‘Conservative’ Biblical Theology Begets ‘Liberal’ Loving
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This week I’m feeling especially proud of the church that I get to serve as pastor. The people of Christ Presbyterian Church have a history of being exceptionally generous with their lives.
Being conservative in their theology—believing every word of Scripture to be right and true—our people have become liberal in their loving.
Being sojourners on the narrow path, our people have developed a broad embrace.
Believing Jesus to be the Great Physician and bearer of burdens, our people have become merciful healers and activists.
Over 40% of every dollar given to our church is sent out to missional partners in Nashville and across the globe, with special attention to the poor, marginalized, and oppressed in our city.
This November, the Sunday after the election no less — and with only 40% of our people back for in-person worship due to COVID-19 concerns — our church will be sending out hundreds of people to plant a cross cultural congregation in Nashville, “CPC Koinonia,” with a remarkable and faith-filled pastor, Rev. Dr. Mika Edmondson and team, leading the charge.
In 2010, a historic flood flattened Nashville. The members of our church, many of whom were suffering themselves, decided to set up shop to support and offer practical care to others who had been displaced by the disaster. Some opened their homes, others their wallets, to help shoulder the burdens of those who were suffering most.
If you attend any nonprofit fundraiser in Nashville (remember those, before COVID happened?)—whether the focus is on fighting human slavery and sex trafficking, promoting the care of widows and orphans, feeding the hungry, advancing the cause of race and/or class-related justice, supporting leaders seeking to uplift under-served neighborhoods and schools, or building on-ramps to meaningful work for the unemployed—you will find our people there, checkbooks in hand and eager to give. But our people don’t just show up at fundraisers to stroke a check; they also roll up their sleeves. Several hundred of our members engage regularly, some on a daily basis, in hands-on service throughout and beyond Nashville.
LOVE BEYOND OUR OWN BORDERS
As I look back on my almost nine years of serving at Christ Pres, I’m especially proud of the “beyond Nashville” focus of our people, especially in relation to the worst humanitarian crisis the world has known since World War 2 and Hitler’s Nazi Germany. For several years now, men, women and children have been fleeing their native land of Syria in fear for their lives. Roughly sixteen million people seek refuge from vicious, life-threatening religious and socio-political persecution. Sadly, the Syrian crisis has been under the radar here in the west until terrorists started sending out videos of beheadings on beaches. Then a photo of a little boy named Aylan, lying murdered on the beach, went viral.
When the picture of Aylan became public, many were appalled by the day’s news but soon turned attention back to other concerns—more domestic ones (this was 2016)—like a reality TV show star running for president, a Kentucky clerk and some culture warriors holding a religious liberty rally with “Eye of the Tiger” bellowing in the background, Bruce being celebrated as Caitlyn at the ESPY’s, Nicki calling Miley a name at the VH1 awards, Hillary’s email saga, and a volatile Dow Jones Industrial Average.
I hope that you will forgive the snarky tone of the last paragraph, but I also hope you will find agreement with the irony represented there. How did we return so quickly to thinking first about these things when there are sixteen million souls seeking refuge and a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name? And now, in 2020, as we enter another election cycle amid social unrest, as we engage important conversations about what healing and repair might look like for black and brown lives, and as the whole word navigates a global pandemic, might we also remember these millions of suffering, Middle Eastern souls as well?
For they, too, remain our neighbors. They remain among those whom Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is why I am proud of our church family. In a disproportionally wonderful way, our church family has fought for the cause of vulnerable refugees. This is their stance because they are keenly aware of the things God has said about welcoming aliens and strangers, building cities of refuge for the vulnerable, and how God so loved the world…the whole world:
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:34)
For God so loved the (whole) world, that he gave his only begotten Son…(John 3:16)
SBC president, JD Greear, once said that God builds his kingdom as we let go, not as we hold on. This kind of “letting go” is what I have seen and experienced from our church. Under the leadership of director of missional living, Cammy Bethea, and a host of engaged volunteers serving alongside her, our church mobilized an effort that led to the formation tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars given donated and deployed, partnerships with leading organizations on the ground, and training sessions to equip people to provide sustained care for refugees.
Nashville, a city of refuge in its own right, has historically received over a thousand refugees each year. And God’s people have been dialing in to offer their homes, their finances, their time and their lives…ready to do whatever it takes to get that cup of cold water into thirsty hands. Other churches have also joined the efforts led by Cammy. When local refugee relief leaders were asked how churches can get involved, they said people should follow the lead Cammy Bethea at Christ Presbyterian. For several years now, it’s been a joy to watch.
GOD BLESS AMERICA (AND EVERYBODY ELSE)
In the 2003 comedy film, Head of State, Chris Rock plays the role of Mays Gilliam, an unlikely candidate for President of the United States. I have to admit that there is very little that I remember about this film. The single thing I do remember, however, is the closing line of every campaign speech given by Gilliam’s opponent, Vice President Brian Lewis. His campaign speech line was as follows:
“God bless America, and no place else.”
Written as comedic satire, we get the joke. The line represents the familiar caricature of a blowhard politician who will say anything, even senseless and ridiculous things, to pander to the American electorate for votes. Many of us will laugh off such an absurd line. And yet there may be others asking, very sincerely, why we in America would want to focus on serving people from other lands, when we have so many concerns to deal with at home.
“Charity starts at home,” some will say. On the one hand, it must start at home, because if we are not taking care of ourselves then we are in no position to help others. And yet, sometimes you get the feeling that for some of us, “Charity starts at home” is just a veiled way of saying that charity ends there too.
But Christians who appreciate that God so loved the whole world—Christians like Cammy Bethea, the volunteers who serve alongside her, and others responding to the movement they have begun—understand that God is a global God who wants his people to love globally. Charity that starts and ends at home is not charity. It is domestic narcissism selfishness. But charity that starts at home and then moves outward, this is the kind of charity that causes heaven to rejoice. This is the kind of charity that honors the God of every nation, tribe and tongue, the God who is for Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:8; Revelation 7:9-10)
A few years ago, Patti and I had the honor of sitting around a dinner table with World Vision president, Rich Stearns. During that dinner, the subject of the Middle East came up and he said something very provocative and also very gospel. With compassion in his eyes, he looked around the table and said, “What if, while terrorists were beheading Christians on the beach, just a couple of miles away Christians were feeding Syrian Muslims?”
With sixteen million souls still seeking refuge, it seems that our time has come to consider Mr. Stearns’ question. Our time has come to consider the hauntingly prophetic lyric from Ian Cron?
When I look into the face of my enemy,
I see my brother. I see my brother.
Forgiveness is the garment of our courage,
the power to make the peace we long to know.
Open up our eyes to see the wounds that bind all of humankind.
May our shutter hearts greet the dawn of life with charity and love.
At the final judgment, King Jesus will separate the sheep and the goats, the true believers and the religious posers. The true believers, having lived inside of the King’s immense love and experienced first-hand his generous welcome and hospitality, will have become hospitable lovers themselves. They will have been the ones who—in contributing to the welcome of alien and stranger, in participating in care for the least of these, in doing something big or small to provide food for the hungry and a drink for the thirsty and shelter for those without a home—will have welcomed King Jesus himself. “What you did for the least of these,” Jesus will say, “you also did it for me.”
Religious posers, on the other hand, will be exposed for a dead theology, for faith without accompanying deeds, for homes and hearts that offered no welcome, for charity that started at home and also ended there. The religious posers will have built borders around their hearts and lives, borders that kept things tidy and predictable and under control, borders that kept them safe from all the messiness and costs and inconveniences of love, borders that will show they never knew Jesus in the first place.
Not everyone is called to care directly for refugees. But every Christian is called—some in big ways and others small, for even the small acts of mercy and justice are significant—to join Jesus in his declared mission to proclaim good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives, recover sight to the blind, and set at liberty those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18)
Why is this an acid test for discipleship and not merely an option? Because those who are conservative in their beliefs about the Bible and the life, death, and resurrection story that it tells about King Jesus—these daughters and sons, his royal princesses and princes, will be the most liberal in their loving. Those who are on the narrow path of Jesus will, along with him, have the broadest embrace and possess the fewest borders around their hearts and lives. Whether at home or abroad, as one friend wrote to me in a text message, when we have experienced healing from the activist love of Jesus, then we, too, will find joy and meaning as we become healing activists:
Yeah…A tragic photo of a little drowned boy may move us—but will it move us to action? If we are shocked by a viral photo—we may merely be infected by sensationalism. When it moves us to act…we may actually be healing activists.
THE ACTIVIST LOVE OF JESUS FOR A WHOLE WORLD THAT INCLUDES US
When I read about the sheep and the goats, sometimes I feel more like a goat and a poser than I do a sheep and a true believer. Having been a Christian for thirty years and an ordained minister for twenty five, I am not yet what I should be. While more than half the world is sick and dying from starvation, I over-eat on a regular basis. While over half the world barely survives on less than $2.50 per day, relative to the rest of the world I have lived in luxury every single day of my life. While more than sixteen million souls battle the elements and long for a city of refuge, I live in an affluent, progressive, forward-moving “it” city in a neighborhood that is safe from danger with a pool, a serene hiking trail, two cars in every garage, air conditioning and heat, and a grill on every patio.
When guilt and a sense of not doing nearly enough kick in, I am then reminded—so graciously—that it is not merely poor refugees who need rescue and shelter given to them by affluent saviors. It is also affluent refugees, ones like me, who need the rescue and shelter provided by the Refugee-Savior who was poor.
Maybe one reason Jesus cared so much about the alien, the stranger, and the refugee was that Jesus, too, was an alien, a stranger, and a refugee. When he was born into the world, there was no room at the inn for him or his parents, Joseph and Mary. Instead, an animal shelter, vulnerable to all the elements, became their refugee camp. And they were indeed refugees. Herod, the megalomaniac King, having heard the rumor that the Jewish Messiah had been born, ordered a decree for the slaughter of the innocents—to purge the land of every newborn male. Mary and Joseph fled with their Jesus in search for other cities, homes, and hearts that had no borders.
It didn’t end there for Jesus. Once Herod was taken out of the picture, Jesus then grew up, learning obedience through the things that he suffered. This included poverty and homelessness in his adult years. “For the Son of Man has no place to lay his head,” he said. Having entered the world in a borrowed stable, he would later feed his disciples at the Last Supper—also the First Lord’s Supper—in a borrowed room. He would ride into town on a borrowed donkey, and then he would die. He would become the refugee who never found a home, washed up on the side of some lovely yet terribly vicious, murderous shore. Just as Rachel had wept for her children in the slaughter of the innocents, heaven itself would weep also…
…because just like Rachel’s children, Heaven’s Child would also be no more.
Why did Jesus endure such abuse? Why did he, being in very nature God, make himself into a nothing, becoming obedient to the point of death? Because he was laser-focused on bringing his Banquet Table not only to Jerusalem, but also to Judea, Samaria, and then—mercy of mercies—to us, all the way over here at the ends of the earth.
We in the United States currently rank as the most affluent…and the fifteenth happiest…nation in the world. Though we may not be running for our lives, many of us are living materially full lives and yet are spiritually, emotionally and relationally running on empty. Many of us, here in the richest of all the nations, are among “the mass of men (who) lead quiet lives of desperation.”
We are refugees of another kind. Though in many ways different than the Syrians, like the Syrians we need saving from the other side of the world. We are also, in ways that are different but no less desperate, helpless and homeless, in search of a city of refuge.
Enters the City of God, the City with no borders, the City that makes space and has prepared a room for refugees rich and poor, givers and receivers, other-centered and self-centered, over-eaters and those who are starving, New York billionaires and those running for dear life, culture warriors and those sexually broken, famous and invisible, left-leaning and right-leaning, Native and European and Asian and African and LatinX and Syrian and…and…and…
Yes, the City of God has made room for us all.
Jesus is the poor man who sets a place at his Table for the rich who are poor in spirit. Jesus is the homeless refugee who provides a home for those who are empty in their own homes. Jesus is the crucified carpenter from the little old insignificant town of Nazareth, who said to the affluent, influential, jet-setters of Laodicea:
You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked…
(And his answer to this? Not a scolding but an invitation…)
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3:14-22)
This is the same Jesus who said:
Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. (John 14:1-3)
Why is it absurd to say or to think, “God bless America and no place else?” Because when Jesus promised to prepare a place for us, he made that promise from the other side of the world. His are the words of a first-century, Jewish, dark-skinned, never-married, not sexy in appearance and sometimes homeless, middle eastern carpenter who never once spoke a word of English.
Why should we care about those in need on the other side of the world?
Because Jesus did first.
From Jesus’ vantage point, we are the ends of the earth. And yet, we are just as important to him as his first twelve disciples were. When we were hungry, he fed us. When we were thirsty, he gave us something to drink. When we were without a home, he went and prepared a place for us. When we were withering on the vine and separated from The Vine, he grafted us in. When we were living quiet lives of affluent desperation, he welcomed us to his Table for the poor in spirit. When we were dying, he died in our place so we would live. He became a refugee so we could forever lose our refugee status.
So let’s roll up our sleeves and serve somebody, shall we?
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