Monday, May 08, 2017

For and Against: the deception of Unity

7 May 2017 – 4th Sunday of Easter   

Acts 2:42-47     
1 Peter 2:18-25
John 10:1-10                                                                                                                                  

“If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”  Mark 3:25

So says our Lord also taught, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40), indicating perhaps that as allegiance to Christ goes, there can be no middle ground, no kinda/sorta; we are for Him or against Him. 

To proclaim full allegiance to Christ, however, must go beyond a baptismal or confirmation vow; and this allegiance far exceeds what is expressed in any written creed.  The reason is simple: allegiance to Christ involves much more than only an expressed common belief in the Person of Jesus or the concept of a strictly “personal” relationship with Christ that involves no other.

After all the dancing around and making hay of the latest UM Judicial Council ruling which no one seems completely satisfied with, it occurred to me the underlying issue is not at all about a particular social topic.  Social topics are more often distractions, incidental to the whole of who we really are. No, the issue we are confronted with is fidelity.  But fidelity to what?  Or to Whom? 

One “side” says faithfulness to the UM Book of Discipline (BOD) is of the utmost importance since it is what defines us as United Methodist Christians; the BOD is our common covenant of accountability, heritage, and doctrine.  The BOD is not scriptural, however, but is an expression of what we believe to be true and righteous according to scriptural principles.

The other “side” claims the BOD should evolve as humanity evolves.  Ironically, both “sides” claim the authority of the Bible and allegiance to Christ.  The problem we seem to be having is that few of us possess the sufficient humility to admit that when it comes to Truth, we are probably more aligned with Pontius Pilate who, in the very face of Truth, still asked the troubling question, “What is truth?”

Our Lord did not claim to be telling the truth or representing the truth; He said, “I AM the … Truth”.  Our sense of being in any semblance of unity must be found first in this simple yet profound declaration.  Our commonality, however, cannot be found in our agreement that Jesus actually said this.  Rather we can only be truly united in seeking to understand what Jesus actually meant. 

Our opinions do not wield the same power.  That we all “believe” Jesus, even as far apart as we may be on any given issue, still does not quite reach the level of wisdom we all lack, desperately need, but fail to seek.  As “doctrinally” or even as “politically” correct as we may smugly claim or think ourselves to be, it is possible – perhaps even likely – that we are further from the Truth than we would admit, further from the Truth than we are actually aware. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus draws us into a conversation that requires some real thought in faithful engagement (John 10:1-10).  First we must realize our Lord is speaking to an entire people – NOT to any particular person.  When Jesus refers to calling out His sheep “by name”, He is not speaking of “Billy” or “Betty”; He is referring to Israel, the entire congregation. 

And what is most important, I think, in looking more deeply into what is being expressed, is to know our God’s anointed One is The Standard.  At this point of discovery, He has not granted to any individual the right to decide for himself or herself what is most important.  The call is still, “Follow Me”.  To my knowledge, and as far as the Scriptures go, that call has yet to change.

“I am the sheepfold”.  “I am the gate”.  “I am the shepherd”, our Lord says.  So what is most important in all this is the simple Truth: I am taking you somewhere and I am the only One who can get you there.  But it is still not to a place where we are free to decide for ourselves what is most important, not to a place where we get to decide who can or who cannot be a part of the larger body, certainly not to a place where we get to decide what is good and what is evil.  Our Lord spells these things out for us not just in the Gospels but throughout the entire biblical narrative.  He decides.

Yet these are not arbitrary decisions our Lord makes on a case-by-case basis.  What is right or wrong, what is good or evil, who is in and who is out has long been declared.  Unity in Truth is found in the Word; the Word spoken, the Word declared, the Word Made Flesh.  NOT in our individual opinions.

In all this, we are called together not “personally” but corporately; not as persons but as a people called by a common Name and subject only to One.  Early 20th-century preacher and author A.W. Tozer once wrote, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshipers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be, were they to become 'unity' conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship.”  The Pursuit of God

In our most profound disagreements, the reason schism is a very real and constant threat to the Church is that we pick issues and then pick Jesus – not to determine whether we are still near Him but, rather, to use Him to back up our opinions.  And it fails when, as we think ourselves to be united to those who share our beliefs, we lose our sense of unity in Truth because we are not in tune with Him first.

We must all admit we are in need of a serious tuning, even the most righteous and pious among us.  The piano is a good analogy because even an inanimate piano must be tuned annually.  We, however, may need a retuning a little more often because of how easily we can be distracted without even realizing it. 

We may attend worship regularly and we may even attend a Bible study class, but often those things can become for us mere habits rather than earnest and purposeful practices of discipleship because of our lack of proper focus.  When was the last time we actually and actively sought The Truth instead of defending our own concept of Truth?

Our Father knows us well, certainly better than we think we know ourselves.  It is He who has made reconciliation to Him possible through Christ our Lord, the Living Word.  It is He who had sent the Shepherd to show us the Way, and it is He who is present among us even today by His Blessed Spirit. 

And when we focus FIRST on Him – just as Jesus teaches us to “seek FIRST the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” – and when our neighbors and friends and fellow disciples seek to focus FIRST on Him rather than on one another, then and only then may we find the unity we claim to seek and desperately need.

By worldly standards, it is an impossible task.  With our God and Father, however, “nothing is impossible”.  Let us stand first in that Truth.  Only then will the “Truth set us free”.  Free from the tyranny of social cliques, free from the tyranny of popular opinion.  Our Lord set us free so we may follow Him and only Him.  Let it be as He wills.  Amen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Outcome of Faith

Acts 2:22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

“You are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  1 Peter 1:9

In his book, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, Chuck Swindoll tells the story of a man lost in a desert, dying for lack of water.  He came upon a weather-beaten, broken-down old shack that at least provided a little shade from the desert sun.  Looking around, he saw a pump, an old and rusted water pump coming from the ground.  He crawled over, grabbed the handle, and began to pump up and down – but nothing came out.

He staggered back.  Filled with deep disappointment, he looked around and saw an old jug behind the pipe running up from the ground.  There was a message scratched on the jug which read, “You have to prime the pump with all the water in this jug.  Be sure to refill the jug before you leave”.

Popping the cork from the jug, he sure enough found it filled with water, but now he was faced with a decision that would certainly change his life.  If he drank the water, he would surely live.  If he followed the instructions and poured all the water into a rusty ol’ pump that looked like it had not been touched in years, he may have wasted the good water he had in hand and desperately needed.  If it worked, though, he could have all the water he could ever want.

After thinking about it for a time, he reluctantly poured all the water into the pump.  Grabbing the handle, he began to pump.  No water, though.  Not at first.  Eventually there came a trickle, then a steady stream and finally a full-on gush of fresh, cool water!  He filled the jug and drank it.  Over and over, he drank his fill.

He then filled the jug for the next traveler.  He filled it to the top, put the cork back in, and added this note: “Believe me, it really works.  You have to give it all away before you can get anything back”.

We could wish that faith were not quite so challenging, but then it wouldn’t be faith.  The truth is we cannot really know or even understand faith until it is put to the test.  That is, we cannot really know what our faith is made of until we endure some traumatic experience.  The testing of our faith could even be as innocuous – but no less insidious – as allowing ourselves to become engaged in a malicious conversation about someone … you know, gossip.

I always think about the hard choice facing Abraham when The Lord called upon him to sacrifice his beloved Isaac.  That is a test we cannot begin to wrap our minds around and is, in fact, one of those times when we may be relieved to think maybe many Bible stories – especially this one! – should not be read literally but should be thought through with a little more serious time and contemplation than to think, “better him than me!  I could never do such a thing.”  Or to be completely honest with ourselves and declare, “I would never do such a thing!” 

Faith is hard.  Unfortunately, faith is also grossly misunderstood.  Like love itself, faith is not at all about how we may feel at any given time; it is more about what we are willing to do even when we would rather not.  This is what distinguishes faith from mere belief. 

It is easy to believe something to be true, especially if what we believe promises us some personal benefit without cost or effort.  Faith, however, has much more substance and is about much more than just “me” or “me and Jesus”.  Faith is about a willingness to heed our God and His Word – that is, His Son - and obey and follow Him ... even if we do not fully understand … or agree.  Especially when the cost, the risk may seem to be more than we could bear or when His Word challenges us to rise above our cultural or even personal standards.  You know, turning the other cheek, actively praying for our enemies, and other such “nonsense”.

It is not unlike the exchange between the Risen Christ and Peter (John 21:15-19).  Jesus had asked Peter over and over, “Do you love Me?”  Peter answered over and over, “You know I love You”.  After each answer, Peter’s spoken love for Jesus compelled Jesus to respond, “If you love Me, feed My lambs”, “if you love Me, tend My sheep”, and “If you love Me, feed My sheep”.

It was not enough for Peter to simply say, “Yes, Lord, I love you”.  It was not even enough for Peter to call upon Jesus to look within his heart so Jesus could “see” Peter’s love for Him.  It was not about only Peter and Jesus; it was about Peter’s need to understand Word and Deed are not mutually exclusive; that saying it was not as good or even the same as doing it, that claiming “Jesus knows what’s in my heart” is insufficient as genuine faith goes.

It’s hard to understand what really held “doubting Thomas” back.  Maybe he was still living with and running in the same fear that drove him and the others into hiding when Jesus was arrested.  Maybe he was still dealing with the anger of such a profound let-down; “believing” Jesus was the Promised One who would save Israel but never quite understanding all Jesus had tried to teach them about the real enemy we still face.  Or maybe he was just plain angry that this God whom he was challenged to trust did not deliver – at least, not on his terms.

When Thomas was finally blessed with the real Presence of the Risen Christ and was finally assured of the certainty of the Resurrection, everything changed for Thomas.  His eyes were finally opened when our Lord challenged Thomas to “reach out your hand” and literally touch the New Reality.  And even though Thomas spoke into this Reality with “my Lord and my God”, Jesus still maintained that believing only with one’s eyes – as the proof the religious leaders had demanded with “signs” – was not enough, was not quite the same as the faith which is fully prepared to trust enough to act even when physical proof is lacking.

We are facing so many problems within the Church universal and specifically within the United Methodist Church.  We are blaming so many for diminishing the witness and the integrity of the Church and we usually attach some social “hot button” issue to those whom we believe should bear the greater burden of the Church’s failure.

In the end, however, we may need to acknowledge that the Church’s failure is not in what the Church chooses to believe.  Rather it may be the Church’s collective failure to fully trust enough to act that may be at the core of all our short-comings.  It is easy for us to pretend “that issue” the Commission on a Way Forward is dealing with is the one single issue that is dividing the Church - until we stop to consider this “one issue” and all its residual sub-issues are only symptomatic of a much greater and more insidious threat to the well-being of the Church and its witness.

Ultimately it may be precisely our failure to act within a particular, divinely ordained pattern that is preventing the greater Church – and many individual churches – from breaking the cultural molds we’ve fallen victim to.  How to act, however, is not quite the challenge until first things really do come first.  Recall in Matthew 17:14-21 that the disciples were unable to drive out a demon.  Jesus had already chided them for their lack of faith but when they asked Jesus specifically why they had been unable to cast out this demon Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting”.

The “outcome of our faith” has everything to do with what we are willing to first put in, but we are assured there is great power to be found in what we choose to do and how we choose to go about it.  If not much is coming our way in terms of what we believe to be good and true and right, we must consider what we are – or are not – putting in.  Like the man at the well in the desert who expected water before he was aware of and willing to follow the instructions.

Our Lord assures us there is much to be gained for what we are willing to give of ourselves.  It is written, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).

Let us pray we learn to let go of what we only think we possess as our own – especially as it pertains to Truth.  Only then will we begin to see and embrace the genuine “outcome of our faith”.  Then will we know the genuine power of faith.  And then may we finally begin to really live!  Amen.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter Sunday 2017: All Things New

Acts 10:34-43
Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-18

“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under Heaven.”  Ecclesiastes 3:1

We know, of course, that as one season comes to an end, another season awaits us.  It is the prior season which prepares us for the new season and the necessary changes which will likely come.

Yet it is also written, “That which has been is what will be.  That which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl 1:9)

It may be part of a greater understanding of the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  This means that as much as we may dread what changes may come, there is One Constant we can still count on.  We will be a year older, but The Word remains.  We will be a year closer to the time when The Lord will return and “make all things new” (Isaiah 43:19; Revelation 21:5), yet The Word remains. 

Sometimes, however, the same ol’ same ol’ becomes so redundant that it no longer packs a punch.  We no longer get as much out of it as when The Word first penetrated our hearts of stone.

There is nothing wrong with being confident in our justification, but there is everything wrong with taking that salvation for granted.  There is a manner of living and serving the Church and the community which is conducive to gratitude, the “fruits worthy of repentance”, when we understand we’ve been given something remarkable for which we had to do nothing.  There was no price we could pay, no “works” to be done in order to receive this Gift.

Yet we must also know there is real and spiritual value in the “works” which build up the Church and lead to sanctification – not in order to be “more saved” than we were before but so we may learn to live into the Eternal Reality which is before us.  We cannot become bogged down, nor may we allow our families and our brothers and sisters in faith to become bogged down, in same ol’.  The Message of Redemption can never be – must never become – redundant! 

We are living in an age of entitlement in which most everyone seems to believe they have – or have been denied – some encumbent right, an unlimited measure of liberty due all Americans.  The problem with this idea, however, is the “rights” are often demanded and expected without the requisite “responsibility”, and “liberty” is confused with “license”.  We want it.  We demand it.  And come hell or high water, we will not be denied.

Could it be the “new thing” we actually seek is whatever tangible thing we can lay our hands on?  Could it be the “new thing” assured The Lord’s people who abide in faithfulness has, in fact, become so redundant, so same ol’, that there is no longer any real meaning attached to it?  That we hardly notice it?  Could it be this “new thing” we are assured comes with a price – a price much higher than we may be willing to pay?

I have shared with you before the redundancy of biblical and doctrinal language which speaks of the “free gift” of salvation; for if it a true gift, there are no strings.  A gift, by its nature, is already “free”.  The gift is given because the giver has a need to share, but that need has nothing to do with an expectation of reciprocity.  That is, there is no price to be paid since the gift comes from the giver’s genuine heart and desire to share something special to enhance our lives.

Every gift, however, requires a response; and it is that response in which we may find something altogether “new”.  Accepting that gift, living into that gift, means our lives will be forever changed, no matter how great or small the gift.  It is the gift-giver’s hope and desire.  Someone has given a piece of themselves for the sake of another. 

This is the theology of the Resurrection, but even the Resurrection is not a stand-alone event; everything is connected.  The Divine Word became human flesh in Christ Jesus; and in giving so fully of Himself, He made it possible for us to become co-heirs with Christ and The Kingdom – above the trappings of our human flesh and its carnal desires.  In the Resurrection, everything changes ... except The Word. 

Change is hard for us, though, isn’t it?  We get used to a certain way of life and living and settle into a comfortable routine; and as much as we may enjoy things just as they are, we know – or we must surely know – change is as much a part of life as breathing.  Sometimes the changes are not exactly what we may have envisioned for ourselves, but the sanctified life learns to trust that The Lord will drive these changes in our lives for the better - especially in helping us to climb out of the spiritual ruts of routine we often fall into.  And most especially if, in our spiritual journey, we find ourselves at a point of “good enough”, that moment when we stop growing in faith and love and actually begin to slowly die.

It is part of the reason why our Methodist tradition cannot accept the idea that we can skip past Holy Week and Good Friday and go directly to Easter.  The Resurrection does, in fact, come at a cost; and that cost is the value we attach to our own lives on our own terms.  Without at least a measure of death to self, however, there can be no Resurrection.

There is real meaning for us in Jesus’ words to Martha upon the death of Lazarus (John 11:24-26).  Recall that as Jesus arrived at Bethany, He had assured Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23).  Martha had replied, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day”.

Our Lord had assured Martha – and has assured us – He IS the Resurrection – rather than only the Resurrection to come - for those who suffer death.  Though it may seem otherwise, Jesus was not referring only to physical death.  When we are “born from Above” (John 3:3), a certain kind of death is necessary; a death to self and selfish desire.  When we declare to The Lord that we surrender our whole lives to Him in service through Christ and the Church, we may need to acknowledge there are some parts of our lives The Lord simply does not want, cannot use, and will never accept!

This is a bitter pill to swallow for some, but the reality is the Vinedresser does, in the course of perfecting our lives, cut away dead branches that only weigh us down and choke out the possibility of New Life (John 15:1-8).  These “dead branches” are the things we choose to hold on to, the things that are not pleasing in His sight, yet the things we are more invested in than we are in Him and His Church.

All this cleansing, however, all this death, this sacrifice, this suffering, this “pruning”, is done for One Reason – and only One Reason: so we may share in the Resurrection not only in this life but in the Life of the World to come.  It is not enough to only talk about the Resurrection. We must experience it. 

We need also to understand all which took place.  Jesus is The Word, the Eternal Word, the Living Word.  He taught and preached and lived The Word.  It was The Word, however, which disturbed the Establishment, both religious and political.  It was The Word which called them all to account.  It was The Word which was not always easy to swallow, not always easy to take or even to understand, but it was always The Word which sustained Jesus … and will sustain us.

It was The Word which humanity tried to silence and finally sought to extinguish – and our own part in this even today cannot be ignored or denied.  It is the reason why the Church dare not “skip” Holy Week and Good Friday lest we try to deny our part and assuage our false beliefs.

In spite of humanity’s best efforts, however, it was The Word which was raised, and it is The Word which rests in all Eternity at the Right Hand of The Almighty and Gracious Father.

For it is The Word which “prunes” us.  It is The Word which sometimes seems even to torture us because The Word itself does not give us what we desire or demand.  Rather it is The Word – and only The Word – which offers to us what we need and grants to all who surrender to The Word what we aspire to: Eternal Life. 

So it is The Word in which we must reside.  It is The Word we must learn to embrace in its fullness, for it is The Word which will restore us.  It is The Word alone which will make “all things new”, and our lives given to The Word will never be the same again.  For this we give thanks … in this hour, in this life, and in the World to come.

Glory to the Most High God and glory to the Risen Christ who was murdered, was buried, was raised, and will come again!  “Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus”.  For we are Yours.  Amen.  

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Passion Sunday 2017 - Famous Last Words

Isaiah 50:4-9
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-35

“Even though I must die with You, I will not deny You.”  St. Peter, Matthew 26:35

If ever there were “famous last words” spoken by any person, these would be those words.  These are the same words so many of us speak, so sure are we of our faith in Messiah even though we have never really been tested; questioned maybe, but not tested. 

And while we may certainly understand Peter’s intent and state of mind when he spoke these “famous last words”, we must surely also appreciate the wisdom (in hindsight, of course) of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 5:2-3; “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God.  For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.   For the dream comes through much effort, and the voice of a fool through many words …”

I doubt any among us has a death wish.  I don’t have romantic notions of dying for my faith to prove my loyalty to The Lord.  What I pray I had, and what I pray for all of you to have, is an abiding appreciation for the very real power of Messiah’s words.  Peter didn’t - even though he had been following and watching and learning from Jesus for about three years.  Surely in that time Peter and the others had come to know Jesus did not speak hastily or thoughtlessly. 

Peter did speak hastily, though; and often so do we.  Peter meant well, and so do we.  We want Jesus to know we are with Him even to the bitter end should such an end come, but we must learn to have an appreciation of what following Jesus in discipleship really means beyond reciting a creed or attending worship; what it really means to us as individuals, and what it can or should mean to the greater Church and every individual congregation.

What is interesting about this discourse in Matthew’s Gospel, however, is not just the portrayal of the Last Supper nor even the establishment of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Rather it is the beginning of the discourse when Judas set out to betray and set up Jesus for arrest. 

There is, among the so-called Gnostic gospel accounts a “Gospel of Judas” in which Judas is presented not as a betrayer but as the dear and most trusted friend of Jesus who merely set things in motion as they were intended to go.  Jesus does say in Matthew’s Gospel that “the Son of Man goes as it is written of Him”, but our Lord also says “but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed” (Matthew 26:24).  It has been traditionally taught that Jesus was referring exclusively to Judas Iscariot, and by what is written there is no reason for us to believe otherwise.

However, preceding the discourse was the dispute over the jar of “costly ointment” in Matthew 26:7-13.  Recall that the woman (not named in Matthew’s Gospel) poured an entire jar of this expensive ointment over Jesus’ head, as Jesus taught, to “prepare [Him] for burial”.  It was an act of worship Jesus says we are compelled to remember.  Judas objected because the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. 

Remember Jesus’ admonishment, however.  “You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have Me” (Matthew 26:11).  Meaning what?  That poverty is a fact of life?  Yes, but that reminder has nothing to do with the plight or the failure of the poor to make the most of every opportunity they may have.  Rather it may be better understood in the fullness of the context as an indictment of those who have resources to share but choose not to.

When we understand fully what is taking place here, that indictment cannot be restricted only to “the rich” because wealth as we may try to define it is subjective.  There is no magic dollar amount that defines “rich” nor is there a cut-off point at which it may be determined that we are protecting our assets OR betraying our Lord as surely as Judas did.

“Surely not I, Rabbi?”  These were Judas’ “famous last words”.  As they were all sitting around the table, Jesus had said, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me” (Matthew 26:23).  And while Jesus had said, “ONE of you will betray Me”, it may be safe to assume they had all dipped into the same bowl since they had all said, “Surely not I, Lord?”  “Famous last words” spoken by all the twelve at one point or another.

It falls on us all, then, to examine this entire chapter with a much closer look at what Jesus is talking about; for though Judas is specifically named as the one actively seeking to betray Jesus, they all (and perhaps we as well) are named when Jesus quotes from the prophet Zechariah (13:7), “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered”.    

As we prepare ourselves for the Journey that is Holy Week and we endure together Jesus’ final days on this earth, it is not for us to skip directly to Easter without first looking more seriously at ourselves and the often careless words we speak, the religious practices we share, or the excuses we allow ourselves to do neither.  We claim an allegiance to Messiah in these words and in these actions, but what about the rest of our time?  Are we truly walking with Jesus in faithful discipleship, or are we going our own way?  “Surely not I, Lord?”

It was our own Bishop Mueller who recently wrote, “We ask, “How could you allow this to happen, God?” God asks, “How come you did nothing about it?” We say, “Thank God we’re okay!” God says, “What about those who are crying because their loved ones aren’t?” We say, “Life is good because everything worked out the way I wanted today.” God says, “Call your neighbor down the street who had a horrible day.” We say, “Lord, I’m so blessed you love me unconditionally.” God says, “I long for you to love me with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” It’s interesting. So very interesting. It’s always a matter of perspective.”

Loving The Lord with all we have and with all we are is about much more than any single religious practice or single prayer of gratitude.  If we are spared calamity, are we “blessed” only for our own sakes or are we “equipped” to help others who were not so lucky?  Speaking a prayer of gratitude with no mind or thought toward others who have not escaped life’s harsh realities may be considered our own “famous last words” precisely because we lack a proper and much broader perspective; that the Word of God is not about “me” but about “we”.

Peter spoke his “famous last words” hastily and there can be no doubt he meant them when he spoke them, but I am not so sure Peter was as eager to protect Jesus as much as he was seeking to protect his friendship.  That is, Peter was speaking for and about Peter … not Jesus.  Because of this reality, Jesus had to remind Peter that when things get hard – and they will – Peter will again become much more concerned about Peter than about Jesus.  So goes the indictment against perhaps all of us to one extent or another – not because we are ungrateful but because we are not completely committed to Christ Jesus, not completely committed to The Word.

Lent and Holy Week are not designed strictly to make us feel or even share guilt, however.  Just as we cannot appreciate good without enduring evil, we cannot experience Life until we have endured at least a measure of death.  And none of it is because of the words we speak; it is entirely about what we choose to do in and for The Living Word which became flesh in Christ.

For the Word to endure, however, the flesh must be stripped away … in Messiah, in Peter, and in us all; for it is The Word itself in which we live fully, not our words.  Let it be so, Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

3rd Sunday of Lent: Shall we gather at the well?

Exodus 17:1-7
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-14

“Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”  John 5:14

There is a popular beer commercial that ends with the actor encouraging us to “Stay thirsty, my friends”.  The point is obvious: as long as we are thirsty, we are more likely to buy this product.  As a former beer drinker myself, I can attest to this reality; as much as I once drank, my thirst was never quenched.  Not in those moments and not until I finally walked away from it.  I was drinking more than my share – but - from the wrong well.

And I dare say too many of us are; and because of our neglect of those things which really matter and have everlasting value, so go our children and our grandchildren – because we have convinced ourselves – and them - that even a momentary sense of satisfaction by temporal means is better than no satisfaction at all.  If the world does not give us what we desire, we convince ourselves we have been cheated out of something we are due.

I thought of all this as I pondered the real meaning of this chance encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman; and I wondered what it is we truly seek.  Or do we bother to seek at all, believing ourselves to have all we need, having been convinced by cheap preachers of a cheap religion counted only as an event rather than as a way of viewing and acting in the world?

I’ve begun reading a new book entitled The Benedict Option (Rod Dreher, 2017).  Dreher has been fascinated with the 6th-century monk for some time and has written several articles about the modern Church’s need to reexamine The Rule of St. Benedict, a basic instruction on how to live faithfully and communally in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire and an almost complete collapse of any sense of moral value.

The basic premise of the book is the same basic premise of the Encounter at the Well: discovering for the first time – or rediscovering once again – our truest sense of who we are and to Whom we belong.  Mr. Dreher maintains the Church has become “content to be the chaplain to a consumerist culture losing all sense of what it means to be a Christian” (Benedict Option, Intro, pg 2).

Yet even as we may have been convinced by some that all may already be lost, we are also reminded by The Rule of St. Benedict and the period in which St. Benedict operated that all seemed lost even then.  History, however, tells another story.  Even in the darkest periods of persecution, the Church grew stronger – a fulfillment of Jesus’ assurance that the “gates of hell will not prevail against the Church” (Matthew 16:18). 

Here’s where the depth of that Promise matters to us: Jesus did not promise an everlasting Western Church or an American Church or a self-declared Church.  It is the true Church, the faithful Church expressing itself fully and unreservedly as the Living Body of Christ Himself which will prevail against the “gates of hell” and the rising tide of modern culture.  All other “churches” will falter.

So it cannot be simply a matter of being “good”.  There is no indication the Samaritan woman at the well was not a “good” person.  Even though much is insinuated in her situation as the “wife of five husbands” and even in the observation that “the [man] you have now is not your husband” (John 4:18), it would be fairer to assume that, according to the standards of human culture, the woman did what she felt she needed to do just to survive.  Surely in her own mind, she was a “good” person.

The funniest thing is this woman likely fits into a social mold known as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD), a phrase coined in 2005 by sociologists (Christian Smith & Melinda Lundquist Denton) who studied the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers from a wide variety of backgrounds (Dreher, pg 10).

The basic tenets of MTD are: 1) a Creator God who exists and watches over human life, 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair, 3) the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself, 4) God does not need to be involved unless/until there is a problem to be resolved, and 5) good people go to heaven when they die (Dreher, pg 10).

Not least of the problems with MTD is the notion of subjective happiness and subjective goodness; that is, we make the rules and set the standard.  It lacks the Christian disciplines of prayer, repentance, self-sacrificial love, purity of heart, true and active and engaged worship of the One, True God, and communal accountability – that is, seeing to the well-being of others.  Christianity commends suffering as a spiritual discipline, even sometimes necessary; MTD avoids suffering at all cost, even the cost of someone else’s life.  

MTD accepts temporal pleasures as “signs” from Above without critical, biblical analysis.  This means when we get our way, God is good.  However, when something goes wrong, God is non-existent and/or it’s someone else’s fault.  Suffering is considered a curse rather than the reality of living in a fallen world.

Compare the woman at the well with the widow in Luke 21 who gave only two mites to the Temple treasury, yet it was “all she had” left to give (Luke 21:1-4).  She had no mind for what she might have need of beyond that very intimate moment between herself and her God, for in that moment she gave herself completely over to The Lord.  No one and nothing else mattered.

The woman at the well did everything and perhaps anything she felt she needed to do just to survive.  The widow was entirely focused on her God and His Glory and “gave more than anyone”, according to Jesus.  The woman at the well was entirely focused on herself and her comfort. 

Insert these two woman into the contemporary culture.  How will they be judged even by Christians?   It is very likely the widow would be looked upon as a “fool” who is perhaps trying to “buy” her way into Heaven, ignoring the possibility that The Lord wants her to be “happy”; while the woman at the well would be admired for her stamina and willful determination to overcome her obstacles by whatever means necessary, moral and immoral.

Here is the challenge of the Church today.  We cannot tell the difference because we think we’re no longer thirsty.  We have convinced ourselves we are satisfied with a sufficiently adjusted narrative that has largely been given over to our own satisfaction according to our own desires and demands. 

What we may have learned to settle for, however, may not be the purity of the Water of Life we are offered; but we have a hard time discerning the difference because we have learned to settle for whatever we can get our hands on.  It may still be water, but it may also contain things which will do us harm.  Like the beer I mentioned earlier, we think any liquid will do to quench our thirst as long as we say “Jesus” a lot and post “Jesus” stuff on social media.

The point is not whether we have enough of The Word of God to get by; it is about whether we have too much of a world and a culture that will dilute The Word to the point of being ineffective and less than satisfying. 

Our God chose to reveal Himself in the person of Christ Jesus because He looked upon a very thirsty world in a very dry climate and has invited us – we who more closely identify with the woman at the well than with the widow in the Temple – to drink our fill of the Pure Word.  The Word of God will not always – in fact, may never – fit our current narrative nor will it support or justify the choices we’ve already made.

Yet again and again we are invited to drink of the Fountain of Repentance and the regeneration of Life Eternal.  This is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – for it is the Word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

Monday, March 13, 2017

2nd Sunday of Lent 2017: Dying to Live

Genesis 12:1-5
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

“When Christ calls us, He bids us to come and die.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not one to mince words, but telling us we must die in order to live fully in Christ is a little hard to take.  It is hard because we have all but brushed aside the notion that the life of a disciple requires sacrifice as a defining point – sacrifice as much for our enemies and strangers as for those we love.  Yet demanding or getting our own way becomes a distraction to living fully in Christ as THE Way. 

It was Bonhoeffer who challenged the spiritual depth of the Western church during what was arguably the worst period in human history (Nazi era); that the Church cannot have Christ – or even really be The Church - if the “wide gate” is our true desire, a much easier path more focused on personal safety and consumer demand than on service and faithfulness (Matthew 7:14). 

But being “born again” is a very tricky business as a measure of the death we must endure to self because we do not often know what it actually looks like.  A skin magazine publisher was “born again”.  An actor and still known skirt-chaser, drunk, and drug-addict was also “born again”.  There are many other prominent and high-profile “born agains” who spout some of the vilest and most hateful language ever perpetrated in the name of Jesus.

And the reason is simple: we all like the idea of being “saved”, but we have never really understood being “saved” as being “called”.  “Called” not only from the depth and degradation of our past sins but also “called” into a whole new life that requires the death of our former selves.  It is the surest mark and measure of repentance.  It is as I have said so many times before; repentance is not merely an apology.  It is a resolve and a determination.

Those persons I specifically mention may not be “bad” men as the culture defines them.  It is often said the actor is generous to a fault, and we all know – or should know – drugs are bad business and can turn the best of us inside out.  Continuing to publish a skin magazine, however, is a more willful act that turns physical intimacy as a sacred act within the marriage covenant into a contact sport, and exploits women for financial gain.  There is nothing “liberating” about it.

This perverted notion of being “born again” without actually turning away from our former life falls in line with Bonhoeffer’s notion of “cheap grace”, a reality present in his own time, but also a reality we seem determined to double down on even today: “Cheap grace means the justification of sin … Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the [ugly reality of the] cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”  The Cost of Discipleship

Cheap grace is not radical, but the reality of true Christianity measured against human culture is nothing if not radical – a radical departure from what is and toward what can be.  It is not at all about being a “good Christian” which, in itself, is highly subjective and often culturally determined.  Christianity is entirely about becoming more and more Christ-like. 

Striving for Christ-like perfection but retaining a sense of humility to know we cannot make it on our own, certainly not as ourselves.  Christ-like perfection can only be accomplished as we deliberately die to self (that is, get over ourselves) and learn to live more intentionally not only like Christ but as Christ in the life of the Church and in the lives of others.  It is the sanctified life the Baptizer spoke of: “He (Christ) must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). 

“I must decrease”, John said, not because he was speaking of his impending execution but because his role had been superseded.  “I have been sent before Him”, John said; and now that He is here, you need to know less about “me” and more about Him.  This statement does not in any way diminish the sacred value of John’s life.  Rather, it testifies to the reality that we all have a role in “increasing” Christ in the public witness of the Church and must stop worrying so much about our coveted “spots” or “seats” or other privileged positions and places where it is entirely about “me”.

Discipleship is all theoretical, however, if there is no intentionality or effort on our part.  For it was also Bonhoeffer who said, “Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross; He waited until one of them turned to him.”  In other words, we have likely – with the complicity of the Church - tried to force or otherwise compel others to believe what we think they should believe (thus making it more about ourselves and our beliefs) rather than teach, lead by example, and disciple others to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Christ Jesus. 

Or worse, still … we don’t try at all.  And our lack of effort, our lack of commitment, our lack of determination only attempts to prove Jesus a liar; that there is no such thing as being “born again” as a matter of putting aside self, putting aside personal agendas, putting aside predetermined notions and concepts we are unwilling to examine more closely, putting aside “discipleship” and “discipline” (the order and the age-old doctrines of the Church).  This is how too many churches take on the persona of club house than that of Christ Jesus Himself.

No, we have found it much easier to get baptized rather than to be baptized.  It is much easier to get confirmed than it is to be confirmed.  It is much easier to get saved than it is to be called.  To speak more plainly, we want the simplicity of the event than the risk of the new life into which we are called – when it stops being about “me”.  The process of regeneration which begins with rebirth, however, requires much more than a single “event”.

There is no other way to understand what Jesus means when He insists we must be born again – more specifically, “born from above” – if we desire to “see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3). 

Here’s the thing we must always bear in mind.  Jesus cannot simply be talking about the day of our physical death as the only point at which we may “see the Kingdom of God”!  In the Wesleyan theology of “present and future salvation” in the light of Jesus’ proclamation that “the Kingdom has come near” (Mark 1:15), what the promise of this rebirth is offering is that we can “see the Kingdom of God” right here, right now!  I know I have repeated myself these past few weeks, but it is worth saying as often as necessary until we get it - that the Promise of our Holy Father is “fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21), as Jesus proclaimed in a synagogue.

Discipleship in a world strictly opposed is like a very bad and very frustrating game of golf.  On most of the eighteen holes, we do so badly that there is not a word or phrase for our score – like “triple bogie”.  Yet there is almost always that one hole we par, that one hole when all our shots hit the mark.  It is that hole, that perfect shot which keeps us coming back for more.  I may walk away from eighteen holes with a score of 125 (which is really bad!), but that one hole or even just that one shot where everything came together is what will bring me back with the hope that my game will get better if I just stay after it.  It is that one hole or even just that one shot I will remember.

Life in Christ in a world filled with darkness is entirely like that.  Things do not always go the way we think they ought to go.  Things do not always work out the way we wish.  Yet when we focus on and hungrily pursue that one thing we have long sought after – that glimpse of Glory, that glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven – we will find it if we persevere; for it is our Father’s good will that we should.  He knows it is what keeps us coming back for more, a constant reminder that He is with us.

But first things first.  First, we must be willing to make room.  First, we must be willing to clear out the former self and its desires that do not mesh with the mission of the Church and the Kingdom of Heaven to “make disciples”.  First, we must “die” so we may find and embrace and live the Life to which we are called – not just as spouses and parents but as disciples, as sojourners, as faithful members of a community not merely waiting until this life is over but living fully into the Life to which we are beckoned. 

Then will the reality of the Kingdom come fully near.  Then will the reality of the Kingdom be revealed in all its glory.  Then will our lives finally begin to come together.  Then will our lives in the life of the Church begin to make sense … to us and to Him.  Only then can we begin to really live.  For the Father.  In The Word.  By the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Sunday, March 05, 2017

1st Sunday of Lent: Facing the Real World

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

"The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little.”  Thomas Merton

The Hebrew word for “Satan” means “hinderer”.  To hinder someone means to hold them back, to prevent them from doing something.  We might even consider this meaning to help us better understand the nature of the “tempter” whom Jesus is facing in the wilderness, the “devil”, the one whom Jesus finally calls “Satan”.

I’ve often wondered if the very human Jesus really understood the fullness of who He is – and I ask this because we have no biblical record of Mary or Joseph ever having a heart-to-heart talk with Him, to help Him understand where He came from, and learn to grow into that role.  It could be there is nothing written because there is nothing to tell; that conversation never took place.  Or it could be Jesus knew all along who He is and what He is called to do. 

That, for us, is the most comfortable thought, of course, because it lets us off the hook.  We can just accept who Jesus is, that Jesus always knew, and that this confrontation in the wilderness was Jesus’ own personal battle with the one whom we have known as the “fallen one”.

Yet when we look at a parallel passage like Moses’ experience on Mt. Sinai, then maybe we need to look a little closer – especially when we think of what this kind of fasting means and what purpose it serves during Lent.  Exodus 24 ends with, “Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights”.

If the tablets had already been “written” as we are told, why would it have been necessary for Moses to remain on the mountain for forty days?  If Jesus already knew He is the Incarnate God, why was a similar period of fasting and prayer necessary?  There is something with deeper meaning requiring much more attention to detail for us than to ascribe only to Moses and Jesus the forty days of such discipline and not to ourselves.

There is one major difference for us, though.  Jesus was facing the “tempter” in the wilderness, and Moses was with the Creator on the Holy Mountain.  What connects these two experiences, however, is a strong sense of purpose – God’s purpose and not our own.  It is safe to say both knew, at least on some level, whom they were dealing with, and both knew what was at stake could not be completely understood or appreciated “in a minute”. 

There is discovery in these intense moments we give to The Lord, discoveries which cannot be made “on the fly” or in our haste to move from one moment to the next.  And as science has all but proved, “multi-tasking” is a myth.  We cannot do well with one thing while mentally engaged in another.

Part of that discovery is what the Catholic monk and writer, Thomas Merton, observed: “The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little”; that state of mind in which we are satisfied with “just enough” – but only as it pertains to The Word.  Surely written with a human understanding of our cultural desire for “more”, whether it be more money, more square footage, more car, or more luxurious or frequent vacations, the gist of what Brother Merton shared is that when we put forth our very best efforts for all this world offers, we cheat ourselves out of all our Lord has in store for us later.  And the reason is as simple as Jesus’ own lesson: there is not enough room in our hearts for both.  We cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).

This is what Jesus had to contend with, and it fits within the Jewish narrative of “Satan” not as a name but as a title … and with a dirty job.  Recall the strange setting in the opening chapter of Job.  The Heavenly Court was seated, and “the heavenly beings came to present themselves before The Lord, and Satan was with them” (1:6).  To make a long story short, Satan’s presence was not challenged.  He was only asked to account for where he had come from.

Then we know what happened.  The Lord was very pleased with His faithful servant, Job.  Satan challenged Job’s faithfulness because Job was virtually immune from the realities of the world – adversity and loss.  Satan maintained that if The Lord’s circle of protection were not around him, Job would curse The Lord to His face.  Job was pushed to his limits and he had many, many questions about what purpose these challenges could serve – but he never cursed The Lord.

Judaism teaches that Satan was only doing his job – the job he had been assigned by the heavenly court, the job for which he was created.  He is the “tempter” in this world, and he will serve as the “accuser” on the Day when we stand before The Lord.  He has charge over everything in this world, and it is his to use – fair and unfair – to “tempt” us, to challenge us.  It is a job which must be done.

And we ask why.  Was Jesus being “tempted” from His birthright?  Or was Jesus being “developed” to fulfill the role He was born to fulfill?  Or is it what Christianity has long held; that Satan was trying only to determine exactly who he was dealing with?   Yes.  All of the above.

It is hard for us to believe this wilderness experience is by design as a deliberate task from the heavenly court.  Even if we are talking about the Son of the Most High God, it seems … mean and unfair.  Yet when we consider the reality of the temptations we face daily, we must also understand the choices we are confronted with do serve a useful purpose – and that Satan is involved with every single incident when we are forced to make choices. 

We must learn to appreciate the reality that what may seem good to us could end up being the hindrance to the best relationship we can have with our Father – such as money we will only share with those we love but would withhold an honest and full tithe or deny a hungry child some food, or excusing ourselves from the quite necessary and soul-building discipline of fasting because we have convinced ourselves “we don’t have to”.

When we are talking about the depth of sanctifying grace by and through which we are continually regenerated and perfected, we should – if we are open to the experience - come to understand that it is only through adversity by which we may develop the strength to grow in faith and in love.  Just as we must not give in to our children’s every single desire but must teach them to do without or learn to deal with “no”, our Father is doing all He can to be sure we do not grow up spoiled and with a misguided sense of entitlement.  Giving us what will ultimately destroy us is not an act of love.

And strangely enough, this is the task understood to be a part of the “tempter’s” role.  We certainly cannot say eating is altogether bad because our bodies need the nourishment, but there is a fine line between eating for sustenance - and gluttony.  Money in itself is not a bad thing, but there is fine line between using it responsibly and using it to our own destruction and to the detriment of the Church and Her witness by withholding our tithe because we have convinced ourselves “we don’t have to”.

So the “hinderer” compelled Jesus to decide between what was useful and what would be wasteful; to decide what would be testing The Lord our God and His patience and what would test our devotion to what we are called to be and to do.

None of it was ever meant to be easy just as Jesus taught that following Him would be the most difficult thing we would ever do – difficult and even sometimes very dangerous.  In this moment in the wilderness, however, Jesus has imparted to us the greatest and most useful gift we will need to navigate the “real world”: the Word of God.  Learning to wield it and use it – to the glory of God and for our edification rather than our carnal satisfaction.

We must be able to discern between that which has value only for a season, and that which has everlasting value – hoarding what can be stolen or rotted, or storing up treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20).  The Word is that One Tool we have which will help us to know the difference between what is “real” only in this world and what is “real” in the Everlasting Kingdom.  If we have only the good things and our hearts’ desires fulfilled at every turn, we will not know how to deal with adversity when – not if – it comes.

The Word is not something only for memorization; it must be learned and intimated in such a way that the Word becomes as much a part of our being as our hearts and lungs.  For The Word will not only help us to navigate this dangerous world, it will still be with us when our hearts and lungs fail us.  This is our reality.  This is our “real world”.  It is the Word of God for the people of God for the Kingdom of God.  Amen.