Sunday, February 12, 2017

Judgment from Within

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37

 “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of The Lord.”  Psalm 119:1

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has a lot to say but we must understand He is not talking to Gentiles.  Because He is the Word of God, He is speaking only to the people of God.  The Word of God would have no meaning for Gentiles.  This doesn’t mean those “outsiders” are of no concern to The Lord.  It means The Lord’s people must first find meaning in the Word so the Word may have meaning for Gentiles.  Until The Word has meaning for The Lord’s people, they remain only words.

There was still Roman law which theoretically applied to everyone, but we also know secular law often favors those who are well-connected; but Jesus was not - is not - talking about a code of law for its own sake.  He was talking strictly to – and about – those who claim The Lord as their God and His law as applicable to them … and only to them; a Law which transcends codified rules and offers no favors and no exceptions … even for those who are well-connected.

This understanding is key for the people of The Lord.  It makes me think of the current debate about a Ten Commandments monument on the state house lawn.  We think this monument might be good for everyone – and, indeed, it could be – but I tend to think those pushing hardest for this monument might be more concerned about the behavior of others than they should be, perhaps demanding a certain standard they themselves do not always live up to.  I also think these may be more interested in the letter of the Law as a matter of moral enforcement than the Spirit of Torah in the life of the faithful … those for whom these Words would have - should have – deeper meaning beyond the letters.

Consider the irony of reading Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in which He has raised the bar – and the stakes! – of acceptable standard as it pertains to The Lord’s people.  Yet some elements of modern-day Christianity boldly proclaim the “old law” as no longer applicable to them.  The irony is in our demand for a monument to this antiquated “old law” that has no meaning for those who do not know The Lord.  We somehow think a monument of stone will change hearts.  It won’t.  But our faithful witness will.

Lest we forget, the United Methodist Church, as a matter of doctrine, embraces the whole Bible as stated in our Articles of Religion (VI): “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ …” (Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012, ¶104, pg 65) 

So how can it be that the “old law” prohibited murder, but the New Standard (which, incidentally, cannot be new since “The Word which was in the beginning” (John 1:1) must be, by definition, eternal) now says even “anger against a brother or sister” makes one “liable to judgment” (Matthew 5:22)?  Furthermore, how can it be said that this New Standard is no longer applicable after Jesus’ death?  Or is applicable only to those outside the Covenant?

And how has the narrative so changed that the psalmist “treasured the Word (Torah) in his heart” (Psalm 119:11), but we Christians often see only burden?  A list of things we have to do?  A list of things we don’t get to do?  Many things we don’t really even understand or try to understand?  The psalmist expressed his desire that The Lord would “make me understand the way of Your precepts [so] I may meditate on Your wondrous works” (Psalm 119:27).  In other words, perhaps even the psalmist struggled to find meaning beyond the words themselves – but he knew where to look for answers.

Jesus insisted obedience to Him (to “The Word”) was the first mark of discipleship (John 14:15; 14:23), the affirmation of the First Great Commandment to “love The Lord your God” (Matthew 22:37; Deuteronomy 6:5).  And the Second Great Commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself”, Matthew 22:39; Leviticus 19:18) witnesses to those outside the Covenant that we are His disciples, servants of The Word in “your love for one another” (John 13:35).  Giving meaning to The Word to “outsiders” so they may desire to become “insiders”.  This is the mission of the Church!  And though it should go without saying, we love by what we do – not by what we only say or how we feel.

These past few weeks – actually since the inauguration of the new president – have been very trying.  From both sides of the many arguments and protests are Christians, those claiming to have been “reborn of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) and yet are acting entirely according to the flesh in “jealousy and quarreling”, as St. Paul admonished the Corinthians (1 Cor 3:3); each side claiming to be “holier than thou”.

Sad to say, however, I don’t think “holiness” is much on the minds of those who get caught up in the squabbles in person or on social media, but I also have to say I found a glimmer of hope the other day.  A lady asked a question on social media, and another jumped in to answer her question … but then called her “lazy” for not reading the article more carefully.  Well, the first lady called her on the name-calling … and the second lady apologized and admitted her insensitivity!  Usually the cowardly name-callers who hide behind social media double down on their personal insults, but this lady backed off AND made it right.  She repented!  I wanted to name her the patron saint of all social media!  And I will all but guarantee others were equally touched.

We don’t always get it right especially when we act (or react) impulsively rather than according to what has been revealed to us in our quiet prayers according to the Eternal Word, but consider that what could have easily been blown completely out of proportion – and off topic - was suddenly turned into a constructive, honest, and civilized discussion and exchange of real ideas about the issue at hand. 

We are too quick to pounce and take offense at insignificant things, and it is destroying not only the fabric of the nation but the essential spirit of the Holy Church as the heart and conscience this nation so desperately needs!  Worse; we are killing the spirit of our children!  Jesus’ lessons on the Law (Torah) demand a closer look, and for much more than merely being right. 

“You shall not murder”.  Check.  “You shall not be angry …”  Well …  “You shall not commit adultery”.  Check.  “You shall not look upon another with lust”.  Hmmm, these go a little deeper than the acts themselves.  Maybe this means I don’t literally have to murder a human being in order to destroy his or her life.

So our Lord is calling upon His own people to take a closer look … not at others but at themselves.  Ourselves.  We must look more carefully first from within before we can begin to speak about the spiritual or religious deficiencies of others.  And this careful and honest look inside must be according to the Spirit of Torah revealed in Christ rather than the letter of the Law handed down by Moses – and for much more profound reasons than just “getting to heaven”. 

We are called not just to live but to live fully, faithfully, and completely within and according to The Word which sets us free rather than according to a culture which only binds us, restricts us, and chokes the life out of us; that very Word which offers to us the fullness of that “joy unspeakable” when we are so engaged in The Word, when we actively seek out that joy rather than expecting that joy to be gift-wrapped and delivered only to “me”.

Faith is not at all about what someone else is up to nor does genuine faith grant to us the power or authority to judge, slander, or dismiss others – especially those for whom The Word has no meaning.  Faith is about what our Lord requires of His people, His people for whom The Word does have meaning and who are willing to take those risks, for we are the ones to whom He speaks.  And for a very specific reason: we are His witnesses to the Truth revealed in Christ; the Truth which will set us free from our own bondage from within. 

But first we must be willing to walk away from those shackles and chains once we find them broken.  Only then will we be able to be all The Lord has called us to be.  Amen

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Being what we wish to see

“Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.  To Him belong the glory and the power forever and ever.  Amen.”  1 Peter 4:11

Every single word.  Every single act.  What we do and what we say reflects what is within us and must also be a reflection of what we wish to see.  Granted there are those times when our human inclinations overtake us, when we respond angrily to something or to someone who pushes our buttons; but this is where Grace steps in.  Grace does not excuse our behavior or angry words nor does Grace insinuate there is no need to seek forgiveness from our Lord and from those whom we lash out at.  Rather, Grace from Above reminds us our Lord has not given up on us even while others just might. 

So Peter is reminding The Lord’s faithful that our witness is not in a single statement by which we try to illicit a response such as, ‘Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?’  No, first those whom we come into contact with want to know whether Christ Jesus is our Lord and Savior, for our Lord Himself speaks, “You will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:15-20).  And not just “them”; “us”, too!

It is not hard to look around and see so many who have given up all hope.  They’ve lost faith in the Church, they’ve lost faith in their government, and they’ve lost faith in one another.  There is too much anger, too much resentment toward so many who are (or were) in a position to make a positive impact on the people around them, but that opportunity was blown because we are often too connected to our own culture and our own ways.  Too often we are more fixated on what is wrong and have overlooked or forgotten altogether all that is right!

But just as we all need to see goodness, justice, and mercy in our own lives, let us remember there are others who need it as well.  And since our Source of Goodness, Mercy, and Justice has vowed never to forsake His faithful, let us not forsake Him nor those whom He also loves.  Let us speak “the very words of God” and serve faithfully “with the strength God supplies”.  The Word assures us we will not be disappointed!

The Lord is great, is He not?


Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Slow Death or Search for Life

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done.   Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.  His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 4:6-7

Anxiety is fear.  Anxiety is dread.  Anxiety is a very slow, very painful death of the spirit because of the world and its problems.  Anticipation, on the other hand, waits with breathless expectation.  Anticipation is certain of something wonderful just beyond the horizon.  Anticipation trusts and builds up the spirit because it knows of the certainty of the Kingdom of Heaven.

It should seem clear which is the preferred mode of the Christian, but we all have our fears to face.  Whether it is a life-altering surgery of a loved one, a possible loss of a job, or even the uncertainty of this government’s next move, we are afraid.  We hope for the best in all circumstances, I think, but anxiety fears for the worst.  Too much anxiety can bleed the spirit of the most ardent Christian completely dry!

Recently two very large United Methodist churches in the Mississippi Annual Conference voted to separate from the United Methodist Church altogether.  They each state they are not protesting any particular thing but are, rather, weary of the constant infighting within the larger Church and have decided living with that kind of anxiety is counter-productive to what The Lord would ask of His people.  They are each choosing to be more focused on matters of the Kingdom and the mission of the Church rather than matters of the world.

Though some might be inclined to think the issues within the United Methodist Church are Kingdom matters, the reality is we have become almost completely overwhelmed with worldly things, worldly issues.  We are just a little too fixated on the “empire” and getting our own way with no regard and no respect for those with whom we disagree.  The constant yammering and protesting and destruction of property and spirit have completely hijacked the narrative of the Gospel.  We think we are fighting for social justice, but the truth is we are just plain “fighting” … even among ourselves.  And why?  Because we are filled with anxiety.  Because we are filled with fear.  Because we are filled with hatred of and resentment toward the “other”, and we stopped listening to one another a long time ago.  Worst of all, we have stopped listening to The Lord.  All because we are filled with anxiety.

Jesus said, “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God” (John 16:2).  But we are not “killing” bodies; we are “killing” spirits.  Yet because we are so cock-sure of the rightness of our own cause, we are showing absolutely no regard for those who do not agree with us.  While we are “fighting” for a government of our choosing, an “empire” that serves us, we are destroying the Church and diminishing the Gospel.  Soon our “lampstand” will be taken from us (Revelation 2:5).

This has nothing to do with immigration issues, border security, or cabinet appointments.  This has everything to do with “cultural” Christians who are shaped by the “empire”, and disciples who strive to be shaped by the Word and the Spirit of The Lord.  The nastiness must cease and we Christians must not only apologize to The Lord and to one another, but we must fully “repent” and then “bear fruit worthy of that repentance”.  Until or unless we do, we will not find the “peace that will guard your hearts and your minds” … because we are not living in Christ.

When we choose to make things right again and become more concerned with matters of the Kingdom and become more engaged with transforming lives than in vainly trying to change minds, we will find our lampstands burning more brightly than before!  When we act with integrity and in genuine love, the “nones” and “dones” will find their way back to the Church; but if we destroy ourselves only for the sake of being “right”, there will be nothing to return to.

The government will never be able to give us the kind of peace St. Paul is referring to, the kind of peace Jesus imparted to His faithful (John 14:27).  “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness”.  Always and forevermore.


Monday, February 06, 2017

The Law is the Law

Isaiah 58:1-9a
1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Matthew 5:13-20

“If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right.  But do not care to convince him. Men will believe what they see.  Let them see.”  Henry David Thoreau


The Beatitudes are filled with Divine Promise.  In the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which would set the tone for His ministry, He begins by assuring us the very worst of this world may get us down, but we will be raised up if we “wait patiently for The Lord” (Psalm 37:7). 

The problem with the Beatitudes, especially in the way we generally read them and understand them, the Promise seems to be reserved only for the Day of The Lord, when Messiah returns to “judge the living and the dead”.  We rarely seem to understand that the Beatitudes are not only promises we may expect – they are also promises we are to fulfill!

Just as we are thinking The Lord is offering us everything, Jesus very subtly redirects the narrative.  We still hear the Promises of the Beatitudes when one day The Lord will make everything right.  Just perhaps not today.

However, moving aside from the Divine Promise, Jesus turns to His audience and points a finger - not in accusation but in designation; YOU are the salt of the earth … YOU are the light of the world”.  Meaning what?  In one breath, Jesus offers the very best of the Kingdom of Heaven to the downtrodden, to those victims of humanity’s very worst.  In the next, He seems to infer that YOU (meaning “us”) will be the ones who will raise up those who are “poor in spirit”, “who mourn”, “who hunger and thirst for righteousness”.  These, and many more, are to be given their due by those who faithfully represent and live the Kingdom’s highest ideals. 

Actually, the redirect begins to take shape in verse 7 (Matthew 5) when the Promise is suggested to be fulfilled not only on the Day of The Lord but in the here-and-now!  “Blessed are the merciful …”, “blessed are the pure in heart …”, “blessed are the peacemakers …”  It means something is going to have to come from us.  We are to be “the merciful”.  We are to be “the peacemakers”.  We must be “pure in heart”. 

Considering Jesus’ audience in this setting is largely (maybe exclusively) Jewish, Torah (what we Christians narrowly refer to as “The Law”) has everything to do with what Jesus is talking about – because I am convinced everything Jesus is talking about is more “communal” than it is “personal”.  When we try to make it “personal”, it becomes subjective and exclusive; but when it is “communal”, there are universal inclusive elements of objectivity.  That is, what is good for one is good for all.

As we see in today’s political and social climate, especially on social media and in angry street mobs, there is no fear in anonymity or in mobs.  However, there is also no respect for even the fundamental “sacred worth of every individual person” (United Methodist Book of Discipline 2012, ¶161, pg 111) – especially those with whom we disagree.

Yet there is no escaping this certain reality: what we say and what we do represents an element of our own being, good or bad, alone or in a crowd, just as our Lord teaches that “our mouths reveal what is in our hearts” (Luke 6:45).  We may try to assuage those whom we have hurt by saying we “didn’t really mean it the way it sounded” or that we “didn’t mean it personally”; but when we are licking our wounds from words that really do hurt much more than broken bones and do damage lasting far beyond the moment, empty words are of little consolation.  And when it feels as though an entire mob or crowd or clique is mercilessly gathered against us as individuals, there is little else that feels more isolating, more anti-communal – entirely anti-Christ.

These angry mobs and crowds and cliques, however, are a human reality; and as long as they continue on their hate-filled rants and curses and slander, their condemnation is all but assured – no matter how “right” they believe themselves to be.  Yet our Lord Jesus, the Holy God’s Anointed, calls HIS people to be the communal sanctuary those victims most desperately need.  And this sanctuary is provided for, enshrined in, and ratified by The Lord’s Holy Law, the Torah, the “instruction” on how The Lord’s people are to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world, conduct themselves, and offer care and comfort to those who are victimized by the world’s hatred.

There is no more soul-stirring statement through all of this than Jesus’ warning to us all: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 5:20).  And it should stir us deeply because this powerful statement expresses the profound difference between those who would enforce the Law of The Lord (usually meaning those who claim not to be “under the law”) and those who would embrace Torah and live faithfully.  The scribes and the Pharisees were more involved with enforcement than with justice and mercy, and it is the reason they had such issues with Jesus.  Our Lord constantly knocked them off their high horses!

Yet Jesus even gave these religious authorities their due when, while speaking to another crowd, He said, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear; and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:2-4).

Toward the very end, Jesus upholds the finest points of The Law as being faithfully taught and faithfully lived; not once did our Lord excuse His people from living it.  Even when the religious authorities proved themselves unwilling, the faithful were and are not excused.  Even the seemingly anti-law St. Paul expresses our obligations to one another AND to the weakest among us in this way; “The entire Law is fulfilled in keeping this one command; ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’.”  (Galatians 5:14).  Jesus Himself wraps up the Sermon on the Mount in this way; “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.  This is the essence of the Law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:14).

I tend to think of “legalism” as when we expect much more from others than we are willing to give ourselves to others in holy living.  It is the difference between being “the light of the world” to give hope to the hopeless - and being a spotlight on a guard tower for no purpose other than to brutally gun down those who would dare try to escape our wrath.

The Divine Promise of the Beatitudes is still held out to those who are victimized through no fault of their own, but that same Divine Promise is extended to we who make sure those who mourn are “comforted”, that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (that is, the weakest and lowest among us) are “filled”, that those who extend mercy even to those who seem undeserving “will receive mercy”.  The Law is, indeed, the Law of The Lord; but like justice and mercy, it is all theoretical, academic - and “legalistic” - if it will not be lived and experienced.

Being presented a choice between Jesus or The Law is a false choice and a misreading of all which is written for us; for while we are justified by the One, we are sanctified (perfected in love and faith) by the Other.  For it is Jesus, all of it, as The Word, the Law, the Prophets; and all this as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  The Only One there is, the Only Life we have to live – in Him, for Him, and for one another.  For this is the Kingdom of Heaven.  Amen.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Sinking Ship

“I have said [many things] to you to keep you from stumbling.  They will put you out of the synagogues.  Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so, they are offering worship to God.  And they will do this because they have not known the Father or Me.”  John 16:1-3 NRSV

When President Obama was in office, the Republicans stood fast against much of what he sought to do.  There was no cooperation NOT because he is black but because there were vast disagreements.  Now that President Trump is in office, the Democrats are promising to do the very same thing and for the same reason: vast disagreements.  This is all done for one reason and one reason only: to do their level best to win back (or retain) majority power in Congress.  They only think they are doing a “service” (worship) to the nation.

Unfortunately, when we do so in the name of religion and/or social justice, we do not stop to consider the actual harm we are doing in the process to the very process by which this nation is governed.  We think we are doing a “service”, but in fact we are doing great harm.

To be sure, Jesus was talking specifically about religious persecution.  Those disciples of Jesus will certainly run into trouble with the religious authorities, and those authorities will pull out all the stops (think of parliamentary procedures in today’s Congress and in the streets) to damage or destroy the opposition – and all to the same end: to do what they may think is a service.  To God, to the Party, ostensibly to the people or their particular cause.  All because we refuse to listen.  All because we embrace our emotions, dismiss the facts or the reality, and seek only to discredit the “other”.  All because we are not really trying to do what is right but only because we are trying to stop the “other”.  All because we are more attuned to “rights” than we are to “respect”. 

This short-sightedness is going to destroy us all because one cannot sink only half the ship.  Jesus knew it and tried to teach it to us; but we are so certain of our own task and mindful only of our individual rights and/or cause that we fail to realize (or care about) the real harm we are doing.  For to do harm to the “other” is to do harm to ourselves. 

Let us agree that Jesus was talking to “us”; not only to “them”.  Maybe then we can begin to let the smoke clear, assess the damage long ago done, and begin to rebuild.  For the nation.  For our children.  For one another.  For our God.

May He show mercy,


Monday, January 30, 2017


“The King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink.  I was a stranger and you took Me in, was naked and you clothed Me.  I was sick, and you visited Me.  I was in prison and you came to Me’.”  Matthew 25:34-36

There is a lot of political and social hay being made about the president’s recent action regarding immigrants, but I do not wish to change anyone’s minds about whether or not the travel ban is improper, illegal, immoral, or a matter of national security.  I have my own thoughts about that, but I have been to share the Gospel – not enforce the law.

We had the privilege of welcoming representatives of The CALL (Children of Arkansas Loved for a Lifetime) to share a word with us in yesterday’s worship, and the statistics regarding the number of children in Arkansas in foster care as opposed to the number of foster homes available is staggering.  For a good, round number, there are 5000 children and only 1000 homes set to welcome them.

I have seen some Arkansas churches proudly displaying on their outdoor signs and on social media that they “welcome refugees”.  In light of what was shared with us yesterday, I cannot help but to wonder how many of those church members offer foster care.  Are these 5000 children not “refugees”?  Or are these churches only willing to open the building’s basement but not their own homes?  There is a big difference; for the “church” is the congregation – not the building.

There is no judgment here.  Believe me when I say I have struggled with serving as a foster parent just as I am struggling with this travel ban.  I am torn between reasonable security and the desperate needs so many face.  And I will continue to struggle about how to teach it and how to live it. 

We are not all equipped to be foster parents, and some foster parents should not be.  Having met some truly dedicated foster parents (and I am related to one), I am inspired by the stout hearts of those who have opened their homes to our own little “refugees”.  It takes a very special person to be able to provide this kind of sanctuary to children whose lives have been upended by so many domestic issues.  The CALL is a Christian ministry established and sustained by generous hearts and generous givers (they are a 501c3 entity) to help recruit, equip, train, and support families who are so willing to serve in this remarkable ministry of opening one’s home.  And they need us all more than ever before.

The idea of welcoming and housing international refugees is somewhat complicated, but protesting the president’s international action while there is such a great need domestically is only theoretical if we are unwilling to provide a literal “safe space” for children right here at home who have been displaced due to tragic and often dangerous circumstances.  It may not be a fair comparison, but why fight by protest via social media when there is a great need and a solution, quite literally, right before us?  If we are unwilling to open our hearts and our homes to children whose needs are so great, how can we protest the president’s action?  Could it be that we are ok with welcoming international refugees as long as someone else houses, feeds, and supports them?

St. Paul encouraged the Christians in Rome to “think soberly as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Romans 12:3).  That “sober” judgment is not about what we think others should be doing; it is entirely about what we ourselves are so willing to do … according to the measure of faith entrusted to every individual Christian.  We must all look deeply within ourselves and determine that Arkansas does not need more protesters; it is too easy to find fault with others.  Arkansas – and the nation – needs solutions; and we have them.  We just have to be willing to put those solutions to good use.

So please, let us get down from our political soapboxes and open our hearts.  We cannot speak Truth to justice in protest from “on high” when we are already waist-deep in need.

Holy Father, show us the Way!


Sunday, January 29, 2017

Pure Religion

Exodus 22:21-27
James 1:22-27
John 14:15-21

“The most terrible poverty is the loneliness and the feeling of being unloved.”  Mother Teresa

Remembering what was perhaps one of the most shocking sermons I had ever heard, the priest said, “Let it be known here and now that The Lord does not favor Catholics!”  That we were momentarily stunned is an understatement!  Here we were being all “religious” during worship while celebrating Christ as Lord of the Church and Savior of the world, and this priest tells us we’re not doing it right!

This was his first Sunday in the parish, and he was following a series of priests most of whom could easily be described as gentle shepherds.  They were kind-hearted and soft-spoken, they smiled and laughed easily, and they soothed us with their words of encouragement even as they faithfully taught Catholic doctrine.  I do not remember any real outcry as they stood firm in the Church’s teachings which, then and now, go against cultural trends. 

And bear this in mind.  This was the 70’s when the nation – and the Church! - was so enthralled with the so-called Sexual Revolution, abortion, and birth control that we became much more aware of and concerned with what we could get away with in the privacy of our homes than we were about the “least among us” (Matthew 25:40).

Well, according to this new guy (who clearly did not know what he was talking about {tongue in cheek} since we did not agree with him), we were as wrong as wrong can possibly be!  Then he started quoting the Bible.  The point the priest was making was not, as we might suspect, that no one is favored of The Lord since our Father “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11). 

This was not what the priest was saying at all.  He maintained there are indeed those who are favored by our God, those to whom our heavenly Father is indeed partial: it is those who are mistreated, marginalized, oppressed, and never given a chance to come into their own.  The Lord favors victims of humanity’s worst.

The Lord favors the “poor”, but not necessarily the “poor” we often think of only in economic terms.  Rather, the priest was referring to the “poor in spirit” to whom Jesus referred in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3).  He was talking about folks who, lacking in social affluence, get beaten down by society in general – or worse, are ignored outright even in their greatest hour of need … because … they just don’t seem to matter so much – not nearly as much as our own pursuit of personal happiness.

The Bible often makes reference to “widows and orphans” who have direct access to The Lord’s ear … and heart (Exodus 22:23-24).  If they cry out to The Lord as a result of any sort of abuse or neglect and find themselves without any measure of hope, The Lord says, “My wrath will burn”; and those guilty of such abuse will soon suffer the fate of widows and orphans.  In the Jewish Talmud, the Bible is interpreted as saying caring for widows and orphans is on an equal plane with caring for our own wives and children.  In the teachings of the rabbis, our own families do not come first if we are aware of others in distress.  They deserve our equal consideration.

So as the priest pointed out to us, do we really think Christians (even Catholics!!) who are guilty of such abuse or neglect will be spared this “burning wrath” only because we call ourselves “saved”?  Have we become so “religious” that we somehow think only our worship practices – or to merely believe in Jesus - help us to find favor with The Lord?  Or have we fallen victim to the idea that “church life” and “real life” are mutually exclusive, that one has nothing to do with the other?

To be sure, “widows and orphans” in the Bible does literally mean those who are widowed and those who are orphaned, but there is much more to the context than that they only suffered the loss and continue to mourn the pain of living without their loved ones.  There was – and still is - a cultural loss of identity, a social stigma that goes much deeper than financial uncertainty, a stigma that will haunt “widows and orphans” in the dominant culture unless or until The Lord’s counter-cultural people intervene.  In the “real world”, widows and orphans are all but deemed to be “non-persons”.  They have no clout, no usefulness, no meaning.  They are burdens rather than our brethren.

Given that cultural narrative, then, this may be the reason Jesus very deliberately used the term “orphaned” (John 14:18) toward His disciples who would soon be without His physical presence.  In that cultural narrative, one who is “orphaned” would be one without hope, one without any real sense of identity, one who would become lost in the shuffle of humanity, one without a home to call one’s own, one whose life has no real social value or even sacred worth.

In Jesus’ entire discourse (John 13-16), He was preparing His disciples for the day when He would no longer be with them.  And while there was the promise of the “Advocate”, the Holy Spirit (14:16, 26), there is much more to what Jesus was asking of His disciples – then and now.  “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34; John 15:12).  And make no mistake; Jesus was not talking about “fondness”.  He was talking the Cross.

The community of fellowship we more often refer to as “The Church” is an important component of what Jesus was talking about in which a “members only” state of mind can be a comfort when we know we are not alone, when we have friends and a sense of belonging, when help comes to us when we’re at our worst; but that “members only” attitude can also be a curse when “love one another” is misconstrued to mean only those who are useful to us personally.  Remembering Jesus as The Word which became Flesh, our Lord affirmed the Levitical law of “love your neighbor as yourself” in His Good Samaritan parable (Luke 10:25-37). 

Recall in the parable that a priest and a Levite, those who would be considered “members”, bypassed the man in distress.  It was the Samaritan, the outsider, the foreigner who stopped to help.  The Good Samaritan considered nothing but the level of distress he encountered and his own ability to answer to that distress.  It was a moment in which “sacred value” was affirmed while caring only for one’s own was all but dismissed.  This is the abiding principle of “loving one’s neighbor”.

Our sense of sacred worth is, biblically and religiously speaking, directly related to the sacred worth we assign to others.  We are no better than the worst among us.  There are those who can do absolutely nothing for us socially, but what we can do for them can change their whole world and their entire outlook on life.  It is in these sacred moments when our religion is at its purest, according to St. James, and Jesus becomes for them more than what our atheist friends call a “fairy tale”.  It is in these sacred moments when The Word which became Flesh remains in the flesh … in our hearts and in our deeds.

In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, he writes of the “elect”.  Often in terms of a grossly misunderstood doctrine of “predestination” which is largely self-centered, it seems more likely Paul was referring to the “elect” as those called forth for “extraordinary” purposes as the Hebrews called forth as The Chosen of The Lord, meant to serve as a nation of priests to be a light to all the nations.  Yet those who do not fall into the “elect” category are of no less value in the sight of The Lord, for even “ordinary” acts of kindness and charity – acts of true sacrificial love - can transform hearts and change lives … and turn our culture and society around.

Mother Teresa taught that there is no level of distress greater than of the utter loneliness of being unloved, and she was surely speaking in terms of what the Gospel of our Lord teaches of what it means to be truly engaged in “pure religion”.  It is not enough to pray for those in distress and wait for Jesus – or someone else - to handle it.  Our Lord said very clearly in speaking to God’s people, “YOU are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).   

So we must pray that The Lord will show us the way of “pure religion”, that form of religion which will always involve “the least among us” and will always favor those in distress; for our religion is a matter of justice and mercy for all.  We must pray diligently that The Lord will reveal to US what WE must do in His Holy Name – and then in faith, act upon what is revealed to us. 

In that Sacred Moment at Calvary, our Lord set us free for this very purpose: to do and to care for those who cannot do and care for themselves, to restore to them their dignity and identity as persons of sacred worth, and to remind them that our Lord and Savior is very real … to them and to us.  This isn’t about our own “personal” salvation … it is entirely about theirs.  Amen.