that which is real.
If you want to know God, Paul says, look at Jesus. If you want to know who the creator of the world is look at Jesus. If you want to know who keeps the world turning, look at Jesus. If you want to know who’s in charge of everything, even the things that are not acting according to God’s plan, look at Jesus.
If you want to know where real peace comes from look at Jesus.
Despite the fact that misplaced trust in power, money, and technology are found in every culture on every continent, Paul says the good news about Jesus is also ubiquitous.
The question then becomes: Who do you trust? After all, the Roman empire is no longer a world power, is it?
I have waited far too long to spotlight Mark O. Wilson’s new book, Filled Up, Poured Out: How God’s Spirit Can Revive Your Passion and Purpose. Mark and I met as fellow-bloggers, and I have followed his blog, Revitalize Your Church for several years now. Mark is a warm-hearted, spirit-filled pastor who encourages and challenges all of us to be all that God has called us to be.
That’s exactly what Mark’s book does, too. In 13 concise chapters, Mark identifies for his readers the persistent problem that plagues ministry and ministers — running on empty, which Mark characterizes as “vacuus=empty, devoid of, free from.” He writes about empty pastors (chapter 1); empty churches (chapter 2); and, the solution to both (chapter 3).
In the next section of the book, headlined “repleo,” Mark talks about how to replenish the power of God in your life through “immersion, faith, contentment, enduement, and confluence.” In the final third of the book, Mark reveals how the filled up pastor allows God’s grace to flow out in compassion, blessing, righteousness, influence, and saturation.
Each chapter in the book overflows with stories, scripture, insights, and mind-pegs to get you thinking, praying, and dreaming about what God has for your ministry. With 13 chapters, the book’s format is perfect for small group Bible studies. Although the initial audience for the book is pastors, church leaders and members will benefit from Mark’s easy style, and memorable insights. Pastors, this book contains more sermon illustrations than you could come up with in hours of searching. Many of the stories are from Mark’s own ministry experiences.
I especially love the story about his trip to Africa. Asked to preach at a local village church on a Sunday morning, Mark was amazed to see over 3,000 people gathered for worship at 7:30 AM. The frame structure only held 1,000, but the other 2,000 worshippers surrounded the building, responding to every line in his sermon. After he preached, Mark recalls that the congregation began to sing. The local missionary explained to Mark that they were making up a new song from the points in his sermon, which was their way of remembering what they had learned that Sunday. A new song, Mark noted, flowed from their hearts. That story would resonate with any congregation which was seeking God. And, there are more just like that in Mark’s book.
Get this book. As you read, you’ll be blessed and encouraged, perhaps to the point of being “filled up” yourself, so you can be “poured out” for others. After all, that’s what pastors do, and Mark helps us remember that with joy and wonder.
Pentecost Sunday is the last big Sunday in the liturgical year, but often churches that celebrate Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter fail to give equal emphasis to Pentecost. Pentecost is the culmination of the Christian Calendar, and has been called the “birthday of the church.” Without Pentecost, the Christian Year is incomplete because it is at Pentecost that Jesus fulfills his promise to send the Holy Spirit to empower, equip, enthuse, and embolden the apostles. It is also on Pentecost that the church launches it mission of taking the Gospel to the whole world.
Pentecost carries great significance for those early followers of Christ, and for us today. Here’s the sermon I preached on Pentecost Sunday, May 27, 2012, titled Living in the Power of Pentecost.
The people gathered in the old synagogue at Capernaum were amazed that Jesus taught “as one who had authority” and not like the teachers they were used to hearing. What did Jesus say and do that amazed those who heard him? And how was Jesus’ authority different from the religious leaders of his day? Understanding the answers to those questions will help us know what real authority looks like today. Here’s the link to the sermon I preached January 29, 2012, from Mark 1:21-28- http://traffic.libsyn.com/chuckwarnock/What_Real_Authority_Looks_Like.mp3
The church growth movement helped foster the idea of the pastor as the authoritative leader of the congregation. I know because I studied church growth at its height at Fuller Seminary. The premise of the theory of “pastoral authority” was that churches grew faster and larger when the pastor asserted his authority as the leader of the congregation. The numbers seemed to verify the idea of absolute pastoral authority.
Of course, the idea of pastoral authority also appealed to the egos of lots of pastors. “I can make it happen” pastors thought, “if only the deacons, or committees will give me the authority to take charge.” The ecclesiastical landscape is littered with the train wrecks of that kind of thinking. What some pastors really wanted was power, not authority, and therein lies the problem. Power is not what we as pastors are called to exercise, but too often we confuse authority with power.
“Authority in the church is never the monopoly of the ordained few — whether bishops or clergy” writes John Chryssavgis in his helpful book, Soul Mending: The Art of Spiritual Direction. Chryssavgis, an Orthodox priest and professor of theology, corrects the notion that spiritual authority belongs exclusively to the professionals. Rather, Fr. John argues, “All too often authority is confused with power, meaning the ability to compel others to do something.” He continues, “It is not control over others, but commitment to them, even to ‘the least of one’s brethren’.”
Although his book focuses on the ancient art of spiritual direction, much of what Chryssavgis says applies to pastors in general. Our ministry, he says, is built upon the tradition of obedience and authority of those who have gone before us. Only those who have submitted to the spiritual direction from others, can assume the responsibility to offer spiritual direction to others.
We also are called to mutual submission with our congregation before God. Granted, pastors have special responsibilities, but our authority is, to paraphrase Rush Limbaugh, “on loan from God.” It is an authority not inherent in any human being, but an authority that resides in the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is similar to what Alan Roxburgh says about finding God’s direction for a congregation. It doesn’t lie solely with the pastor, but Roxburgh believes that “the future of God is found among the people of God.”
Finally, Chryssavgis says, “Ecclesiastical authority must be seen in terms of service and not rule; in relation to ‘diakonia’ and dialogue, not domination.” Good direction from one who knows what it means to be under authority. I recommend the book.
This is Part 2 of my interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. This week, The Family is #5 in Amazon.com’s sales rankings. If you’d like to catch up, Part 1 of the interview is here. My review of The Family is at my blog, Amicus Dei.
The Family tells the story of a secretive quasi-evangelical organization, founded in the late 1930s, which has insinuated itself into the halls of power in Washington and other countries around the world. In the U. S., the Family is the behind-the-scenes sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast each February in Washington, D. C..
The Family organization operates several residences, one of them “the house at C Street,” where several United States senators and congressmen live when in Washington, D. C.. Two Family members have recently been in the news for marital infidelity — Senator John Ensign of Arizona, and Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina.
Sharlet says The Family “is a story about two great spheres of belief, religion and politics, and the ways in which they are bound together by the mythologies of America.” — The Family, p.2
Interview with Jeff Sharlet, part 2:
CW: You report that Doug Coe and others in the Family make repeated references to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and other totalitarian leaders as examples of the kind of effective leadership the Family aspires to. Did this strike you as odd, and how do you account for the use of these ruthless dictators as role models for the Family?
JS: Um, yes. And I said as much when I was spending time with them, then again during interviews with Family associates such as Senator Sam Brownback, Representative Frank Wolf, and former Bush White House special aide Doug Kuo. Kuo, whom I like a great deal, insists that Coe uses these killers simply as metaphors. To which the only response I can think of is, You can’t think of a better metaphor for Jesus than Hitler? I make clear in the book that Coe is not a neo-Nazi. Indeed, he cites fascists and communists and even Osama bin Laden. It’s not their ideology he admires, it’s their methods. The Family fetishizes strength. Or, as Coe put it in an interview with my colleague Tor Gjerstadt of the Norwegian Dagbladet (a large daily there), power.
Is The Family secretive? Yes, by its own declaration. Does that make it a conspiracy? Not in any court of law I know. Rather, as I argue in the book, the Family represents a strand of religious activism that has clearly been influential among some of America’s most powerful Christians and yet which to date has never been subject to any kind of in-depth study. That’s a more modest claim than the critics’ tin-foil caricature, yes, but one that I think would withstand scrutiny if they bothered to review my book rather than their own assumptions about my political views.
CW: What, in your opinion, are the most objectionable beliefs or practices of the Family? On what do you base your evaluation of these beliefs and practices? In other words, what is your particular background or experience that qualifies you to write a book like The Family?
JS: Beliefs are a matter of conscience; but practices, especially those of the powerful, can be a matter of public concern. The Family has facilitated support for dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, Siad Barre, General Park, and even a Central American death squad leader convicted of torture in the U.S. This, to me, is objectionable, as it is to many Family members who learn about it. I’m inspired by the example, for instance, of the Rev. Ben Daniel, deeply involved as a young man. But he quit when he learned that the Family leaders he’d looked up to were using their access to the powerful to represent the interests of the most murderous elements from countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Or there’s Cliff Gosney, a longtime participant, a deeply Christian man, who quit when he realized that the Family was using him and the foreign leader for whom he was the Family’s point man, South Africa’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi, for political gain rather than spiritual development. I’m concerned, too, by the practice of secrecy. “The more invisible you can make your organization,” Doug Coe has preached, “the more influence it will have.” He cites the mafia as a good example, and Family members like to refer to their movement as the “Christian mafia.” That’s just not a good model in a democracy like ours. I have the highest respect for citizens of all beliefs who make their arguments openly in the public square, fundamentalists included. I’ve been heartened by the support the book has received from self-professed fundamentalists who are as bothered by these anti-democratic practices as I am. We may not agree on much, these fundamentalists and me, but we agree that democracy depends on us engaging in our arguments in good faith, with plenty of sunlight.
As for my background, I’m not sure what you mean. You want my professional credentials? Or are you asking me for my religious beliefs? If it’s the former, I think they qualify me: I’ve been a working journalist for sixteen years, have written for a large number of mainstream national publications, have focused on religion for about 14 years, have taught graduate level religious studies at New York University and lectured at colleges, universities, and churches around the country, have been positively reviewed by both conservative and liberal critics, have won prizes and been a finalist for prizes, etc., etc. I’m proud of the fact that Ann Coulter wrote that I’m one of the stupidest journalists in America, and even prouder of the fact that she did so based on her own clumsy misreading of scripture.
But if it’s the latter — my beliefs — my first answer is, What does it matter? The facts are the facts. And then my second answer is contained within the last pages of the book, in which I write openly of my own beliefs, particularly my commitment to the Book of Exodus as inspiration for thinking about the role of faith in public life. I’m not a Christian, though half my family is. But I’ve written for Christian publications and published many Christian writers. I’ve been engaged in that conversation for a long time. I think it’s one of the most important conversations in America.
All of the above is a long-winded way of saying I’m a citizen.
Part 3 of my interview with Jeff Sharlet will appear on Thursday, July 16. In Part 3, Sharlet comments on the continuing influence of the Family, and his thoughts on the future of the Family and evangelicalism.
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