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.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Finding the Secret Place - a sermon for Ash Wednesday 2017

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“The Lord spoke to Adam in the Garden, “Because you have … eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it’, cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of the ground all the days of your life.  Thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the plants of the field.  By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of [the ground] you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  Genesis 3:17-19 NRSV

In that proclamation of our reality apart from our Creator, “You are dust”, a profound separation was being acknowledged which had taken place in the Garden not only between Heaven and earth, but also between human existence and Divine purpose.  Humanity had been given all which would be needed for sustenance, but it would still not come as easily as we may imagine.  The man was very deliberately placed in the Garden “to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).  The Lord then determined the man would need help, so the woman was created from the man as a “helper and a partner” (Genesis 2:18); each created interdependently one to the other and both to The Lord, the Creator Himself.  Both created with deliberate intention and purpose.

We should see, then, that humanity did not crawl from a swamp by some evolutionary accident to do nothing more than to exist until the next cycle of evolution would take place.  There was – there is - Divine Purpose in all of Creation from the start.  It was Life itself, the breadth and depth and fullness and meaning of which would come only from the Creator.

So Life itself and all its fullness was set into motion by the Hand and Breath of God with a measure of independence but also with certain restrictions - not as a means of testing faith but as a means of strengthening the interdependence of the relationship not only between the man and the woman in common purpose but also the strengthening of the relationship between The Creator and creation – and for this reason: for us to come to fully know who we really are. 

In this segment of the Creation story we see not only the violation of interdependence between The Lord and humanity, but we also see the man and the woman once united in common purpose turn against each other!  What’s more, the woman herself sought to blame an external force for this break as the man blamed the woman.  Neither was willing to accept responsibility for the desecration of this relationship, and yet the damage had been done – not by the serpent but by the choices they each freely made.

Although humanity was evicted from Paradise, it cannot be said humanity was altogether rejected.  From that moment The Lord had determined to restore entirely the relationship which had been damaged by human pride and vanity.  It was The Lord’s determination – not man’s - that by the blessing of Creation itself, humanity was always meant to be in intimate relationship with the Creator.

So we fast-forward to this moment known as Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Season of Lent.  Though we are redeemed in Christ Jesus, we nevertheless undertake this discipline to look deeply within ourselves and reexamine once again the relationship which was, in the beginning, created in all its glory and perfection in The Word.  We are challenged to examine this relationship and those still-existing external forces – those things from which we fast - that constantly compete for our attention and devotion and ultimately degrade the Divine relationship we have with our God.

Fasting and prayer as the means of introspection are the hallmarks of Lent.  Jesus teaches about these disciplines not as ancient practices no longer applicable to the people of The Lord but as practices that are still-relevant means of grace, the ways by which we seek to overcome our human impulses, recognize the external forces for what they are, and reconnect to our Source of Life and living.  It is the nature of these practices which help us to strengthen the relationship we have been created for, the covenantal relationship we have been baptized into, the relationship we must jealously protect at all cost – the relationship we, more often than not, take for granted.

Within Jesus’ teachings on prayer and fasting, however, is the most interesting component of all Jesus teaches: the “secret place” in which our Father sees us.  The “quiet room” of prayer, or, better stated, the most intimate place in our hearts where no one – and no thing - but The Lord should be found.  It is that place in which Jesus as The Word and the Father as the Breath of Life will “come and make Our home with those who love Me and keep My Word” (John 14:23).

It is within this “secret place” where we are fed, and it is this “secret place” from which the Truth will spring forth if we will give ourselves over to these intimate moments.  We are reminded in these quiet moments of our need for our God and for one another in the fullness and accountability of the Church.  It is within this “secret place” where we are reminded of our sacred value not only according to the Image in which we are created but also according to the Divine Purpose for which we are called forth as individuals and as the Church, the Body of Christ in the world today.

Unpleasant as it is, however, we are reminded on this solemn Day that apart from our Creator, apart from our Source of Being, apart from the Living Word Himself, we can be nothing more than the dust from which we came, the dust to which our mortal bodies will return.  We are reminded of our own failures in the failure of Adam and Eve when, even in the face of Eternity and in the Promise of Paradise, they chose the human vanity of worldly wisdom and the temporal nature of carnal pleasure. 

More importantly, however, we are reminded even in the sorrow of our grief and in the midst of our failures, that our God relentlessly calls out: “Return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing … for The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:12-13).

“Repent, and believe the Gospel”, says our Lord Jesus, and we will from this moment be made whole!  Amen.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

What do we see?

26 February 2017 – Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

“Exalt The Lord our God, and worship at His holy hill; for The Lord our God is holy.”  Psalm 99:9

OPENING PRAYER: Holy God, upon the mountain You revealed Your Messiah in His fullness and glory, who by His life, death, and resurrection would fulfill both the Law and the prophets.  By His Transfiguration, enlighten our path and open our hearts that we may dare to strive with Him in the service of humanity by witness of the Everlasting Truth.  Then may we share in the Everlasting Glory of Him who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit.  One God, True God, forever and ever.  Amen.

This past week I had the privilege of speaking with another pastor whose keen insight borne of his own personal challenges has challenged me all the more to practice being in the Presence of The Lord as a means of self-care.  Along with that, another man who is a chaplain at UAMS spoke of prayer as a state of being rather than a “thing” we do.  So when we practice being in the Presence and acknowledge our own time of prayer as the state of our being as individuals and as the Church, what do we see? 

The answer to that question may be key in helping us to understand what Peter was trying to say in his second letter.  Because he was “on the holy mountain” with James and John as witness to the Transfiguration of our Lord, he wrote, “We have the prophetic message more fully confirmed” (2 Peter 1:19).  And the beginning of the prophetic message may well be this: “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation because no prophecy ever came by human will” (2 Peter 1:20-21). 

This means that while the human reality is that the Bible means different things to different people, the Divine Reality is the Holy Scripture as Divine Revelation can have only one real meaning; that which is conveyed by the Holy Spirit of our God and Father.  To discover that real meaning requires rigid discipline and a lifetime of devotion in sacrifice of self rather than incremental moments made only as a matter of personal convenience.

That “prophetic message” does not provide simple, concise answers to any questions we may have about the full meaning of the Transfiguration or any other mystery, but it does invite us to take a step closer to the Source.  The prophetic message challenges us especially in this regard: to learn to put aside our own thoughts, our own notions, and our own conclusions, and begin learning the practice of Being – not only being in the Presence of the Almighty but in the practice of being as learning … and all so we may see not what we wish to see but so we may see what is really before us.  Because the world we live in can be an ugly, hostile place, we as the Church need to see what The Lord reveals to His Own.

And regarding this rigid discipline, Peter wrote, “You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.  For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).

Meaning, of course, that if we do not practice these things, we may never “see” nor fully appreciate the Transfiguration and all which is revealed in that Sacred Moment.

We may have faith enough to believe, and it may be the sufficient “faith as a mustard seed” (Matthew 13:31-32), but Peter is teaching this faith must be “supported”.  It must be developed.  It must be continually nurtured.  It must be disciplined, ordered in such a way that it will do much more than make us feel good about ourselves; it must move us as disciples to make disciples – for that is ultimately the fruit demanded of Christ’s Holy Church. 

When this brother spoke of his practice of being in the Presence, he did in no way make it sound easy – and he did not suggest for a moment that he had mastered the practice.  Like most of us – perhaps all of us – he is easily distracted by the slightest noise or a fleeting thought.  And we cannot make these things go away because they are reality.

But this is where his discipline and his desire to see more holds him in place; he restarts his practice each time he is distracted.  As another preacher had observed, a true moment of silence cannot really begin until there is … silence.  No page turning, no shifting in the seats, no crinkling of candy or gum wrappers.  Moments of silence are not intended as a segue to the next moment; they are Sacred Moments in themselves.  We must prepare ourselves for something awesome.

There is no “stage setting” before the Transfiguration, no apparent moment of silence.  The text (Matthew 17:1-9) only tells us Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a “high mountain” before the Transfiguration took place.  There was no prep time as we read, but we also do not know how long it took them to get to the high place or what they may have done prior to this Sacred Moment. 

We may reasonably believe there was surely some sense of anticipation on the part of Peter and the brothers.  They knew they were following Jesus as they were so willing, but we may assume they had no idea where they were going or for what reason.  There are a couple of events which had taken place “six days” prior (vs 1), however, that may help to set the stage.

In Matthew 16:13-20, we are told of Jesus asking His disciples what people were saying about the Son of Man.  It was Peter who answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (vs 16).  And by that confession, Peter was blessed.  Then after Jesus had begun teaching them about His impending death and resurrection, Peter again stepped up and denied that such a thing should take place.  And Peter was sharply rebuked, referred to as “Satan” and a “stumbling block” to Jesus – “for you are setting your mind not on Divine things but on human things” (vs 23).

And this is our own “stumbling block” as well.  The season of Lent is a very hard practice for most Christians because it is that season which must lead us to Calvary before we can look upon the Empty Tomb.  We must endure the ugliness before we can witness the blessedness.  Our “stumbling block”, however, is our human desire and the “human things” we are most often focused on.  Our minds are set according to the world before us and our relentless “pursuit of happiness”, and we are thus unable to see anything beyond the horizon. 

Our desire must be to see that far because we know it is where our Lord, the Great Shepherd, is leading us.  But we must also understand this endeavor is not about Jesus “taking the wheel” as the popular song goes nor is it about Jesus serving as our personal “co-pilot” as the common bumper sticker suggests. 

It is entirely about our willingness to be led, our willingness to follow Messiah on the road less traveled, the path which leads to righteousness and blessedness.  We are cautioned by The Word that it is not an easy path, though we try our best to make it as easy as possible.  We are cautioned about the many risks, but we take measures to diminish any chance of risk.  We are warned that our willingness to follow Christ Jesus into the unknown may cost us our worldly treasures, but we more often hoard our worldly treasures in order to hedge our bets.  There is no faith in these things.

We are assured along the way, however, that the worldly treasures we may lose are those things lacking everlasting value.  We are assured that the Eternal Reward outweighs any risk, and we are assured the Journey in Christ which begins now is our first step into Eternity and the Life which never ends.  We do not have to wait until we are buried to begin this Journey.

When we begin this Journey, we will see the Treasure the world cannot take from us.  Then we will see what our Lord has intended to reveal all along.  All we have to do is follow Him up the high mountain, for it is the Journey of Faith to the Transfiguration of Christ and of self.  So let that Journey begin today as we continue to celebrate our Lord and the Life we are called into.  Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Judgment from Within

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Being what we wish to see

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord is great, is He not?