Sunday, November 11, 2018

The State of the Church: The Real Issue

11 November 2018

Isaiah 55:1-13; Revelation 3:14-22

I’ve shared before that the state of the modern-day Church is not really different from the state of the ancient Church.  The challenges we face today may have a different tag, but the essential human weaknesses are the same.  They hinge on faith and how faith is understood and lived into.  Apart from genuine faith, other church-y words like love and grace can have no meaning.

There are any number of analogies one can use to give meaning to the “lukewarm” admonition and what it means to be “hot” or “cold”, but the metaphor itself is likely linked to nearby sources of water in the region the people of Laodicea would have been familiar with. 

The “hot” springs of Hierapolis were believed to have medicinal value, and the “cold” springs of Colossae were known for purity.  The waters in Laodicea, however, were “neither hot nor cold”.  They were “tepid”, “lukewarm” and thus lacking healing or purifying properties.  This metaphor would have been understood by the people in Laodicea.

For us there must still be one focal point at which we can meet and agree – not on any single issue but on the broader invitation to live into a life defined and transformed by faith.  Beyond merely believing a thing, faith which transforms us does not change the world; it changes the way we view and interact with the world … and with The Lord and His Church, His people.

It occurs to me our understanding of faith is directly connected to a purposeful understanding of prayer.  When we pray, what are we trying to accomplish?  By prayer, do we hope for external changes?  By this I mean, do we pray others will change without our having to change?  Do we pray The Lord will solve homelessness or hunger or divisions within the Church or the nation without our having to be instruments of the change we seek?  Do we pray children in foster care will always have a home, though we are unwilling to open our own homes?

These are instances in which we must consider the “lukewarm” nature of our faith, the tepid waters of our hearts.  There is much we want and much we can see needs to be done; and while we may possess the essence of faith to know we must pray for these things, we may lack the depth of faith to stick our necks out and put ourselves at risk for these things.  We believe just enough to know we must pray for these things, but we lack the faith necessary to trust The Lord will provide for these things through us.  Maybe it can be said we have more faith in our “things” for our own purposes than in what The Lord can do if we surrender to Him these “things”.

Faith is a tricky business, if we’re gonna be real about it.  It is not enough to say, “You gotta have faith”, and it is misleading to suggest we can just “grab” or “claim” faith.  Faith is a Divine Gift from the heart of The Father.  Just as St. Paul wrote, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’, without the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3), we cannot arbitrarily decide one day to believe in Jesus and claim salvation only because we are more afraid of hell than we are willing to live in and for Him.

The Lord spoke to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19).  Though it may sound arbitrary, The Lord is conveying to Moses that His mercy and compassion will go out with great purpose – as when The Lord spoke to His people through His prophet Isaiah, “My Word will not return to Me until it has accomplished that which I purpose”. 

Because our Father’s mercy and compassion are not arbitrary, neither can our faith be because it is inconsistent with the nature of The Holy Father.  We cannot claim faith today for the sake of salvation, and then put it aside tomorrow for the sake of personal gain.  That kind of arbitrary faith will not serve us when we need it most because it was never ours to claim.  It is The Lord’s to give – and for His purposes. 

Yet we know we cannot function without faith.  We cannot worship nor tithe without faith.  We cannot pray without faith.  We certainly cannot serve a purpose to humanity without faith nor can we love fully and without reservation without faith.  In short, as it is written in The Letter to the Hebrews, “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (11:6).

So what is that component of faith that does “please God”?  It is that thing we can actually do to show our Father it is faith we seek, and it is faith we can be trusted with to His Good Name.  In a word, it is “submission”.  It is “letting go”.  It is a willingness to be vulnerable.  In order to acquire faith, we must be willing to act in faith.  We must be willing to trust Him and not our stuff.

This was the challenge – and the curse – of the people of Laodicea.  They did not trust The Lord; they trusted their stuff.  They trusted their own wealth.  They believed they had all they would need, not knowing nor really appreciating that the stuff they trusted would fade, rust, rot, or be lost or stolen.  Though they had a knowledge of the “treasures they were to store in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20), they trusted their own stores.  Underneath it all, they did not realize they were “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17) – because they were unwilling to Trust The Word of The Lord.

These letters to the Churches have been challenging for me on a personal level not only because I can easily see a component of each letter, each admonition, present and well – and often even defended – in the Church today … but I also see each of these things alive and well within myself. 

If we were to strip away every material component of our lives, if we were suddenly homeless, if we were suddenly broke, would we be rich?  Can we see the goodness and the mercy of The Lord apart from our “stuff”?  It is one thing to be thankful for our “stuff”; it is another thing altogether to become dependent on our “stuff” – to allow our “stuff” to define our understanding of love, of grace, of faith itself.  And this is where the Church in Laodicea – and perhaps the Church in America – has been judged to be.

Yet with all the other admonitions, all the other judgments against the other churches, there remains our Lord’s call to His people to “repent”, to turn away from those things and learn to use them as faithful stewards entrusted with much more.  The admonitions and the invitation into self-assessments can be hard when we are conditioned to those things, even to the point of hopelessness.

Yet it is our Lord, our Savior, our Shepherd who still “stands at the door and knocks”.  He still wants to come in.  He still wants us to have a place at the Table with Him in the Kingdom.  He still wants us to have peace.  He wants us to possess the faith sufficient to “conquer just as He conquered”.  Yet the conquest cannot be about only believing a thing; we must be willing to lose our “things”, even our very lives – “though we die, yet shall we live” (John 11:25).

This Invitation is still open … until He comes “like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2).  This is our warning that everything we only think we have is at risk.  And this is His Promise that everything we need is in His Heart and in His Hands.  To the glory and the purpose of The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, November 04, 2018

State of the Church: Down but not Out

4 November 2018

2 Corinthians 10:1-6; Revelation 1:1-3, 3:7-13

Yet another United Methodist congregation has petitioned its Annual Conference to separate and become independent.  Christ United Methodist Church in Myrtle Beach SC, one of the largest of the SC UM churches, reasoned that with all the give and take of this constant and nauseating battle which can never be won, they do not want to feel compelled to choose between being perceived as condemning persons or condoning behavior. 

Like several other UM congregations choosing this course of action – some successfully, some not so much – Christ UM expressed their desire to pursue what they believe they are charged to pursue; making disciples who are equipped to make disciples.  These congregations have been convinced that staying connected leaves them with no option but to choose “sides”.

Many Arkansas United Methodists also believe we are being forced into a false choice, being made to feel we must take sides before we can get down to doing the business of the Church; seeing faithfully to the Great Commission to “make disciples” as commanded by our Shepherd before His Ascension. 

This seemingly never-ending battle makes me think of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address in which he described the state of a broken and hopelessly divided nation as “both [sides] reading the same Bible and both [sides] praying to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other … the prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully.  The Almighty has His own purposes”.

Whatever we may think about this mass distraction that has already decimated other denominations – and countless souls! – and has put the integrity of the Church at risk, we do know the Almighty’s purpose in the existence of the Holy Church: to share the Gospel of The Lord and to make disciples, equipping those disciples to make disciples themselves, and looking after one another in mutual accountability.  Before we can seriously consider this Divine Purpose, however, we must know this: only a disciple can make disciples. 

Had there been any less to consider, Jesus would have certainly made this known.  Had our Lord’s commission been expressed as “get saved and go to church when you can”, we could say we have fulfilled our calling and would not have to face this constant scourge upon the Church; the whole Church, not only United Methodist.  And that’s what it is, just as President Lincoln stated about the nature of the Civil War: a scourge, the war itself as a means of punishment intended to adversely impact both “sides”. 

“A house divided against itself cannot stand”, our Lord has taught us.  By this we must surely know if we are being forced to choose “sides” among ourselves, it can surely be said this scourge is perhaps the greatest temptation and test – and judgment - we have faced.  How we deal with it will determine whether we can move beyond it and become once more what we have been called to be – or whether we will be bogged down in this world, fighting this world’s battles on this world’s terms, and choosing sides among the brethren.

It is reasonable to believe the Church in Philadelphia faced similar challenges and temptations, but it also seems apparent that whatever those challenges were, they found a way to overcome, rise above their own strength, and lean into The Lord and His Promise where the Real Strength is found.  “Because you have kept My word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth” (Rev 3:10).

If we were to embrace The Lord’s assurance to them in our own time, perhaps we can see they resisted the idea of making what can only be described as a false choice but, instead, simply stood with The Lord in His Word and remained true to their calling as a Body.  And because they seem to have resisted the temptation to make worldly choices but stood with The Lord, they will not have to be tested again.  They had shown what they are made of.

They have been sealed in their faith not because they said a magic prayer or were simply baptized.  They were sealed in their faith because they knew, as Paul advised the Corinthians, that though “we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards; for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have Divine Power to destroy strongholds … destroying every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God” (2 Cor 10:3-5).

Their test was done.  They were deemed worthy.  Our test is not quite done, however.  Notice The Lord encourages them to “hold fast to what you have so no one may seize your crown” (vs 11).  This is every indication about how easily faith can be challenged and loyalties tested; for “the crown” is at stake … and is still at risk if we do not “hold fast” with what “little power” may remain. 

Yet The Lord has assured the loyal Church that even if we may believe we have “little power” and are at risk of being overrun, He is standing with The Faithful Church to the point that there will come a time when our “enemies” – in whatever form they may take – will one day come to know their failures.  They will come to know that just as they believed they were gaining strength and momentum for their “cause” – whatever “cause” that may be – they misjudged the extent of their strength.  They may have convinced themselves their cause was right, but they will one day know their cause was their own and not The Lord’s.

Teaching The Word and making disciples of Christ – these are the tasks of The Holy Church.  Anything less than this renders the Church little more than a community clubhouse to be used and abused – and then abandoned once it is used up.  When this is allowed to take place as we fall victim to this false narrative and become active participants, The Crown of Glory will fade.

The Faithful Church is never at risk when its sole focus and purpose is found in following our Lord in His Word.  And though we may seem to be losing ground when we refuse to “fight”, the Greater Truth is that Fight has become mighty in Christ – when we let Him take the lead.  The Faithful Church – by the world’s standards and measures – may only appear to be on the losing end of the battle and may even appear to be down for the count.  Yet the Crown remains because faith is the measure of strength found only in The Lord.

We must not fall for the lies.  We do not have to choose “sides”, but we must always stand with and follow Christ as The Eternal Word, the “same yesterday, today, and forever”.  Amen.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The State of the Church: Dead is not Alive

28 October 2018

Leviticus 20:22-26; Revelation 1:1-3, 3:1-6

One of the hardest lessons to teach our children is self-sufficiency.  To prepare them for life in a heartless world, we have to teach them there are no “gimme’s”, no freebies.  Wanting something is not a matter of expecting it to happen if we gripe and whine long enough, and there is none of that ‘name it and claim it’ nonsense.  They must be willing to do the work, be patient and disciplined and diligent, and be prepared and willing to sacrifice any given moment or personal desire for something much greater. 

It occurs to me, in the reading of the Letter to Sardis, that salvation is a lot like this.  It is a Gift from Above, to be sure, but to call it “free” is misleading at best.  At worst, to say we don’t “have to do anything” is an outright lie; a lie so dangerous, so sinister, so insidious at its core that many have come to believe that and have become disengaged completely from the disciple’s life, have disengaged from Bible study, and have disengaged from corporate worship and the life of the Church – having been convinced salvation is a one-and-done deal; an ‘event’, a dogmatic ‘thing’ that has passed.  The nature and the fullness of the Invitation has been lost.

The Wesleyan ideal of justifying grace does acknowledge there are no works we can perform to ‘earn’ this Mercy.  It is not for sale, having come from The Father’s Heart.  Yet there is a cost, a price to be paid: we must repent, turn away from and give up a life of self-indulgent hedonism, a life of being a “good person” on our own terms.  We must “die to self” before we can be raised up in Christ, casting aside anything – and anyone – that keeps us connected and tied to this world. 

We cannot simply “take” this Gift of Mercy and go our merry way, assuming all is well, having heard only what we wanted to hear.  The prophet Jeremiah spoke to The Lord’s people who had been led astray by misleading or outright false information, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you; they are deluding you.  They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of The Lord.  They keep saying to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, ‘No calamity shall come upon you’ (23:16-17).

The Lord also spoke through the prophet Ezekiel in saying, “[these false prophets] lead My people astray, saying, ‘Peace’, when there is no peace, and, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash” (13:10).  Like the tempter in the wilderness with Jesus, there was likely a fraction of The Word spoken but was ripped from its appropriate context and diluted by a popular context.

No, our Father spoke to His people long ago: “You shall be holy to me; for I The Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be Mine” (Leviticus 20:26).  Jesus affirmed this very thing when He taught, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Same God, same commandment, same principle from the One who “does not change” (Malachi 3:6); from the One who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8); from the One who is the “Alpha and the Omega, [the beginning and the end], the One who was, who is, and who is to come, the Almighty” (Revelation 1:8).

So when we read from the Letter to Sardis that this Church’s “works” have not been found to be “perfect”, we must sit up straight and take notice.  We must not shake it off with “nobody’s perfect” nor can we dismiss it as “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23); for in commanding “holiness” and “perfection”, our Holy Father would not command the impossible of us, and St. Paul never allowed his audiences to surrender to their human impulses and simply given up.  The Lord would not ask of us a thing which can never be attained, such as perfection.  Yet to suggest there is no “work” to be done in this regard denies the doctrinal and biblical reality.

Going on to perfection”, as written in The Letter to the Hebrews, is the Methodist ideal and has been from its inception as a movement in the 18th century.  Don’t misunderstand; Methodism does not now, nor did it ever, claim to be THE ideal.  Unlike many other denominations springing from the Reformation, Methodism never claimed doctrinal superiority.  From the start, John Wesley insisted salvation is something to be lived into, something to partake of, certainly something we can – and must – contribute to and participate in.  It is continually “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) – knowing that Precious Gift is delicate, priceless … and too easily taken for granted.

One cannot claim to be “Methodist” if one rejects the “method” of discipleship, the totality of our necessary commitment to Christ Jesus.  There is no room for ‘complacency’ lest we come to assume a relationship with The Lord is only something we talk about from time to time but never “have to” actually engage in.

The means of grace (i.e., praying {both talking AND making time to listen}, fasting, worship, the Sacraments, study of the Scriptures, fellowship in and with the congregation) are the “methods” we are challenged and encouraged to adhere to, but we are never taught we must do these things only for the sake of the practices themselves, fulfilling some kind of legal responsibility. 

Rather, we are encouraged and built up in these practices because they are the only way we can possibly know who we’re dealing with in “testing the spirits” (1 John 4:1-6), where we’re going, and what will be asked of us along the Way.  “Methodism” in its purest and intended form takes nothing for granted.

In thinking about that which “remains and is on the point of death”, the Church is being reminded of what was once very real but has been taken for granted to the point of being relegated to secondary status.  Over time, the Church has become too engaged with the dominant culture to the point of losing our way and forgetting who we really are.  Making disciples became much less important than making friends, and our recreational activities have become much more important to us than the work of the Church or the means of grace. 

Yet in spite of the rather harsh indictment, there is still hope.  There is still the call to The Lord’s people that He has not yet given up on us, that He refuses to quit on us even as we have quit Him – having “a name of being alive (being Christian in name only) but are dead (living apart from The Word in reality).  His Eternal Love is why The Lord is still speaking to the Churches and will restore us to wholeness (when we once “saw and heard”), but repentance is necessary.  It is time to disengage from the world which has ensnared us, and reengage with Him and with one another – because “there are still some … who have not soiled their clothes”.  These few actively engaged disciples can still teach us the means of grace and the Way of Salvation.

As the prophet Isaiah called out to The Lord’s people, so shall I, “Seek The Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near” (55:6).  These letters indicate He is still near, still calling out to us, and still wants to be found.  Let us call upon Him together and have restored to us what we have carelessly tossed aside; for “blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written … for the time is near”.  Amen.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The State of the Church: pushing the limits of tolerance

21 October 2018

2 John 1:6-11; Revelation 2:18-29

What one generation tolerates, the next generation will embrace.  Attributed to John Wesley (but doubtful he actually said it, according to some Wesley scholars).  Yet the phrase makes so much sense and has been sufficiently vetted by history that it deserves our attention – especially as we struggle to determine when and where to draw a line between what can be tolerated and what must be firmly rejected.  Let’s be clear, however, that we are talking about the boundaries of the Church; the institution and its congregations.

We have spoken briefly about “tolerance” and “diversity” as key words of the modern culture and embraced by the Church to one degree or another – some churches and denominations very tolerant or striving to be so, some not so much and not trying.  If we know the true meaning of these words, they pose no threat to the Church’s witness and can even broaden the Church’s reach.  Yet we must recognize and understand our limits.

If we allow and embrace the human culture’s understanding of these words, the ideals expressed become a significant threat not only to the Church but to those who need to hear The Truth – the Truth being that repentance – turning from sin - is a necessary component of salvation.  It is not a concept created by the Church as a means of controlling people; it is a necessary Truth spoken by The Truth Himself (Matthew 4:17).  That is, we can be saved from our sins, but we will never be saved in our sins.

Given that this Truth is being repeated to the Seven Churches – and to the Church universal as a whole – we must realize repentance is not – IS NOT – a “one-and-done” proposition.  It is the perpetual challenge of The Lord’s people throughout the ages – especially given that what one generation tolerates, the next embraces”.  The Church must be always vigilant not because we must choose sides in the so-called “culture wars” and become stuck in this age, but because we are going somewhere and must always move forward beyond the culture’s conflicts.

When I think of “diversity”, I imagine a color-blind, money-blind, class-blind people.  This is the society envisioned by Martin Luther King who “dreamed” of a day when his own children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”.  A society informed by The Word, delivered by the faithful Church.

Even as we recognize the “diversity” of opinions when it comes to religion and politics – both striving for righteousness but with differing ideals - we are being no less faithful to The Word when we acknowledge that we do not think alike.  Yet as Wesley did actually say, “We can all love alike”.  And “love” means drawing a line in the sand.

When it comes to “tolerance”, what are the limits for the Church?  When we “tolerate” something, we acknowledge the reality of a thing.  “It is what it is”, we say.  We don’t reject or embrace; we only realize a vast gulf between the Church and human culture.  There are some things, some beliefs, some practices in the human culture we can do nothing about (“We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers and rulers of the darkness of this world”, Ephesians 6:12). 

Meaning?  If we choose to battle against these things on our own according to our own ideals and beliefs, we will lose not only the battle but very likely our own souls.

It isn’t necessary to take a stand on every single thing – until that “thing” blurs a line, infiltrates and undermines the fundamental teachings of the Holy Church, and reduces sound doctrine to “whatever the majority wants”.  Our Holy Father does not submit, nor give in, to human desire.  And the boundaries of what is acceptable to the people of The Lord are not changed from First Testament to New.  “I am The Lord; I do not change” (Malachi 3:6).  Do you think perhaps this being among the last recorded words of the First Testament that the stage was being set?

For too many today, tolerance is the only real virtue and intolerance the only real vice.  The message to Thyatira goes against the grain of the modern culture by setting limits to tolerance in the Church – to the point of intolerance.  The main criticism of the Church of Thyatira is they have tolerated – allowed – something that should not be tolerated and must never be.  The angel (the “messenger” – human or celestial?) of the Church has failed to hold the people entrusted to his care accountable to the Eternal Word.  It is not unlike the failing of Aaron in the wilderness with the golden calf (Exodus 32:21-24).

This ideal St. John – and St. Paul (1 Corinthians 5:11) – wrote about in not only discouraging association, but actually prohibiting such associations as becoming partakers in the wicked works”, in whatever form these associations and works may have taken.  To these apostles, there were necessary “lines in the sand” which must never be crossed.  To do so would not only subject one to temptations not easily resisted – especially when the majority seems to demand or accept it - but it would also compromise the moral authority and integrity of the Church as a whole – the leaven which can leaven the whole loaf” (Galatians 5:9).

Like all the churches being addressed in The Revelation, Thyatira was a diverse region.  The Church was in a position to make a positive impact on the area but, as The Lord warned the Israelites before crossing the Jordan, there were temptations and other godsthat might prove too compelling to resist.  In Thyatira, this seems to be the case.  Some had not only fallen away from The Truth; some went so far as to follow a lie and try to make it “truth”. 

One of the gravest temptations in reading The Revelation is to try to distinguish between “us” and “them”.  These letters are addressed to specific churches in a general region, a people whose time is long past.  Yet the parallels between “them” in the ancient Church and “us” in the modern Church are striking.  The issues they faced were the same issues the Israelites faced in their new land, and these are the same issues we face in our time and in our land.  As it is written in Ecclesiastes“… there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9).

I wonder, though, if it is enough to seek out and identify demons before we’ve asked for Wisdom.  We hear plenty about what is wrong, and we even have the uncanny ability to decide who is to blame for all the “wrong” we face.  It’s those cursed liberals or conservatives – depending on which “side” of this ungodly, unjust culture war we’ve chosen to stand with.  And we have decided – for ourselves – that whatever it is we choose to believe and what practices we choose to follow must be right.  And curses are they who do not believe in and trust US!!

In the end, we must realize it is The Lord who has drawn a line in the sand.  What was required of His people in the wilderness and in the Promised Land is what is still required of His people in our own “exodus” as we find our way Home.  We have been freed from the chains and the shackles of our past and must never go back – for the Promise is still ahead of us.  And forward we must go … together.  Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

The State of the Church: Faith Tested

7 October 2018

Psalm 26; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Revelation 2:8-11

No one likes to be tested, and many Christians – especially (but not only) those of the ‘prosperity gospel’ variety – outright reject the idea of our Holy Father bringing what we would call ‘misery’ into our lives to “test” our faith.  Shouldn’t The All-Knowing already know?  What are we being “tested” for?  And why must we suffer if we already believe?

These questions go to the heart of why “bad things happen to good people”.  We cannot get next to the idea of a merciful God who “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” but who then “tests the genuineness of our faith”, as Peter wrote. 

Jesus Himself was tested.  The test of Abraham with his beloved Isaac (Genesis 22:1-18) is beyond comprehension and seems so arbitrary, even …cruel!  And the idea that “Satan” could wander into the heavenly court and challenge The Lord has always been disturbing to me, too outlandish to even take seriously (Job 1:6-12).  And then think of this; the merciful God and benevolent Creator of the entire universe would throw one of His most faithful servants under the bus just to prove a point to “Satan”??

In the biblical context, “suffering” is noble and necessary to spiritual growth and maturity.  In our contemporary context, “suffering” is a curse.  “Suffering” is the evidence of evil and, in the minds of some, the absence of God.  “Suffering” is when the devil is “out to get me”. 

Jesus came to deliver The Lord’s people from sin, and those who believe are blessed.  Yet we suffer.  We are tempted sometimes beyond our capacity to endure.  When does it end, and why must it happen to “me”??

There are no easy answers, of course.  Sometimes our suffering is a result of our poor choices or lapses in judgment.  Suffering which comes from results of careless actions is just; and if we take our medicine, if we “suffer” the consequences, spiritual growth can come as a blessing when we are called to account for our actions.  It means we are loved.  It means we are not being neglected.  Even if we meant no harm, sometimes corrections become necessary for the sake of holiness – “going on to perfection” - if we are willing to “suffer” the consequences and not strike back defensively. 

We may be tempted to think a mountain is being made of a mole hill, but that’s only a matter of personal perspective.  It is important and necessary for us to remember that what we perceive and how we perceive it is not always how others will.  As St. Paul warned the Romans that “stumbling blocks” can be real hindrances to those weak in the faith and can lead them to sinful thoughts and actions (Romans 14:13), we must be aware that what may be a “mole hill” to us is a genuine “mountain” to another.

What the faithful Church is being warned about in The Revelation, however, is a whole other kettle of fish.  The suffering they will be forced to endure will not be due to their carelessness or lapses in judgment, and it won’t be the result of political disagreements.  The nature of what they may be forced to endure may be along the lines of what Peter wrote: “They [your persecutors] are surprised that you no longer join them in the same excesses of dissipation, and so they blaspheme” (1 Peter 4:4).  That is, what the faithful Church once was is no longer who they have become in Christ Jesus.

We are not told exactly what was to come upon the faithful Church in Smyrna or exactly by whose hands it may come, though it is implied their persecution will come by the hands of “those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” We are also being given clues as to what tools a faithful Church will have at its disposal when (not if) the dark clouds of persecution are upon us.

We are told there are “riches” the faithful Church may not be completely aware of, being more mindful of a perceived level of “poverty” (Rev 2:9); that “poverty” perhaps being more the mind of “victim” of circumstance rather than a heart of “victory” in Christ – which we find in the means of grace.  We often confuse political adversity and opposition with genuine persecution.  As a result, we are much more likely to lash out in anger and only compound an existing problem rather than work through it with “patient endurance”. 

If it is, however, that the faithful Church already knows the opposition they face and have the assurance of “the crown of life”, what prevents us from enduring, from “suffering” (allowing) these things to run their course without our direct participation?  Could it be “fear” that prevents us from “turning the other cheek”?  Or is it … pride?  A false (worldly) sense of self?

The idea we and our witness would be better served if we were to stand down in the face of adversity rather than to lash out is distasteful to most of us, and yet “suffering” is exactly that – “allowing” adversity to run its course knowing there is something better, something more wonderful than we can possibly imagine, waiting for us on the other side of that adversity – but only if we are willing to endure and be led through it rather than to get caught up in it. 

Our God has tested – and will continue to test – His people not only to see where our true faith lies, but probably at least as much so we can see for ourselves what we really believe and Whom we really trust.  It is easy to say we believe when things are going our way, but it is suffering in adversity which reveals how deep our faith truly is, how much we really trust our Shepherd to lead us. 

This testing is also as much about preparing us for something else down the road, strengthening us to face even greater adversity when that time is upon us.  Just as we parents know we cannot always protect our children from heartbreak and disappointment, we also know we can guide them through these challenges and show them life beyond the suffering.

So it is with our Holy Father.  We must learn to endure life’s challenges, but we must do so in The Word rather than on the unbelieving world’s terms.  Only then may we pray as the psalmist prayed, “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in [You] without wavering” (Psalm 26:1). 

For the “crown of life” and to the glory of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, October 01, 2018

The State of the Church: Our First Love

30 September 2018

Ephesians 2:1-13; Revelation 2:1-7

With a nod to the US president’s annual State of the Union report to the Congress and the governor’s State of the State report to the legislature, I submit to you, for your consideration and your prayers, The Lord’s report of the State of the Holy Church.  As it is written in the US Constitution, The President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Article II, Section 3, Clause 1.

The “King of kings” has submitted His report to us and has “recommended” the measures He has judged “necessary and expedient”.

For the next seven weeks, we will delve into The Revelation’s letters to the seven churches, and strive to “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.  We must consider “such measures as [The Lord] has judged necessary and expedient” for His people to act upon.  Though we won’t quite reach the season of Advent (Dec 2), it is my hope these letters will inspire and awaken something within us as disciples and as a people, the Church, so as we near the Holy Season of Advent, we may more fully be prepared to “wait for The Lord”.

There are seven letters to seven different congregations, each with its own unique challenges; but I think we will be better served to understand that, in the context of the Church universal, we share these timeless issues and challenges.  We are not immune to The Spirit’s indictments.

**Read Revelation 2:1-7**

Is what The Spirit is saying to the Church a threat, or is it a Promise?  If a Promise, what is the nature of that Promise?  Are we being threatened of bad things to come if we do not repent?  Or are we being assured of good things when we do?

Sometimes The Word can sound harsh, and I suspect there are many who keep a safe distance from the Church for that very reason.  On the other side of “harsh”, however, is the assurance of something much better if we earnestly “listen to what The Spirit is saying”.  The Scriptures reveal to The Lord’s people all we need not only for salvation but for living into the Life for which we are created and to which we are called. 
No one likes to be talked down to, and often the Church can seem crass to those who will not listen to anything that speaks to them outside of their own created narrative.  It’s getting up in someone’s business instead of minding our own.  It’s why no one likes to be called to account for their actions, and it is why we don’t like to be called down for saying or doing something we felt needed to be said; but what is said to us when we’re called to account is said or done for the sake of something much greater than one’s feelings.

So the Church has tried to adjust itself over the years.  The Church has tried to bend to accommodate the dominant culture as it has deemed necessary for the sake of outreach, but that willingness to flex has taken the Gospel beyond the breaking point.  We don’t talk about “repentance” much anymore because, frankly, there is no “market” for it. 

The call and the challenge to repent offends because we must first admit we were … wrong.  That alone flies in the face of our own sense of righteousness, justice, and certainly pride.  So because we are too easily offended, the Church has pushed “repentance” to the back burner in favor of sugar-coating, adjusting, or modifying the Truth to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, to “broaden our market share”.  As a result, Truth has become relative, and our “First Love” has been pushed aside in favor of a “new love”.

Let’s also not confuse who is being addressed in these letters.  The Lord is not calling out to the unbelieving world.  These letters are not addressed to “them”; they are addressed to us.  The Lord is calling out to His people, the congregation, those who call themselves by His Holy Name.  But first The Church must reconnect not only with those who have gone astray, but also we who have “forgotten our first love”.

When The Lord addressed the Church at Ephesus in the Revelation, He pointed out their faithfulness.  They had not tolerated “evil doers”, they had tested those who claimed to be apostles and found them to be false, and they shared a common hatred of the “Nicolaitans”.  Scholars do not agree on exactly who the “Nicolaitans” were, but it seems safe to say they were trouble-makers for the Church.  Regardless, The Lord points out to His people these are all good things to their credit.

“Yet I have this thing against you: you have abandoned the love you had at first; remember, then, from what you have fallen.  Repent, and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5).

It sounds as though they were – and WE are - still doing all the right things, things that are pleasing to The Lord and necessary to the Church; things that need to continue.  If they were once good for the Church and pleasing to The Lord, they are still good for the Church and pleasing to The Lord. 

Yet somehow all that is good and pleasing has lost its flavor, its “saltiness”.  The Spirit is not weighing the balance between what is good and what is lacking.  Rather, the Church is being advised – commanded, actually – to regain what has been lost so these other things can begin to have any real meaning.

I think most of us remember our first loves.  We couldn’t sleep or eat or even think straight because everything we did and everything we were was all directly connected to that love.  That love gave meaning to everything, including our very lives!  That love gave us a strong sense of value and direction.  Everything we did was according to that deep sense of belonging to someone.

It is that Love we must learn to regain and reconnect to in a meaningful way.  It is that Love which gives the Church its motivation, its fuel, and its purpose.  A misguided love may convince us to go in a direction contrary to the Holy Word – as it apparently did for the Ephesians - but that “first Love” reminds us to “seek first the Kingdom of God” and learn to wait patiently for The Lord. 

It won’t be easy, and we must not try to convince ourselves it will be or that it can be.  It will be very hard, maybe the most difficult thing we can ever try to do; breaking old habits, “teaching an old dog new tricks”.  Recapturing that First Love will require a renewed focus on the means of grace, those things we have learned to take for granted: prayer, fasting, the study of the Scriptures, fellowship with the saints, and mutual accountability.  It will require setting some things aside we’ve learned to love to make room for The First Love which gave hope and real meaning to our very existence and the things we do.  We are taught by the Holy Word and assured by The Spirit our determination to repent will be worth it. 

And “to everyone who conquers”, our Lord says, “I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” … if you love Me first.  This, my fellow disciples, is the assurance of Everlasting Life – beginning now.  For the good of our souls, for the strength of the Church, and to the glory of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Remembering Who We Are

23 September 2018 – 18th Sunday of Pentecost

Psalm 51:10-17; Deuteronomy 30:1-5, 11-14; John 7:1-8

September 23, 1857: Layman-turned-evangelist Jeremiah C. Lanphier held a lunchtime prayer meeting for businessmen on Fulton Street in New York City.  At first, no one showed up, but by the program's third week the 40 participants requested daily meetings.  Other cities began similar programs, and a revival—sometimes called "The Third Great Awakening"—caught fire across America.

For our Jewish friends, today at sundown marks the beginning of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.  Some English Bible translations have rendered the meaning Festival of Tabernacles, but this cannot be so because the Tabernacle was the dwelling place of The Lord among His people in the wilderness.  The booths, or tents, were the dwelling places of the people of The Lord. 

Sukkot is an ordained festival to remind the people of The Lord of their dependence on The Lord as they journeyed through the wilderness.  In a manner of speaking, these festivals are annual opportunities for renewal and revival if approached in the right way.  That is, like Communion itself, the festival cannot be just a “thing” to do; the Story must be engaged in a meaningful way.  Only then can there be any sense of revival and, ultimately, a transformation of life and living.  And that is what we must always be seeking, sanctification – “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1) being the bedrock of Methodism.

The Jewish remembrances of the major festivals – Passover (Feast of Unleavened Bread), Shavu’ot (Festival of Weeks, Pentecost), and Sukkot (Festival of booths) – come by commandment of The Lord.  As it is written in Deuteronomy 16:16, Moses instructed the people according to the Word of The Lord: “Three times a year [you] shall appear before The Lord your God at the place He will choose: at the festival of unleavened bread, at the festival of weeks, and at the festival of booths”.

This commandment does not preclude regular weekly Sabbath worship, but they serve as reminders of who they are and where they come from.  These Festivals came at key times during Israel’s exodus from Egypt and journey to the Promised Land.  Each Festival has special meaning and important practices that must be remembered and diligently observed not for “legalistic” reasons but for practical remembrances, lest the people of The Lord forget who they are. 

When the First Great Awakening happened, beginning in Great Britain in the 18th century and spreading to the American colonies, it was a time of revival and renewal.  Though there were certainly new souls added to the Book of Life by their conversion, there was also a push to “awaken” the souls of a sleeping Church, a people who had forgotten who they really are and who had fallen into an almost mechanical state of doing rather than living into a spiritual state of being and growing.  John Wesley was a key figure in this Awakening.

Yet I cannot help but to think the first REAL “Great Awakening” was that blessed Pentecost (Shavu’ot) as recorded in the second chapter of Acts, that time when the Spirit of The Lord came upon so great a gathering.  Peter called upon the Israelites and recalled to them the Scriptures leading to this moment, which is to say this Moment did not happen in the void.  And there were surely some Gentiles who were awakened for the very first time.

Part of the Festival of Shavu’ot (Pentecost, Acts 2:1) is remembering the giving of Torah (law) from Mt. Sinai.  It was that time when The Lord not only revealed Himself but also revealed the kind of people they must become as they journeyed to the Promised Land.  They were not to be like all the other nations, and they would not be identified strictly by their ancestral connection to Abraham. 

By their living and their worship – all connected to the extent of their willingness to trust and obey The Lord - they would be distinguished from all other peoples.  Much in the same way Jesus teaches that our love for one another is the measure of our discipleship (John 13:35), He also teaches that our love for Him is measured by our willingness to obey His commandments (John 14:15).  And we must not try to distinguish between the commandments of The Father and the commandments of Jesus because they are one and the same.

However, there are many – too many, in fact – who do try to distinguish between OT law and NT teachings, loosely quoting St. Paul while overlooking the teachings of Jesus who affirms the commandments of Torah.  Yet because we seem more inclined to believe Paul than to obey Christ, these many centuries later (it is the year 5779 by the Jewish calendar), I wonder if we Christians know - really know – who we are as a people.

As individual persons, we might be quick to point out our baptism or confirmation or justification – or even our denomination affiliation even if we’ve become inactive in the Faith Community.  As a people, as a Christian people, as THE Church, the Body of Christ, I think it is safe (and sad) to say we have no real concept of ourselves as a people.  Thus we do not know who we really are.

The disconnect between what is traditionally called “Old Testament” and the New did not happen in Jesus’ time and it did not happen at Pentecost after the Resurrection.  I will never forget a discussion in one of my classes in which a classmate boldly claimed, “Jesus only told us to love our neighbors as ourselves”.  While the instructor was nodding in approval, I created a snot-storm (I’m apparently pretty good at that) when I pointed out that Jesus was quoting from Torah (Leviticus 19:18); that collection of books referred to as “the Scriptures” in the New Testament writings.

And because we seem to be pretty good at making things up as we go, pretty much designing a religion around our feelings and our impulses, yet another schism is upon us as United Methodists try to decide what it is we really believe.  And never mind the overwhelming number of Republicans and Democrats who describe themselves as “Christian” but who deliberately distort numbers and other information to political ends! 

Look at who we have become!  As a people, we are hateful, spiteful, vindictive, and determined to destroy any who disagree with us! 

It does not have to be this way.  In fact, our Lord, our God prohibits it.  Our newfound freedom in Christ and the New Covenant does not preclude the commandments our Lord insisted upon to His people in the wilderness and in the Promised Land; it includes us Gentiles.  Jesus told the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), and St. Paul taught that the Jews are “entrusted with the oracles of God” (Romans 3:22).

What it means to us, then, is what you’ve likely seen on billboards and social media: “That ‘love your neighbor’ thing?  I meant that” – God

It will not come here, but it can begin here.  The community entrusted to our care are counting on the “oracles of God” delivered by the faithful of God.  As Moses encouraged the Israelites in the wilderness, “The Word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart to observe” (Dt 30:14).

Let this be the Day of New Beginnings.  Let this be the Day when we renew ourselves in The Word and repent of our worldly habits and cares.  Let this be our Day to remember who we really are, who we are called to be, and let us become that once again.  For the Time is short, and the Kingdom of Heaven is upon us.  Glory to The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.