What I Preached to President Obama

President Obama came to Church the morning of my first sermon as a seminarian.  This is, roughly, what I preached…

Image from Reuters of President Obama arriving
Image from Reuters of President Obama arriving

Christianity has consequences.  That’s what our readings tell us today.  Christianity has consequences.  These are tough readings to face when preaching for the first time as seminarian at St. John’s.  What we learn though, is that Christianity has consequences.  You see, Jesus is saying something pretty ridiculous here.  This parable is one that I remember from being a little kid in Church, because the saying is just so far-fetched.  A camel, through the eye of a needle?  Really Jesus?  Now, I’ve heard some other explanations of this in sermons past.  I’ve heard that “the eye of the needle” was the term for the smaller door coming into the city, used when the main gate was locked.  I’ve heard that the word “camel” and the word for “cable,” like the kind you’d find on a ship, are the same.  I’ve heard, and I bet you’ve heard a number of ways of relativizing, rationalizing, and relaxing this crazy pronouncement.
I’m not saying that these interpretations are all wrong.  Maybe they contain some truth, but if you read the Gospels, and read what Jesus says and pay attention to how people react, you start to get the sense that Jesus said things that upset people.  Sometimes he upset his followers more than anyone.  I would hate to be Jesus’ PR guy, his communications staffer.  You get the sense it really wasn’t easy to work with him and some of the tough things he said.  Another moment happens today in the Gospel; a crescendo that builds here for the disciples is exciting.  Jesus talks like they are really on track with him, and you know that doesn’t really happen very often.  Peter says, “look we have left everything and followed you,” and Jesus responds that yes, yes they have.  He says that all who have left houses, family, land, will receive a hundredfold houses, family, land, but then he drops an extra word in there.  You will receive a hundredfold houses, family, and land, with persecutions.  Persecutions.  You see what I’m saying about trying to do PR for Jesus.  Persecutions are not easy to sell.
Our reading from Hebrews today talks about persecution in even barer language, literally.  We are told that we are “naked and laid bare.”  Naked and laid bare.  The way the Greek is actually translates “all are naked and their necks are laid bare.”  The language is violent.  We are exposed before God as lambs for the slaughter.  The hearers of Hebrews would be accustomed to this violence.  Hebrews is one of the latest written books in the Bible, put down a few generations after Jesus, in the times after the first persecutions of Christians.  The community has had martyrs, and is being prepared to face martyrdom for the faith again.  You get the sense in Hebrews that more persecution is coming.  Their lives, because of their Christianity are threatened.  They have faced and will face the persecutions Jesus promises.  Christianity has consequences, and they aren’t pretty.
In our world, where we don’t face these palpable consequences, there is a danger.  There is a danger that our Christianity can devolve into something less consequential.  Dr. Lisa Kimball, a new professor at VTS, gave her inaugural lecture this week and talked about the work of a scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  Christian Smith and his team studied the faith of American Teenagers.  They interviewed thousands of American teenagers to find out what they actually believed.  In one way, their findings were heartening.  The vast majority still believe in God, but the faith they hold Christian Smith describes using a particular acronym.  He calls this faith M.T.D., Moral Therapeutic Deism.  God wants us to be good.  God wants us to be happy, but in the end God is far away.  God is not really connected to our lives, to our stories, to our world.
I once had the chance to hear the great Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez give a talk.  He said that our culture today has recast the Lord’s Prayer.  Our new Lord’s prayer, he said, goes something like this:  “Our Father, who art in heaven, STAY THERE!”  STAY THERE!  Having God connected to our lives is dangerous, it is safer when God is far away.  Against this image of the far away God we have Hebrews, a text which assures us that the Word of God is living and active among us.  Then we are told that because God has acted among us, we are to “approach the throne of grace with boldness.”  Boldness.  Christianity has consequences, and those consequences demand boldness.
This boldness, this bravery, is what the rich man in Mark’s parable lacked.  Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor.  He walks away grieving, “for he had many possessions.”  Yes, the passage has something to teach us about God’s economic policy.  Yes, this passage speaks to the rightness of some having great wealth when others have nothing, but there is a deeper issue about identity here for our unnamed man.  You know the old adage: The things you own…(end up owning you).  The man wasn’t free to follow Jesus.  His identity was settled in his many possessions.  We know him only as “the rich man.”  Boldness for the sake of God, for the sake of Jesus was out of the question.  Jesus challenges him to live boldly, and he shrinks back returning to the safety of his possessions.
Following Jesus, really following Jesus, requires of us this boldness.  Following Jesus requires the willing surrender of our identity, the willing loss of all we are for the sake of Christ and the reign of God.  I don’t know what boldness looks like for you.  Boldness could mean marching in the equality day rally today.  Boldness could mean making that tough decision at work.  Boldness could mean having that difficult conversation with your family.  Boldness could mean talking with your teenager about faith.  Boldness could mean, like it did for the rich man, that you need to examine your economic life, to give more of your time, talent, and treasure back to the service of God’s Kingdom.  I don’t know what boldness looks like for you.  What I do know, what we learn from the readings today, is that no one, no one, has enough boldness in themselves to deal with the consequences of Christianity.  Not one of us has enough boldness in ourselves.  And that’s good news.

In our reading from Hebrews today Jesus is said to have both “passed through the heavens” and to have been “in every respect…tested as we are.”  Jesus knows how it feels to lack boldness, we see this in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Our God has stooped to suffer, to experience even fear.  We have a God who knows human suffering, and is not surprised by our weakness.  Out of this weakness, Jesus demands boldness. Out of this weakness, the weakness our God knows, God calls us to be bold.

We have a God who calls us to be bold, a God who knows suffering and weakness, and still who calls us to be bold.  So we are assured that we do not walk this alone.  Jesus has walked ahead of us.  Hebrews calls him the “pioneer of our faith.”  We are invited to live boldly, as Jesus lived.  We are assured that God is with us on each and every step.  Boldness is not sourced in us, is not our responsibility.  This boldness is radically sourced in the one who has walked this way before, and who walks with us still.

We do not walk alone.  Take a moment and look around this sanctuary.  None of us walks this way alone.  Christianity has consequences, and none of us can face those consequences alone.  There is a danger to read the story of the rich man  individualistically.  We can make it a story about a man who has to individually choose whether or not he will follow Jesus.  When Jesus invited the rich man to follow him, he invited him to join a community, a community boldly living life together in a new way.  These followers of the way were later called Christians.  Jesus walks beside us, and we walk beside our sisters and brothers, the body of Christ.  Christianity has consequences, and none of us can face them alone.  So I am excited to be here with you at St. John’s for the next couple of years.  I am excited to walk with you and to boldly face, together, the consequences of our Christianity.  Amen.

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7 thoughts on “What I Preached to President Obama”

  1. It’s a good sermon. It’s an especially good sermon for a President, any President. It is an especially good sermon for a President facing the very hard choices currently before him.

  2. Very moving! Especially when you said, “Persecutions are not easy to sell.”
    What a beautiful line!
    And then you were at your peak, while saying, “Christianity has consequences, and those consequences demand boldness.”

    President needs to listen to such sermons quite often, these are difficult times for him.

  3. I preached on these readings at a church outside Baltimore – no presidents in attendance, I’m afraid.

    David Bosch uses the phrase “bold humility” when talking about mission. I like it a lot.

    -Jesse

  4. This sermon was SO good. I’m still thinking about it (and our talk afterward during the Equality March) these several weeks later.

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