The truth about God’s wrath

God did it. That’s how some Christians explain the coronavirus pandemic. It’s God’s judgment on humans because of our sins.

Which sins? Well, what’s on your list of sins that other people commit but you don’t? Obviously those must be the sins God is punishing people for. You, of course, as pure as the wind-driven snow, would never think of committing those sins.

It’s all because of other people that God is punishing all of us, so we – poor martyrs! – must endure punishment with them. Beam me up, Scottie. Where’s the Rapture when you need it? Where’s my magic escape hatch from this vale of toil and tears?

God caused the coronavirus to punish sinful people – that’s the blasphemy you’ll hear in many churches today. This morning I want to tell you the truth about God’s wrath, what it is and what it isn’t. This is the biblical truth, not the fantasy truth you may have heard over the years. This is the biblical truth, not the counterfeit you’ve heard proclaimed from many a church pulpit.

Does the name Zeus mean anything to you? How many of you remember Zeus from your childhood studies of ancient mythology, or from movies made from Marvel comic books?

Zeus is king of the Greek gods, the god of sky and thunder and lightning. The Romans called him Jupiter. In Norse legends, he’s called Thor. He’s usually portrayed as a big strong guy with a shock of white hair and a bushy white beard.

If fact, he could be a stand-in for God in Michelangelo’s famous painting of God creating Adam. In fact, a lot of Christians have Zeus and God confused. They think God is like Zeus, and one of the ways God is like Zeus is that God likes to throw thunderbolts at people who displease him.

Pinch a Snickers bar at the candy store and God’s gonna get you the moment you step out the door! Zap! Sizzle! One more sinner fried. Think an impure thought, steal a paper clip from the office, vote for anybody but a Republican and – Zap! You’re done for, brother. You’re toast, sister. That’s how God punishes people for sin!.

Except, it’s not. God is not Zeus, or Jupiter or Thor. God is God, and God doesn’t work the way those clowns from other ancient religions work. “The wrath of God” is a phrase you’ll see frequently in the Bible, but it does not mean divine retribution. It does not mean divine punishment. It means something else entirely.

It doesn’t mean that God is soft on sin. It means that God has other ways of dealing with sin than zapping people with thunderbolts – or floods or tornados or pandemics or any of the other awful things some people like to blame on God.

Let me show you what I mean using a passage from Psalm 7. Start with verses 11, 12 and 13:

God is a righteous judge, a God who is angry at evil every single day. If someone doesn’t change their ways, God will sharpen his sword, will bend his bow, will string an arrow. God has deadly weapons in store for those who won’t change; he gets his flaming arrows ready!

Wow. It looks like God prefers flaming arrows rather than thunderbolts. But either way, sinners are thoroughly cooked, right?

Hang on. Let’s read verses 14, 15, and 16.

But look how the wicked hatch evil, conceive trouble, give birth to lies! They make a pit, dig it all out, and then fall right into the hole they’ve made! The trouble they cause will come back on their own heads; the violence they commit will come down on their own skulls.

Evildoers dig a pit to trap someone else but they end up falling in it themselves. The trouble they try to cause for others comes right back at them.

God is indeed a righteous judge. What does God do as a righteous judge of our conduct? God evaluates our faithfulness. What is the judgment that God pronounces? It’s that we receive a just return for our actions. God does not enforce this personally. God never says, “I’ll get you for that!” But we don’t walk away unscathed either.

“Do not be deceived,” the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians. “God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7)

Do you hear that? You reap what you sow. You are punished by your sins, not for them.

Paul stands firmly in the biblical tradition. Proverbs 22:8 : “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.” Job 4:8: “Those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” Proverbs 1:31: those who reject the wisdom of the Lord “will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.”

Multiple times in both Old and Testaments it’s said that when people rebel against God, God gives “them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.” That is, God gives “them over to the penalty of their sin” (Psalm 81:11-12, Job 8:4 Judges 2:14, Nehemiah 9:27-28).

Paul tells the church in Rome that “the wrath of God” is revealed in the life of sinners when God “gives us up” to the wages of our sin (1:18, 1:24, 26, 28). But Paul says that God’s “kindness and forbearance and patience” always leaves room for – and always hopes for – our repentance (2:4-5).

Never “repay anyone evil for evil,” Paul says, but “leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord’ ” (Romans 12:17-19).

That’s a loose quotation from Deuteronomy. Here’s the full thing: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip. Their day of disaster is near, and their doom rushes upon them” (Deuteronomy 32:35 NIV).

God’s “anger” at sin is metaphorical. It’s a metaphor, not a literal reality. God does not “lose his temper,” “fly off the handle,” “come unglued” or “get bent out of shape” over sin or sinners. Rather, God acts to save us from the long-term consequences of our actions by allowing us to experience some shorter-term consequences of our actions, thus nudging us to turn our lives around in repentance.

But if God’s “anger” is metaphorical, that doesn’t mean that we sinners don’t feel it as real. Besides the physical consequences of our misdeeds, we feel our separation from God as increasing spiritual misery.

Saint Augustine calls this a “darkening of the mind.” You know what it feels like. So do unbelievers. But they will never understand the cause of their misery as separation from God unless we help them come to that understanding. That’s why we who have seen the light are obligated to show it to others.

We also have an obligation to speak out against perverted notions of who God is. Some people imagine that God hurts people to punish them for wrongdoing. If God actually did that, none of us would survive long, would we? God does not punish us. God lets us punish ourselves. God allows us to experience the folly of our actions.

If that sounds a bit like the Hindu concept of karma, so be it. “What goes around comes around.” Sooner or later, you get what you deserve, more or less.

It’s usually not so simple. You may suffer not only for your own sins, but also for the sins of others. You may not pollute the river, but if somebody upstream pollutes the river, you are going to suffer the consequences of that person’s actions.

You also suffer when someone sins directly against you. Being persecuted for doing the right thing totally violates the “fairness code” of the universe. Injustice is just not right.

Scripture offers many laments from those who suffer injustice, especially when the perpetrators appear to get off without consequence. It’s especially galling when somebody more powerful than you decides that you are worshipping the wrong deity, or worshipping the right deity the wrong way, and thrashes you for it. Then you are justly outraged that you are punished for doing what you think is right, and your tormentor is apparently rewarded for wronging you.

Children have a well refined fairness meter, and they are quick to object, “That’s not fair!” I think fairness is why some people find comfort in the idea that God punishes people directly for sins. But I find it very sad that people think God uses tornadoes and forest fires and hurricanes and pandemics and other “natural disasters” to punish us.

Insurance companies call these things “acts of God.” By that, they mean only that these aren’t acts of people. These are natural events – part of the way the world works. But they may be influenced by human actions. Where we build and the way we build; where we farm and how we farm; where we dam rivers and where we don’t – all of these actions influence natural events such as floods and windstorms.

I believe God can use such events to change our hearts, but I don’t believe God causes floods and windstorms to punish us or force us to repent. If you believe that God acts that way, you must also believe that God has terrible aim and doesn’t care about collateral damage. What does it matter if innocents suffer as long as a few sinners get what’s coming to them?

Here’s the gospel truth. God is not mad at you – or anyone else. God loves you – and everyone else. We’re all created in God’s image, and loved by God. God is saddened that sin controls the lives of so many people, but God “desires everyone to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Through the Holy Spirit, God is working in everyone to bring everyone to repentance. But as long as there is sin, everyone will experience the “wrath” of God that is born of love, and some may experience injustice as well.

This message is condensed from a chapter in a book I’ve written about the book of Revelation. Revelation is focused on Jesus, whom we know as “the lamb of God.” Though Revelation mentions “the wrath of God” about a dozen times, it once actually speaks of “the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 16:16).

I would like you to try to picture in your mind a wrathful lamb. Does it snort? Does it stomp its little hooves? Isn’t what is most obvious, as well as most endearing, about a lamb is that it is so helpless?

Our first encounter with the Lamb in Revelation is an astonishing moment. “Behold the lion of Judah!” a voice says. And when John of Patmos looks, he doesn’t see a lion standing by the throne of heaven. He sees a lamb that has been slaughtered (6.5).

We’re never told how John knows that it has been slaughtered. Is the gash in its neck still open? Does it have a red “bib” in front from where the blood spewed out?

The Lamb of God carries the scars of crucifixion on his hands and feet and in his side. They are eternal signs of God’s love for all.

This is a true vision of the wrath of God. This is the Lamb of God, “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 2:29). This is the Lamb of God, who “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). This is how God conquers sin. This is how God punishes sinners. God takes the pain of the world upon God’s very self, and the blood of the Lamb cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

God is not out to get you, but you may get yourself. The next time you think of digging a pit for an enemy to fall into, remember that God allows you to suffer the consequences of your folly. Do not ask for whom the pit waits. It waits for you.


This message was delivered outdoors at Edgerton United Methodist Church on June 27, 2020, the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost.

Refiner’s fire 3: plague

When the big lighted ball dropped in Times Square to mark the beginning of the year 2020, who would have thought that in just a few weeks we would be embroiled in a worldwide pandemic that so far has infected more than 8 million people and killed more than 440,000, and that fully one quarter of the confirmed cases and one-quarter of the deaths have occurred in the United States, which supposedly has the finest health care system in the world?

It’s a plague nobody saw coming, and some people still live in denial. It’s all a hoax, some say. It’s way overblown, others contend. These folks will continue to live with their heads in the sand until someone close to them dies, and then they’ll look for somebody to blame for their ignorance.

After one plague came signs of another: the murder of George Floyd, witnessed by millions of in a grim and surreal video. There followed national unrest and even riots, and an outlandishly authoritarian response from the power elite in the White House.

Three viruses stalk America today: the coronavirus, the virus of racism and the virus of authoritarianism. I call these the viruses of plague, prejudice and power. They are an unholy trinity that mocks our triune God.

In this time of turmoil and fear, I believe that God is acting in our midst. God is using these viruses to refine us by fire. God is calling us to turn away from our racist, power-mad, and plague-prone ways, and turn toward a God-shaped life.

If you believe in omens, here are two more: huge wildfires in Arizona, and a giant cloud of dust being carried more than 5,000 miles over the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara Desert. It will make landfall in this country early in the week. By that time, you may not be able to see it, but it may still affect your breathing when you go outdoors.

These are symbolic clouds of despair. No wonder mental health experts are worried. It’s trauma on top of trauma, says one. * Depression and anxiety are common. By one measure, Americans have not been this unhappy since 1972.*

Trauma upon trauma, crisis upon crisis. Some observers think that we are near a tipping point. Good things could result, or catastrophe. It all depends on how we react in the days ahead. Will we repent and turn to God? Will we continue to flounder under inept leadership? Or will even worse things happen?

Many people have turned to reading the pass the time during their lockdown. I am a constant reader; I devour 50 or 60 books every year. So when a plague comes, what does a onetime English major on track to being an English teacher turn to but one of the classics of plague literature? That is the novel The Plague by Albert Camus.

Other people had the same idea. The Johnson County Library has only a couple of electronic copies of The Plague to lend out, and I was sixth in line to borrow one.

Camus was an underground journalist with the French resistance during World War II. He emerged as a major literary figure and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957. Some people called him an existentialist, or an absurdist. However you label him, he was fiercely committed to the idea that every person has to construct a meaningful life from the chaos that surrounds us most of the time.

I first read The Plague a long time ago, and I was surprised how much of it I remembered. It’s plainly written but has an oddly poetic and timeless feel to it, and it’s filled with striking images. The story is set sometime after 1947, when the book was published, in the city of Oran on the northwestern coast of Algeria.

It starts when someone sees a dead rat. Soon dead rats are everywhere, hundreds of them – and then people start getting sick. City leaders dilly-dally and then try to cover up their inaction. When it’s impossible to deny the truth anymore, the city comes under strict quarantine. No one gets in or out for a long time. People die by the thousands. Their bodies are carted away at night and thrown into mass graves.

The quarantine leads to feelings of disconnect and discontent. People begin to waste away emotionally as well as physically. They can’t think of death all the time, Camus says, so they think of nothing. Some become, in Camus’ words, “allergic to hope in any form.”

The main characters are a young doctor named Rieux and some of his friends. My favorite of the friends is Grand. Grand says he’s writing a novel, but he can’t get past the first sentence. He obsesses over the wording. It has to be perfect, and he has rewritten this sentence many times. He’s also estranged from his wife, who now lives in another city, and he wants to write to tell of his love for her, but he just can’t find the right words.

Then there’s Father Paneloux, a stuffy Jesuit priest. Camus devotes a lot of attention to two sermons that Peneloux preaches. In the first, he says that God has called down plague upon them to get their attention, so it will be a good thing if it opens their eyes and makes them think and drives them to repent.

In the second sermon, he’s not so sure. He knows only that God controls everything, so if the plague kills innocent people, people must accept that as God’s chastisement. He says this right after he has witnessed the horrible death of a child. You can feel how deeply he is struggling. He is certain that God is in control, but he’s also certain of God’s grace. He cannot reconcile the two ideas.

Camus is an atheist, so he offers no solution to that quandary, or any other. If you want your life to have any meaning, he says, you’ve got to make it yourself. You’ve got to construct meaning yourself by the way you live and the way you love.

Everyone has the plague, Camus says. It’s death itself. Sooner or later, something will kill you. That’s your personal plague. The question is how you live before the plague gets you. Do you live with an attitude that is worse that the plague itself? Or do you live with hope and compassion for others?

Some people, Camus says, are “content to live only for the day alone under the vast indifference of the sky.” If you’re familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes, you’ll find that this is a familiar thought. “Vanity of vanities,” says the Teacher. “What do people gain from all their toil under the sun?”

Ecclesiastes is more a short essay than a full-fledged book of the Bible. But 27 times in this short essay, the Teacher uses the phrase “under the sun.” It’s his catch-phrase for hopeless living, life without God. It feels just like Camus’ notion of living for the day under the vast indifference of the sky. Living without God is like living under the hot sun and the vast indifference of the sky.

I think Camus and the Teacher of Ecclesiastes would have gotten along well. Both saw through the shallow illusion of worldly success. Both yearned for more. The Teacher finally concludes, “So this is the end of the matter … Worship God and keep God’s commandments because this is what everyone must do” (Ecclesiastes 12:13 CEB). Camus could come to no such conclusion.

I hope that the parallels between Camus’ fictional plague and our very-real pandemic are obvious. How many hundred thousand lives would have been saved if cowardly politicians in several nations had moved more quickly against the virus rather than denying that a problem existed and then lying to cover themselves?

How many lives are devastated when economies are shut down and people can’t work? How many lives are saved when we hunker down separately? How many people go just a little crazy when they can’t be around other people for extended periods?

Our pandemic is far from over. “This is just the beginning,” says the author of one study of the disease. * Thousands more will die, some of them our neighbors and friends and relatives. We are tired of this thing, but one health official says, “The virus doesn’t care that we’re tired. It’s still out there.” *

Eventually, one way or another, we’ll get through this. Many more people will die because of the casual stupidity of public officials or individuals who rebel against public health warnings. The coronavirus will either slink away, or we will build up immunity against it. This crisis will be over, and we’ll move on to the next crisis that we never saw coming, or maybe one like global warming that we have seen coming for a long time but we have chosen to ignore.

Will we have changed in the meantime? Will we find meaning in our plague experience, as Camus says we must? Or will be blindly blunder on, oblivious to the opportunity for growth that we missed?

“We are at a turning point historically,” many voices are saying. This may be a crucial moment that we remember as BP and AP, as in “Before Pandemic” and “After Pandemic.” Or maybe it’s BGF and AGF, as in “Before George Floyd” and “After George Floyd.”

Some people want to return to normal, whatever they think that is. Others say we can never return to normal because what some of us think of as normal never really existed for so many people. After the George Floyd murder, we cannot return to our racist normal. After the White House attack on peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square, we cannot return to authoritarian business as usual. After this coronavirus pandemic, we cannot return to reckless living with no care for the consequences. It’s time for change.

The sun rises and the sun goes down. The wind blows this way and then that. Water flows into the sea but the sea never fills up. It’s all so wearisome, says the Teacher of Ecclesiastes. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.”

Or is there? In Isaiah 43:19 God tells the prophet: “I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”

God can do a new thing in our midst, and God will, if we let the Holy Spirit work in us and through us. We have reached a place where there is no going back. We either go forward or we perish. We go with God, or we die under the vast indifference of the sky. Which shall it be?

I invite you to journey with me, not under the hot sun that shines down on us from the sky, but under the gentle and healing warmth of God’s Son shining out from hearts enlivened by the Holy Spirit. I invite you to a life with God, free from evil viruses and free for all.


* Notes:

“Trauma on top of trauma” – Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health America

“By one measure” – study by NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago

“Just the beginning”– Samir Bhatt, senior author of a study by the Imperial College London

“We’re tired already” – Francis S. Collings, director of the National Institutes of Health


This message was presented online to Edgerton United Methodist Church on June 21, 2020, the Third Sunday After Pentecost, from Ecclesiastes 1.2-9.          

Refiner’s fire 2: racism

It is almost commonplace now to say that there are two viruses in our midst today – the coronavirus and the virus of racism. I contend that there is a third virus as well – the virus of authoritarianism. I call these three the viruses of power, plague and prejudice. They are an unholy trinity that mocks our triune God.

But I believe that in this time of turmoil and fear, God is using these viruses to refine us by fire. God is calling us to turn away from our racist, power-mad, and plague-prone ways, and turn toward a God-shaped life.

I spoke about power last week and had originally intended to address plague today. But events of the last week, and the focus we have seen on the subject, have convinced me that today I must speak about prejudice and about racism.

I don’t want to talk about this. You don’t want me to talk about this. Those are two good reasons that I must talk about this.

The last time I preached about racism to a white congregation I thought I might be lynched. Years later, when I was leaving that appointment, one person said to me: “I’ve always appreciated your sermons – except for that one, of course.”

White fragility and white resentment are two of the main reasons we have never had a genuine conversation about race in this country. It is simply too hard. Again, that is why it is necessary. We are never going to get through this nightmare until we talk about it openly and plainly.

Racism is commonly called America’s original sin. It’s our national birth defect, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says. It’s a crack in our national foundation that threatens to bring the whole house down.

More than 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission investigating the 1967 riots came to this conclusion: “To pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.”

That was more than half a century ago. It’s time for a change of direction. As Jesus warned us, a house divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:25).

Here is a standard dictionary definition of racism: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”

That’s a good start, but it’s missing a major dimension of the problem. Only last week, the editors of the Merriam-Webster dictionary announced that they will revise their definition to include systemic oppression.

You see, racism has two dimensions: the personal and the systemic. Each of us may with some degree of honesty say, “I’m not racist” – at least not overtly so. But our society is thoroughly racist. Racism is more than personal prejudice. As my friend and former seminary professor Tex Sample says, “Racism is prejudice plus power.”

Let’s try to dismantle this evil cultural edifice piece by piece.

First, white supremacy. That lie was created centuries ago to justify enslaving black people. The simple truth is, as Genesis 1:26 attests, all people are created in the image of God. That implies not only equality but special status. We’re all God’s beloved children. The writers of the New Testament proclaim four times, “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6.9). As we say again and again, all means all. All God’s children are beloved.

Though our Declaration of Independence declares that all people are created equal, our Constitution backed way off from that vision of equality. It made a black person worth only three-fifths of a white person when counted for representation in Congress – though, of course, unable to vote or exercise any other rights.

White supremacy is enforced through violence and terror and through a system of special treatment called white privilege. Basically it means that because you are white, you get privileges that are denied to people who aren’t white. W.E.B. Du Boise called it “the wages of whiteness.”

We white folks don’t understand it because it’s a systemic thing. It’s invisible. You can’t see it or touch it, but it governs all our lives. Let me give you three simple examples.

First, suppose that I go to the bank to request a loan for a new house or for a new business. Now suppose that a black person whose credit rating and income are the same as mine goes to the same bank to request a similar loan. Guess which one of us is more likely to get the loan? The system is not color blind. Color blindness is a myth.

Here’s another example. In mid-May, heavily armed demonstrators invaded the Michigan state Senate. They even stood in the Senate gallery overlooking lawmakers while holding rapid-fire rifles. They were all white. What do you suppose would have happened if they’d been black? Do you think they’d had a chance of getting away with what they did?

Jane Elliott is a white anti-racism educator and activist. When she addresses white audiences about racism, she asks, “If you are willing to be treated the way black people are treated, please stand.” No one ever stands.

White privilege is something you were born with and you carry with you always. You can’t shed it like a coat. What you might be able to do with it is use it to help empower others who don’t have it.

Racism is built into our culture. It’s a structure of inter-related and interlocking policies and customs and silent agreements that systematically works against people of color. It affects everything.

Here’s how it typically works. If you’re black, racial discrimination will determine where you live. Zoning laws and redlining practices and other financial practices will mean that you live in a segregated, impoverished neighborhood.

You live in poor housing that will cost more to maintain than it’s worth and will raise your health risks because of lead paint and other problems, including where it’s located – always in an environmentally risky area.

Because of where you live, you will have to travel farther to your job, using public transportation that is inadequate and costly, if it exists at all. You will live in a food desert, meaning there is no place nearby where you can buy healthy food, only the junk food you can get at the quickie mart. Your job and the lifestyle imposed on you will likely expose you disproportionally to heart disease, diabetes and to the coronavirus.

Your children will attend separate and unequal schools – this despite the landmark Brown vs Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court in 1954, 66 years ago, that separate and unequal school systems are illegal. The future of your kids will be dimmed by poor education and constant exposure to illegal drug and gang activity.

The police are powerless to curb such illegal activity, but they do have the power to make your life miserable. You can be harassed or arrested or killed for driving while black, jogging while black, birdwatching while black,  taking out the trash at night while black, moving furniture out of your house at night while black, sleeping while black – doing anything any human being ought to be able to do but you are not able to do because you are black.

The mental and emotional and physical and spiritual toll is great. Stress, anxiety and poor health are the inevitable result. And when things like the George Floyd murder happen, you can’t hold it in anymore.

“A riot is the language of the unheard,” Martin Luther King Jr. said. He was not offering an excuse for rioting. He was simply explaining the phenomenon.

Because of systemic racism, it is clear that in America black lives don’t matter. That’s why the slogan Black Lives Matter is so important. It’s true that all lives matter. And it’s not that black lives matter more than white lives. But to turn around this tide of racism, we have to declare that black lives do matter, and we have to prove it by our actions.

Inevitably, there is a backlash. Some of it is defiantly racist and some of it is simply lack of understanding. White resentment is a huge factor. Some whites just don’t get it. They don’t understand white privilege, so when they see a black person receiving any kind of treatment they themselves didn’t receive, they see it in terms of that black person cutting in line ahead of them. They see it in terms of personal affront. And that resentment boils over into grievance politics. Grievance politics is part of what is tearing us apart as a nation.

Your social location says a lot about who you are, how you view the world, and whether you can see the invisible privilege you were born with. It’s easy to think you deserve what you’ve got. It is said that many rich people are born on third base and think they hit a triple. Then there are those who are born on third base and think they hit a home run but got called back to third, and they are angered by the injustice of it all.

That’s the kind of thinking we’ve gotten from the White House for three and a half years, and it is corrosive to national unity and national identity.

When we white people hear black people complain about racial profiling, we can’t understand because it doesn’t happen to us; it’s not part of our personal experience. But in truth, racial profiling happens to us, too. We are profiled as white, and we benefit from it. It’s time we stopped the negative profiling of anyone.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin Luther King said in his famous Letter from the Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Last Sunday was Peace With Justice Sunday in United Methodist churches. I mentioned it ahead of time, but in our worship time itself, I’m sorry to say that I got so tied up in other things that failed to say anything about it. Peace and justice are intimately connected.

In Isaiah 59.8, God tells the prophet that the way of peace is the way of justice. There can be no peace until there is justice. In our churches, too, there can be no genuine worship until we turn away from injustice. In Amos 5:23-24, God tells the prophet: “Take away the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (CEB).

So that’s a sketch of the problem. You may ask, what can I do about it? Here are several things.

First, don’t be frozen by guilt. You can’t undo the past, and you don’t have to feel guilty about a system you did not create. But you can work for change, and you must.

To begin, learn more about racism and how to combat it. In coming weeks I’ll be sharing resources you can use to educate yourself and arm yourself for action.

Then, listen. In an interview last week, Kansas City Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said that his parents taught him to “have large ears” and to use them to listen. I love that. We all need large ears to hear the pain of our brothers and sisters.

You can’t hear them if you don’t encounter them, so the third thing you can do is engage your black neighbors in conversation and dialogue. Around here, most of your black neighbors are going to be somewhat distant geographically, but that doesn’t mean you can’t meet them.

Of course, you don’t just walk up to somebody and say, “Tell me about your pain.” You have to establish a relationship, get to know each other well, before that kind of dialogue can happen. So engagement means expanding our circle of friendship.

Along the way, we should be doing two other things. We need to be in continuous and intensive prayer. We need to open our hearts to God and ask for a miracle of peace and righteousness and justice in the heart of America and in our individual hearts as well.

That is, we also need to repent of our own racism. Even if we’ve rarely or never expressed it outwardly, we still feel it inwardly because it’s part of our social structure. We’re like fish in water, and we swim in racism every day. We know that the first thing you need to do to solve a problem is to admit that you have a problem, so to rid your spirit of this deadly virus, you have to confess it and then repent of it.

Finally, when you witness acts of racism, or recognize ways that you benefit unfairly from it, you should realize that silence is agreement, so you should speak up and act to stop it. That is one of our baptismal vows that we take whenever we are baptized and we renew whenever someone else is baptized. We vow to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” to us.

It is time, as some have said, to replace indifference with compassion and apathy with empathy. This is not a peripheral issue. This is a gospel issue. This is who we are as God’s people. We affirm that all people are God’s children, and God loves each of us, and none of us deserves to be, or should be, privileged in ways that others are not.

And so in this time of three viruses, pandemic, prejudice and abuse of power, we pledge ourselves to God’s purpose.

Would you pray with me?

O Lord our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we confess today our complicity in the crime of racial injustice. We beg your forgiveness for this sin and humbly ask you to cleanse our hearts of this and all unrighteousness. Empower us to act to show our love to all people, and work in every heart and every mind of every person in our nation and in other nations around the world confronting this same sin. Make us one, Lord, with you, and with one another. We give ourselves to your keeping and dedicate ourselves to your purpose in our lives. In the name of Jesus, we pray – Amen.

This message was delivered outdoors at Edgerton United Methodist Church on June 14, 2020, the Second Sunday After Pentecost.             

Trump must apologize to Martin Gugino

Donald Trump must apologize to Martin Gugino.

Gugino is the 75-year-old protestor who was knocked down by police at a protest in Buffalo last Thursday.

Video of the incident shows Gugino approaching a police line, speaking while gesturing with his cell phone. Two officers shove him backward. He falls flat on his back and hits his head on the pavement. The phone falls out of his hand, but he is otherwise unresponsive as he bleeds from his head.

The two officers hesitate but are urged ahead by others. A third officer appears to call in a request for aid, and others step up to provide it.

Gugino was seriously injured and remains hospitalized. The two officers were suspended without pay and later charged with felony assault.

Blindly following conspiracy theories floated by One America News Network, Trump tweeted this claim:

“Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?”

Many sources describe Gugino as a longtime peace activist and member of the Catholic Worker Movement who works at food kitchens and other outreach missions.

He was not trying to “scan” police communications. He fell hard because he was pushed hard, and unexpectedly. He was not affiliated with antifa, a group that exists mostly in Trump’s head. Trumps tweet is a vile lie.

Trump should apologize for spreading vile conspiracy theories and for slandering Martin Gugino. He will not apologize, of course, because he does not have the guts or integrity to ever admit that he is wrong about anything. This man is not a leader. He is a virus.

Refiner’s fire 1: power

Last week we celebrated Pentecost Sunday, when the fire of the Holy Spirit descended upon the early church. This week we celebrate Trinity Sunday, and we confess God as three in one – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

But it’s even harder to celebrate today than it was last Sunday because there’s a fire burning in America today, and it’s burning brighter and hotter now than it was a week ago.

It may be the fire of destruction, or it may be the refining fire of God, or maybe it’s both. I think God is calling us to repent, as individuals, as a society, and as a nation. I think God is calling us to turn away from our authoritarian ways and to turn toward a God-shaped life.

At the heart of God is loving relationship. Whatever else you can say about Trinity, that’s what three-in-oneness and one-in-threeness is all about. Our God is social. Our God is loving. And here’s the payoff. Genesis 1:26 says that we humans are made in God’s image.

That’s all humans, not just some – you and me and anybody you can name, including that nasty fellow down the road, and his gossipy wife, too. We’re all made in God’s image. That means we are made to be, like God, lovingly social. Sadly, because of sin, we are mostly hatefully anti-social. That is, mostly we love only those poor saps who are most similar to us, and we bask in the delusion that we are superior to everyone else.

Shaped like the Trinity, we’re all bent out of shape, and we need a savior to straighten us out. God sent us Jesus, and we had to kill him because he was so loving that he made the rest of us look so bad.

Not long before Jesus was murdered by the powers-that-be, he had a brief political discussion with some of his followers. He said:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28 NRSV).

Over the centuries, Christians have basically ignored Jesus’ vision of power and followed the way of empire, the way of Christendom. Still, our best thinkers have agreed that there are two kinds of social systems. There is the human way, what Jesus called the way of the Gentiles, and there is God’s way. There is the way of domination, and there is the way of humility. There is the way of Empire, and there is the way of God’s Kingdom.

Theologian Bernard Loomer speaks of two conceptions of power. On the one hand is authoritarian power, on the other relational power – coercive power as opposed to persuasive power.

Loomer says it’s a paradox that coercive power is actually weaker than persuasive power. If it were strong, it wouldn’t have to use coercion, would it? That’s why racism and authoritarianism are always coercive. They are weak, so they have to rely on violence and terror to get their way.

If you have been following the national news this week, you may sense where I am going with this.

Our world has been in lockdown because of a pandemic for three long months now, and whether we admit it or not, we’re all anxious, uncertain, on edge. Several events have tipped us over the edge.

On February 23, a black man named Ahmaud Arbery was jogging in a suburban neighborhood in Georgia when he was gunned down by two white men.

On March 13, a black woman named Breonna Taylor was gunned down when plainclothes police broke into her Louisville apartment in the middle of the night.

On May 25, Memorial Day, in New York’s Central Park, a black birdwatcher named Christian Cooper got into an argument with a white woman who said she was going to call police and report that a black man was threatening her. Happily, he caught it all on video.

That same evening in Minneapolis, a black man named George Floyd bought a pack of cigarettes with a $20 bill that store employees suspected was fake. They called police, who arrested Floyd. He was apparently drunk; he may have resisted. What’s crystal clear is that one officer kept Floyd handcuffed face-down on the pavement with a knee on his throat for more than eight minutes. Floyd died on the scene.

We’ve all seen the video. It’s horrifying. Why didn’t anyone do something? Well, they did. They pleaded with the officer to let Floyd breathe. What more could they have done? Even white folks know better than to argue with a cop carrying a gun.

Call it the last straw, or a cauldron of despair boiling over. You can hold people down for only so long before the rage explodes. Maybe if the timing had been different, the explosion would not have been so large. On top of a pandemic and mass unemployment and great discontent in an election year when the incumbent president seems to grow more unhinged every day, we witness the murder of a black man by a white cop. It’s the perfect storm.

Protests erupt in many cities. Some protests turn into riots. And the backlash begins. In the minds of some, the bad overshadows the good. The actions of a few troublemakers taint the whole enterprise. But if you condemn all protesters for the actions of a few, you also must condemn all police officers for the actions of a few. You can’t have it both ways.

Some politicians want to have it both ways, of course. They blame the protesters, ignoring the injustice they’re protesting. They’re lowlifes and losers, Donald Trump says.

Everybody chatters about their rights. Let’s talk about rights for a minute. As an American, you have a fundamental right to peacefully gather and protest. Protests may be a nuisance to others. You have a right to be a nuisance.

You do not have a right to deface or destroy or loot anyone’s property. You do not have a right to act in ways that endanger others. You do not have a right to threaten or harm police.

Similarly, authorities are obligated to allow and even encourage peaceful protests. They also have the right to maintain order to protect people and property. They do not have a right to use intimidation or violence to infringe on anyone’s right to protest.

Last Monday, we witnessed one of the most bizarre moments in American history.

Late Sunday night, when protests in Washington got way out of hand, Trump was hustled to safety in a bunker in the White House. He later explained that he was only “inspecting” the bunker – something every president does in the middle of the night, right?

He decided that the episode made him look weak, so he needed to make himself look strong. On Monday night, at a Rose Garden press conference, he proclaimed himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters” but claimed that protests in Washington were the work of domestic terrorists.

At that moment, National Guard troops were clearing a nearby peaceful protest in Lafayette Square using flash-bang shells, rubber bullets, and pepper or tear gas. It was still a half hour before curfew. The protesters had every right to be where they were, but they were forcibly removed so that Trump could parade over to a nearby church and pose for photos holding a Bible.

This atrocity brought quick and sharp reaction from mainstream Christians. It’s desecration, they said, blasphemy, idolatry. On the other hand, brown-nose evangelicals like Franklin Graham thought it was great.

Think about it: Peaceful protesters were cleared so that Trump could stage a photo op using a Bible as a prop. This is typical behavior for a reality TV celebrity. For him, everything is a prop for a photo op. Nothing is sacred, certainly not the Bible, or the Constitution, neither of which he appears to have ever read – or if he did, nothing stuck.

What happened to “Blessed are the poor in spirit”? What happened to “Blessed are the peacemakers”? What happened to “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”? What about “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”? (Matthew 5:3-10)

Let’s circle back now to the two kind of social systems, the way of domination and the way of humility, and the two conceptions of power, coercive and persuasive. On the one hand is the way of the world and the way of empire. On the other hand is the way of Jesus and the way of God’s kingdom.

Trump’s way is the world’s way. It is not the Jesus way. Trump is obsessed with not looking weak. The Apostle Paul tells us, “God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27 CEB). If Christ is with me, Paul says, “when I’m weak, then I’m strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 CEB).

Telling the nation’s governors that they’d better get tough, Trump says: “If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time.” Sadly, the dominant conception of power in Trump’s head is domination. But that is the demonic way, not the way of God.

It’s true that many evangelicals are in love with domination and power. Writer Katherine Stewart calls it Authoritarian Christianity. It’s the worship of control, the worship of power. It’s not the worship of God. It’s far from the way of Jesus.

We are in a volatile moment in our country’s history, maybe in human history as well. This is a moral crisis. We need a moral revival. What we need, black pastor William Barber Jr. says, is a moral revolution.

Lafayette Square in Washington is only steps away from Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Thirty-one years ago Chinese authorities stormed Tiananmen Square to stop pro-democracy protests. Troops fired into the crowds, killing hundreds.

We think that can’t happen here. If National Guardsmen can brutally sweep peaceful protesters out of a park without provocation just so a politician who admires brutal dictators can stage a photo op with a Bible, why can’t it happen here?

Some people have noted that when Trump holds up that Bible in that photo op, it’s upside-down. No matter how he holds it, his understanding of humanity and power and God and goodness are upside-down.

We are a people in need today. We need leaders who will unify us, not divide us. We need leaders who seek not to dominate but to persuade; leaders who want to make peace, not war; leaders who stand with the oppressed, not the oppressor; leaders who are humble, not proud; leaders who thirst and hunger for righteousness; leaders who understand that real strength comes only from God.

We need leaders who can bring us together as a society to create real and lasting change so that the American dream can finally become a reality for all.

What I’ve said may have upset some of you. You’re messing with politics, preacher. Truly, I am. As I’ve said before, Christianity is inevitably political because it’s about our society, our polis, the Greek word behind the word “political.”

Christianity is political because it deals with the way we try to live together under the reign of Christ in a society that does not recognize Christ as king. But as political as my comments may be, they are not partisan. I don’t care what party Trump belongs to. I do care that his conception of power is demonic, not Christlike, and because he has such influence, the truth matters, and the truth must be told.

Some observers suggest that there are two viruses in our midst – the coronavirus and the virus of racism. I maintain that there are three viruses – coronavirus, racism, and authoritarianism. These three form an unholy trinity that mocks our three-in-one God.

Events have lit a fire in us. It may be both a destructive and a refining fire. I believe it’s the fire of God telling us that it’s time to get our act together. It’s time to turn away from our racist, power-mad, plague-prone ways, and turn toward a God-shaped life.

I hope you can say Amen to that.

This message was delivered to Edgerton United Methodist Church, live in an outdoor service, and online, June 7, 2020,  Trinity Sunday.                   

Together apart

“When Pentecost Day arrived, they were all together in one place.”

Well, isn’t that special? It sure seems special to us, who have not been all together in one place for 11 weeks now.

How we would love to be gathered all together in one place, cheek by jowl, hugging and laughing, drinking coffee and munching breakfast sweets, singing and clapping and shouting and smiling and crying and carrying on in ways we might get away only with in church. How we would love to be able to do those things again!

One day – perhaps sooner than we think, most likely far later than we would want – we will be able to be all together again in once place. So the big question is this: When next we gather, will the Holy Spirit fall on us the way it did on this crowd of Jesus followers on that first Pentecost long ago?

Will the Spirit fall on us, and will we be enthusiastic witnesses to the world that Christ is risen, Christ is king and Christ reigns over all things and someday will return to wrap up his rescue mission and restore all things to their original goodness?

What will it look like for us to be a Spirit-filled church when we come back together in the shadow of this deadly virus?

Before we go there, let’s talk about Pentecost. I’ll be making 10 points, and because I can’t put them on a screen for you, I’ll number the subtitles so you can keep track.

1. Pentecost is an ancient holy day for both Jews and Christians.

Then as now, the day is known among Jews as Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks. It comes on the 50th day after Passover. It’s called the Feast of Weeks because it comes seven weeks after Passover – a week of weeks, get it? Christians call it by its Greek name, Pentecost.

Shavuot celebrates completion of the grain harvest started at Passover. It’s also a celebration of the giving of the Torah, God’s instruction to Israel, at Mount Sinai. At the time of our story, it is the second most important religious celebration in Judaism, second only to Passover, and Jerusalem is crowded with pilgrims from around the world.

Pentecost is the earliest known Christian holiday. The Apostle Paul mentions it in his first letter to the church at Corinth (1 Cor 16.8). That was written only 20 years after the death of Jesus, so Christians must have celebrated Pentecost almost from the start.

2. Today, Pentecost is the least celebrated of Christian holy days.

That is partly because of its nature. We have seasons of preparation for both Christmas and Easter, our two other big holidays, but there is no time of preparation leading up to Pentecost. It just happens. One week, we are talking about the Ascension of Jesus, and the next week – bang! – hey, it’s Pentecost!

But, of course, that’s how it happened to the first followers of Jesus, too. Jesus told them that something big was coming, but it still came a surprise.

There’s another reason that we fail to celebrate Pentecost more fully. We lack a robust sense of what it’s all about. As much as we do or don’t talk about the Holy Spirit, the Spirit remains a mystery to many of us. Sometimes, when we talk about Father, Son and Holy Ghost, the Spirit might as well be a ghost.

3. Pentecost is the birthday of the church.

It’s often said that Pentecost celebrates the birth of the church. The book of Acts tells us that at 9 that morning, there are 120 followers of Jesus (Acts 1:15), and by nightfall, there are more than 3,000 (Acts 2:41). Talk about church growth!

All members of the church for the first several years are Jews, but a wave of persecution centered in Jerusalem forces believers to flee in all directions, and they take their faith with them. One of the early persecutors, Saul of Tarsus, flips sides. Known by the Greek form of his name, Paul, he becomes the premiere Christian apostle to non-Jews throughout the Roman Empire.

4. Pentecost is the promise of the ages.

The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was dreamed of for centuries. Numbers 11 tells us that when Moses is old and tired, God’s Spirit burns in him so brightly that the fire threatens to burn him out, so God decides to divide some of the Spirit that rests on him among 70 elders of the people.

But God’s Spirit sort of slops over onto two others, too, named Eldad and Medad. Someone complains to Moses: “God’s Spirit has fallen on the wrong people!”

And Moses says, “I wish God’s Spirit would fall on all of God’s people.”

Later, other prophets are assured that it will happen. God promises Ezekiel that Israel will be renewed. “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you,” God says (Ezekiel 36:26). God also tells Joel: “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (Joel 2:28).

John the Baptizer sees it coming, too. While dunking people in the Jordan River, he announces, “I baptize you with water, but the one coming after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3.11, Luke 3.16).

5. Pentecost is the promise of Jesus.

Jesus tells his disciples: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5)

“I will not leave you orphaned,” he assures them (John 14:18). I will ask the Father and he will send you the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, your Helper, Counselor and Companion, who will remind you of everything I’ve told you and teach you everything (John 14:15-26).

6. Pentecost is the promise of the future.

The coming of the Spirit is a guarantee, Paul tells us. It’s like a deposit or down payment toward God’s promise. It’s an assurance that we belong to the Lord. It’s the seal of God that marks us forever as God’s own and not followers of Satan (2 Corinthians 5.5, Ephesians 1.13, Revelation 7:3, 14:9).

7. Pentecost is about overcoming barriers.

With the rush of a mighty wind and individual flames of fire, the Holy Spirit comes upon the disciples in such a powerful way that language barriers fall. Somehow they can speak directly to those who are gathered for the Feast of Weeks from many nations around the world. No wonder everyone is amazed.

At the least, this is a powerful metaphor for the way the good news of Jesus can speak to people from anywhere, whatever their language or national origin or cultural background. The gospel knows no barriers.

The barriers we have erected, to God and to one another, have to come down.

As a deadly virus continues to spread among us, we also are suffering in the wake of yet another murder of a black man by a white police officer. Regrettably, riots have erupted in several cities. As a nation, we must find a way to stop this vicious cycle of institutional violence and outraged response.

This has to be more than individual pledges to renounce racism. It has to be a social effort, something we engage in as a people. It would surely be the greatest national undertaking of our lifetime, something that would make ours the “greatest generation.”

It will take a powerful movement of the Spirit to make it happen. We pray for that today.

8. Pentecost is about the coming of the Holy Spirit.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” Jesus tells his followers (Acts 1.8).

There’s a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and something like tongues of fire appear among them. The sound of wind is easy for us to understand. We live in Kansas, after all. But those tongues of fire are harder to imagine. Most efforts to illustrate them verge on the cartoonish.

When you look through a gallery of art portraying the event, as we did earlier, you may notice that the more stylized or abstract the depiction is, the more convincing it actually is, and the more woodenly literal the depiction, the less convincing it is.

We can’t quite imagine what it would have been like. Luke, who wasn’t there, can’t quite imagine it either, so his language is stilted and tentative. Maybe he couldn’t have done much better even if he had been there. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I’m not sure how many thousand words it would take to produce a clear picture of this event. Maybe, like the speaking in different languages, it’s a wonder beyond explanation.

Something happened. We know that much. Something happened, and these 120 Jesus followers were not the same as they were before.

9. The Holy Spirit is alive and well in us.

The primary mission of the Holy Spirit is to make you more like Jesus, which is to say, more the person God created you to be. In this way, the Spirit works for the restoration of God’s good creation, one person at a time.

“Be filled with the Spirit,” Ephesians 5:18 tells us. How we demonstrate that we are depends a lot on which faith tradition we follow. Some stress outward signs, such as speaking in tongues. Others suggest that we look at the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.

I think the most important sign of the Spirit, the true seal of the Spirit on our lives, is loving action. Without it, Paul tells us, everything we do is just random noise, like a noisy gong or a clashing cymbal (1 Corinthians 13.1).

Every act we make, every decision we make, is either loving or it is not. We can disagree on whether a certain action is the best loving choice, but love remains the gold standard that we use to evaluate everything.

10. We remain apart, but we are still together.

“We are one in the Spirit,” the song says.

That’s what keeps us connected as a church. I have tried to provide regular updates by email and postal service, plus an online presence every Sunday morning – hardly a full-fledged worship service, but at least some prayer time and a message – plus online communion and most recently Zoom Coffee, and occasional phone calls and notes or cards.

These efforts try to overcome the barriers of distance between us. But what really keeps us together is the presence of the Holy Spirit. Without that presence, nothing I or anyone else could do would keep us connected in the ways we need and want to be connected.

Because of the presence of the Holy Spirit, none of us is alone. Each of us is connected with all others, through the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit works mysteriously. We know the Spirit is there when we are physically present to one another. We also have experienced the reality that the Spirit works when we are not physically present to one another – when we are present only digitally, through a computer or telephone link.

If the Spirit lives and works in us, we are one when separate as much as we are one when together. That won’t change when we come back together physically. But it does raise the question: How will we be different?

Things will not be the same as they once were. As it is said, too much water has flowed under the bridge. How will we have grown in the Spirit because of our experience of being apart? How can we share that with others? How can we say, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us”?

This message was delivered online on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2020, for Edgerton United Methodist Church, from Acts 2:1-21.