Ferguson, a broken world, and the authority of Jesus

On Sunday, I preached from Luke 4:31-44 on Jesus’ authority and healing. Last night, the grand jury returned a decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. I’m still processing and praying through this, still figuring out how I’m supposed to respond. I didn’t write my message or preach with the Ferguson decision in mind, but I guess there was a reason God wanted me to be thinking these things through before yesterday evening. What I do know is that we live in a fallen world, where authority is not always exercised justly and healing is an ever-present need.

So here’s an excerpt from Sunday’s message — “The Authority of Jesus, a.k.a. Kicking Butt and Taking Names.” (You can listen to the full sermon here.)

Preaching, Nov 23, 2014

I’m sure we can all call to mind people in positions of authority; we might think of the President, Members of Congress, judges, police officers, teachers, or doctors. And we might also be able to call to mind what it looks like when folks abuse their authority—the Watergate scandal, for instance; corrupt government officials who line their pockets at the expense of those they’re supposed to be serving; doctors who take advantage of their patients or teachers who take advantage of their students.

But just like sin is not just the things we do but also the things we should do but we don’t, when those in authority don’t exercise it when they should, that’s also a problem: recently, the police in Hong Kong chose not to intervene when peaceful protesters were attacked; or the last four years have seen the most unproductive sessions of Congress in recent history—and, given that there’s so much still to do, I think we have the responsibility to call our elected representatives to use their authority to better serve the common good. Because, in fact, everyone exercises some sort of authority: parents over their children, celebrities over their fans, pastors over their congregations, voters over their representatives, and so on.

The biblical understanding of authority is much like the non-biblical understanding of authority, in that it’s connected to power, particularly to the legitimate use of power, and it could simply be defined as the “right to effect control over objects, individuals or events.” But the biblical understanding of authority is much more than that, too. It goes right back to creation, when God created human beings in his image—to be like him—and said to them, in Genesis 1:28:

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

That’s God delegating power so that the world might flourish, so that God’s kingdom might be seen on earth, so that all might be in right relationship with God, with one another, and with creation.

That’s the purpose of authority: that humanity might flourish.

That’s how authority should be measured: does it move us closer to God’s kingdom on earth?

In Jesus, we find the truest embodiment of authority rightly and responsibly exercised. Everything Jesus said and did brought more of up there down here. Theologian Darrell Bock writes:

Evil has severe angst in the presence of righteousness ready to be exercised.

When authority is rightly and responsibly exercised by a president, by a legislator, by a judge, by an officer of the law, by a teacher, by a doctor, by a nurse, by a famous person, by a parent, by a pastor, by you in whatever capacity you have been given a measure of control—when authority is rightly and responsibly exercised to bring more of God’s kingdom to earth, evil has severe angst.

Think about that: what you do matters; what you do with your life on the big picture level as well as what you do in your everyday has bearing on whether the kingdom of God advances or not. How you treat the homeless person you pass on the street; how much effort you put into your work; how much attention you give to your spouse; how you respond to people who are different from you or who disagree with you; how you forgive those who wrong you; how you deal with messing up—these are all instances where you can exercise the authority you’ve been given, and they all have bearing on whether the kingdom of God advances or not. What you do matters.

We inhabit what some theologians call the already-but-not-yet. See, the kingdom of God is at the same time past, present, and future. We know that Jesus came to earth, 2,000 years ago, and at that time, the kingdom of God entered into human history in a way it had never done before—the demons were cast out, the sick were healed, the truth of God and the word of God were embodied in a living, breathing human being—that’s the already. We know that Jesus will come again, to finish the work he started, setting all things right, reconciling all things to himself, bringing the fullness of heaven down to earth—but that is not yet here. And so in the present, in the here-and-now, the Holy Spirit is at work in us and through us—as the people of God and the body of Christ—revealing more of that same kingdom, proclaiming the good news of that kingdom, in the midst of the ravages of the Fall in sin and sickness and death.

Any healing that happens this side of Christ’s return points toward the story of the gospel and the renewal that has not yet come but is promised. But any healing that happens this side of Christ’s return will always be incomplete. We and our loved ones will still get sick, we will not always be healed, we will still die. But God’s story moves toward ultimate healing—no death, no sickness, no tears. It’s coming.

Lord Jesus, even as we give you thanks for living the life we could not live and dying the death we could not die and being raised to life that we might be made new, we long for you to come back.

In the here-and-now, break the chains of our sin and sickness and death. Heal us from the ravages of our wounds both physical and psychological, both mental and emotional. Liberate us from our addictions. Be the light in our darkness; be the hope in our disappointment; be the joy in our loss.

Set us free so that we might walk in the life you desire for us to live—life to the full, eternal life. Remind us that we live and move and have our being in Christ, that we have been given authority as image-bearers of the Most High, authority as redeemed children of our Father in heaven, authority as ambassadors of Christ in a hurting and broken world.

We pray these things in the name of the One who was wounded so that we might be made whole, in the power of the name of Jesus. Amen.

It’s been an emotional week

Whew.

Last night I got back from Minnesota where I got to see my friends Chris and Ashley get married at the coldest wedding I’ve ever attended (let alone, played and sung at). It was a beautiful setting, a wonderful (and definitely memorable!) ceremony, and a fun reception, too. Also had a little Fuller reunion with my friend Julia, who was also at the wedding.

Upon getting back to DC, I found out that Donna, a friend and neighbor who’d been a part of The District Church community pretty much from the beginning, had passed away this last week from the cancer that she’d been diagnosed with in August, when it was already late-stage. Donna had a tremendous story of redemption and she wasn’t afraid to share it–in fact, she was the first person from our church community to be baptized; and at our Sunday gatherings, she was a one-woman amen corner. She’ll be dearly, dearly missed.

This morning, I preached from Acts 4-5 about Jubilee and about the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, and I shared about a friend who’d told me this week that she was moving on from our community. This was a pretty difficult thing to hear, but as I’d been praying about it this week, God reminded me that … well, neither I nor our community is perfect. Still working through it, though.

Then, in between the two services, I got a text from my friends Isaac and Jess, who’d also been part of The District Church for a while before moving back to Minnesota (and I’d gotten to see them during my brief stop in the Land of 10,000 Lakes), that Jess, who was pregnant with their first kid and due tomorrow, had given birth to a beautiful little girl!

And to cap it off, this afternoon, as I was doing some work at home, I found out that another friend’s dad had passed away.

So it’s been an emotional week … heck, it’s been an emotional weekend!

I’d welcome your prayers for me, but even more so for those I’ve mentioned–those that are celebrating as well as those who are mourning.

Thanks, friends.

Rest in peace, dear friend

This morning, I woke to a text informing me that one of my closest friends from university passed away yesterday morning.

Ashley was one of the first people I ever met at University College London when we both started studying law in 2000. We also lived in the same dorms in Camden Town, and we became good friends. And over the years, though he went on to practice law and I didn’t, though I moved to the US and he stayed in Europe, we made sure to touch base once in a while, just to check in.

Last year, we were finally catching up on a long-overdue chat, and he shared with me that he’d been battling a brain tumor for the better part of the last decade, beginning shortly after we graduated in 2003. He hadn’t really told very many people. He said didn’t want to be a burden on people; he didn’t want people to feel sorry for him or to treat him any differently just because he was sick.

We spoke in November. He had just gone through a particularly difficult episode and was back recovering in hospital. His sister Shardi served as our translator because he was on morphine to fight the intense pain. He expressed his gratitude that we were able to talk. I told him not to strain himself, that we’d talk again when he was better, that I’d see him next time I was in the UK, or he could come visit me in DC. He said he’d always wanted to come to DC.

That was the last time we talked.

I’ll always remember Ash as the life and soul of the party, always full of energy. To some he was brash and in-your-face; to others he was confident and self-assured. To some he was obstinate and hard-headed; to others he was a man of conviction. I knew him as fiercely, fiercely loyal–you always knew that Ash had your back. I remember that one of his favorite songs was Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise,” that he knew the words back to front and inside out and had no problem rapping it in your face. I remember him getting our gang into and then out of trouble. You could never accuse him of not living life.

Over the years, we had several conversations about faith. Ash never adhered to a certain religion, though he always expressed his support for my faith. In one conversation this last year, he said, “I just think it’s great when someone believes something and then actually lives it out.” He was about as excited for me becoming a pastor and getting ordained as anyone–even more so than many of my Christian friends. He followed my email updates and even listened to my sermons on occasion. We even got to pray together during one of our conversations last year.

Somehow–I don’t know how–I hope and pray that I get to see him someday. The world has lost a colorful character, someone who took his knocks in life and learned many, many lessons, someone who mellowed out and grew up. Someone I call friend.

Ash, buddy, I miss you already. Rest in peace, dear friend.

Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Horatio (Hamlet, V.ii)

I’m on Aslan’s side

This Sunday, I’ll be preaching from Daniel 3. I’m always challenged by the words of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in response to Nebuchadnezzar’s threat of death by blazing furnace, because they demonstrate the kind of trust and faith I aspire toward:

If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up. (vv.17-18)

C.S. Lewis, through the character of Puddleglum in The Silver Chair (book six in the Chronicles of Narnia series), draws this out yet further:

Suppose we have only dreamed or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right.  But four [or more] babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia … Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.