There is a kind of darkness that lies like a blanket, thick and oppressive. Even the moon, shrouded by clouds, is barely discernible. The blackness weighs on the heart and soul, a darkness within and without.
This is what the Lord showed me today as I worshipped with my congregation in celebration of Epiphany, the coming of the light.
Dusk is falling.
In the coming night, the light will seem to have departed. But, like the moon obscured by clouds, it will not depart, for the darkness cannot overcome it.
The coming of the night should not surprise us if our eyes are open. It has been on the horizon for some time. But perhaps we didn’t recognize the signs.
How could we know that elevating science over spirituality would empty us of meaning? That consumerism would shift our allegiance to personal comfort and the elevation of self rather than societal wellbeing? And that this shift would change the political landscape to promote sameness to protect our comfort at the expense of others? That it would shift our economic outlook to seek short-term comfort rather than long-term stability? Or that such an attitude might mirror the addictive behavior now ravaging our communities?
We couldn’t have known, unless we happened to read and understand the Bible or any of the sacred texts of any world religion. Even Buddhism, arguably the religion friendliest to science, warns against materialism and self-centeredness.
These, of course, are now far in the rear view mirror as we have found new sins to practice: arguing rather than listening, rejection of responsibility in almost any form, and entitlement. Their manifestations devour our society in polarization, military adventurism, and self-destructive behavior from individual overdose to premeditated climate devastation.
I have prayed for change. I have worked for change. But the change I have seen has been in the wrong direction. There’s no point in assigning blame, there is plenty to go around, just as the consequences will affect each and every one of us.
We could, of course, blame Trump, a president who has now turned his back on nearly every element of his declared foreign policy. We could blame the violent words and actions of some of his supporters. We could blame Democrats for running a losing candidate against him. We could blame thirty years of structural violence that led to our present political polarization. Or a foreign policy that has created the enemies we now face–including the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratic government. But ultimately it doesn’t matter. It’s history, and we now face the future.
We have reached a point of no return. There is no turning back.
Dusk is falling.
Those with a cyclical view of time will not be surprised. Night must come before morning. This is the good news: at the end of whatever kind of night this is and however long it goes on, light will once again shine. Something new will have dawned, and the promise of a new day. What will we make of it then? Will we have learned from our mistakes? Will we teach to our descendents the lessons we learned? History suggests that such lessons are soon forgotten.
But that is yet in the future. For now, what lies before us is the dark night.
At Eastern Mennonite Seminary, the Capstone is the equivalent of a Masters Thesis, but publicly presented. Mine describes a framework for discipleship for people recovering from addiction, alcoholism, trauma, depression, etc. The presentation is 20 minutes long, followed by Q&A.
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:13)
Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets warned of idolatry. In the New Testament, Jesus too warned of worshipping the wrong things. Yet many Christians today who invoke the name of Christ show by their actions that they worship something else.
When we place money, safety, or security ahead of serving God, we are idolaters. Jesus is clear on this. From Matthew 6:19-21 to Mark 10:17-27, from Luke 12:13-21 to John 13:34-35, Jesus tells us that we are called to focus on God and on helping others, not on material wellbeing. Yet our supposedly Christian society tells us otherwise. And many of us have bought the message. In a 2018 poll of Christians, Lifeway Research reports:
Churchgoers who have evangelical beliefs (75 percent) are more likely to agree God wants them to prosper than those without evangelical beliefs (63 percent)… One in 4 (26 percent) agree with the statement: “To receive material blessings from God, I have to do something for God.”
Two-thirds of Christians polled believe God wants them wealthy! And nearly a third think they can earn God’s favor in the form of wealth. Apparently, the point of becoming a follower of Jesus is to get rich. Yet if one follows where Jesus went, one is likely to get (from the world at least) what Jesus got: not wealth, but execution.
I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said, “I stand for the flag and kneel for the cross.” But have you ever noticed that you can’t do both at the same time? Our allegiance is to be to God’s Kingdom, not any power or principality. Yet many Christians see the United States as somehow chosen by God and thuis beyond criticism– and worthy of support and protection. And not just from heathen in other places. We don’t welcome our fellow Christians seeking refuge from Latin America, Palestine, or Africa as fellow members of the Body of Christ. In fact, we pay billions of dollars to help Israel repress Palestinians–including Palestinian Christians. (Israel makes no distinction among Palestinians based on religion; they are all non-Jews.)
Perhaps this is not unexpected. Alan Kreider, in his book The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom, documents from original sources the shift in focus of Christianity from radical behavior change in its first three centuries, to cultural compromise and a focus on belonging by the 8th century. This shift largely began with Augustine, who saw baptism as more important than a change in behavior. Perhaps this was because, by his own admission, his church was filled with people who wouldn’t behave in a biblically-Christian manner.
The shift was helped along by Constantine and his successors, who not only legalized Christianity but made it mandatory. Obviously many pagans became Christians because they had to. And rulers and aristocrats likewise became Christian in name, but could not as rulers take seriously the injunctions to “love your enemies” or “feed the hungry.” (Can we even imagine a leader who embodies Isaiah 11:2-4?)
In Christendom there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between church and state… a symbiotic relationship.” (95)
In addition, because it assumed that there is no choice but to be Christian, religious training and practice become “perfunctory,” and standards of behavior are coerced rather than taught (96-97).
In our own context, this symbiosis emphasizes a national concern with wealth and cheap energy. Eventually, we have today what too often passes for Christianity: militarism, individualism, greed, and selfishness. We idolize the free market and the individual. Politicians from both parties have proclaimed that “Greed is good”– a slogan that is not only unbiblical, but was coined as a satirical reflection of our society.
We point to our enemies. Iraq, Iran, ISIS, North Korea– Name any enemy of the United States, and read the history of that enemy. You’ll find, with few exceptions, that we created that enemy ourselves through military or covert action.
Too often we are satisfied with the assurance that we are saved by grace. We are! But that’s not the end of the story.
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:10)
As a society, we idolize wealth and security. Church father Cyprian, who was raised as an aristocrat before his conversion, called these “gilded torments.” They distract us from God, and from the Kingdom. And yet they are accepted as legitimate parts of Christian walk in many churches today.
What if we started naming things as Jesus did? What if we called greed idolatry? Or militarism an ungodly use of force that should be reserved to God? What if, in the face of those who resist refugees, we quoted 1 John 4:20?
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
I suspect I know the answer. What would happen would be that we would follow where Jesus led: to the Cross, indicted by society’s religious and political authorities. Jesus commanded us to “pick up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23), and we would be doing just that.
Preaching the Gospel is dangerous. But should that stop us?
My favorite Christmas tradition is T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” This poem shook me the first time I heard it, and I continue to be moved by it. Here is a recording of my reading of it last year at Immanuel Mennonite Church. (Sorry, it’s audio only.)
It was another one of those Sunday mornings: a few days before, a kid had shot his classmates at a school. Sadness and anger were evident in the congregation. “When will we get real gun control?” lamented one older woman. Several other congregants murmured their consensus. It was evident that many believed if kids didn’t have access to guns, these tragic events wouldn’t happen.
Later, my wife expressed her own anger. “What they’re basically saying,” she said, “is that it’s okay for these kids to suffer so long as they don’t hurt anyone.” That most recent shooter had been autistic, had been poor in a rich school, had been bullied throughout his whole school career, and had just lost his widowed mother. One of his classmates told a reporter, “Someone could have approached a faculty member, a guidance counselor, a teacher and said, ‘This kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something,’ … I definitely regret not saying anything.” 
I remember the first publicized
school shooting, back in 1979.  Sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer opened fire
on the Cleveland Elementary
School in San Diego,
CA. She came from a broken home,
lived with an alcoholic father with whom she shared a bed, was gay, and had
experienced a traumatic brain injury due to a bicycle accident as a child.  When
asked why she committed the shooting, she replied, “I don’t like Mondays.”  That
response was so absurd that it became the title of a hit song by the Boomtown
Rats. Spencer was tried as an adult, and remains in prison.
My wife says, “No one does this unless they’ve been broken, traumatized, lied to, and deceived.” She’s right. These kids are our children. They are broken and outcast. They live in a world that doesn’t want or accept them. I preached the following Sunday, and I called on my congregation to look beyond the tools of violence to its source. I quoted much from the Gospel of Matthew, but I see now that Luke has even more to say.
Beginning with Mary’s song of praise, the Gospel of Luke adopts a theme of raising and leveling (cf Isaiah 40:4). “He has brought down the powerful… and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things…” (Lk 1:52-53). Jesus, as he begins his ministry in Nazareth,quotes Isaiah 61:1-2, indicating that the good news he brings is neither merely spiritual nor merely political. It addresses the needs of the poor, the incarcerated, the blind, the oppressed, and the landless (Lk 4:18-19). He ate with sinners, healed the unclean, and raised the dead. The ministry of Jesus in Luke heals the broken, lifts the downtrodden, and welcomes the outcast.
My home congregation is proud to be located in a historically-minority neighborhood.Yet it is dominated by well-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class white people, about 75%. The leadership is comes exclusively from that group. Though the leaders have expressed their intention to broaden the diversity of the leadership teams, that has not yet happened.
To be fair,about 15 years ago the congregation did make a conscious effort to have inclusive leadership. The effects were not what they expected, and the congregation fractured. Their efforts to reach out to the broken resulted in the pastor getting robbed, worship services being disrupted, and a sex offender in the congregation making parents with children uncomfortable. Inclusivity is not easy, and some who experienced that time remain gun-shy. This is understandable in its cultural context. We white Americans tend to have a limited tolerance for difference, especially when it causes significant discomfort. This congregation has tried harder than many others, even though it has not succeeded in the long term.
By cultural standards, the efforts of the congregation are above average, perhaps even commendable. Yet how can we be satisfied when challenged by the standard set in Luke-Acts? Jesus healed the enemies of his people (Lk 7:2ff), ate with collaborators (Lk 5:30), let a sinful woman anoint his feet (Lk 7:36ff), and ministered to outcasts (Lk 8:26ff, 17:10ff). He dismissed the wise (Lk 10:21,18:9ff) and chastised those who were not ready to give their full commitment(Lk 9:62). His followers ministered to the needy even at the risk of their health (Acts 4:21, 5:18, 5:40) and life (Acts 12:2). Is this a standard we could possibly be expected to follow?
Beneath this question lies another, far more important: Do we believe that the Gospel is true? Is it Truth, or is it myth that, rather than informing us,defines us? If it is truth, then all that Jesus asks of us is binding. If myth,what are we doing here in church, in seminary, in ministry?
Perhaps the post-Enlightenment, scientific, materialistic, consumerist worldview of post-modern America has made us skeptical of prophecy made and fulfilled, sickness healed with a word or touch, unclean spirits, dead people raised, and a Savior who gained victory through death. The Holy Spirit Luke emphasizes sounds pretty chaotic. Whatif the Holy Spirit calls me to the wilderness (Acts 8:26), to foreign lands (Acts 16:9), to die (Acts 7:55), or, perhaps even more horrible, to give up all my possessions (Lk 18:22, Acts 4:31-32)?
Or perhaps we are, rather, threatened by the raising and leveling Luke promises. Though we don’t like to know what the world looks like outside our walls, neighborhoods, and nation, we’ve glimpsed the images on television or the internet. Perhaps we sense that we are the metaphorical Pharisees, and Jesus’ Kingdom threatens to take the comfort we’ve “earned” through the accident of birth. We do, after all, live ina nation that consumes the second-most energy (after China), burning 17% of the world’s energy despite having only 4% of the world’s population.  We produce the second-most food (behind China) and eat the second most calories per person (behind Austria). We have the highest obesity rates of any industrialized nation, and waste more food per person than any other country.  We have more cars per person than any other major nation (3rd behind San Marino and Monaco). Materially, Luke’s leveling could devastate our privileged position.
Yet despite our conspicuous material wealth, we are not a happy nation. “Deaths of despair” are causing life expectancy to drop. Joshua Cohen cites 196,000 American deaths from alcoholism, overdose, and suicide in 2016 (compared with about 11,000 gun-related homicides). We lead industrialized nations in drug overdose deaths.
Perhaps that which we have to lose is not that which is most important. Certainly that is the message Luke’s Jesus offers. Wealth (Lk 18:18ff, 12:13ff), power (Lk 18:1), status (Lk 10:25, 11:42),and even individual eternal life (Lk 10:21, 25) are challenged in favor of a simple vision of equity and peace, now and in the hereafter.
Why do we seem to find that so threatening? John Stuart Mill wrote, “Men [sic] do not desire merely to be rich, but to be richer than other men…” He argued that, while certain restrictions on humankind’s desires are required, moral development ultimately would allow humankind more freedom.  What Jesus challenges is not merely our own individual actions, not the structures that seek to restrain our desires, but the very character of humankind. 
Do we dare risk having our character changed? Do we dare risk having our hearts and minds renewed (Eph 4:23)? Do we dare risk embracing the Holy Spirit, having our children prophesy, and inviting society’s outcasts to sit at our table in fellowship and equity?
In my own case, the answer is, “Sometimes.” I want my children to go to good schools, and my family to have access to the best medical care possible. Ironically, I accept the healings, miracles, and even the Kingdom as literal; it is Jesus’ command to “Do not worry” (Lk 12:22) that I find most myth-like.
On an ideal Sunday, I worship God, celebrate Christ, and embrace the Holy Spirit. What will it take for me to carry the Gospel with me as I encounter a broken world on Monday, and to do so like I truly believe it?
 John Stuart Mill (attributed), “On Social Freedom: Or:
the Necessary Limits of Individual Freedom arising out of the Conditions of our
Social Life,” c. 1873 (https://liberologi.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/on-social-freedom-by-john-stuart-mill/,
accessed November 18, 2018). In context, he clearly included women in this
statement. But compare Mill’s claim with observations by Loewen that in African
society, disparity of wealth is considered unnatural. Jacob A. Loewen, “Demon
Possession and Exorcism in Africa, in the New Testament Context, and in North
America: Or, Toward a Western Scientific Model of Demon Possession and Exorcism,”
in Willard M. Swartley, ed., Essays on Spiritual Bondage and Deliverance,
Occasional Papers 11, Elkhart, IN:
Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988, 127-133. Thus,
Mill’s statement does not apply to humankind universally.
 Loewen (135) goes so far as to describe American
Christianity as “schizophrenic” in its embracing of actions and perspectives
that do not conform to its professed worldview.