#BlackLivesMatter is a gospel issue

At The District Church, we’ve just started a series entitled “A Call for Racial Reconciliation.” Matthew kicked us off powerfully this past Sunday by talking about “Why Race Matters to God,” and included the unqualified statement that “Black Lives Matter is a gospel issue.” You can listen to that here.

What I learned from praying at the White House

Easter Prayer BreakfastI got the call on the morning of Maundy Thursday: Would you be interested in giving the closing prayer at the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast?

Uh. Yes. Wow. Absolutely. I actually don’t even remember what my response was, but it was probably something like that.

My feeling upon hanging up the phone–and the underlying sense all through the emotion and significance and spiritual intensity of our Good Friday and Easter Sunday services at The District Church (more on this later)–was, Who, me? I felt the same way walking into the White House with a bunch of leaders whose names and faces I’d seen before on social media or the news but never yet in person.

The other presenters that day were Rev. Amy Butler from Riverside Church in New York City, Sister Donna Markham of Catholic Charities USA, Fr. Anthony Messeh of St. Timothy and St. Athanasius Coptic Orthodox Church, and Pastor Ann Lightner-Fuller of Mt. Calvary A.M.E. Church, and as we met and chatted in the Blue Room while we waited for the President and Vice-President to greet us before the breakfast, we shared this common feeling. Who were we to be doing this? At one point, Fr. Anthony said, “I’m just waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me they made a mistake!”

Easter Prayer Breakfast table pic

Eight years ago, 25-year-old, grad-school-student, fanboy-and-campaigner-in-chief Justin would have been unreservedly and unabashedly over-the-moon about an opportunity like this, and–please don’t get me wrong–I was excited. (That may also be an understatement.) There were a lot of things I thought about saying to the President–“Big fan, sir!” or “We’re praying for you!” or “Come visit The District Church; we’re just a couple miles up the road!” or “How about that Championship game last night?” But all that came out was a “Great to meet you, Mr. President!” And then I had nothing.

President Obama at Easter Prayer BreakfastThe breakfast itself was a fun thing to be a part of too. From Vice-President Biden’s opening remarks to President Obama’s reflections–and jokes, the man’s got a great sense of humor!–to the song by Amy Grant (a childhood musical hero of mine) to the scriptures read from 1 Corinthians and Mark’s Gospel to the homily on having the courage to hope and keep moving forward, the event was a thoroughly Jesus-saturated. It felt like an extension of Easter Sunday–just as The District Church community had come together on Sunday as family to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus with joy and hope, this was the same kind of thing with an equally diverse family–from different traditions and backgrounds and ethnicities and political affiliations–only with people who were in the news a little more.

And I guess that’s what God has impressed upon my heart this weekend and through the prayer breakfast: we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. Before the breakfast, I met Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and we both commented on how even famous people need Jesus, how even nice suits and dresses can’t hide the things that we all have to deal with.

Every one of us has sin in our lives that separates us from God–addictions, hidden failings, anger problems; and every one of us needs the saving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection to redeem and restore us.

Every one of us faces struggles that threaten to derail our faith–despair, doubt, disappointment; and every one of us needs to be reminded of the hope that we have in Christ in the midst of those trials.

Every one of us is a walking paradox, to whom we may say both, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return” (as we did seven weeks ago today on Ash Wednesday), and also, “You are a child of God, an image-bearer of the Most High, a friend of Jesus, a temple of the Holy Spirit, and the Almighty’s chosen vessel–together with his church–to bring restoration and renewal to a hurting world.”

Young or old, rich or poor, black, white, Hispanic, Asian or mixed, Republican, Democrat or independent, pastor or president–we all need the gospel and the gospel is for us all. 

I think that’s part of the wonder and the mystery of the gospel: none of us has reason to boast, and all of us have reason to rejoice. In the kingdom of God, degrees, titles, connections, and positions are not what define us; it is the grace of God alone. In the kingdom of God, all of us have cause to say both “Who me?” and also to joyfully and courageously step into the opportunities God places before us.

One last anecdote: I had to write a draft of the prayer last week so that the White House could get a copy and make sure I wasn’t praying anything way out there. And for the first half hour or so, I just couldn’t get anything out–I was worried about what to say and how to say it and what the President might think. I remember thinking, This is weird; I pray all the time!

And then God reminded me it wasn’t about the people I was praying in front of; it was about the One to whom I was praying. After that, the words came easy.

Here’s the video and text (below) of the prayer.

Heavenly Father, gracious God, Almighty Maker of heaven and earth,

We thank you for this morning, for the words that were shared, for the truths that we were reminded of, for the fellowship we enjoyed.

And thank you for that day, that first Easter Sunday, two thousand years ago. Thank you for the resurrection miracle—the event that changed the world, that changed history, that changed everything.

Thank you for the abundant love you demonstrated by going to the cross, a love that is stronger than the grave, a love that is more powerful than sin and death.

Thank you for the amazing grace you showed us, forgiving our sins, making us new, welcoming us back into right relationship with you.

Thank you for the mercies you shower anew upon us every morning, the breath and the life you give us to sing out and shout out and live out the good news, the gospel.

Thank you for President Obama, for his hospitality in having us here. We continue to pray strength and wisdom and protection for him and for his family and for his administration.

And as we go from here, to the people and to the places you have called us, to those you have called us to serve and to love, may we all be bold and courageous bearers of the good news of Easter, of the gospel of grace and life and joy and peace and justice and reconciliation and love through Jesus Christ—in everything we say and in everything we do. And may you accomplish in us and through us more than we could ever ask or imagine, for your glory and for the sake of your kingdom. 

We pray this all in Jesus’ name … amen.

What is the gospel?

[Excerpt from yesterday’s message at The District Church: “You Are Not Your Mistakes.”]

“There is not one square inch of the entire creation over which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!'” – Abraham Kuyper

Gospel (letterbox)

This is the gospel:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and everything that is in them. He made human beings to be his image-bearers, commissioned us to rule over the earth as his ambassadors, his representatives. And he declared all things good.

But we chose to do things our own way, separating ourselves from God and from his good, life-giving purposes for us. This is what we call sin. Our sinful decisions—because they separate us from God, who is the source of life—lead to death.

In the Old Testament, to atone for the sin—to pay or make up for the wrong that had been done—a sacrifice had to be made. The sinner would have to bring to the temple an animal without blemish—no bruises, no cuts, no scars. In one episode of This American Life, a Jewish professor said we lose some of the impact nowadays of how sacrifice was such an important part of worship because we tend to give either impersonal things like money or intangible things like time. In those days, you would bring something personal—an animal you had raised and cared for and protected from harm—and then you would make the sacrifice yourself. You couldn’t avoid the mess of sacrifice or the cost of sacrifice because you can’t avoid the mess of sin or the cost of sin. And sin leads to death; sin always leads to death: the death of a friendship, the death of a marriage, the death of innocence, the death of a healthy sexual identity and expression, the death of justice and equality, the death of trust, and in those days, the death of an animal.

But God knew that animals could never make up for the wrong that we did, that all the animals in the world could never make up for the hurt we caused each other and ourselves, that it was like trying to stanch a gaping wound with a Band-Aid or to hold back a river with a brick. And so, we are told, God demonstrated his love for us by sending his Son Jesus to live the life he created us to live, the life we could not live on our own, a life full of love for him and for each other.

On the cross, God took the cost of sin on himself; God himself experienced the mess of sacrifice; God himself experienced death so that we might have life. God in Jesus paid the price for us—the word that the Bible uses for this is one that was commonly used in economic transactions: redemption.

Jesus knew what was coming; he knew what he had come for; he knew the mission on which he had been sent.

To proclaim good news to the poor and release for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

To let the world know that God was making all things new, that God was taking the things that the world had twisted upside down and turning them back the way they were supposed to be.

To sing of a God who welcomes sinners and forgives sins, who restores broken lives and broken bodies, who saves those who think they’re too far gone and humbles those who think they’ve got it all figured out.

To invite us back to the ancient, cosmic calling to be God’s image-bearers on earth, to live as God would in us in a world broken by sin, to proclaim with our words and our deeds the renewing of all things.

This is the gospel: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Renewal.

WashFeetThis is the gospel Jesus spoke of; this is the gospel Jesus lived out. This is the gospel that the woman who lived a sinful life (in Luke 7:36-50) saw and heard. That’s the good news that changed her life, that lifted the weight of sin and death from her soul, that caused her to demonstrate her gratitude by showing love to her Lord. It was a sacrifice that she made, subjecting herself to judgment and ridicule, violating social norms, being vulnerable in the way that she was. An ancient writer said, “Worship without sacrifice is just words.” But this was a different kind of sacrifice.

See, people used to make sacrifices in order to receive forgiveness. This woman was making a sacrifice because she had already been forgiven.

You see the difference? I’ve used this analogy before but it’s like this: in my marriage, I don’t do things for Carolyn so that she will love me; I do them because she loves me and because I want her to know that I appreciate that.

And so with us and God: in Jesus, God is reconciling all things to himself, extending an invitation of forgiveness to every sinner, an invitation to be made new, to come home, to be part of the greatest adventure ever written—life with God for eternity, starting right now and right here on earth.

What does the gospel have to do with your life? Absolutely everything.

CreationFrom Creation, we learn that every human being is made in the image of God.

That means every person you encounter—at home, at work, at play; the people you love and the people you hate; the people you walk past on the street or gossip about behind their backs—every person is made in the image of God.

That means that your calling, the thing you were made for, the thing that—if you were to do it—would make you as fully human as you have ever been, is to be like God in this world, to live as Jesus would live if he were in your place, with love and mercy and grace and forgiveness and justice.

FallFrom the Fall, we learn that there is a thing called sin, which separates us from God and leads to death.

That’s why we aren’t surprised at the brokenness and death and suffering in the world; that’s why we don’t just accept the injustice and we don’t just complain about it; and that’s why we always look at ourselves to see how sin is impacting us and clouding our judgment or making us hypocrites.

That’s why we always walk humbly with our God and with one another, because we know we screw up too.

That’s why we live in community—so we can help each other along the way, by encouraging one another and holding one another accountable.

RedemptionFrom Redemption, we learn that—praise God!—sin and death do not have the final word, that the Creator of the universe loves us so much that he didn’t want to be without us, that he was willing to get involved in the mess and to pay the cost of our sin.

That means that there is no mistake too big for God to overcome, no addiction too strong for God to pry you loose, no pit too deep for God to come down and break the chains of whatever is keeping you there and bring you out into the light.

RenewalAnd from Renewal, we learn that we who have been redeemed have a purpose, and it is to carry out that calling that God gave us from the beginning—to be his image bearers, to be heralds of this upside down kingdom, this reality in which God is in charge and things are not as they seem.

That means that God is not done with us, that he is continually forming us to be his people, sent out on his mission into whatever workplace or whatever situation we may find ourselves:

  • on the frontlines in Afghanistan or the frontlines in underresourced neighborhoods,
  • in the arenas of policy or activism or healthcare,
  • as we take photographs and tell stories,
  • as we fill out TPS reports and stare at Excel documents,
  • as we raise our kids and get to know our next door neighbors,
  • as we go out with our friends and as we go out to serve the poor—and maybe one day those two things will be the same,
  • as we spend our money and we give it away,
  • as we walk with our friends struggling with addiction and illness, and as we ourselves struggle with addiction and illness.

In it all, we are called to be a people—you are called to be a person—of outrageous, unconditional, exceptional, upside down love.

[All Gospel designs by Chantal Rogers]

The gospel is courageous

Archbishop Oscar Romero; April 16, 1978:Romero

A church that doesn’t provoke any crises,
a gospel that doesn’t unsettle,
a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin,
a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed —
what gospel is that?

Very nice, pious considerations that don’t bother anyone,
that’s the way many would like preaching to be.
Those preachers who avoid every thorny matter
so as not to be harassed,
so as not to have conflicts and difficulties,
do not light up the world they live in.

They don’t have Peter’s courage, who told that crowd where the bloodstained hands still were that had killed Christ: “You killed him!” Even though the charge could cost him his life as well, he made it.

The gospel is courageous;
it’s the good news of him who came to take away the world’s sins.