Faith of our foreigners

I’m preaching a three-part series looking at the symbolic meanings of the traditional colors of Mardi Gras and posting the blog versions. Click here for purple.

Stephen F. Austin. Darrell K. Royal. “Kinky” Friedman. George W. Bush. Troy Aikman.

What do these famous individuals all have in common? If you said they’re all famous for contributions to Texas history, you’d be right. Yet despite their fame in the Lone Star State, none of them were born in Texas. This story holds true for many other famous “Texans.” That’s how I knew I had a shot in Texas as an Alabamian; perhaps I was born with an advantage if some of the biggest contributors weren’t actually born here, either. Again and again “outsiders” have come to Texas and made a undeniable impact.

5db84bd5-6670-4fe1-8f13-e52cce582e6cThis week my sermon series on the colors of Mardi Gras brings me to green, representing faith. Matthew 8  tells us simultaneously one of the most encouraging and most unsettling stories of faith found in Scripture. As he enters Capernaum Jesus encounters a centurion who asks that his paralyzed servant be healed. When Jesus offers to go to the centurion’s home to heal the servant, the centurion answers with a stunning confession of faith: “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

While possibly encouraging to some of his listeners, Jesus surely shook everyone within earshot to their core by answering, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” Pay attention to the details here, folks. Some present may have been encouraged but all were shaken because this was the last thing anyone expected. Jesus, a Jewish teacher followed by Jews, places the crown of faith on a centurion. The supplicant here is an outsider as a Gentile, but much more of an outsider than a non-Texan who becomes a famous Texan. He’s a centurion, loyal to Rome and the face of that which oppresses the Jewish nation. Furthermore, some scholars have looked to the original Greek to posit that there was a pederastic (adult male to adolescent male) sexual relationship between them. While I can’t see enough evidence for such a definitive claim, we’re kidding ourselves if we think the crowd didn’t have such an offense to Jewish morals on their mind given its frequent occurrence among Roman authority figures. With all of this background, Jesus still says what he does about the man’s faith. But he doesn’t stop there, in essence declaring that many like this man will be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven while many who are “from here” and “belong here” will be excluded.

This story is indicative of how God works on the whole. Faith in Jesus comes from unexpected places to tell us unexpected things. Simply put, if we’re going to follow the Jesus who recognized the centurion’s faith we’re going to have to be okay with being uncomfortable at times. In fact, if your faith never shakes you to your core, I’m positive you aren’t always following Jesus because our cores need shaking. Like the centurion, we are all born as outsiders to the Kingdom. It’s far too easy to let feelings of what might be called spiritual nativism take hold now that we’ve been welcomed in. This is exacerbated for those of us who grew up in Christian homes or a nation which some have declared to be “Christian” in origin. If we allow ourselves to fall into thinking faith can only be recognized in people “from here” and should only tell us things we already know, we may miss out on experiencing and learning from the kind of faith that catches Jesus’ attention.

Faith of our foreigners

The myth of Godless places

classroomEducation has always been incredibly important to me, but my interest in the intersection of politics and education has increased dramatically since I began working in the education system between preaching the weekends. Working with both the students and faculty has been an absolute blessing dropped into my lap by divine providence, so needless to say I was more than a bit angered to hear the latest education rumblings from Austin.

While Governor Greg Abbott has rather surprisingly embraced the idea of enhancing optional pre-K, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s advisory panel has sent a letter to state legislators decrying pre-K because it, among other perceived evils, keeps children in a “Godless environment.”

Godless environment. It doesn’t matter that I’m a pastor, or even a Christian, or that God led me to where I am as only He can. I, according to these fearmongerers, work to corrupt children in a Godless environment. To the enormous number of my colleagues who unashamedly call upon the name of Christ, in many cases having gone into education as an outpouring of their Christocentric love for others and desire to make a difference, your faith and intentions apparently don’t matter; our halls and classrooms are Godless, a threat to the sanctity of the American family.

But here’s the thing about Godless environments: they don’t exist. At all. Paul wrote to the Christians in Colossae that all things were made through and for Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus is “before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Everything, the stars and solar systems, the beating of our hearts, the intermolecular forces holding together the desks in my classroom, everything is held together by the power, creativity, and love of Jesus the Son of God. When God is holding everything together, it’s pretty much impossible to find a place without Him.

Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly Christianless places, where we have failed to be the witness we are called to be. There are places where proclaiming God’s love can be harder, and perceiving Him even harder. There are places where humans have done all they can to flee God, marring the image of God impressed on them and their victims. But as God intimately holds the universe together, rather than letting it unwind as the clockmaker who starts the mechanism and steps away, there is nowhere we can go to find a “Godless” place. Even when we go to the most broken places imaginable, we don’t go to bring them God; we go to partner with what God is already doing there and will still be doing long after we’re gone. And there isn’t a border, or law, or weapon, or ideology that can do anything to limit His reach and His promises.

Don’t believe the fearmongerers; they just want your vote and your allegiance. They profit from terror and feed on your fear. It is in their best interest that you bunker down with a Bible, a gun, and a straight party voting ticket. Go boldly out into the world, even into Texas’ allegedly Godless classrooms, knowing that there is nowhere you can outrun God, whose Son commands all power in Heaven and Earth and promises to be with us always. 

The myth of Godless places