Sermon: Breaking Bad: Empire Business

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Below is the audio from this week’s sermon, as well as the transcript!

I. Introducing…

Good morning. I’m so happy to be here on this third Sunday in our Screenings series. It’s been a really fun series so far, hasn’t it? Sherlock, The Avengers…wasn’t Adam’s sermon just amazing last week? No offense Mark, but I don’t know if any of us can really top that one. It was so good.

In the spirit of NOT trying to top Adam, I was wondering if you all would just allow me to preach from the heart this morning.

I want to do that in three parts, first giving a bit of introduction so that you know a little more of my story and my heart. And second, doing a bit of exegesis on a passage from Romans. And third, looking at the Breaking Bad illustration.

So here’s a bit about me. I grew up in a ministry family, and I’ve been around church and ministry my whole life. For the last 10 years I’ve been in active ministry of one kind or another, starting with youth and small group ministry at a church in Williston and then pastoring a brand new church plant here in Burlington called Dwell. For the last year or so, I’ve been privileged to serve here at First UMC from time to time, helping with worship planning, online media stuff, and even a bit of preaching. Which is just awesome.

And so much of my experience in the church and in ministry over the course of my life has been absolutely wonderful.

But there has been a darker side to my experience. Namely, I have experienced painful emotional and spiritual abuse from a trusted family member, who was also a pastor. And, I have witnessed other abuses of power from leaders and congregants alike in several different church environments (not here, by the way). At times in my life, it has been hard to believe that something beautiful could come from a church that is so often such a total, miserable mess.

For some reason, I stand in front of you all this morning a believer. I believe in the church. I actually do. Like, for reals. And I believe in the church because I believe in Jesus.

In Jesus I have seen something so true, so good, and so beautiful that I cannot look away.

Jesus the Liberating King has captured me.

II. Exegeting…

Let’s do some exegesis, shall we? Exegesis, of course, is kind of a funny word, but it just means explaining or interpreting a text, usually in a step by step or verse by verse fashion. You can drop the word “exegesis” next time you’re at a dinner party. Everyone will be impressed, trust me.

Our text is Romans 10:5-12, from the Kingdom New Testament:

5 Moses writes, you see, about the covenant membership defined by the law, that “the person who performs the law’s commands shall live in them.” 6 But the faith-based covenant membership puts it like this: “Don’t say in your heart, Who shall go up to heaven?” (in other words, to bring the Messiah down), 7 “or, Who shall go down into the depths?” (in other words, to bring the Messiah up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith which we proclaim); 9 because if you profess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 Why? Because the way to covenant membership is by believing with the heart, and the way to salvation is by professing with the mouth. 11 The Bible says, you see, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich toward all who call upon him. 13 “All who call upon the name of the Lord,” you see, “will be saved.”

You all should know that I have a certified man-crush on New Testament scholar NT Wright, the one who translated the Kingdom New Testament and the passage we just read. My crush is so severe that I actually named my second child after the man – she is Pippa Wright Hoag. I once shook NT Wright’s hand at a church in Boston after he preached a sermon and I’m pretty sure that I addressed this eminent Bishop of Durham as “dude.” It was a truly shining moment for me.

The reason I love Wright so much, though, is for translations like “covenant membership” throughout this passage where most translations have “righteousness.” Righteousness gets all the focus on moral purity and guilt when that wasn’t really Paul’s focus at all. The main issue addressed by the apostle Paul here, and in the bulk of his writing and ministry, is the issue of how one becomes a member of the covenant community in light of the death and resurrection of the Messiah, Jesus.

The question is, Is it still based on the old Israelite rules drafted by Moses – you know, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, washings, feast days, and the like? Or are there, effectively, new rules?

What does it mean to become a certified, functioning member of this new thing called the church of Jesus – who, for Paul, is, in fact, Israel’s Messiah?

Paul sets up that problem in verse 5 and then proceeds to introduce the new way of faith-based covenant membership in verse 6. It is NOT about bringing the Messiah down from heaven, or bringing him up from the dead (presumably to function as a new priest in the Temple) – no, it is about something else entirely. Verse 8 says that it is about the word of faith that the apostles are proclaiming, a word that is near to anyone and everyone who will listen!

See, the old rules have reached fulfillment in this Messiah, and the old Temple has a new embodiment. The church is not a place anymore – the church is a people. And the way to membership in this new community, the church of Jesus, is not a specific set of rituals which serve to demarcate a particular ethnic or cultural group – instead, it is only, and always, FAITH.

Verses 9-10: covenant membership – and salvation from this mad, bad, broken world itself – happens by professing with your mouth that JESUS IS LORD. (More on that in a moment.) And it comes by believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead. That’s how you become a part of this new thing that’s happening, this new age that’s dawning in the world. Paul assures his Israelite audience in verse 11 that there is no shame in this new way – it’s not something to worry about because Jesus really is the Messiah Israel has been waiting for.

And listen, that really was a sticky wicket for pious, conservative, first century Israelites. Specifically because of what comes next in verse 12: There is no distinction between Jew and Greek! What?! There is NO distinction? There is no DISTINCTION? But isn’t that the whole point of being a faithful religious person, that WE, the religious, are distinct from THEM, the nonreligious? What is this madman talking about?

See, can we say today, that what it means to be a member of the church of Jesus is that there is NO DISTINCTION between rich and poor! And there is NO DISTINCTION between black and white! And there is NO DISTINCTION between liberal and conservative! And there is NO DISTINCTION between American patriot and Islamist radical! And there is NO DISTINCTION between gay and straight or male and female or transgender. There is NO DISTINCTION!

Why?!

Because the same Lord is Lord of ALL and is rich to ALL who call upon him!

Finally, verse 13: “ALL who call upon the name of the Lord,” you see, “will be saved” from this mad, bad, broken world.

There’s your exegesis. Now to the illustration.

III. Illustrating…
Last month’s series finale of the underdog AMC series Breaking Bad garnered an astounding 10.3 million viewers, beating all the other shows that night by a mile. It’s even more astounding because the previous season finale (Season 4) drew only 1.9 million viewers. Which, at the time, was still great news, because it was a marked increase from Season 3.

But in the span of time from the Season 4 finale to the Season 5 finale, viewership skyrocketed 442%.

Breaking Bad was never supposed to be popular. In fact, series creator Vince Gilligan hesitated to even make the show because of the similar theme of another cable show called Weeds. And, he also felt that the show just might be too dark. The lead character, Walter White, does not exactly elicit sympathy from his audience – unless, of course, you are the type who feels sympathy for the devil.

[SLIDE]: The storyline is pretty simple: Walter White is an ordinary high school chemistry teacher who just can’t get ahead on his teacher’s salary. He works part time at a car wash to make ends meet. He has a pregnant wife and a teenage son with cerebral palsy. And a couple episodes into Season 1, Walter discovers he has terminal cancer.

In what seems like desperation, and through a series of serendipitous events, Walter decides to use his chemistry knowledge to manufacture and sell crystal meth in order to leave a nest egg for his family when he dies.

And as a result, Walter’s world goes mad, a downward spiral of death and destruction.

It’s dark stuff, right?

Christian theologians use the word “empire” to describe a central theme in the biblical story. It is a theme that stretches from the first chapters in Genesis to the final chapters in Revelation. It is the theme of human beings seeking and exercising selfish power with destructive, often catastrophic, results.

Right there in the opening of the narrative – where we see the representative human beings, Adam and Eve, in the lush, primeval garden – the desire for selfish power begins. What does this snake, this satan, say? He says, if you cross this one boundary and eat this one fruit and take control of your destiny, you will be like God.

Where often the emphasis falls on knowledge in that passage (which Mark brilliantly addressed last month), the emphasis ought to be on power. And, in a way, knowledge is power, right? By crossing this boundary and taking control of their destiny, these representative human beings could ostensibly become just like God, with absolute power to get the life they want.

Well, that doesn’t fly with God, of course, and God banishes them from the Garden. But even after being banished, these early humans continue to seek selfish power and erect their empires. And the results are always destructive. Within one generation, the power-hungry Cain murders Abel in cold blood. Soon after there is widespread violence, systemic oppression, sweeping genocide, as the human empire of selfish power and control continues to rise.

The mad, bad, broken world spins out of control.

And that’s just in crazy Genesis. Pretty soon, it’s Egypt. And Babylon. And Assyria. And Rome. And throughout, the nation of Israel often plays the role of the empire too, acting out the same story of progressive, corrupting, selfish power, with destructive and often catastrophic results.

[SLIDE]: Breaking Bad begins with a scene in which Mr. White, the high school chemistry teacher, instructs his class that “Chemistry is the study of transformation.”

What we see with Walter’s character over the course of the series is just that: a transformation from a person who simply wants control of his life, into a person who is building an empire of selfish power with destructive, and yes, catastrophic, results. It is the transformation of Mr. White into the evil drug kingpin Heisenberg. Here’s a brief scene from the beginning of Season 5, after that transformation has taken place: [VIDEO].

[SLIDE]: And here’s what this means for us. It means that within all of us is this very same selfish desire for power and control that was in Adam and Eve, that was in Mr. White at the start of the series. It means that we all have the potential to break bad, especially when we are under the pressure of life forcing us to moments of decision.

When life is pressing, will we break bad? Or will we break…good?

There is one way to ensure that we will break bad under that pressure, and begin to act in the way of empire. And that is if we seek selfish control over the situation.

[SLIDE]: And there is one way to break good, too. And that is to trust God.

See, the church is different from the world in this way: we confess a different King. I am not king of my own life or my own destiny or my own world. Jesus is Lord! Jesus is Lord, and Ceasar is not! Jesus is Lord and the United States Congress is not! Jesus is Lord, and every empire that rears its ugly head, whether in my own heart or on some international battlefield, is not!

Faith and trust in the goodness of our risen Lord, in the goodness of God, subverts the empire of selfish power and control.

Don’t worry about your life, Jesus said. Don’t worry. Seek first the King and the kingdom. Don’t buy into the way of empire. Relinquish control.

Isn’t this what Jesus did? Instead of securing selfish power and wealth, instead of resorting to violence, instead of lashing out in anger and hate at his enemies, instead of trying to control the people and situations around him, he simply yielded to the goodness of the Father and the hope that he had in God. Your will be done. I trust you.

And the result was death…followed by resurrection.

 —

The reason Breaking Bad went from underdog off-beat show that’s a little too dark for mainstream America to certified cultural phenomenon is because Walter White’s transformation is a such compelling lesson for all of us.

In the face of the empire of selfish power and control, the church of Jesus stands as a people who simply trust in the goodness of the Divine – and grab onto the supreme hope of salvation from this mad, bad, broken world. Which hope is an anchor for our soul.

Perhaps you have been hurt. Perhaps this mad, bad world has not been fair or kind to you. Perhaps even the church has hurt you, in the way it hurt me, looking more like the empire than the people of the Messiah, Jesus.

For all of us, the answer is not to keep the cycle of selfish power and control going but to subvert it completely with the audacity of hope and the beauty of simple faith and trust in the goodness of God.

And to declare to all the powers that be, both within and without, that Jesus alone is Lord.

If we can begin to be the church in this way, I wonder if the world might feel truly welcomed in again. I wonder if all people – WITHOUT DISTINCTION – might see the beauty of Jesus in us and not be able to look away.

Let’s put off these power games and yield to the resurrection Spirit at work among us, that we might be revived again.

First UMC Burlington

A worshiping community, walking in the way of Jesus, believing in place.