Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An Open Letter to Open Letter Writers

“Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him.  Do not add to His words lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.”  Proverbs 30:5-6

Following the United Methodist General Conference 2016 in Portland OR, there have been “Open Letters to …” written by those who mean to lift up and encourage some but to chastise and perhaps shame the “other” – whomever that “other” may be.  Some “open letters” have been informative perspectives while some have been downright condescending; and regardless of which side (orthodox or not-so-orthodox) one happens to agree with, it has been clear that all the talk of unity in the United Methodist Church is just that: talk. 

We will never be able to shame “others” into agreeing with us nor will we help the conversations along by giving those of our particular camp “ammo” to fire back at those with whom we disagree.  Accusatory language will not go far with those we mean to denigrate since such language usually only steels the resolve of those being accused, and our case will not be made by human reasoning.  As the Teacher maintains in the Proverbs, the purity of our chosen words comes only from the mouth of The Lord. 

We all have something to say, and we all have a right to say it within reason.  As it is often said, however, yelling “fire” in a crowded facility just for giggles is not protected speech, and the reason is simple: people are likely to get hurt in panicked stampedes.  Do we do any less harm in our feeble attempts to slander or shame those we cannot agree with? 

Kenneth L. Carder, in his book, The United Methodist Way: living our beliefs, wrote: “Preachers could, a few decades ago, attract a following through denominational chauvinism.  Condemning other churches and extolling the superiority of one’s own denomination could build churches.  Such a message today receives but isolated response.”

Those decades have long passed us by.  The idea of making others look bad in our feeble attempts to make ourselves look good simply does not wash (sadly, however, it is still the way of electoral politics).  Thinking and reasoning people today demand more, and rightly so.  If they are going to choose to go along with us, they must be shown the virtue of our chosen way rather than the vice of the “other”.  It is not enough to tell people how bad or awful or unjust or ignorant or unenlightened the other may be (in our own opinions, of course), but we can be sure that those who are attracted by such language are themselves bad and awful and unjust and ignorant and unenlightened – taking perverse delight in character assassinations. 

Especially pertaining to theological reasoning (holy language with holy intentions) while claiming to speak in The Lord’s Name, our reasoning must be much more closely connected to the “pure word of God”, recognizing the intimate connection between Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  Not “one or another”, but rather “all/and”.  Beginning first with Scripture as the “pure word of God” and the necessary foundation, then we evaluate Tradition AND THEN Reason AND THEN Experience – all within the scope of our Holy Scriptures.  The Church’s tradition is steeped in the Holy Scripture.  Indeed can there be any Church as the biblically defined “Body of Christ” which is substantially disconnected from the very Word which became Flesh?  The same Scripture Jesus Himself came to “fulfill” rather than to do away with?

Sometimes a firm word becomes necessary toward those who have strayed, but a harsh word has been shown over and over to be counter-productive to making earnest disciples of Christ.  As it is written, “A harsh word makes tempers flare” (Proverbs 15:1).  It is no different from threatening fire and brimstone from the pulpit in an attempt to make people afraid of hell.  They may well be sufficiently afraid of hell, but neither are they fully on board with the Kingdom of Heaven.

So to “open letter” writers seeking to make a point at the expense of the “other”: enough.  If we set out to shame the “other” in the name of our God and try to pretend we are holier-than-thou and oh-so-enlightened especially by “adding words” to the Holy Scripture, we will not only fail to make our case on its merit; we will also be revealed as the “liars” we truly are – because our God, and our God alone, is Truth.  Anything less than this Eternal Truth is spoken only by “liars”.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Steward's Reward - 1st Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 1:26-31
Romans 14:1-12
Luke 19:11-27

“Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored.”  Proverbs 27:18

The phone rang at a church.  When the assistant answered, the voice on the other end said, “I want to speak to the Head Hog at the Trough”.  Not being sure of what she thought she heard, she said, “Who?”   The caller again said, “I want to speak to the Head Hog at the Trough”. 

Very indignantly, the assistant said, “Sir, if you are referring to the pastor of the church, you will have to treat him with a little more respect – and ask for ‘The Reverend’ or ‘The Pastor’ – but you must not refer to him as the Head Hog at the Trough”. 

The caller answered back, “Well, I was thinking of donating $10,000 to the building fund”, to which the assistant replied (very quickly), “Hold on.  The Big Pig just walked through the door!”


Before you begin thinking this may be a sermon about tithing, let me stop you there because a broader understanding of stewardship does not mean only tithing or giving money to a special church fund.  Tithing is very much a part of responsible stewardship, of course; but it is only one component of stewardshipStewardship encompasses much more than what we choose to put into the collection plate on Sunday.  Think about it like this: a tithe means 10%.  Would we suggest The Lord is only concerned with 10% of our money or only 10% of our lives? 

At the same time, stewardship principles challenge our sense of priority.  A priority list which puts The Lord first and then stair-steps downward may sound noble and even almost biblical, but it also implies there are segments of our lives and the choices we make that need have no bearing on our religious faith or our devotion to The Lord and His Church. 

That The Lord should come first is, of course, biblical as Jesus teaches us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33a), but that decision bears not only on a priority list but in every moment of life and living.  We need not worry about what comes 2nd or 3rd if The Lord really is #1. 

Jesus assures us we will be shown what we need to focus on, what will be pleasing in The Lord’s sight, and what will ultimately not only bring Him glory but will make possible for us a much fuller life than we can make for ourselves – “all these things [we truly need] will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33b).  Make no mistake, though; “full life” cannot – and must never - be measured subjectively by material or cultural standards.

So we are compelled to look more closely for a broader understanding of what “dominion” means in the Genesis context, what was intended from the very beginning.  In doing so, we may discover that our God-given “dominion” does not mean we “own” it; and it certainly does not give us license to exploit anything or anyone for personal gain just because we think we can.  Rather we may find that what we mistakenly think of as our own private domain - with no Divine Concern - is not personal privilege or blessing but complete, perfect, holy responsibility. 

Everything we have and everything we do must reflect our abiding faith in The Lord.  “Abiding”; to be completely and unreservedly “in” as Jesus “abides” in the Father and the Father in Him.  For as our Lord says, “The Father and I are One” (John 10:30).

Thus to have “dominion” over all of creation and even to “subdue” it, as some translations read, does not mean to claim it or to dominate it or beat it into submission as an owner would - but to tend it as a manager would for the Rightful Owner, to control it as we have ability, and to use it responsibly as if all has been entrusted to us for a short time for the sole purpose of bringing Him Glory rather than handed over to us to squander at our own discretion.

The responsibility of “dominion” takes on even greater meaning for the Church after the Ascension of The Lord.  Leaving the Church with Her “marching orders” to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) and to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47), and then empowering the Church on Pentecost to do these very things, we find ourselves large and in charge of all creation as in the beginning.  We are placed in The Lord’s creation in this time and space to “till it and keep it” just as Man was charged to do in Eden (Genesis 2:15).

So everything we see, everything we touch, and everything we acquire must be understood as much more than a personal blessing meant only to enrich our own lives.  The concept of personal blessing as opposed to having been entrusted with something much greater has given rise and traction to that false – or very misleading - prosperity gospel narrative that proclaims material wealth as a sign of Divine Favor.  

The seriousness with which we must acknowledge and accept this responsibility as a condition of our baptism and membership in the Holy Church as “slaves of Christ” is emphasized in Jesus’ parable of the “minas” (Luke 11:19-27; known as “talents” in Matthew 25:14-30).  In each, the “pound” or the “talent” are understood as measures of currency.  In reading each passage more broadly, then, we must learn to appreciate all The Lord has left for us to manage, to “keep and to till” until His return – however much or little.  I dare say 10% of what we only think is ours barely scratches the surface.

Now we might be tempted to think we would not really care to be put in charge of anything in the Kingdom which is coming, that we would be perfectly content with that little “corner of a mansion in Glory Land” as the old hymn goes, but that option was not offered to the third slave who did absolutely nothing with his entrusted portion of his master’s wealth.  In the end, that “wicked slave” was left with nothing – not even a little “corner”.  In Matthew’s version, that “worthless slave” was thrown into “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30).  He was thrown OUT of the master’s domain.

In Luke’s account, the “citizens” who chose to rebel against the “nobleman” do not even factor into the nobleman’s “slaves” whom he knew and trusted.  Understanding this concept on this Sunday following Pentecost, we should consider that the remarkable Gift of the Holy Spirit on that glorious day was, indeed, the “wealth” with which we are entrusted. 

It was then given freely and generously without reservation.  Not 10%, then, but 100% “with you until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). 

For us, then, there is the tithe which Jesus affirms (Matthew 23:23).  Yet Jesus also refers to the rest of our lives, the rest of our being and doing with, for, and to one another for the Glory of God and for the sake of the whole society on behalf of the congregation of the faithful as the “weightier” or more important matters of the Divine Law – NOT either/or … but both/and. 

Our Lord asks much more from those to whom He has entrusted the Entire Kingdom for the sole purpose of “making disciples” in “proclaiming repentance and the remission of sins”!   It is a BIG JOB no one can do alone.  This, I think, is exactly why even Jesus teaches that we must all “count the cost” (Luke 14:28) before we decide whether we are all in or not at all in.  There is no middle way or third choice except that which we’ve created only for ourselves to justify ourselves and our godless choices.

We must not misunderstand the comparisons, though we must understand that as burdensome and inconvenient as discipleship may sometimes seem (as a careless and empty man-made gospel tries to imply that we don’t “have to” do anything), our Lord assures us the rewards for the faithful are immeasurable by human standards.  And through it all, though our Lord asks much from us, He promises us even more.  But first must come our willingness to trust Him and take Him at His Word.

Let us consider, then, that our Lord truly is The Lord of our whole life and not just a small percentage of what we choose to offer to Him.  At Gethsemane, Jesus made His own decision to be all in to include even His very life.  Dare we offer any less than our whole life?  Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

What about Portland?

There is a lot of hand-wringing and anguish over what has (not) happened at the United Methodist General Conference in Portland OR.  It has been reported there were over one hundred pieces of legislation to be considered at GC regarding human sexuality (code for whether or not homosexuality will be affirmed as “incompatible” with Christian teaching and tradition or, as some might hope, declared … ok?), but all have been tabled for future consideration after a period of prayer and discernment. 

Coupled with so many of the articles being written by various news outlets are the comments from those who oppose, who affirm, and who simply do not care one way or the other.  There are the many who are threatening to leave the UMC if the language is retained or changed regarding “that issue”, and there are the many who have already left the UMC because the Church cannot or will not resolve to do as it declares.  The General Conference is the only entity which can officially speak for the United Methodist Church, but the truth is United Methodists have been speaking for themselves for quite a long time.

Even the general agencies of the UMC which should be a reflection of the will of the General Conference have not always been faithful to the most basic tenets of United Methodism, and yet no one has been called to account for their choosing to go in another direction.  This, to me, is a much greater problem not accounted for because the secular media assume that if, say, the Church and Society agency is actively lobbying the US Congress for expanded abortion rights or gay rights – all in violation of the General Conference of the Church – only a few lone voices cry out.  The United Methodist Church itself is largely silent.  The agency is acting independently.

As the United Methodist Women (UMW) organization (not all United Methodist women) actively engage in a working relationship with NARAL (formerly known as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, then the National Abortion Rights Action League, and later the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), there is hardly a peep except from a few isolated corners of the Church.  Though the agency is doing its own political thing, the United Methodist Church as a whole remains silent.

Lotteries and casinos have proliferated in the United States and gay marriage has been declared by the US Supreme Court as a fundamental “right”, and I dare say many United Methodist Christians participate (especially those who make headlines).  The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, as a covenant of doctrine and accountability from top to bottom, is largely unknown to many (perhaps most) United Methodist Christians (except for “that issue”) because it is seen as a “rule book”.  Very uninteresting and largely irrelevant to local United Methodist Churches.  Or so it seems.

The list goes on, but the picture seems clear.  What has (not) happened in Portland pertaining to “that issue” that gets everyone so stirred up, however, cannot be the end-all-or-be-all to local churches.  And because local accountability seems to mean only those cliques or persons with money, what has (not) happened in Portland really is of no consequence in Magnolia AR or Memphis TN or … or … well, you get the idea, because quite frankly, few will abide by or protest General Conference terms anyway unless, of course, a particular agenda is served or a headline is to be made.

Everyone is welcome in the United Methodist Church, saints and sinners alike.  The narrative on one side or the other may suggest some do not feel particularly welcome because “that issue” makes some feel unwelcome, but the official doctrine of the United Methodist Church is that all are welcome to worship, all are encouraged to learn more about the Gospel of The Lord. 

What should be equally clear, however, is that not all will get to have their own way.  Not all will be allowed to serve as pastors, deacons, board or committee chairs for one reason or another.  Not all will be allowed to railroad others just to get their own way, and inactive members who have fallen away or have chosen to follow the latest fad outside of the Church (Christian or not) should not expect to be retained as “members”.  Those with the most money do not always get to call the shots, and the whims of a few cannot push an appointed pastor out.  In other words, “rights” to certain agencies or certain positions are not absolute.

What we are all allowed – even encouraged, commissioned, and charged – to do is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ”.  This is the biblical charge to the Church universal and is the mantra of the United Methodist Church, a recognition that this is entirely, solely, completely what the Body of Christ exists to do.  Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.  There are, of course, expectations.  Respect - for existing rules, existing doctrine, existing expectations - is required; and if this respect is not forthcoming, regardless of circumstances, one must not expect to be allowed to continue in the relationship.

So what does Portland have to do with Magnolia?  Or Memphis?  Or Albuquerque?  What does Portland have to do with our collective charge to “make disciples”?  Some may suggest Portland has everything to do with our charge, that since the law-making Body of the United Methodist Church cannot agree on even the most basic, most fundamental component of our being because of “that issue”, it all rolls downhill to affect (or infect) the local churches.

I will still be trying to work this all out long after I click the “publish” button because, you see, I am a licensed pastor, a second-career person who has been granted this enormous responsibility and profound honor to serve as a pastor of a United Methodist Church.  Unlike the elders, however, I have no “rights”, no “privileges”.  I am completely as the mercy of the bishop, the appointive Cabinet, and the District and Conference Board of Ordained Ministry – any one of which can discontinue my appointment at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.  I have no “rights”; only duty.

So why do I persevere?  Why do I continue to live with anxiety from one appointment year to the next, not knowing if I will even have a job?  Because Someone much larger than I compels me to, Someone more infinitely powerful and authoritative than any human body will ever be.  And for as long as it lasts, I will do the best I can to faithfully preach the Holy Scripture and the doctrine of the United Methodist Church.  Integrity requires no less.  And through it all, guaranteed nothing at all, I will continue to march.

Monday, May 16, 2016

We are More - Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:39-45
Romans 8:12-17
Matthew 5:1-16

“The Holy Spirit is not a blessing from God.  The Holy Spirit is God.”  ~ Colin Urquhart

“The counting [of 50 days from Passover to Pentecost in Judaism] is a reminder of the important connection between the two holy feast days.  Passover freed Israel physically from bondage, but the giving (not receiving) of the Torah at Sinai [which is the celebration of Pentecost/Shavu’ot] redeemed Israel spiritually from bondage to idolatry and immorality.  (www.jewfaq.org, “Judaism 101”)

They were shown that they are “more”.

Even in Christianity, Pentecost is still the Jewish feast of Shavu’ot.  It is not a brand-new holy day created by Christianity, for the day still belongs to The Lord.  He revealed Himself in His Covenant at Mt. Sinai in His instruction to His people Israel, and He had revealed Himself yet again in Jerusalem.  And in that Holy Moment, Pentecost became “more”.

So it is too bad this same important connection expressed in Judaism is not more widely felt for the Christian celebration of Pentecost as much as for Easter or Christmas because the Pentecost is yet another Divine Promise fulfilled when our Lord assured His Church: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). 

So following the celebration of Messiah ascending into Heaven’s Glory, this is an important consideration for the Church today – especially in answering the false notion that The Lord does not care for His creation and does not interact in history or ministry … or in the Sacraments of the Church.  “I am with you always”.

Because we live in a largely post-Christian society (greatly diminished Church influence coupled with Church pandering to secular values in a vain effort to be culturally relevant or “popular”), taking note of these important days, how they are connected in perpetuity, and what they mean to the entire world become all the more important to us who are called to be “more”. 

Pentecost, then, cannot be just another Sunday on the Christian calendar because it is the fulfillment not only of Divine Promise as with Christmas and Easter but also of Holy Purpose, as our Lord Jesus assured His disciples this Day would come: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

On this day some 2000 years ago, on the Jewish feast of Shavu’ot (Pentecost), the Church was breathed into life for one reason, and one reason only: “That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His Name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).   

We are shown in the Acts of the Apostles that thousands were convicted and drawn to the communal spirit of the Church.  They did not get “personally saved” and then go on about their business as if nothing happened.  They become “more” than an individual.  Even in the periods of great persecution, though many were forced into hiding, they hid together, protected one another, and continued to worship; and people were still coming to answer the call of the Holy Spirit not just to join but to become an active part of this new “Way”, a Way like no other before or since. 

As it is written, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day The Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47).  

I submit to you that numbers of new believers being added “day by day” happened not only because of the Power of the Holy Spirit but also necessarily because of the faithfulness of the peoples’ response in “having the goodwill of all the people”.  That is, actually possessing Divine Love in their hearts for God and for one another.

The only way this cannot have meaning for us today is if we do not understand – or reject altogether – the Holy Purpose of the Church.   Do you notice that we often disagree as to exactly what this Day looked like (‘tongues of fire” or “speaking in tongues”) while we overlook completely what came as a result of this sudden rush of the Holy Spirit, the very Presence of the Holy God Himself. 

The highest ideals of the Kingdom.  Commonality.  Accountability.  Connectedness.  A shared sense of being in Holy Purpose.  Genuine care of and concern for neighbor so much so that all they had and all they owned was put into one common pot so that no one would go without the basic necessities of life and living – the most profound and most basic necessity of all, of course, being fellowship, being connected, being cared for, being loved, and knowing rather than being stabbed in the back, someone had your back.

We don’t have this so much today.  In fact I submit it does not exist at all except in theory and maybe in very small, very exclusive groups.  Within the greater Church universal as well as within the individual churches, there is a dominant “to each his own” mentality and mindset.  Oh, there are sub-sets of groups who may look out for one another and maybe will extend beyond a group as long as it is no real inconvenience, but on the grander scale this idyllic notion of community and Holy Purpose is a thing of a very distant, almost unrecognizable past.

There is often only the curse of eternal condemnation toward those who will not agree or go along with us”.  There is a good talk about unity among the political party loyalists and even such talk as at the UM General Conference.  Unity among humans according to strictly human behavior and human desire, however, is a myth.  We can seem easily to agree to a common enemy, but common purpose is lacking because within us as a Body there is lacking the very Substance of who we really are; “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14).

*IF* we are “led by the Spirit”.

We United Methodist Christians have our Book of Discipline which is our covenant (not strictly “rules”) with and to one another.  It is the covenant we freely join as members and as clergy.  We expect (demand?) our bishops to uphold certain portions of that Discipline (especially the parts pertaining to that issue), but on the local level we almost completely reject those other portions of this same United Methodist Covenant which demand accountability to our vows and care for one another. 

In all this human frailty and imperfection there is the Divine Promise to those who live and love and witness according to The Lord’s Holy Purpose.  This is unconditionally true regardless of our individual responses because this Divine Promise is not according to human will, and it is certainly not according to conditional human involvement or desire.

In spite of these divisions among us, “we are more”.  Those who choose to live in covenant and in peace are more than those who choose not to.  Even those who choose not to are more than even they realize; but they will not know this unless or until it is brought to their attention and they are held accountable.  United Methodist Christians only seem to be fixated on that issue because of the secular media, but in reality we are much more than just that single issue that haunts us every four years.  

We are more than the empty promises of predatory “something for nothing” lotteries; and we are more than a single moment of escape in drugs, alcohol, or inappropriate relationships.  We are more than even this great nation of ours, and yet we can be no more than the cry of a hungry child, the lament of those who are imprisoned, or the hopelessness of those who have no home to rest in.  We are no more than the Gospel of the Lord, and yet the Gospel is precisely what we must become.

We are more than the constant bickering and infighting that seem to be the hallmark of the Church universal today.  We are much more than our petty differences, and we are more than even our most profound disagreements.  We are more than our notions of individual salvation.

It all began at Pentecost.  In The Lord’s giving of His Covenant and Holy Law at Sinai and in The Lord’s giving so fully of Himself in Jerusalem on this blessed and glorious Day, we are surely more than we have often settled for!  And because we often settle for less rather than to reach for more and live for more, we defy the Eternal Word which is Christ Jesus and we cheat ourselves and our neighbors out of the fullness of joy and blessedness that is the Divine Promise given – but not always received - on this blessed Day throughout the generations.

We are more than anything this world can possibly offer because we are the “salt of the earth” and the “light on a lampstand” which must shine brightly and boldly.  We are ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are the people of the United Methodist Church and members of the Church universal.  And now that this time and Day has been named, it is time to claim it, and to live it – all to the glory of God our Father in Christ Jesus our Redeemer, our Savior, our Brother, our Friend.  Amen. 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Of Blessings and Duties - 6th Sunday of Easter

John 14:25-29

"All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits committed to our trust on this condition; that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors."  John Calvin

What brings us peace?  The kind of peace entrusted to us to be dispensed to our neighbors?  What does the Christian community embrace and celebrate as true and enduring, even empowering?  The kind of peace Jesus is referring to does not strictly mean the absence of all conflict; but, rather, striving for a higher end even within the presence of conflict.  This peace demands an enduring faith in something much greater than any single moment or any individual desire. 

It is entirely about the Mission of the Holy Church – not having our individual demands met.

Do you ever notice that when we think of peace, much in the way we think of Divine Will or blessings, we think almost exclusively in terms of what peace means to us as individuals, how we personally benefit?  That is, there will be no peace unless or until we get our own way, this measure of peace coming only on our own terms. 

The nature of this peace is entirely subjective to individual standards; and if these standards are not met, there is no peace nor even any desire for peace.  The sad thing is that too many Christians seem to be perfectly ok with this.  Pride is at the core of what can only be termed a power struggle – having our own demands met, things going our own way regardless of the cost or collateral damage to others.

For those of you who think I watch too much TV, too many gangster movies and irreverent cartoons (South Park!), I offer my most profound apology because a TV show/family drama brought to mind a common peace Christians and non-Christians alike can share.  It is that sense of “community” which reminds us we are not alone even when we choose to be.

This particular episode revolved around a baptism for an infant.  The dad and his family are not even a little religious but the mom and her family are very religious, so it was mom’s desire that the baby be baptized. 

The non-religious family went along with it and even participated without understanding or even caring what baptism means to the community of faith, but the dynamic of that non-religious family (which, incidentally, is being in each other’s business all the time!) expresses the very best of what baptism and membership in the Church mean to the Christian community. 

Even as this non-religious family did not understand the practice or the belief behind the practice, they were willing to respect the practice and the family members who desired this thing because, ultimately, is was (is) a family thing in more ways than only a biological or marital connection. 

I get it, though.  It is a TV show.  It isn’t real.  It could be.  It SHOULD be.  What is all too real, however, is that this kind of peace and fundamental respect are NOT forthcoming in the broader Christian community across denominational lines.  We get too caught up in our own individual or denominational notions of right time/right place/right practice of baptism so much so that we will not even offer the kind of respect which may more likely come from those who do not care about or understand baptism at all.

Even within the Church – which should ideally be a sanctuary against the conflicts of the world - things are sometimes messy and downright unholy.  I’ve heard from many that they “can’t stand” so-and-so, and thus they refuse to be a part of a particular church.  I’ve heard the same thing regarding myself; that my very presence is driving or keeping people away.  While staying away might provide some sense of temporal peace or even personal satisfaction, it does not scratch the surface of the kind of peace Jesus is referring to because the conflict these persons only think they are avoiding by avoiding these persons fail to realize the real conflict is within themselves.  Pride, however, refuses to acknowledge this possibility.

We may feel better about ourselves in the moment and may even feel some false sense of superiority in staying away or attempting to drive others out, but the peace Jesus alone is offering will still lacking – because the kind of peace Jesus is referring to has nothing to do with any individual demand or desire.  We may be successful in driving away those whom we blame for all manner of conflict and think we’ve resolved the conflict, but the heart of the conflict still remains and will inevitably involve others sooner or later when they find themselves on the wrong side of these persons.

When we get what we think may pass for peace when our own terms are met, it is the false sense of peace Jesus is referring to as what “the world gives”.  It is temporary at best, and by a wide margin it misses the mark of the peace Jesus is offering and advocating.  This peace goes to the very heart of what membership in the Holy Church really means: family, community, connection beyond ourselves, beyond our own agendas, certainly beyond vendettas – all of which are profoundly toxic to the Body of Christ and destructive to the community the Church is called to serve.

Pope Francis, in his remarks for the World Day of Peace on New Year’s Day 2016, stated that “Peace is both God’s gift and a human achievement.  As a gift of God, it is entrusted to all men and women, who are called to attain it ... Along these same lines, with the present Jubilee of Mercy, I want to invite the Church to pray and to work so that every Christian will have a humble and compassionate heart, one capable of proclaiming and witnessing to mercy ... Personal dignity and interpersonal relationships are what constitute us as human beings whom God willed to create in His own image and likeness.  As creatures endowed with unalienable dignity, we are related to all our brothers and sisters for whom we are responsible and with whom we must act in solidarity.  Lacking this relationship, we would be less human.”

I think, then, Pope Francis’ idea – and the Kingdom’s ideal – of peace rests on and revolves around mercy itself – for the absence of mercy is the absence of peace.  And mercy withheld from others is mercy withheld from us (Matthew 6:16).  As such, peace is a Divine Gift, its origin traced to its only Source – our Holy Father – and is given freely only by His Gracious Hand in Christ. 

As a “human achievement”, it manifests itself in our active participation when we recognize the foundation of our baptism: being brought into the community of faith and resting in the assurance that the community will fulfill its own vows to teach and to hold accountable to discipleship and the life of the Church all who call Christ “Lord”.

So it seems to be that if we are unwilling or unable to offer peace by offering mercy, it is because we are lacking peace because we have not yet known the Mercy of The Lord.  We cannot offer what we lack or have never known.  Now if we think we have known it and have experienced it and yet still refuse to share or offer it, we make ourselves “liars”.

As it is written (1 John 4:20): Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar.  For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

Claiming faith in Christ while actively trying to do harm to another because of a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding is not compatible with the kind of peace Jesus is offering to His disciples, and the “peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) will not be found nor will it be offered to we who refuse to participate in mercy.

So before we offer our gifts, before we offer our prayers, before we dare approach the altar for the Supper of The Lord, let us not fail to understand that how we define our relationships to one another is precisely how our relationship is defined with The Lord.  Just as Christ cannot be separated from His Body the Church, neither can we be separated one from another.

Let there be peace by our determination to make peace; for it will come no other way.  Amen

Monday, April 25, 2016

Raising the Bar - 5th Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

“When you lower the definition of success to such a level that any person can reach it, you don’t teach people to have big dreams; instead you inspire mediocrity and nurture people’s inadequacies.”  Shannon L. Alder

In more than one instance, Jesus proclaimed – or instructed His disciples to proclaim – that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”.   Yet we have been taught by tradition that when Messiah returns, the age of the Eternal Kingdom will be upon us.  Until then, we are instructed to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). 

We should also understand that the emphasis on this Commission is in teaching – not in telling these new disciples what they must believe but, rather, showing them what is worth believing and how believing and trusting it can truly change one’s life. 

The Great Commission is the marching order of the Church.  It is the basis and the foundation of our very existence, that being our mission, and it has everything to do with how the Church is to order its daily life.  If something is being done within any particular church that does not meet the criteria of the Great Commission, that practice or policy must be revisited, adjusted, or outright eliminated – if there is no evangelistic component to the practice. 

Evangelism is the heart of the Great Commission, the task of the whole Church rather than a few individuals.  It is not about preaching from the pulpit or in the street.  It is entirely about living the Message we have been entrusted with – that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near”.  Anything short of this is a betrayal of that which we claim to know, to trust, to believe.

I’ve always been curious about the nearness of the Kingdom.  Does this mean “close but no cigar”?  Or does it, can it mean the Eternal Kingdom is entirely within our grasp in the here-and-now?  What we choose to believe has everything to do with how we will conduct ourselves, how we will go about our evangelistic mission to make that very declaration.  Or we will continue to believe “our” church to be our own private club to which only a select few are invited or even welcome - and a hobby we attend to as time allows.

If the Kingdom of Heaven has “come near” – and this must be true if Jesus is Messiah – what does this mean for us?  For the Church?  For society in general?  It does not change the nature of the Revelation, of course, because we are being told about a time in which the reality of the Kingdom will leave no doubt.  What we see in The Revelation, I think, is the fulfillment, the perfection of The Lord’s desire.  This perfection, however, is not quite yet.

So … what do we do until that time?

I think our clue is in Jesus’ encouragement to His disciples.  It is a strange thing that Jesus would deem His commandment to be “new” in any sense of the word since the Great Commandment requires that we “love our neighbors as we love ourselves”. 

Easier said than done, to be sure, especially when said “neighbor” is not quite loveable, but the principle is a necessity for the well-being of the whole community, the whole congregation, the whole ekklesia.   

In this regard, then, there is nothing “new” … unless we consider that the standard of “love” has not quite changed but, rather, perhaps shifted; and the bar has been raised.  It seems clear that in a most general sense, we don’t really know what “love” is; hence our Lord’s “new” commandment.  It is “new”, perhaps, to us.  We have allowed the word to be hijacked by force and redirected against its own nature.  We think “love” is an emotion, how we “feel” about any particular thing or person.  So if we ain’t feelin’ it, we ain’t doin’ it!

Christians cannot take this position, however, without denying Christ altogether.  We cannot claim to “believe” in Him or “love” Him if we are unwilling to listen to Him, unwilling to trust Him enough to follow Him in daily living and interactions with even what we deem to be the worst among us – however we may define “worst”.  We cannot claim to be disciples ourselves – let alone “make disciples” – if we cherry-pick only those portions of Jesus’ life and teachings that please us as individuals.

So we cannot pretend Jesus was referring only to that particular gathering, that particular crowd.  And it may be less than honest to think Jesus was suggesting this depth of love can only be extended to those we claim as our own – whether it be family or members of the same church or close personal friends whom we choose while keeping others out.  And the reason we cannot make that claim is because the depth of Jesus’ love is measured not only in what He taught – but in what His teachings led to: The Cross.  His Cross, of course; but no less our Crosses.  Those who mocked Him, those who spit on Him and even cursed Him; even these Jesus lifted up to the Father in His final moments: “Forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing”.

 It has occurred to me lately, however, that even this profound depth of love can come to mean even more to us as The Body of Christ, the Church.  I used to work with a guy who was a master picker, a teaser who took great joy out of just trying to get rise out of people.  He was a good, hard worker, but he also loved to play with people.  He would do anything he could for anyone he could (call this “love”), but he also enjoyed his life and his work because he enjoyed people by his active engagement in these people.

He came to mind as I listened to a eulogy this Sunday past about a dear lady who fully “enjoyed” life.  She “enjoyed” her family, she “enjoyed” her church … she “enjoyed” her husband and her life with him.  Honestly, how many of us can say this?  That we “enjoy”?  I don’t mean “patiently tolerate” – because “enjoyment” means active engagement.

I have no doubt we love our spouses and we love our friends and we love our church, and we find enjoyment with them here and there, but can we honestly say we always find enjoyment?  Because it seems to me that any relationship lacking this component – pure enjoyment – is lacking in something else altogether; something that can degrade the relationship or enhance it. 

It is possible to become a little too “comfortable” in any relationship to the point that we begin to take that relationship for granted.  We assume too much and, consequently, neglect the better part of those relationships.  This is true not only of our human relationships but also of our relationship with Christ and His Church.  These are not mutually exclusive, for one cannot claim to “love” Christ Jesus while regarding His Body the Church with disdain! 

It is written in the Proverbs (27:17 NRSV): “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wit of another.” 

What this means for us – for the Great Commission, for “loving one’s neighbor”, for enjoyment of all that is before us – is not merely “patient tolerance” but active engagement.  If we are not happy with our spouses, perhaps it is we have somehow disengaged at least on some level and stopped trying.  If we are not content with our church and we find more reason to cast blame than to look inwardly, we have disengaged.  If we are not getting from our friendships all we hope or expect to get, perhaps we’ve placed too great a burden on them – on all these, in fact – to somehow make us enjoy them more fully.  We have removed ourselves from the dynamic and placed the blame for our lack of enjoyment on others.

It has been said that, “The greatest sweetener of human life is friendship.  To raise this to the highest pitch of enjoyment is a secret which but few discover.”  Joseph Addison

So how do we “raise the pitch”?  By demanding more?  By expecting more?  Or by giving of ourselves more freely?  When we consider that Jesus was speaking to everyone equally by issuing this “new” commandment, we have to consider that our Lord would say the very same thing to us today.  And this “commandment” cannot be construed to mean we should raise our expectations.  Rather we are to raise our level of engagement, for this is the very heart, the essence, of Christian love; not to expect or demand but to give … and to give freely and fully.

This is the life we are called to, not the life that is called to us.  We have to make these things reality not so the Kingdom can come near but because the Kingdom already has come near.  And those who are invested in the reality of the Kingdom are invested in the reality of human relationships.  And if we are not enjoying those relationships fully, it is because we are not invested fully in those relationships.

This, I think, is the “love” that seems so “new” to us because we have forgotten what it means to truly and fully love.  Love has nothing to do with what we can expect or what we think we can demand; it has everything to do with what we are willing to give.  And give according to what has been given to us.

We must therefore love freely and fully in order to find that elevated standard of enjoyment our Lord has intended for us.  There is no reason for us to be miserable, and there is no biblical call for us to not enjoy discipleship and the relationships encumbent to that life of devotion.  So we must resolve to “give, and it will be given.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38).

Glory to You, Lord.  Amen.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Voice of Reason - NOT!

Acts 9:36-43                                                                                                                              Revelation 7:9-17                                                                                                                                       John 10:22-30

“The choice we face is not, as many imagine, between heaven and hell.  Rather, the choice is between heaven and this world.  Even a fool would exchange hell for heaven, but only the wise will exchange this world for heaven.”  - Dave Hunt

I would also add to Mr. Hunt’s observation that we must remember the time for choosing is present and constant.  I also think if we were to connect the reading from John’s Gospel directly to the reading from The Revelation, we may come to understand the context of the “Great Tribulation” or “great ordeal” - that which these who are before the Throne in St. John’s vision had faced and overcome, not succumbed to.

The passage from John’s Gospel beckons disciples into a relationship we do not always understand or fully appreciate.  That is, we have convinced ourselves we need only to identify as “Christian” or as members of a church we offer only lukewarm support to, if even that.  Yet when the full context is understood, we may discover that what Jesus is calling us into may not be as comfortable or even as appealing as we may imagine. 

We will have discovered the so-called “prosperity gospel” at the hands of wealthy TV preachers to be a big, fat lie, and yet it is a lie we have bought into at a base level.  We will have discovered there is a profound difference between discipleship in pursuing things of the Kingdom - and being merely believers (i.e., “cultural Christians”) more fully invested in and devoted to the so-called “American Dream”.

UMC elder JD Walt put it this way when he wrote: “I would have to put myself in the category of those who take Jesus seriously … at the conceptual level, but in reality ... not so much.  So how is it [we] can excuse [ourselves] so readily?  Here’s my theory.  [We] can excuse [ourselves] for inward activity (evil thoughts) that does not lead to outward reality (evil deeds) because [we are] deceived into believing it’s only about me; that [evil thoughts] do not hurt anyone else.  [Our] big problem is [we] think sin is more about [individual] failure than [the injury of others].  [We] think purity [and holiness] are personal issues rather than relational ones.”

It is like the Jewish idea that the “blood crying from the ground” at Abel’s murder may not have been strictly Abel’s own blood as much as it may have been the blood of his line – and The Lord’s own creation - which the world has been denied, entirely obliterated by the will of only one jealous man. 

One cannot help but to think about the “blood” of the tens of millions of unborn children who never saw the light of day, the “blood” which also cries out to The Lord and has entirely “polluted” and “desecrated” this nation (Numbers 35:33; Psalm 106:38). 

The connection is made at a fundamental understanding of the “great ordeal” or the “Great Tribulation” as the life we currently live rather than an obscure concept of a restricted time in the distant future in which the antichrist is active – and we think we will know the antichrist on sight, all evidence to the contrary.

I am more and more convinced we have managed to fool ourselves into believing everything we will face – such as the “great ordeal” – is some future, cataclysmic event we need not prepare ourselves for since it will all be outside our control.  We have managed to convince ourselves that justification without sanctification is entirely our option.  As one preacher (not United Methodist!) put it: we can choose to be seated at the Great Banquet Table – OR – we can settle for merely being a doorkeeper to the Great Banquet Hall. 

Either way, we’re not in hell.  But this goes back to Mr. Hunt’s observation.  No one – not even the demons of hell themselves (Mark 5:10) – would choose hell!  Yet when we are constantly challenged to choose the things of the Kingdom or the creature comforts of this world, we have fully convinced ourselves we can somehow have both despite Jesus’ direct words to the contrary (Luke 16:13).  As JD pointed out, we believe Jesus conceptually … but not really.

It is not always an easy thing to be compared to “sheep” – or the more derogatory term of “sheeple”; alluding to the mindless, reason-free animals who follow Jesus without question in total submission.  We can easily argue we still are in complete control of our faculties and that we are not “mindless” when we follow Jesus, but we are compelled by the Scripture to ask ourselves: Who are these who are before the Throne in The Revelation?  Who are these who devote themselves fully to worship of The Lord in St. John’s vision? 

Are they mere “believers” who once got “saved” or baptized or confirmed but refused afterward the accountability of the Church?  Are they the ones who convinced themselves one does not need to attend worship and be active in the Body of Christ in acts of justice and mercy to be a Christian?  Are they the ones who convinced themselves that salvation/justification precludes a genuine and earnest love for “strangers”, “foreigners/outsiders”, and even one’s enemies? 

Are they among those “believers” who managed to convince themselves Jesus did away with the “old law”, despite Jesus’ direct words to the contrary (Matthew 5:17-18)?  Are these whom St. John sees in his vision the ones who gladly and joyously worship The Lord in the “New Jerusalem” but were entirely indifferent and completely detached in this life?

There is a lot more to Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel than being culturally identified as “Christian”.  The reference to “sheep” is entirely about following Jesus constantly, pursuing only that which the Great Shepherd will lead us to, and foregoing the opportunities we often have to stray from the path and the pasture for what we may believe is greener grass which turns out to be only a septic tank.  Discipleship trusts that what the Great Shepherd leads us to is more than we will ever need and involves desires that flow from the very Heart of Christ Himself … always toward others.

Divine Wisdom defies and confounds human reason (1 Corinthians 1:18), and I think Mr. Hunt takes that into account when he observes that it is the “wise” who will always choose Heaven over this world because it is the “wise” who can discern between that which the world deems good but which the Kingdom of Heaven deems to be spiritual poison

What Jesus is teaching in the Gospel of John and what The Lord reveals in The Revelation is intimately connected in such a way that we very often cannot begin to conceive of.  We reason – only to ourselves because “outsiders” clearly do not believe our shallow witness – and hope there is a measure of truth to the so-called “prosperity Gospel” that we can “name it and claim it” of our heart’s deepest desires without offending The Lord – but failing to realize our deepest desire is to see Heaven’s Gate … but only after we are dead.

Nothing less than the soul of The Holy Church is at stake, but it has nothing to do with the national election; for if our earnest and most profound hope for the future is invested in one candidate or the other, then it may be said we have already strayed completely out of The Great Shepherd’s pasture and are in mortal, spiritual danger. 

Above all else, we must consider whether the Voice of the Great Shepherd drowns out the human “voice of reason” that somehow manages to convince us that where we currently are spiritually is “good enough”.  Our Savior did not settle for anything less than His entire Self given fully in love.  That is the Voice which beckons.  It is the Voice which saves.  Amen.