Monday, July 21, 2014

A Thought

“Be still and know I am The Lord.  I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.”  Psalm 46:10

Commonly taught as the imperative to “sit down and shut up” so we may listen to what The Lord has to say, the principle is consistent with St. Paul’s understanding of the perfection of Divine Strength in mortal weakness; “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

We don’t often think of being “still” as being “weak”, but maybe this is because we do not understand what weakness means – especially when we choose that imperfect state for the perfection of Divine presence in our prayers.  It is not necessarily that The Lord is most merciful and revealed to those who are weak; rather it may better be understood in terms of complete submission – a willingness to put aside self in favor of something greater even if only for a moment.

We are a little too busy and too “in charge” of our lives for our own good.  We confuse Divine Will with personal desire because we already know what we want – and we like to pretend The Lord always agrees with us.  I am convinced this is only because we do not fully give The Lord the time He requires of us in order to make Himself and His will known.  We must first not only “be still” but we must also choose to “be still”.  It is the principle of complete Sabbath, and it is no less so in the midst of our haste.  And really, when we are in such a hurry, such a state of impatience, are we not just seeking an earlier grave?

Slow down today.  Make time to acknowledge the reality of The Lord, and learn to set aside time strictly for The Lord.  Private time.  Unencumbered time.  It is what we probably need above all things, for surely from such an intimate moment do all good things come.

Blessings,

Michael

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Thought

“ … Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 13:34-35).

Because we have been conditioned over generations toward Jesus’ many parables each with its own distinct meaning, we are often inclined to overlook certain parables and take them for granted as having been figured out.  While we might agree there may be only one meaning for any particular parable, we cheat ourselves when we strike one off the “list” of things completed – especially when it comes to the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven which the parables speak to and teach about.  So when we believe we have “finished” any portion of the Scriptures, we stop reaching; and when we stop reaching, we stop growing spiritually.  It is the reason there are so many “mature” Christians who have become stunted in their growth; it’s all “figured out”, the ‘secrets’ have been revealed. 

Nothing could be further from the truth!  There are treasures within each parable Jesus teaches that demand a closer look, and it is the reason why our Wesleyan Methodist heritage has an official “discipline”, a discipline which transcends denominational “rules” and promotes and encourages the many “means of grace”.  The study of the Scriptures is a lifelong journey in search of “joy unspeakable” which can only be revealed as we draw nearer.  We must never forget that discipleship can never be considered a “hobby” nor is it a way of living.  It is Life itself which comes only from The Word.

Blessings,

Michael

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Thought

“Now all the people gathered together as one in the open square that was in front of the water gate, and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Moses.  So Ezra brought the Law before the assembly of men and women … then he read from it in the open square … and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law”  (Nehemiah 8:1-3).

As with yesterday’s thought about “law”, this reading must also be understood more carefully than to think Ezra simply read off a list of “rules”.  In this context the people of the Lord had returned to reclaim the land the Lord had given them after a long exile.  They were determined to reorient themselves toward what they were brought out of Egypt to be: a “priestly nation”.  They were more determined to learn from their mistakes of the past and truly be The Lord’s People.  The “Torah” (which English translations may have carelessly reduced to ‘law’) is “the written and cherished normative memory of the community” (Brueggemann).

Yes, there are some “rules” to live by as well as some restrictions and prohibitions.  The fullness of a people’s identity, however, goes far beyond what they are prohibited from doing; it is much more about what they are to do in the fullness of life – to be everything The Lord has created them to be.

This reality has not been diminished in the New Testament or Christian theology.  Jesus was clear in that He did not come to “do away with the Law (Torah?) … but to fulfill it”.  So must we as lean into and live in the fullness of The Word which is Christ.

Blessings,

Michael

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Thought

“Do not let sin reign in your mortal body … but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.  For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”  Romans 6:12-14

“You are not under law but under grace”.  Is it possible to quote a Bible verse word-for-word and still get it wrong?  I think so because this particular verse is often quoted when Christians are called to task and challenged for what others deem to be misconduct; that is, being less than ‘holy’.  The question, however, is not whether the verse is being misquoted but misappropriated.  The question centers on whether “law” captures the fullness of Torah (Torah as the first five books of the Bible, generally referred to by Christians as ‘law’).  We may even wonder if Paul, when speaking of ‘law’, is actually referring to Torah or to some other man-made religious law based loosely on components of Torah but rendered unduly restrictive as little more than a set of “rules”.

The scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, says “our English rendering of Torah as ‘law’ is mischievous and problematic.  The word ‘law’ scarcely catches the point of the reading.  Torah means the entire written and cherished normative memory of the community, all the lore and narrative and poetry and song and old liturgy that had formed and shaped and authorized the imagination of the community” (Biblical perspectives on Evangelism, pg 74).  So it hardly seems likely St. Paul, a devout Jew himself, is suggesting Torah no longer has meaning for the people of The Lord.  Rather he is suggesting, I think, another created ‘law’ that has so bound a redeemed people that they can no longer function as the truly liberated people The Lord intended them to be.  Or perhaps he is trying to take ‘law’ out of Torah’s context.

There is indeed grace (call it Divine Mercy) that serves Divine Purpose, and Torah records this development within a spirit of grace not as restrictive but as defining; for, indeed, Torah is much more than just ‘Ten Commandments’ thought of primarily as “thou shalt not”.  At no time, however, is grace ever imparted to The Lord’s people as ‘excuses’ for which our own purposes are served.

Torah, then, can be understood as defining a people (specifically Israel) not strictly based on what one cannot do but, rather, based on what one is called to be.  We must not receive any portion of the Word of The Lord as restrictive or condemning lest we come to believe in a petty, arbitrary, and vindictive God who just cannot wait for a  chance to clobber someone.  We are reading the story of a God who could not wait for a chance to redeem and lift up a people to be all they are created and called to be.  This is our Holy Father’s story, thus it is our story; a story we must never forget.

Blessings,

Michael

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Home-made Crisis

How can it be that the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces and chief executive officer of the United States government - the one who holds primary responsibility for the security of the nation's borders at home and the national security interests of the United States worldwide and is also constitutionally charged with enforcing (not adjusting) the nation's existing laws - would turn to the Republicans in Congress and blame them for the fiasco currently taking place on our southern border?

The president has requested an additional $3.7 billion in funding to address the "humanitarian crisis" he believes we are faced with, but how will these additional funds be spent?  And how is it that border security is not already adequately funded?  Immigrants have been crossing into the United States via the southern border for more years than the current president has been in office, so how can it be that now it has become a "humanitarian crisis"?  Prior to this, in my humble opinion, it has been a continuing national security crisis.  Indeed how can we pretend to have federal agencies charged with national security and not realize that such porous borders constitute a genuine national security threat?

I believe rank-and-file Americans are not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of so many who "yearn to breathe free" and will risk everything for a chance to come into the United States.  I also believe the vast majority of those crossing our borders illegally only want a chance for a better life for themselves and their families in peace and relative safety. 

However, if there are truly an estimated 12-14 million "undocumented" immigrants in the US (how can one count "undocumented" persons, by the way?), this means there are 12-14 million persons we know nothing about unless or until they run afoul of the law.  This is a national security problem of the highest order because if we only catch them after they have violated laws, it is already too late.  By then we can only hope it is a minor infraction.

The people of the United States respond to and deal with humanitarian crises almost daily, and they do so generously and expeditiously.  This is the heart of the American ideal and the soul of the American people.  We get it.  We get it that this is part of the responsibility of a freed people.  We understand that the well being of our neighbor is our own well being. 

What we do not get is a crisis borne of an irresponsible and unresponsive government that demands more money to deal with a long existing problem.  We do not get a president who will visit a storm-damaged area to remind those people that the nation stands with them but will not go directly to the US border in crisis mode to remind those people (citizens and overwhelmed agents alike) that the nation stands with them as well, choosing instead to drink beer and shoot pool in relative air-conditioned comfort far and away from the point of crisis while claiming to be "intimately" involved.

The one thing we voting Americans must be aware of (yes, if you do not or did not vote, you have no say) is that we are the American people which makes us the American government.  An election is coming up with many "experienced" legislators standing for reelection.  This crisis, whether humanitarian or national security, belongs to them; each and every one who is up for RE-election.  If we RE-elect any one of them, we are asking for more of the same; and our nation will remain in crisis mode for at least the foreseeable future.

It is not necessary or even desirable to "overthrow" this system of government, but it has become necessary to cast out those who have helped our government reach its current state.  We have a lot of service men and women and federal agents who are doing their level best to deal with what is at hand, but they must have our full support which goes far beyond a flag on the porch and cheesy bumper stickers.  As it stands now, it appears our fellow citizens in government service are useful to this current government only for their value as tools to be RE-elected.  And that is not enough.


The government can do nothing apart from the consent of the governed (that's you and me). This is all the power we need to do what must be done, and it begins with the Congress in November.

A Thought

“This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf.”  2 Chronicles 20:17 (NRSV)

Judah and King Jehoshaphat were facing overwhelming odds against the encroaching Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites; so the king lifted up his nation in prayer.  In his prayer the king appealed to The Lord within the context of the Exodus when Israel was led around, rather than through, these nations enroute to the Promised Land: “[these nations] reward us by coming to drive us out of Your possession that You have given us to inherit” (2 Chronicles 20:11).

Though it is clear the king was gravely concerned about what may come to be, it nevertheless fell to him to lead his nation in prayer.  Rather than to react hastily to a dangerous situation, the people of The Lord first turned to The Lord.  In their faithfulness and, yes, in their fear, the prayer was answered.  Though they were not released from the necessity of doing battle (“Tomorrow go out against them”, vs 17c), The Lord had assured His people that He would act “on your behalf” first.

We face dangerous situations today as a nation, as a state, as a community, and as The Church.  It is our inclination, however, to respond almost immediately to any given situation according to what we believe to be the best course of action (and very often, overreact) rather than to stop, pray, and wait until such time as The Lord may direct our actions.

And this, dear friends, is the difference between those of The Covenant and those outside of The Covenant.  The Covenant of The Lord assures us that as His people, He will protect us; this is His part of His own Covenant to which He is bound!  The assurance of The Covenant, however, applies only to those within that Covenant who will live in accordance with the terms of that Covenant.  And this, I think, is where we face perhaps even greater challenges than the fear often invoked when we are overwhelmed.

We cannot know what the outcomes might look like nor can we really know exactly how The Lord will respond, but the Written Word assures us He will.  This is what we cling to, for it is our hope.  Perhaps the problems in the modern-day Church come from the reality that we simply will not “stand still” and fully trust that The Lord will do His own thing through and with His own people – we would rather our own thing be done!

“Be still, and know that I am The Lord.  I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).  By His decree, by His assurance, this is enough for His people.

Blessings,

Michael

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The Mission (sermon for 6 July 2014)

1 Chronicles 16:23-31
Romans 10:11-15
Matthew 9:27-38

The Book of Discipline astutely observes, "Whenever United Methodism has had a clear sense of mission, [The Lord] has used [His] Church to save persons, heal relationships, transform social structures, and spread scriptural holiness, thereby changing the world."  United Methodist Book of Discipline, ¶121, pg 92

It should probably be emphasized: "Whenever there has been a clear sense of mission ..."

This is the trick for us, is it not?  Having a clear sense of mission?  Especially in watching the ebb and flow and highs and lows at so many churches for the last fifty to sixty years when things seemed to be clicking along just fine, the Church largely failed to realize or fully appreciate that nothing of human effort stays the same.  Ever.  Even though the face of the Church has been through so many cultural and demographic changes over the years, the nature of The Church, which is "mission", has never changed.  Ever.  Whether any church was or was not actively engaged in its missional nature, the Divine Appointment of the Church universal has not changed.

Our challenge is to change the way we think of attending worship and moving beyond the notion that "being here" is what support of the Church and discipleship are about.  Being present is only scratching the surface; there must be a willingness to drill deeper.  Maybe worship attendance would more appropriately be thought of as a "pre-mission briefing" before we go into the larger world and do our work in the name of The Lord.

Since the very beginning there has been a Divine mission.  Though it may seem Adam and Eve were simply placed in the Garden only to tend it and care for it, there was a mission to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it ... (Genesis 1:28)"; maybe even then to "fill the earth" with people who will know and worship and continue the work for The Lord.  The text goes on to reveal that The Lord had given them everything they would need to fulfill The Lord's mission.  Then seeing all The Lord had put forth on the earth, He declared it all "very good".  Until, of course, The Lord's people took a bad turn inward when their very existence became more about themselves than about The Lord; and the mission - such as it was - was stifled.

We fast forward to the time of King David, a somewhat unified nation, and a renewed interest in and focus on the Ark of the Covenant.  We remember the Ark as fully representative of The Lord's presence among His people (this is why it was not to be touched by human hands!).  Once the Ark was back into its appropriate and central place in the life and the very heart of Israel, King David the "shepherd" led a procession of thanksgiving and praise: "Declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous works among all the peoples" (1 Chronicles 16:24).

"Declare ... His marvelous works among all the peoples."  It was understood from the time of Moses (or should have been understood as faithfully taught) that Israel "shall be for [The Lord] a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6); "priestly" as an intermediary between Heaven and earth, "chosen" as the people who would be charged with this awesome task and remarkable privilege of "declaring His glory among the nations"

Since the time of Moses, however, there were many distractions that challenged Israel's status and tested her faithfulness.  Though it might have seemed as though the very existence of Israel was in jeopardy during the time of the Exile, the faithfulness of The Lord to His everlasting covenant meant the only thing ever in jeopardy was Israel's "preferred status" not strictly as a favored people but as chosen; called to and equipped for the Mission: to tell other nations, "all the peoples" about The Lord, His marvelous works, and His liberating and redeeming actions not only to bless Israel but clearly to bless "all the peoples" of "other nations" through Israel, the "priestly kingdom". 

Holding on to that sense of mission - that thing which never changes in the life of The Covenant - even among the many changes we endure as we grow older, our children move out of the house, grandchildren come along, retirement plans start coming together, etc., is no less an edict from The Lord today than it was during the time of King David. 

Even when so many "members" declare themselves removed from such mandates for whatever reason, the Church must nevertheless remain focused on the ONE REASON - the ONLY REASON - the Church exists at all: "to declare His glory among the nations".  That's it.  It is not so you have a place to go on Sunday, and it is not so I have a place to preach on Sunday.  The Church is not "on" a mission of its own choosing; the Church IS the mission just as Christ IS the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us - and dwells among us today as the Church.

Our Lord declared to a less-than-faithful nation in exile, a nation which had failed miserably in its "priestly" honor and privilege: "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11)".

So the Lord declared to His people, His chosen in exile, that He would get done what He intends to be done - period.  The only question was (and still is) whether His people whom He had liberated from bondage, His people whom He had declared a "priestly kingdom and holy nation", were on board with that. 

Should these "chosen" decline, The Lord declared also through Isaiah that the "foreigner" and the "eunuchs" (those who do not completely "fit in" with Israel) who keep the Sabbath and "choose the things that please Me and hold fast to My covenant ... I will give them a monument and a name ... these I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer" (Isaiah 56:3-7).

One way or another, our Lord declares, His thing will be done ... with us - or without us. 

So because the religious authorities had for too long neglected YHWH's "thing" for which He had purposed and chose instead to pursue their own "thing", "Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness ... with compassion [because] they were harassed and helpless [neglected], like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:35-36).

So we look around and we lament the closings of so many churches, our childhood churches.  Now sometimes these churches have closed simply because folks moved.  It is a hard fact, but it is no less a demographic fact.  It still must be said, however, that whenever there is a serious falling away of members who decide for themselves what is or is not their "thing" and refuse to serve where serving needs to be done for the sake of The Mission, that church is on its way to oblivion - or at the very least, exile. 

It will not matter how much money is given for others to work with.  If all the "others" decide it is not their "thing", or they've been doing the "thing" for so long with little help that they just get tired and burnt out, the "thing" will not be done.  Soon The Lord will decide this church or that church has its own "thing" apart from His "thing" and will not long stand.  It is a hard truth but no less a theological truth.

It is a harsh reality the people of The Lord are compelled to examine carefully, fully, and honestly because St. Paul does not ask a rhetorical question when he asks: "How are they to call on One in whom they have not believed?  How are they to believe in One of whom they have never heard?  How are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him?  And how are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15a)

We are "sent", and this calling came to be in that moment of clarity which our friends of other traditions call "getting saved" and which we call "being justified".  It is the "thing" our Lord has purposed long before the foundation was laid for this church, and it is the "thing" The Lord will accomplish ... with us - or without us. 

Like the "trick" of the necessity of prayer I shared last, we will not be fully convinced of the importance of Mission until we are actually engaged in Mission in one capacity or another.  And when we witness for ourselves lives changed and relationships healed, we will surely come to understand the necessity of The Church, Christ in the world today - and our part in it! 

It is often said, everyone has a need to be needed.  The Scriptures make it very clear we are each needed, each with our own unique spiritual gifts as individual "members" of the Whole Body.  As our Bishop Mueller recently stated, now it is time for believers to "step up to the plate".  The Lord has already declared us worthy to serve; now it is time to serve.  Amen.                                                                                                                                                              

A Thought

“The Pharisees, who were lovers of money … ridiculed Jesus.  So Jesus said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).

Jesus had been teaching about dishonest gain and had pointed out to the crowd that if one “has not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (vs 12).  Most of us would not even think of taking something that clearly belongs to someone else, but Jesus’ lesson was not strictly about stealing.  The preceding parable goes much deeper and asks more difficult questions than to simply ask whether we would take something we know belongs to someone else.  Rather the lesson hinged on what lengths humans may go to in order to acquire wealth.  It is a question of honesty and moral integrity.  It is also a question of what we value.

Well meaning persons would convince themselves that if they had wealth, they would give honor to The Lord by first offering their tithe and then offering charity (maybe after all old debts are paid off).  As so many lottery winners have shown, however, and in keeping with what Jesus clearly points out, if we are not faithful with what little we have it is very unlikely we will be faithful with a lot. 

Jesus is very direct and offers no exceptions by which we can justify such choices of accumulation of wealth, “for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God”.  Even if we convince ourselves that The Lord intended for us to have good things only for ourselves and those we love, we cannot get around this passage.  We are compelled to evaluate everything in our lives honestly and faithfully, everything we would go to the ends of the earth to justify and defend, and determine for ourselves whether or not our choices bring honor to The Lord – or to ourselves.

Wealth in and of itself is not the curse.  It is the “love of” wealth that brings curses rather than blessings because we are pursuing the things which by their very nature cannot last.  Let us evaluate our priorities and remember what a true legacy really is.  Our children can make their own way.  The “name and monument” given for eternity (Isaiah 56:5) rests exclusively with The Lord.

Blessings,

Michael

Monday, July 07, 2014

A Thought

"You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all your settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just." (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

Real justice can be very difficult to administer especially when it comes to the death penalty in the United States.  It has been shown through DNA, for instance, that some who had been condemned to die were actually innocent of the crimes for which they had been convicted.  There have been arguments that jail inmates who are awaiting arraignment to answer for crimes they have only been accused of should not be brought before a judge in jail clothing and/or cuffs and shackles because the very appearance of jail-related clothing can sway a judge unfairly.  The image is of one who is not merely “accused” but actually fits the profile of one who would commit such a crime.

We are easily swayed by appearances and are too often overcome by our own emotions especially pertaining to crimes against children.  Some crimes are so heinous that we demand someone be held accountable to the point that the first person arrested must be the guilty party; but in our rush and desperation for justice, we can often be too hasty and lose the necessary “partiality” The Lord requires.

Not only within our legal system but also in daily living, we render judgments almost constantly.  We discern information and evaluate appearances, and we typically render judgment according to how a particular situation fits our own circumstances.  More often than not, the “good ol’ boy” who is liked by everyone will be given much more latitude than a scruffy, sloppy, unkempt person with a mean look.  And the “stranger”?  That poor soul hardly stands a chance.

Let us remember that even though we may not be appointed officially as judges, we must be on guard against our own prejudices lest those who are mistreated by society as a whole do not get the justice our system – and our God – require.  Justice may be subjective to a large extent, but this does not mean The Lord will not hold us accountable for our unfair and unjust determinations.

Blessings,

Michael