By Pastor Marty

 “Nothing less than life in the steps of Christ is adequate to the human soul or the needs of our world.”  – Dallas Willard, The Great Omission.

windowOur call is clear: we are to follow Jesus to love and serve our world. On Sunday Doug led us in a stunningly rich dialogue on what it means for us to “seek the peace of our city,” which is a Biblical way of saying we love those around us through service and vocation. Jane shared about volunteering at Casa Juan Diego among refugees and immigrants, where she folds sheets and prays for each person who will use them. Felipe shared that in his vocation, making peace means truth-telling, and how hard this work is. As a professional historian, he’s following Jesus and seeking peace in his job.

While many Mennonites gravitate towards the helping professions, this is equally true of our business people: we are loving and serving our world through our vocations.

Service, whether through volunteering or vocation, is to take on the cruciform shape of the life of Christ. In a recent blog post on Jesus and his mission I said it this way, “We, as followers of Jesus, are called to become masters of shalom committed to the common good in the shadows of empire.”

And then I ask the million dollar question, “How in the world could we ever embrace a mission which makes us look so, well, odd?” How can we capture God’s vision for ourselves as servants, and begin to live into the cruciform life of Christ?

In the prayer journals that the church provided this spring (need another? Grab one when you do!) we see a glimpse of how we can increase living “life in the steps of Christ.” We do this through the Spiritual Disciplines, which is “doing what we can to receive from God the power to do what we cannot.” On our own we simply can’t live our core values during the week; but through spiritual disciplines and prayer we can orient ourselves  over and again to God’s values and vision for self and world.

So if our goal is service through vocation and volunteering, seeking peace and acting justly, life in the steps of Christ, what’s something that we can do that models for us the life we long to live?footwashing

What about the worship ritual footwashing? What if on Sunday we performed a literal act of service for each other in the context of worship? In this context, washing someone else’s feet feels safe, inviting, holy and well, Biblical. It feels different to wash someone’s feet you’ve known for years and worshipped with 500 times than to serve a homeless person or unknown corporate executive in this same way. Jesus of course washed his feet and invited us to do the same. In doing so, he took the form of a servant, not a leader or ladder-climber. Footwashing in worship is, along with communion, quintessential examples of doing what we can, in an effort to gain greater capacity in doing what God is calling us to do.

This Sunday in worship we’re going to try it on. Mennonites have practiced footwashing to form our faith for centuries, though less so of late. But Sunday we invite you to do what you can to receive from God the power to do what we cannot.

Specifically, we’ll invite you to respond to Micah 6:8’s call to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” by partnering up and washing each other’s feet. Our worship planning team was very excited about doing this together to praise God and form our faith. But they were also aware that for many of us, this is something new, something we might be anxious about or not want to do for various good reasons. And that’s ok! That’s why we’re inviting you, an invitation you can say either yes or no to without pressure. If, when we invite folks to wash feet you would prefer not to, by all means, stay in your seat and listen or participate in our singing. Whether you choose to or not doesn’t reflect on your faith or commitment in any way! Only you can decide if washing feet or staying in your seat will connect you more closely with God and empower you for ministry.

But the invitation is there: Come! Come into God’s kingdom and find that you are infinitely loved and celebrated by our servant God. Come to the basin in prayer knowing that God is at work in you to help you love and serve our world. Come, and try on this new way of worshipping, doing what we can Sunday to receive from God power to do what we cannot.

So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. – Jesus (John 13:14-17)

My friendly denominational magazine recently quoted the following from the New York Times.

  • United States spends nearly as much on military power as every other country in the world combined, including more than six times as much as China, the next highest.
  • The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago.
  • The intelligence community is so vast that more people have “top secret” clearance than live in Washington, D.C.
  • The United States will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.

That seems like a lot of money to me. The pie chart to the left reveals a whopping 54% of our national budget goes towards military spending.

News Reports suggest that our involvement in Libya is set to exceed the $750 million estimate by the Pentagon, a statistic not likely to help our blossoming national debt.

Of course it’s a lot of money. But perhaps we’ve decided as a community it’s necessary for our salvation.

Competing Gospels
But where does our salvation really come from? There’s a great worship song by Crystal Lewis sung in many of our local churches which says:

Salvation belongs to our God
who sits upon the throne
and unto the lamb
be praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
honor, and power, and strength
be to our God forever and ever

These lyrics – a direct quote from Revelation 7:10 & 12 – are hard to argue with: salvation belongs to God. But in the historical context of Roman empire that these words were first penned, its not saying God and not Vishnu, Jesus not Allah is God. No, they’re a powerful and dangerous political statement: God, and not Caesar who promises pax Romana, is source of salvation.

This apparently is not a sideshow for the early church, but a central spiritual and linguistic premise. Jesus, Paul, and John all borrow explicitly political, explicitly Roman cultural-linguistic concepts to communicate the faith. Words like “gospel,” “kingdom,” “son of God,” “peace,” “Lord,” and even salvation are borrowed directly from Roman political culture to establish what NT Wright calls “a parady of the imperial cult.” 

Take for instance the word “gospel,” a key concept in Christian theology and identity. Jesus and the early church had a wide range of words to choose from to sum up the message. Out of that linguistic soup they chose the “secular” greek word “euangelion,” a strictly imperial word referring narrowly to imperial news, usually pertaining to news from the front lines of battle. Why choose this secular word to describe Jesus message? Precisely because it sets up a choice of competing gospels to choose from: Caesar’s empire, or Jesus’ kingdom. Paul makes his choice clear, proclaiming for those in the imperial capital to hear: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He bookends his letter to Rome with an equally dangerous counter-claim to Caesar that “all” people will praise Jesus and not Caesar.

It’s into this context of competing gospels that John assigns salvation to God, and not the “shock and awe” military might of pax Romana. The nature of each gospel and the character of each kingdom is radically different. Revelation portrays Caesar’s empire as a beast gobbling up innocents; but Jesus is portrayed not as a mighty warrior, but as the slain Lamb. Richard B. Hays writes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, “A work that places the Lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praise and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion (pg. 330).”

Military Spending in Context
As I write this I’m sitting in the safety of the most overwelming military muscle the world has ever prioritized paying for. Direct parallels to Rome’s pax Romana are striking. I’m also sitting in the presence of the slain now-risen Lamb, celebrated weekly in churches on every Houston corner through the breaking and pouring of bread and wine. So I’m forced to ask, to whom belongs our salvation? Do the absurdity of these budgetary numbers supply the answer? 

The gospels of Caesar and Jesus continue to recruit followers to this day, inviting us to repent, for their kingdom is near at hand. Can we afford to choose any differently than John and Paul?

 Sing it with me church! You know the words:

Salvation belongs to our God…
We the redeemed shall be strong
in purpose and unity
declaring aloud
be praise and glory, wisdom and thanks
honor, and power, and strength!
Be to our God forever and ever

This post co-published at Marty’s Houston Chronicle blog called The Peace Pastor.  
Follow Marty on Twitter.

As a teenager, my mother always sent me out into the world saying, “Remember who you are.” She intuitively knew that memories define us and play an important role in our behavior and future decisions.

We see this in young children, where developing a memory allows children to define selves in relation to others and the world around them. When encountering a new experience, categorizing based upon past experience relieves stress and allows for comprehension of new information. Likewise, the loss of memory in aging adults removes our ability to define ourselves in meaningful ways. A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy revealed the pain and dislocation of non-memory when a character taped a post-it to her husband saying, “This is Robert. Robert is your husband.” Remembering who we are helps us act in accord with our values and self image.

This is equally true of nations and communities. What we choose to remember defines our identity and directs our future. U.S. history, our history, is the history of freedom, we’re told. In pursuit of that goal, we the people have continued to broaden freedom to more and more people groups, often through war. Picture the Mall on Washington and the story it tells through symbol. Flowing down from the Capital (symbol of democracy) is the monument to Washington, telling the story of courageous freedoms fought for and won against a non-democratic oppressor.  The Lincoln memorial stands as a testament to war’s ability to bring freedom and unity when we persevere. The WWII memorial is one of the most stunning examples of how symbols communicate power, a true testament to something many refer as the “Good War.”

These and several other stories are the key memory bricks we’ve used to erect our national image. The story is clear: we are a nation of heroes bent on freedom at any cost. And so today, in our next step as valiant warrior, we’re spreading ‘peace and freedom’ in the Arab world. In erecting this image, it becomes inconvenient to remember aspects of our story that don’t further this metanarrative: bad bricks, if you will. Absent from Washington’s Mall are two of the most definitive and core stories of our nation: the 300 years of chattel slavery, and the genocide of the First Nations people. Why? Is it because bad bricks disrupt our self image and derail our inevitable march towards ‘freedom’?

Selective memory may be beneficial in stroking our ego, but it’s not helpful in producing wise, relevant decisions regarding our future. Paul Freire says in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it (pg 88).” True words allow for growth and change. Selective memory severely limits our ability to learn from history, to grow as a nation, and to be defined in ways appropriate to this context in these times.

Today, we selectively forget the true cost of the wars we’re fighting. Civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (etc…) are counted in the tens and hundreds of thousands. Drone attacks in Pakistan, notorious for killing civilians, have increased since Osama bin Laden’s death rather than disappeared. Our economy (and national, state, and city budgets) continues to flounder without drawing connection to the trillions spent on war.

But remembering the fullness of who we are is both Biblical, and practical. The Hebrew Scripture (what Christians call “The Old Testament”) erects a national mall in stark contrast to our own: including bad bricks almost to the exclusion of anything good (Psalm 95 is a nice ode to bad bricks). Jesus (Luke 24:13-35) and Stephen (Acts 7) both preach early post-resurrection stories inviting listeners to build their house of faith using both good and bad memory bricks. Christians celebrate this “complete memory” each and every time we break the bread and pour the cup of communion. From the perspective of faith, it seems imperative to resist forces which limit or bury memory, else our whitewashed “pure” self-image will blind us to the consequences of our choices. Both the good and the bad memory bricks are, apparently, essential in erecting a just and peaceful world.

This weekend we’re invited to erect a holistic house using both our good and bad memory bricks. Discovery Green is hosting a memorial to all lives lost in the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Event information says:

Memorial to Military and Civilian Losses in Iraq and Afghanistan Wars May 28th – 30th. The memorial consists of a labeled US and Texas flag for each of the almost 600 Texans killed in both conflicts and prayer flags and photos to denote the many tens of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilian losses. 

Is it possible that the greatness of our nation tomorrow depends on the fullness of our memory today? Perhaps.

Remember who you are!

Also posted at Marty’sHouston Chronicle  The Peace Pastor blog at blog.chron.com/thepeacepastor. Follow Marty on Twitter.

Execution of innocent people is a familiar topic for Christians. Every week hundreds of Houston Christian pastors, priests, and lay leaders stand before tens of thousands of faithful believers and break bread, reminding us of Jesus body broken on a Roman cross. In broken body and bread state sponsored executions are unmasked for what they are: morally bankrupt. The church’s Eucharist – our central act of worship – points us again and again to this moral depravity, while at the same time offering a counter option: love, forgiveness and peace. Jesus refusal to use violence while being arrested is preceded by this challenge, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Execution of the innocent? As Christians, this is our story.

As Texans, it’s all too likely to be our story as well. Northwestern University School of Law suggests Texas has again, and again, and again executed the innocent. Some twenty three names from Texas are a part of the 39 names on their list of likely suspects of having been executed “in face of compelling evidence of innocence or serious doubt about guilt.” We nearly added another name recently, Anthony Graves. Thankfully, after awaiting execution for 18 long years Graves was exonerated (yes, that means he was innocent) and set free! But it’s quite possible we did execute at least one other person in 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham.

While the possibility of executing an innocent is enough to ask we halt all executions, it’s not why I do it. In fact, whether or not Graves, Willingham, or anyone else is innocent or 100% guilty does little to sway my opinion of the death penalty. Nor do I call for abolition because state sponsored execution is applied capriciously and unjustly targets minorities and the poor, though it does. Nor is my reason rooted in the church’s own terrible history of being both victim and perpetrator of unjust execution.

I believe the death penalty is wrong because I follow Jesus Christ, formally executed and now risen, the prince of peace. Jesus life, teachings, death, resurrection and the early church’s witness about Jesus (what Christians call “The New Testament”) clearly call us to be people of peace, not vengeance.

So join me (and ask your faith community to do so as well!) in praying for Cleve Foster and Cary Kerr, whose lives and families Texas will destroy in coming days, whether they’re innocent or not; and Rick Perry, who holds the power of death or peace in his hands.

Learn more about the Cameron Todd Willingham case and how to work for system change Sunday night, March  6 at a viewing party of Death by Fire, a documentary film about his death and the ongoing issues surrounding it. Click here for info about the event. 

Learn more about Jesus, who, “when he was insulted, did not insult in return; when he was threatened, he did not threaten” at a church near you.

Grace to you and peace!


Originally posted on Marty’s Houston Chronicle Belief blog, where I blog as “The Peace Pastor.” houstonbelief.com