Three Sundays in April (Part 3)

pastor-robert-jeffress

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 12, 2020, Donald Trump watched the Easter Sunday service at Robert Jeffress‘s First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. What did he hear?

Jeffress, at age 64, is younger than Greg Laurie (the subject of Part 2 in our series), but he is much more traditional. I don’t think I have ever seen him without a suit and tie. His hair is cut short. He carries a big Bible. And his church has a robed choir.

While Jeffress has long-been a celebrity in Southern Baptist circles, I had never heard of him until he made national headlines during the 2012 presidential campaign. In October 2011, Jeffress was in Washington D.C. to introduce Texas governor Rick Perry at the annual Values Voters Summit. After he completed his introduction, Jeffress told reporters that Mitt Romney, one of Perry’s opponents in the GOP primaries and a practicing Mormon, did not deserve the votes of evangelical Christians because he was a member of a cult.

After a little research, I learned that this was not the first political stunt Jeffress has pulled. He has always loved the limelight. In May 1998, while serving as the pastor of the Wichita Falls (TX) Baptist Church, Jeffress led a protest against the Wichita Falls Public Library for acquiring books titled Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate. After a member of his congregation checked these books out of the library and showed them to Jeffress, the pastor wrote a check for $54.00, sent it to the library, and vowed never to return the books. According to the Associated Press, the plan backfired.

In December 2010, his third year at First Baptist-Dallas, Jeffress created a website–grinchalert.com–to shame local stores that advertised using “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” There was a place on the website where readers could add a store to the “naughty list.” Jeffress appeared on CNN to defend his antics.

Today, Jeffress can be seen regularly on Fox News and Fox Business News. If there is an opportunity for a Trump photo-op with evangelical leaders, Jeffress is on the first plane from Dallas Washington D.C.  We have covered him extensively here at the blog and I wrote about him in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In addition to his role as a pastor of a large congregation, Jeffress is a culture warrior–a political operative who wants to restore the United States to its supposed Christian roots.

Jeffress grew-up in First Baptist Church-Dallas, a flagship congregation in the Southern Baptist Convention with a long history of racial segregation and Jim Crow. This history, it is worth noting, is absent in a series videos created for the church’s 150th anniversary in 2018. One of the videos extols former pastor W.A. Criswell, one of the most famous Southern Baptist preachers of the 20th century and a segregationist, as a “champion” of “race and family values.” Criswell led Jeffress to faith in Jesus when the current pastor was a five-year-old boy. Jeffress was baptized, married, and ordained in the church. First Baptist-Dallas was the site of his first sermon.

After graduating from Baylor University, Jeffress completed a Master of Theology degree at Dallas Theological Seminary, one of the bastions of dispensational theology in America. This was an unusual choice for a young Southern Baptist. Most aspiring ministerial candidates in Texas attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dallas Theological Seminary is non-denominational. In 2003, Jeffress said that his ordination council “grilled” him about his decision to attend this seminary. He claimed he went to Dallas Theological Seminary because he was attracted to the work of Christian Education professor and Bible teacher Howard Hendricks.

While at Dallas Theological Seminary, Jeffress imbibed the “end times” theology that has informed his numerous popular books, including Twilight’s Last Gleaming: How America’s Last Days Can Be Your Best Days, Countdown to Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola are Only the Beginning, and A Place Called Heaven.  Like Greg Laurie, Jeffress thinks that believers will one day meet God in the air as part of an imminent rapture. Those remaining on earth after the rapture will live through seven years of tribulation before Jesus returns with his saints (the true believers raptured seven years earlier) to establish a millennial kingdom. According to this view of biblical prophecy, Jews will eventually return to Israel, rebuild the temple, and accept Jesus as their Messiah. This explains why Jeffress believes Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was important. God is using Trump to advance His purposes and prepare the world for the last days through the president’s contribution to the restoration of His ancient “capital” city.

When Donald Trump pointed his web browser toward First Baptist-Dallas on Easter morning, he was met with a hearty welcome from Jeffress:

Today I’d like to say welcome to a very special guest visitor, a great friend of mine, our great president Donald Trump. Mr. President, we’re so honored that you would choose to worship with us today. And I know there are millions and millions of Christians all over this country who are not only grateful for you, but they are praying for you regularly for that continued wisdom that comes from God as you navigate us through this crisis we’re in. We are going to get through this, we are going to make it to the other side, but we want you to know we are praying for you.

After his message to Trump, Jeffress introduces the First Baptist choir and orchestra. He tells his listeners that these songs were recorded before social distancing guidelines went into place. The choir begins with the classic Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I am not sure when this music was recorded because the sanctuary is full. Is this from last year’s Easter service? Did the church hold a mock Easter service sometime before the quarantine? I’m not going to try to figure this out. Whatever the case, the music sounded great and it is very appropriate and uplifting for Easter.

When Jeffress comes back on the feed, ready to preach, he offers yet another welcome to Trump. Before he starts his sermon, he says: “Mr. President, our church absolutely loves you.” He adds: “We appreciate your strong articulation of the Christian faith. I’ve never heard a stronger affirmation of faith than the one you gave Friday, Good Friday, in the Oval Office. We thank you for your commitment to religious liberty.”

I have no doubt that Robert Jeffress has preached a version of this sermon every Easter Sunday of his ministerial career. From the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, there was nothing controversial about it. Jeffress focused on the empty tomb, Jesus’s victory over death, and the future resurrection of believers. This is pretty basic Easter fare. He did not mention Trump and he did not talk about politics (although he did take a few shots at liberal theologians who deny Jesus’s bodily resurrection).

But like Laurie on Palm Sunday, Jeffress only got it half right. He failed to mention that Jesus’s resurrection initiated the Kingdom of God. He failed to note that those who embrace the Christian Gospel are citizens of this Kingdom and are thus called to practice a form of citizenship defined by New Testament ethics.

Recently, through my reading of the works of Oxford University New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright, I have been reflecting on the political nature of the Kingdom of God. As I wrote in my last post in this series, the members of this Kingdom must speak truth to the principalities and powers of this world. Citizens of the Kingdom should respect government authority, but must also call the ruling powers to task when it is appropriate. As we read in the New Testament Book of Acts, the earliest Christians found the courage to challenge the authorities of their day through the power of Jesus’s resurrection and the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

Here is part of Wright’s commentary on on 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, a passage that directly connects the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to the Kingdom that this resurrection initiated:

We should not ignore the political overtones of this, another letter to a Roman colony. The whole paragraph is about the Messiah through whose “kingdom” (basileia) the one true God will overthrow all other authorities and rulers. “Resurrection,” as in Pharisaic thought, belongs firmly within kingdom-of-god theology; and every first-century Jew knew that kingdom-of-God theology carried inescapable political meaning. The present “ordering” (tagma) of society places Caesar at the top, his agents in the middle, and ordinary people at the bottom; the creator’s new ordering will have himself at the top, the Messiah–and his people, as in [1 Corinthians] 6:2 and elsewhere!–in the middle, and the world as a whole underneath, not however exploited and oppressed but rescued and restored, given the freedom which comes with the wise rule of the creator, his Messiah, and his image-bearing subjects. This passage thus belongs with Romans 8, Philippians 2:6-11 and 3:20-21, as, simultaneously, a classic exposition of the creator God’s plan to rescue the creation, and a coded but powerful reminder to the young church, living in Caesar’s world, that Jesus was lord and that at his name every knee would bow. (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 337-338).

Jeffress misses this dimension of the Easter story. For him, Easter is all about Christians getting to heaven. But the Easter message has both “on earth” and “as it is heaven” dimensions. And one day, as the hymn-writer says, “earth and Heav’n [will be] be one.

Jeffress’s theology leaves no place for the church to speak truth to power. This approach to Easter is pretty common among American evangelicalism. As we will see in our next post in this series, too many evangelical churches offer a kind of cheap grace that measures results in the “decisions” people make–decisions, they believe, that will secure a place for them in heaven.  As a result, the church does not connect the resurrection power of Jesus to the task of social, cultural, and political engagement beyond abortion, religious liberty, and other Christian Right favorites.

Yes, Donald Trump, the most powerful man in the world, needs to hear about saving faith and eternal life in Jesus. (Unless, as many court evangelicals have suggested, he is already “saved”). But Easter is also about the announcement of Jesus as a ruler who will one day topple all the empires of the world. It is time that the evangelical church, especially during Eastertide, reminds the president of this theological reality.

Three Sundays in April (Part 1)

First_Baptist_Church_of_Dallas,_TX_IMG_3043

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

Three evangelical ministers–Greg Laurie, Robert Jeffress, and Jack Graham–had this opportunity during the Easter season.

On Palm Sunday, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, tweeted that he would be tuning-in to religious services at Laurie’s Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California.  The following week, Trump said he would be watching Easter Sunday services at Jeffress’s First Baptist Church–Dallas. Finally, the Sunday following Easter, Trump said he would be watching Graham’s service at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas.

Presidents have visited churches for a long time.  In Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical IntroductionI told the story of George Washington’s regular visits to Christ Church in Philadelphia. Rev. James Abercrombie, the assistant rector of the church, was not happy about the fact that the first president was in the habit of leaving Sunday services before Communion was served. Abercrombie decided to preach a sermon , with Washington present, against those in “elevated stations who uniformly turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” Washington apparently acknowledged the rebuke, but never again attended services at Christ Church on Sundays when Communion was served.

Today we do not have to rely on Abercrombie’s memory.  In this age of the Internet and live-streaming, we get to watch the same service the president is watching and hear exactly what the preacher has to say to him.

Did Trump watch these services because he wanted to feed his soul during the Easter season? Perhaps. Did Trump want to show his support for his most loyal evangelical supporters during this time of coronavirus quarantining and social distancing? Probably.  Did Trump want to “attend” these services to solidify his evangelical base as the November election approaches?  Absolutely.

What did Trump hear during these services? Or more importantly for the series of posts I hope to write here over the next week, what did these ministers of the Gospel say to Trump? All three of these ministers had the chance to proclaim the message of Easter to the president. Though Trump has a short attention span, let’s just assume that he gave his full attention to these services.  How does what these ministers said in the (virtual) presence of their special guest provide us with insight into the current state of American evangelicalism?

Stay tuned.

Jim Wallis’s Easter Sermon

Easter

If you have time for one more Easter sermon, here is a taste of Jim Wallis at Sojourners:

As pastors and churches are living into these new and difficult realities, here are three practical and vocational roles that faith communities can play right now in this pandemic crisis:

  1. Faith communities must put their moral authority behind the doctors and scientists pleading with us to practice and maintain our physical distance from one another as the only way to “flatten the curve” of this pandemic and literally save lives. And when the false ministers who refuse science and disobey their elected officials out of their own egos rather than religious liberty, it must be other clergy and congregations that rebuke them. If the “re-opening” of the economy and society becomes politicized, faith communities must stand with public health authorities and their state and local elected leaders closest to the people to determine when it is safe.
  2. We must also fulfill our critical role of preventing social distancing from becoming social isolation. Physical distancing must not be allowed to overcome our social solidarity, which is a biblical meaning of community. I believe that clear role of faith communities is becoming core to us as we approach this holy weekend. Keeping together while standing apart is a vital skill and practice that faith communities can help create and promote — even beyond their doors.
  3. Live into and deepen our vocation to focus on the most vulnerable. Jesus specifically says that how we treat the “least of these” is literally how we treat him. And that text of Matthew 25 is the record of the last sermon he gave just before he entered Jerusalem. The least of these are the least important in Washington, D.C., but for followers of Jesus they must be the most important, and Easter is the right time to proclaim that.

This pandemic has become very revealing of the inequities in our society, the gaping holes in our safety net, and the disparities in our health care and other systems, and the reality of our relationships across racial and economic lines. It has shined a light into the darkness of what we have ignored or accepted for far too long. The coronavirus has exposed and laid bare social injustice, which undermines both our common good and our common health.

For example, it has been said that the coronavirus does not discriminate. But that is not true.

Especially when poor people and too many black and brown people in America don’t have access to safe homes, steady incomes, reliable and healthy food, safe spaces and the prospect of social distancing in their required work and family lives, or access to health and healthy bodies, which makes them more likely to contract and die from this disease.

Poverty and the impacts of structural racism are “co-morbidities,” or preconditions that make it more difficult to avoid and/or survive this lethal coronavirus.

Some people are asking when we will go back to normal.

But we won’t and we really can’t. This historical moment will change us — in ways we can’t control or even predict. How we act now, and with whom, and for whom, will shape and even determine who “we” will be when this current health crisis begins to pass.

My dear friend, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and spiritual teacher, gave me an image this Holy Week of a crucified Christ on the cross this Good Friday with outstretched hands saying to a world of coronavirus suffering, “I can’t stop your suffering, but am with you in it.”

Read the entire piece here.

Churches Will Not Be Open on Easter. But What If They Were?

Trump and Easter bunny

Donald Trump is hoping to celebrate three resurrections on April 12, 2020.  Here they are in order of how I believe the president has prioritized them:

  1. His own political future
  2. The American economy
  3. The resurrection of Jesus

Trump knows that he needs evangelicals to beat Joe Biden in November. By saying that he wants the country “opened up” and “churches packed” on Easter Sunday he is linking his profane political fortunes to the most sacred day on the Christian calendar. Trump wants Easter worshipers to think about him on the morning of April 12, 2020.  Some churches may even mention his name and give him credit for such an “opening.” It is a brilliant political strategy.

If the nation is indeed “open” (to be honest I am not sure what this actually means) on Easter Sunday, there is a danger of replacing the true meaning of this day–the resurrection of the son of God–with a celebration of capitalism.  This is not a new thing. Easter and the success of the American economy have been closely connected for a long time. This sacred day has always been associated with parades, chocolate, sugar, fashion, and flowers. (See Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Consumer Rites on this front).

It is certainly appropriate to give thanks to God for improved economic conditions.  Easter baskets filled with jelly beans and chocolate bunnies are fun. When this pandemic is over, I hope the churches will be places where we can express both gratitude and lamentation. But all these things–a better economy, sugary treats, and pandemics– ultimately distract us from the true meaning of the day. Easter services should not be about the recovery of the economy.  A Christian’s hope is rooted in the belief that “if Christ has not been raised” our “faith is futile” and we are “still in our sins.” On April 12, we will celebrate that belief. We should not celebrate the fact we can go to Walmart again.

Moreover, Easter is not about our common life as citizens of a democracy. In the Christian tradition, the resurrection inaugurates the Kingdom of God. Citizenship in this Kingdom–a Kingdom defined by love, compassion, justice, mercy, etc.–is not the same thing as citizenship in the United States. Trump wants to turn Easter into a patriotic celebration of the American spirit in the face of adversity.  It is not.

In the end, however, it is unlikely Trump is going to get his Easter celebration. Christians are going to have to celebrate the resurrection in different ways this year.

Jon Meacham on Why We Need Religion in Times Like These

MEachamHistorian Jon Meacham‘s latest book is titled The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross.  In his recent op-ed at The New York Times he argues that “religion is the best hope against Trump.”  Here is a taste:

Given the state of the nation two millenniums on, it is difficult to conceive of something more counterintuitive than the Christian ideal. For many Americans, especially non-Christians, the thought that Christian morality is a useful guide to much of anything these days is risible, particularly since so many evangelicals have thrown in their lot with a relentlessly solipsistic American president who bullies, boasts and sneers. The political hero of the Christian right of 2020 has used the National Prayer Breakfast to mock the New Testament injunction to love one’s enemies, and it’s clear that leading conservative Christian voices are putting the Supreme Court ahead of the Sermon on the Mount.

And yet history suggests that religiously inspired activism may hold the best hope for those in resistance to the prevailing Trumpian order.

I’ve come to this view in publishing a small book of reflections on the last sayings of Jesus from the cross — a devotional exercise, to be sure, but one that’s brought to mind the motive force of a Christian message based not on Fox News but on what those first-century words meant then and can mean now. “Father, forgive them”; “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”; “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” — these remarks from the Gospel accounts of the Passion form a kind of final sermon from Jesus, one about forbearance, duty, love and mercy.

I am a Christian (a very poor one, but there we are), but I am also a historian, and contemplating the beginnings of the story of my ancestral faith has led me to think about the uses of Jesus down the eons. Yes, Christianity has been an instrument of repression, but in the living memory of Americans it has also been deployed as a means of liberation and progress — which feeds the hope that it can become a force for good once more.

Read the entire piece here.

The Fox News Crowd Doesn’t Like Obama’s Use of the Phrase “Easter Worshippers”

Here is Obama’s tweet in the wake of the attacks on Sri Lankan Christians who were worshipping on Easter Sunday:

Apparently, some conservatives have a problem with Obama’s use of the phrase “Easter worshippers.”  Here is Ruth Graham at Slate:

To most people, former President Barack Obama’s tweet about the brutal terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka on Sunday read as standard post-presidential material: correct, sensible, and essentially anodyne.

But then some right-wingers noticed that other prominent figures on the left, including Hillary Clinton and Julián Castro, had used the phrase Easter worshippers too. Soon, a suspicion arose: “Easter worshippers” is a euphemism used by “people who don’t want to say ‘Christians.’ ” “We’re actually called Christians not ‘Easter worshippers’ wouldn’t hurt to maybe just say that,” a National Review writer tweeted. Obama and friends “could not bring themselves to identify the victims of the attacks as ‘Christians,’ ” Breitbart huffed, deeming the phrase a “Sympathy Snub.” An op-ed in the Washington Times called Obama and Clinton “anti-Christian.”

Some went further, interpreting the term Easter worshipper as a false claim that Christians worship the holiday of Easter. “We don’t worship Easter,” Laura Ingraham tweeted. “We worship Jesus Christ.” Others, including One America News Network host Jack Posobiec, claimed to have never heard the term Easter worshipper before Sunday.

Read the rest here.

And then there is this:

Easter worshippers

Historian John Haas tells us what is really going on in this picture.  Here is his recent Facebook post:

Can’t imagine anything better designed to advance the Kingdom of God.

Let us count the ways this is so Christian:

a) uses claims about Christianity for partisan political purposes

b) leverages a petty complaint in the service of self-interested grievances

c) claims one of the seven deadly sins as a constituent characteristic for the movement

Dolley Madison Did Not Institute The White House Easter Egg Roll

Mrs James Madison (Dolley Madison), by Bass Otis

J.L. Bell debunks the myth at Boston 1775.  A taste:

Even the White House Historical Association passes on that factoid, though fobbing it off on others: “Some historians note that First Lady Dolley Madison originally suggested the idea of a public egg roll…”

In fact, that’s all a myth. As the Dolley Madison Papers explain, there’s absolutely no evidence behind it. 

During the Founding Era,…religious observances such as Easter and Christmas were simply not part of the national calendar. Indeed, when James Madison was President of the United States, Easter was not yet a publicly celebrated holiday; it was observed neither at the president’s mansion—not yet officially known as the White House—nor by Congress. And a search of Dolley’s letters fails to produce a single mention of Easter or Easter eggs. That leaves two questions: when and where did the tradition begin, and what does Dolley Madison have to do with it?

Read the entire post here.

Canadian Evangelicals on Easter in an Age of Trump

Trump court evangelicals

Check out Douglas Todd‘s piece at the Vancouver SunHe asks leading Canadian evangelicals what they think about all the evangelicals in the United States who support Donald Trump.

Here is a taste:

Three Canadian evangelical theologians say the politics of most American Protestants, specifically evangelicals, varies dramatically from that of most Canadian Christians. The three offer ways it remains possible to find meaning and inspiration in Easter.

“Watching from Canada, it can be confusing to make sense of what’s going on in the U.S., for Christians and non-Christians alike,” said Rev. Ken Shigematsu, head pastor of a large evangelical congregation at Vancouver’s Tenth Church. “With the large number of evangelical Christians in America, many of them feel they can influence and even dominate the political process. Canadian Christians (in contrast) see themselves on the margins of society.”

Read the rest here.

N.T. Wright on Christmas

WrightThis Advent season, on the recommendation of several The Way of Improvement Leads Home readers, I am reading Biblical scholar N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

I don’t know Wright’s body of work very well, but I am sure that somewhere he has written about the incarnation.  But in Surprise by Hopethe focus is on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, even to the point of taking a few shots at the church for spending far too much time commemorating Christmas and not enough time celebrating Easter.

A taste:

Christmas itself has now far outstripped Easter in popular culture as the real celebratory center of the Christian year–a move that completely reverses the New Testament emphasis.  We sometimes try, in hymns, prayers, and sermons, to build a whole theology on Christmas, but it can’t in fact sustain such a thing.  We then keep Lent, Holy Week, and Good Friday so thoroughly that we have hardly any energy left for Easter except for the first night and day.  Easter, however, should be the center.  Take that away and there is, almost literally, nothing left. (p.23).

And this:

…we should be taking steps to celebrate Easter in creative new ways: in art, literature, children’s games, poetry, music, dance, festivals, bells, special concerts, anything that comes to mind.  This is our greatest festival.  Take Christmas away, and in biblical terms you lose two chapters at the front of Matthew and Luke, nothing else.  Take Easter away, and you don’t have a New Testament; you don’t have a Christianity; as Paul says, you are still in your sins.

I think Wright may have overstated his case here about “taking Christmas away” because it is only referenced in two chapters in two Gospels.  But I get his point.

Barack Obama Easter Prayer Breakfasts, 2010-2016

Obama prayer

2010:

I can’t tell any of you anything about Easter that you don’t already know.  (Laughter.)  I can’t shed light on centuries of scriptural interpretation or bring any new understandings to those of you who reflect on Easter’s meaning each and every year and each and every day.  But what I can do is tell you what draws me to this holy day and what lesson I take from Christ’s sacrifice and what inspires me about the story of the resurrection.

For even after the passage of 2,000 years, we can still picture the moment in our mind’s eye.  The young man from Nazareth marched through Jerusalem; object of scorn and derision and abuse and torture by an empire.  The agony of crucifixion amid the cries of thieves.  The discovery, just three days later, that would forever alter our world — that the Son of Man was not to be found in His tomb and that Jesus Christ had risen.

We are awed by the grace He showed even to those who would have killed Him.  We are thankful for the sacrifice He gave for the sins of humanity.  And we glory in the promise of redemption in the resurrection.

And such a promise is one of life’s great blessings, because, as I am continually learning, we are, each of us, imperfect.  Each of us errs — by accident or by design.  Each of us falls short of how we ought to live.  And selfishness and pride are vices that afflict us all.

It’s not easy to purge these afflictions, to achieve redemption.  But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ.  And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul.  Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.

Of all the stories passed down through the gospels, this one in particular speaks to me during this season.  And I think of hanging — watching Christ hang from the cross, enduring the final seconds of His passion.  He summoned what remained of His strength to utter a few last words before He breathed His last breath.

“Father,” He said, “into your hands I commit my spirit.” Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.  These words were spoken by our Lord and Savior, but they can just as truly be spoken by every one of us here today.  Their meaning can just as truly be lived out by all of God’s children. 

So, on this day, let us commit our spirit to the pursuit of a life that is true, to act justly and to love mercy and walk humbly with the Lord.  And when we falter, as we will, let redemption — through commitment and through perseverance and through faith — be our abiding hope and fervent prayer. 

2011:

I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason -– because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there’s something about the resurrection — something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective. 

We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work.  And everybody in this room has weighty responsibilities, from leading churches and denominations, to helping to administer important government programs, to shaping our culture in various ways.  And I admit that my plate has been full as well.  (Laughter.)  The inbox keeps on accumulating.  (Laughter.)
 
But then comes Holy Week.  The triumph of Palm Sunday.  The humility of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross.

And we’re reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world — past, present and future — and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

In the words of the book Isaiah:  “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities:  the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this “Amazing Grace” calls me to reflect.  And it calls me to pray.  It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I’ve not shown grace to others, those times that I’ve fallen short.  It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son — his Son and our Savior.

2012:

Now, I have to be careful, I am not going to stand up here and give a sermon.  It’s always a bad idea to give a sermon in front of professionals.  (Laughter.)  But in a few short days, all of us will experience the wonder of Easter morning.   And we will know, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus…and Him crucified.”

It’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the triumph of the resurrection, and to give thanks for the all-important gift of grace.  And for me, and I’m sure for some of you, it’s also a chance to remember the tremendous sacrifice that led up to that day, and all that Christ endured — not just as a Son of God, but as a human being. 

For like us, Jesus knew doubt.  Like us, Jesus knew fear.  In the garden of Gethsemane, with attackers closing in around him, Jesus told His disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”  He fell to his knees, pleading with His Father, saying, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”  And yet, in the end, He confronted His fear with words of humble surrender, saying, “If it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”

So it is only because Jesus conquered His own anguish, conquered His fear, that we’re able to celebrate the resurrection.  It’s only because He endured unimaginable pain that wracked His body and bore the sins of the world that He burdened — that burdened His soul that we are able to proclaim, “He is Risen!” 

So the struggle to fathom that unfathomable sacrifice makes Easter all the more meaningful to all of us.  It helps us to provide an eternal perspective to whatever temporal challenges we face.  It puts in perspective our small problems relative to the big problems He was dealing with.  And it gives us courage and it gives us hope. 

We all have experiences that shake our faith.  There are times where we have questions for God’s plan relative to us — (laughter) — but that’s precisely when we should remember Christ’s own doubts and eventually his own triumph.  Jesus told us as much in the book of John, when He said, “In this world you will have trouble.”  I heard an amen.  (Laughter.)  Let me repeat.  “In this world, you will have trouble.”

AUDIENCE:  Amen!

THE PRESIDENT:  “But take heart!”  (Laughter.)  “I have overcome the world.”  (Applause.)  We are here today to celebrate that glorious overcoming, the sacrifice of a risen savior who died so that we might live.  And I hope that our time together this morning will strengthen us individually, as believers, and as a nation. 

2013:

In these sacred days, those of us as Christians remember the tremendous sacrifice Jesus made for each of us –- how, in all His humility and His grace, He took on the sins of the world and extended the gift of salvation.  And we recommit ourselves to following His example –- to loving the Lord our God with all our hearts and all our souls and with all our minds, and to loving our neighbors as ourselves. 

That’s the eternal spirit of Easter.  And this year, I had — I think was particularly special for me because right before Easter I had a chance to feel that spirit during my trip to the Holy Land.  And I think so many of you here know there are few experiences more powerful or more humbling than visiting that sacred earth. 

It brings Scripture to life.  It brings us closer to Christ.  It reminds us that our Savior, who suffered and died was resurrected, both fully God and also a man; a human being who lived, and walked, and felt joy and sorrow just like us.  

And so for Christians to walk where He walked and see what He saw are blessed moments.  And while I had been to Jerusalem before, where Jesus healed the sick, and cured the blind, and embraced the least of these, I also had a chance to go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  And those of you who have been there know that entering the church is a remarkable experience, although it is a useful instruction to see how managing different sections of the church and different clergy — it feels familiar.  (Laughter.)  Let’s just put it that way.  (Laughter.) 

And as I approached the Altar of the Nativity, as I neared the 14-pointed Silver Star that marks the spot where Christ was born, the Patriarch of Jerusalem welcomed me to, in his words, “the place where heaven and Earth met.”

And there, I had a chance to pray and reflect on Christ’s birth, and His life, His sacrifice, His Resurrection.  I thought about all the faithful pilgrims who for two thousand years have done the same thing — giving thanks for the fact that, as the book of Romans tells us, “just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” 

I thought of the poor and the sick who seek comfort, and the marginalized and the forsaken who seek solace, and the grateful who merely seek to offer thanks for the simple blessings of this life and the awesome glory of the next.  I thought of all who would travel to this place for centuries to come and the lives they might know. 

And I was reminded that while our time on Earth is fleeting, He is eternal.  His life, His lessons live on in our hearts and, most importantly, in our actions.  When we tend to the sick, when we console those in pain, when we sacrifice for those in need, wherever and whenever we are there to give comfort and to guide and to love, then Christ is with us. 

So this morning, let us pray that we’re worthy of His many blessings, that this nation is worthy of His many blessings.  Let us promise to keep in our hearts, in our souls, in our minds, on this day and on every day, the life and lessons of Christ, our Lord.

2014:

So this Easter Week, of course we recognize that there’s a lot of pain and a lot of sin and a lot of tragedy in this world, but we’re also overwhelmed by the grace of an awesome God.  We’re reminded how He loves us, so deeply, that He gave his only begotten Son so that we might live through Him.  And in these Holy Days, we recall all that Jesus endured for us — the scorn of the crowds and the pain of the crucifixion, in our Christian religious tradition we celebrate the glory of the Resurrection — all so that we might be forgiven of our sins and granted everlasting life. 

And more than 2,000 years later, it inspires us still.  We are drawn to His timeless teachings, challenged to be worthy of His sacrifice, to emulate as best we can His eternal example to love one another just as He loves us.  And of course, we’re always reminded each and every day that we fall short of that example.  And none of us are free from sin, but we look to His life and strive, knowing that “if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.”      

2015:

For me, the celebration of Easter puts our earthly concerns into perspective.  With humility and with awe, we give thanks to the extraordinary sacrifice of Jesus Christ, our Savior.  We reflect on the brutal pain that He suffered, the scorn that He absorbed, the sins that He bore, this extraordinary gift of salvation that He gave to us.  And we try, as best we can, to comprehend the darkness that He endured so that we might receive God’s light.

And yet, even as we grapple with the sheer enormity of Jesus’s sacrifice, on Easter we can’t lose sight of the fact that the story didn’t end on Friday.  The story keeps on going.  On Sunday comes the glorious Resurrection of our Savior. 

“Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day,” Dr. King once preached, “but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the drums of Easter.”  Drums that beat the rhythm of renewal and redemption, goodness and grace, hope and love.  Easter is our affirmation that there are better days ahead — and also a reminder that it is on us, the living, to make them so. 

Through God’s mercy, Peter the Apostle said, we are given “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.”  It’s an inheritance that calls on us to be better, to love more deeply, to serve “the least of these” as an expression of Christ’s love here on Earth.

2016:

And Pastor preached on this this weekend, and I know all of you did, too, as I suspect, or in your own quiet ways were reminded if Easter means anything, it’s that you don’t have to be afraid.  We drown out darkness with light, and we heal hatred with love, and we hold on to hope.  And we think about all that Jesus suffered and sacrificed on our behalf — scorned, abandoned shunned, nail-scarred hands bearing the injustice of his death and carrying the sins of the world. 

And it’s difficult to fathom the full meaning of that act.  Scripture tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  Because of God’s love, we can proclaim “Christ is risen!”  Because of God’s love, we have been given this gift of salvation.  Because of Him, our hope is not misplaced, and we don’t have to be afraid.

And as Christians have said through the years, “We are Easter people, and Alleluia is our song!”  We are Easter people, people of hope and not fear. 

Now, this is not a static hope.  This is a living and breathing hope.  It’s not a gift we simply receive, but one we must give to others, a gift to carry forth.  I was struck last week by an image of Pope Francis washing feet of refugees — different faiths, different countries.  And what a powerful reminder of our obligations if, in fact, we’re not afraid, and if, in fact, we hope, and if, in fact, we believe.  That is something that we have to give.

Click on the year to read the entire message.

Another Take on the Easter Prayer Breakfast

Obama Prayer

A few minutes ago we posted Michael Wear’s criticism of Donald Trump for his decision not to hold an Easter Prayer Breakfast this year.

Melissa Rogers, who ran Barack Obama’s Office of Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships from 2013-2017, has a different take.

Here is a taste of her post at Medium:

These are legitimate questions about the Trump presidency, and we need to keep asking them. Other aspects of the discussion, however, are troubling, partially because they jeopardize our country’s longstanding commitment to religious freedom.

One disturbing aspect of the discussion is an insistence that each president must do every religious thing — personally and policy-wise — that the previous president did. For example, in 2010 President Obama started a tradition of holding an Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House. He spoke briefly at this annual gathering, including remarks about his beliefs as a Christian, while a minister offered reflections. I attended that breakfast before I served on the White House staff and subsequently I helped host it. These events were truly meaningful to President Obama and everyone who participated. My favorite memories include the transporting songs of gospel choirs and call-and-response preaching in storied rooms of the White House.

Some are now criticizing President Trump for failing to have an Easter Prayer Breakfast. I believe this is wrong-headed. To be clear, I believe all presidents should reach out to religious communities, just as they reach out to a wide range of other communities. But demanding that each president repeat the same religious activities of the previous president could create an informal religious test for public office, which would be inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution. It could also turn meaningful events into rote rituals and thwart a president’s genuine expression of faith. No one should presume to dictate how a president practices his or her faith. Rather than setting up box-checking exercises, we should let presidents make thoughtful choices about how they discuss faith and relate to religious communities.

Likewise, even though I led the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2013–2017, an office President Trump has yet to staff, I believe we should not insist that Trump have such an office just to have it. I’m proud of the work we did to serve people in need through a variety of partnerships with faith-based and secular organizations. But I also know that, if the office is not set on a strong foundation, it can do more harm than good. For example, if the office does not welcome all faiths, or if it prefers some faiths over others, it will be a blight on our tradition of religious freedom. If it instructs, rather than invites, religious communities to participate in its work or the work of the broader administration, it will undermine the separation of church and state. And if the office were to promote religion, rather than the common good, it would distort faith, usurp the jobs of religious leaders and organizations, and violate the consciences of all Americans. In short, it would be better not to have such an office than to have an office that is not committed to principles like these.

Also, some are using the term “secular” as a slur. We should not go down that path. Just as an officeholder is not necessarily a good leader simply because he or she is personally religious, an officeholder is not necessarily a bad leader because he or she is not religious or does not practice his or her faith in conventional ways. Let’s not create tests that would deprive us of the leadership of a future Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln.

Read the entire post here.

What Happened to the Easter Prayer Breakfast?

Obama

Gorsuch is in.  The Easter Prayer Breakfast is out.

Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for Barack Obama’s 2012 election campaign, reflects on the fact that Donald Trump will not be continuing Obama’s annual Easter tradition.

Here is a taste of his piece in The Washington Post titled “Remember When the White House Had Faith?

It appears likely that President Trump will not continue the White House Easter Prayer Breakfast, a tradition that began in 2010 under President Barack Obama where he would invite Christian leaders from across the country to join him for a service in the East Room of the White House. It would include singing, a sermon and prayers, and the president would discuss the significance of Easter for him.

Even today, it surprises many to hear that the president would speak so personally about Easter. In 2010, for instance, he reflected on the theological idea of redemption:

But as Christians, we believe that redemption can be delivered — by faith in Jesus Christ. And the possibility of redemption can make straight the crookedness of a character; make whole the incompleteness of a soul. Redemption makes life, however fleeting here on Earth, resound with eternal hope.

Fast forward to today’s White House, with a man who is undoubtedly one of the most religiously illiterate and thoroughly secular presidents in American history. Ironically, without the vote of churchgoing Christians, Trump would not be in the White House today.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Abraham Lincoln’s “Martyrdom”

Clements Library, Brian Dunnigan

In case you haven’t seen it all over social media, today is the 152st anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.  It is also Good Friday.  Lincoln was killed on Good Friday in 1865, making today one of those years when the commemoration of Jesus’s death lines up with the assassination of the so-called “savior” of the Union.

Over at his blog Faith and History, Wheaton College history professor Tracy McKenzie urges Christians to be careful of making too much out of the fact that Lincoln was murdered on Good Friday.

A taste:

I started this blog because I wanted to be in conversation with thinking Christians about what it means to think Christianly about American history. At its best, our engagement with the past should be a precious resource to us, but it can also be a snare, especially because of the temptation that we face to allow our thinking about history to distort our identity as followers of Christ. That temptation, in turn, is but a reflection of a more basic temptation to idolatry that has been a constant theme in the human story. The subtle seduction of idolatry can take innumerable forms, but one of these surely for American Christians over the past two and a half centuries has been the temptation to conflate God’s Church with the American nation.

I’m especially mindful of this today because Lincoln’s assassination instantaneously triggered across the grieving northern states a response that should make us wince, if not shudder. Northerners hardly spoke with one voice, but a common response from northern pulpits was to speak in terms of the president’s “sacrifice” and “martyrdom,” both terms fraught with religious significance. Almost no one missed the symbolism of the timing of Lincoln’s death. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses Grant on Palm Sunday—in an event that seemed to signal at long last a northern triumph—and now the nation’s leader was killed on Good Friday. It was child’s play, if childishly foolish, to connect the dots and begin to speak of Lincoln as the nation’s savior and messiah.

Two days later, pastors across the North would mount their pulpits and begin to do so.  So, for example, the Reverend Henry Bellows of New York City informed his congregation that “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader . . . dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.” In Philadelphia, minister Phillips Brooks assured his flock that, “If there were one day on which one could rejoice to echo the martyrdom of Christ, it would be that on which the martyrdom was perfected.”

But not all analogies were between Lincoln and Christ. The day after Lincoln’s death, a Philadelphia newspaper editorialized, “The blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church. So the blood of the noble martyr to the cause of freedom will be the seed to the great blessing of this nation.” Here the central analogy was not between Christ and Lincoln, but between Christ’s church and Lincoln’s nation.

Read the rest here.