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.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Need to Know

John 21:1-19

"You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”  Woodrow Wilson

In a well-known political scandal and investigation, we are becoming more and more familiar with “classified” information even though there seems to be no real understanding in the media of what “classified” actually means.  In the case of government and/or military communication, there are various levels of classification that boil down to a “need to know” basis.  “Top Secret”, the highest classification, means very few have a “need to know” … and many more must never know.

Although there are no “secrets” in Christ, there are “mysteries”; and yet disciples have a “need to know”.  What we must come to know, however, is not imparted to us instantaneously at baptism.  What we “need to know” comes only through active engagement and spiritual discipline.  Spiritual growth in discipleship will not come from a void nor can there be real growth based only on what we choose to believe. 

For instance, Jesus is specifically quoted in Matthew’s gospel: “Do not think I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets” (Matthew 5:17a).  Yet a general conversation among many Christians may turn about in this way: “Jesus did away with the requirements of the Law”.  It would seem those Christians with such a narrow understanding of Jesus’ life and purpose beyond merely dying “need to know” quite a bit more than they claim to know.

By the same token, it may seem even The Lord has a “need to know” from time to time.  Abraham was called to sacrifice his beloved Isaac in the wilderness.  We know how the story turned out, and we may question whether The Lord had His doubts about Abraham’s fidelity.  A closer look, however, may suggest it was not so much The Lord who needed to know more but perhaps Abraham, in this experience, would come to know more than he had previously known. 

More about The Lord?  Perhaps.  But almost certainly Abraham came to know more about himself … and even more to the point, Abraham came to know more about himself in relation to his God.  And this, I think, is the basis for every thought, every action, every prayer, every tithe, every other offering, and every spoken word of every disciple.  Who are we IN our GOD?

If we are children of the Living God, if we are truly disciples of the Risen Christ, our entire being is informed not strictly on what we think we know about The Lord nor exclusively what we think we know about ourselves.  Our “need to know” is entirely about what we know about ourselves in The Lord.  And all this in accordance with the Written Word.

Peter loved Jesus; of this there can be no doubt.  We have no reason to question this even though we are also aware that in Jesus’ weakest moments Peter failed Him.  What we do not often consider, however, is how deeply Peter failed himself because of what he did not know.  Peter had no doubt about Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 8:29), and Peter even tried to defend Jesus at His arrest (John 18:10).  Peter knew enough about Jesus at the point of risking his life to protect Him as He was arrested.

Yet when the cock crowed, as Jesus predicted would happen (Matthew 26:34), Peter also discovered that as much as he thought he knew about Jesus, he knew very little about himself IN CHRIST.  And this, I think, is what we are finding on the beach when Jesus questioned Peter repeatedly.  Over and over our Lord asked Peter, “Do you love Me?”; and over and over, Peter insisted his love was genuine and true.

After Peter first answered, “Yes, Lord, I love you”, we might have responded in this way: Well, then, why did you bail on Me when I needed you most??  But this was not Jesus’ response.  Jesus’ answer goes deeper, much deeper than a mere one-on-one “personal relationship”.  This passage is generally understood as the “restoration of Peter”, when he was forgiven for denying even knowing Jesus – and this may be so at least on some level – but there has to be more to this exchange if it is going to have any meaning for us … right here … right now … and well beyond this hour of worship.

We and The Lord know we have bailed on Jesus plenty of times, and we’ve often done so as an impulse, as a part of who we really are - as a part of our being that was engaged in a particular moment and answered the best way we knew how.  This was certainly Peter’s response in the face of imminent danger!  Yet even in those moments we did not knowingly deny The Lord or our belief in Him.  Betray Him?  Well, that may be another consideration even though we still certainly did not mean to. 

We did not set out to turn our backs on our Savior, our Lord, our Master.  I think, however, we often act so carelessly and thoughtlessly because even though we think we know ourselves well and we may think we know all we need to know about The Lord – YET we probably do not know much about ourselves IN CHRIST.

In point of fact, it may be considered that when we receive the Eucharist of our Lord, we are not completely engaged in the act itself because we are almost completely unfamiliar with who we are IN CHRIST.  We know – or should know – that the act of receiving the bread and drinking of the Cup is of no effect if we are not fully connected and unwilling to be so intimately connected, but that connection must transcend mere “belief”.

We are, in a manner of speaking, consuming Christ by partaking of His flesh and His blood.  We are internalizing our Lord for spiritual nourishment just as a meal strengthens our own flesh and bones.  This nourishment, however, does not do much for us if we purge the meal as soon as we return to our seats by spiritual neglect.  That is, in failing to even try to understand the fullest meaning of the Sacrament itself.

This is all connected to our own efforts and our most intimate desires.  Just as we teach our children there is always something new to learn, so we must also understand that spiritual growth is not only a matter of learning or memorizing the Bible; it is much more about what we come to know about the Bible, The Lord, and ourselves as all connected.  It is necessary for us to know more and more about ourselves IN CHRIST, how we relate to The Word, and how The Lord feeds and informs our very being in all we say and in all we do.

So when Jesus repeatedly asked Peter about his love for Him, He was not only talking about how much Peter loves Jesus; Peter was being shown how an earnest love for The Lord is to be conveyed in “feeding” and “tending” The Lord’s own flock.  That is, telling the world how much we love Jesus is not going to go very far with them OR with The Lord if we do not also “tend” and “feed” the other of those who also belong to The Lord – whether we think they do or not.

What we “need to know” about The Lord and The Law in the Holy Scriptures is not nearly as important as knowing who we are in The Lord and The Law; for if we are not The Gospel, if we are not striving to become the Good News in all this, there is much more we “need to know”.  And our Lord will show us what we “need to know” … if we let Him.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Invitation

As it goes, typically in Protestant churches, toward the end of the worship service, the pastor will issue an “invitation” to the congregation.  Those who desire a relationship with The Lord are invited to come forward and commit themselves to Christ through His Church. 

What is also typical is the invitation to recite the so-called “sinner’s prayer” as a matter of confession with the understanding it is this prayer which summons The Lord to “come into one’s heart” to become one’s “personal” Savior and Lord.

None of this is bad … on the surface.  Yet when we look more closely at the state of the Church today and witness the continuing exodus from the Church of the so-called “none’s” and “done’s”, primarily of the millennial age (18-29), we may discover there is nothing beneath that surface if those who accept the invitation (and those charged with supporting these new catechumens) fail to go deeper.  Accepting this invitation is only the beginning of an exciting, sometimes dangerous, often uncomfortable, yet always fulfilling adventure in discipleship; i.e., following and learning from Jesus through the Written Word.

Having been raised in the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), most of this is still somewhat strange to me even these many years later as a United Methodist pastor.  Not bad, not good; just different.  There is a structure in place in the RCC that maintains a certain - often perceived as rigid - discipline.  Deliberately learning about church doctrine and moving into the Covenant is the essence of the sacramental process in the RCC (Protestants typically refer to this process as “unnecessary works”).  The invitation is answered at baptism when parents vow to bring their children into the Covenant and become active partners with the Church in rearing their children as disciples of Christ. 

My observation goes a little further than to assess the value of the Protestant invitation.  I’m wondering which way the invitation should be understood.

The typical invitation is to “invite Jesus” into one’s heart with the implied expectation that Jesus will magically transform one’s life with no effort on the part of the one inviting Jesus in.  I cannot say this is how it is preached or taught, but I can say with relative certainty that this is often how it seems to be understood; let Jesus do the work with one’s heart, and everything else will fall into place.  In other words, Jesus will follow us rather than that we are to learn to follow Jesus.

What if catechumens (new disciples) understood this invitation as it is biblically pronounced (“Seek The Lord while He may be found”)?  What if catechumens were taught there is a standing Covenant into which we are invited?  What if we all admitted that Jesus does not and will not separate Himself from that Covenant to follow us?  What if catechumens were treated by the Church (and parents!) as “students” who have much to learn and a profound need to learn more than the “coat-of-many-colors-fairy-tales”, that what they (and we) need to know will not be magically imparted to recipients unwilling to receive its terms?  What if the Church were to hold these new disciples (and parents!) accountable, just as a public school teacher holds each student accountable? 

The information is there, but one must delve into that information and engage in the work of learning as worthy of our attention and efforts while respecting the wisdom of the teachers.  Doing the work and actively participating in the learning process is how the knowledge is internalized to ideally become a part of the student’s learning process and of the student’s life.  Students typically understand this.  They may not like it, but they get it.  Though they may hope otherwise, students generally know if they do not do the work they will not make the grade.

So how can it be that we somehow seem to think this does not apply to discipleship studies in actively “seeking”?  How is it that the Church has allowed a very shallow notion that “getting saved” settles everything?  This is not to diminish in any way the power of The Lord to do wondrous things with individual lives!  The Lord has certainly done a work in my own heart; and though I may be “bound for the Promised Land” by my own desire and the “hope that is within me”, I also know holiness as “spiritual perfection” is not merely given but embraced in one’s own life (Matthew 19:16-21) by active participation.  There is always something new to learn about The Lord and His Word.  I know I am not “holy” (perfect, complete) and thus worthy of Heaven’s Gate, but I also know the potential is there and that with The Lord’s help, holiness is possible as Gabriel and Jesus both declare (Luke 1:37; Mark 10:27).

The Church is at a critical crossroads, and I know every individual church lives in fear of losing members – even members who do not tithe, do not participate in any discipleship studies, and rarely attend worship services.  The churches are even more afraid of confronting these marginal members for fear that any push may be the one that causes them to leave for good.  Yet we fail to understand that “tolerance” (the pop culture word-of-the-day) without accountability cannot be biblically or doctrinally justified as “love”.  We also seem not to understand that the strength of the community is compromised and ultimately diminished when that community’s standards are not faithfully taught, faithfully upheld, and faithfully maintained with integrity.

This is the heart of Covenant.  There are standards of holiness, standards of discipleship, and reasonable standards of expectation for those who are invited in (which should be everyone!) or who ask to become a part of that Covenant.  These standards also apply (perhaps even more so, cf Luke 12:47-48) to those who propose to teach and to lead. 

The sad fact, however, is there will be those who will decide for themselves they do not wish to be a part of that Covenant.  They want to be “saved” (who does not want to go to Heaven??), but they demand salvation only on their own terms as they “summon” Jesus to come into their hearts rather than to accept the wide-open invitation to enter into the Heart of Christ through His Church, His congregation, His people, His very Body. 

It is likely these have been taught from an early age by a careless church pursuing “popularity” and being “relevant” (rather than fidelity and holiness) that salvation on human terms is possible.  Since it is biblically expressed as The Lord’s will that all be saved (Ezekiel 18:23; 1 Timothy 2:4), it may be implied that The Lord will soften His demands and compromise His expectations of a holy people for the sake of becoming a “personal” Savior to one who so “summons” Him.

We must never forget it is The Lord who summons us in and through Christ Jesus.  It is The Lord who invites, and it is The Lord alone who saves – but we must be willing participants in our transformation by doing the work asked of The Lord’s people … on The Lord’s terms: “For your Father knows of your needs before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:8).

Let the invitation stand, but let us not be confused about the nature or direction of this invitation.  We are encouraged by Christ Jesus to “seek”, to “ask”, and to “knock”.  Never are we told The Lord may be summoned by us on our terms as a fairy tale genie who grants wishes and fulfills our commands.  The standing invitation from our God is to find what we are ultimately looking for, what we were created to desire above all else, who we really are in Him.  His is an open invitation to come as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us as we once were; for this is when Eternity begins.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The School Yard: electoral politics in the 21st century

“Keep these words I am commanding you in your hearts.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your homes and on your gates.”  Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NRSV

The so-called “fourth estate” of the press is arguably the most powerful of the estates, the other three attributed to branches of government.  The term can be traced back to 18th-century England and speaks of the power of the press in reporting government actions.  A government can command virtually anything but is often stayed in going too far by the power of a free press to make citizens aware of what could be an unpopular and morally questionable policy.

That power occurs to me as I read the reports of the Republican presidential contenders who had once pledged to support the Republican nominee, whomever it may be.  Things being as they are, nasty and unfiltered as school yard fights often are, each of the remaining contenders has backed off the pledge to support the Republican nominee.  The reason such a thing has come to be is because of the vile words and actions especially between Trump and Cruz.  More to the point, Gov. Kasich has not allowed himself to be drawn into this spitting match and, as a result, does not get nearly as much press coverage.

In speaking of the power of the press, however, it has occurred to me – especially in comparing this election to that of a school yard or street fight in this age – that just as kids provoke others in getting a fight started and keeping it going, so also is the press by continuing to “report” on every nasty thing spoken.  Then, of course, we have children recording these fights with cell phones and posting them on social media.  The “reporters”, of course, are pretty pleased with themselves as are those who report every nasty thing spoken by these “adults” who aspire to the highest elected office in the land.

When Moses spoke his words to the Israelites prior to their moving into the Promised Land, he also issued a standard by which the people of Israel must conduct themselves; assuring them that the measure of their success in their new homeland will be directly proportional to their faithfulness to their God and His Law.  Their willing faithfulness, however, was not restricted only to the contemporary generation. 

Moses was adamant that this Law should not be only an afterthought or only something to consider during their worship times; this Law must become a part of their being and their doing and their relating to one another.  Only in this way will the children begin to understand the Law and how it works in daily living, in “real life” beyond what is theoretical.

Electoral politics is ideally a time in which ideas and policy proposals are exchanged in public debates.  Voters, through the “fourth estate”, get to hear about these proposals and ideas and then decide for themselves how they should vote.

Unfortunately, the “fourth estate” is giving us little more than an exchange of insults, and maybe this is all there is to report.  Finger-pointing and name-calling between grown men and women have always been an unfortunate part of this electoral process, but this time around it seems to have gotten much worse – especially when it has become a contest between who has the more attractive wife.

Make no mistake.  The anti-Trump PAC (not affiliated with Cruz) which released the nearly-nude photo of Mrs. Trump before the Utah primary crossed a line which should not have been crossed and opened this door which should never have been opened.  Trump accused Cruz of being behind the profoundly inappropriate ad and threatened to “spill the beans” on Mrs. Cruz.  Not long after this, Trump released a comparative photo of his wife alongside an unflattering photo of Mrs. Cruz.  The “fourth estate” ran with it, the electorate has been hungrily eating it up, and the children continue to provoke and record even nastier school yard fights.  We as a nation, as a people, are the poorer for it, for the children are only a reflection of the culture in which they are raised.

It is often said the press can only report what is, that who we are and what we do is only exposed by the press.  Perhaps this much is true; but I cannot help but to wonder if we are in some measure being defined, at least in part, by what the press chooses to report rather than that we are being merely exposed. 

At this point it is not at all about whom we may elect to serve as president, for it will be far from over come November.  Our children and the future of this nation are at risk.  From the time of Moses, a people – the whole people – are responsible for teaching our children well; and when we poison the well from which everyone drinks, we will one day be called to account for how we have lived and what we taught.  Call it “karma” if this is the preferred term of an agnostic society, but Divine Retribution is near at hand; and the judgment may already be upon us.

Yet Moses also called it.  The people will forget themselves and their God and will go and act in accordance with what seems best for the time.  They will forget the Law which governs and the God who set the standard for His people. 

Even still, there is always a way back.  A change of behavior, a determination of exactly where we went wrong, and a determination to make it right means we have a chance to make things right once again.  And when we do, as Moses told the people of Israel: “When you … return to The Lord your God … then The Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you …” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3). 

It is a standard which demands mutual respect.  When we refuse to engage in our own brand of retribution, when we refuse to “return evil for evil”, the evil will be slowed.  Can we not see it only gets worse when we engage evil on its terms, become evil ourselves, and that our children become the “collateral damage”? 

There is hope for this nation, but that hope will not come by any one person.  It will come only when we stand for what is truly right and live according to that standard of righteousness; for this is the true strength of a people … a whole people.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Worst becomes the Best - a sermon for Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday 2016

John 20:1-18

“As yet they did not know the Scripture; that the Messiah must rise again from the dead.”  John 20:9

Traditionally speaking, Mary Magdalene has gotten a bad rap.  The only thing we really know about Mary prior to her becoming one of Jesus’ most devoted disciples is that she had been cleansed of “seven demons” (Luke 8:2).  Prior to that, Luke’s text only speaks of “evil spirits and infirmities”. 

There is no specific mention of Mary having been a prostitute; but over time she has been so portrayed (and for reasons unknown beyond conspiracy theories).  The only thing many can figure is that because Mary was a woman, among those“seven demons” must surely have been one of prostitution.  This is the unfortunate result of our “reading between the lines” instead of allowing ourselves to be informed by the Scriptures themselves.  So when Mary is deemed a prostitute, she is also marginalized culturally and socially.

When we begin to talk about the significance of the Resurrection, however, that small title (true or not) becomes entirely insignificant – scandalous though it surely would have been.  It does seem to speak, however, of our strange need to assign to others a sin worse than our own – sort of like what we do with homosexuals today.  This way we can claim the Resurrection for ourselves and still leave those less-than-desirables out of the mix until they come around to our ways of doing and thinking. 

Isn’t it interesting, though, that the common factor in all the Resurrection accounts is that Mary is the first one to come to the tomb?  What this might suggest to us is that those who come to The Lord later in life, as opposed to those who grew up in the Church, may have a distinct spiritual advantage.  They may have experienced the worst.  They may have seen the worst and may have, most generally, been treated the worst.

Nowadays, it seems to be somewhat trendy to be an agnostic or even an atheist; a freethinker or a humanist – a designation of great pride for some.  And although we may be able to blame the presence of so much “progression” in our culture and in our colleges and universities, it may come closer to the truth that the Church has remained largely silent.  Maybe we’ve tried to be trendy ourselves, and those we propose to witness to can see that this culture and The Kingdom of Heaven are simply not compatible.  The Church cannot be “trendy” without compromising Her integrity.  Freethinkers know this.  They also know when they’re being played for fools.

Either way, the one who once knew degradation and marginalization all too well became the one who genuinely mourned the death of Jesus as opposed to the others who remained hidden out of fear now that the One who stirred everything up may have been a fraud – “As yet they did not know the Scripture …”; after all, how can the immortal Sonof God be destroyed by mortal hands?

Notice that even though the others came running to see after Mary reported the empty tomb, Mary remained at the tomb as the others left.  Maybe the others went away in confusion, but I think more likely they went away because it seemed clear at this point that the Romans or the religious authorities were not quite done with this “movement”.  It was not enough to kill the Leader of this “movement”, this self-proclaimed Messiah; now they took His body away!

Mary not only refused to leave; she even confronted, meekly perhaps, a Man she supposed to have been the gardener.  Even after seeing two angels, it is still not quite sinking in.  This passage often makes me wonder exactly what she was seeing – especially in coming face-to-face with Messiah, she does not recognize Him or the moment for all it is.

Think about this, though.  The “Teacher” suddenly becomes clear to Mary after this temporary “haze” during which she is probably filled with grief, maybe a little anger, and certainly a lot of confusion.  Through it all, however, she has refused to give up her search.  She is the manifestation of Jesus’ assurance that those who “seek will find”. 

But we should also be mindful of the encounters Jesus had with the religious authorities as He hung out with those “undesirables” who had been cast out, marginalized, or altogether ignored.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of all stripes found their way into Jesus’ heart by little more than a simple invitation: “Come, sit and eat.  Let’s talk for a while”. 

But this is also the breath of that very deceptive modern invention referred to – very often, incredibly arrogantly - as “spiritual but not religious”.  They might claim a “personal” relationship with Jesus or a “spiritual relationship with the universe”, but they generally keep “organized religion” at a safe distance.  The problem with these lofty claims is that these relationships they claim to be a part of rarely produce the “fruit” necessary to sustain any relationship, let alone invite others in.  It is entirely one-sided and takes nothing into account except one’s own personal gratification. 

When we think about the apostles themselves, then, especially on this Brand New Day which has dawned, who was the first to see?  It was Mary, of course, who came to see; but when she did not find what she was looking for, she committed herself to search.  She refused to allow “the world” and its encumbent distractions and potential threats to stand in the way of her search for “[her] Lord”.

Think of it.  The one who once had “seven demons” cast from her, the very worst of the worst in terms of being separated from The Lord, was the first to see the Risen Messiah.  The fullness of the Resurrection and the Glory of the Kingdom had been revealed to her!  Now we might be tempted to say that if the others had stuck around, surely Jesus would have revealed Himself just the same.

Maybe, but we cannot ignore what is written.  Only Mary stuck around.  AND YET when Jesus fully revealed Himself to her, He did not invite her to stick around for a “personal” encounter.  No, Mary was sent on an errand for The Lord.  She was in no way advised to keep it to herself nor is it suggested The Lord revealed Himself only for her sake or her personal sense of spiritual gratification.  She was not told to go back to her own life on her own terms.  NO, she became the Message itself!  She became, in that instant, an apostle to the apostles!  The others knew nothing … until Mary came back to tell them.  The Empty Tomb, it turns out, had no meaning to them, to any of them.

It’s too bad Mary has not been assigned a more prominent role in the historic Church, and it is a profound injustice that in spite of her intense fidelity in the face of possible danger, she stood her ground until she found her Lord, her Teacher.  Even before Jesus advised His Church to “go” and “tell the world”, He sent Mary to the Church … the apostles … to “tell” them the Good News!

So we know what happened on this Glorious Day so long ago … not because someone wrote about it but because someone refused to leave until our Lord’s Body was accounted for.  Not only the Body that was missing from the tomb, but the Body which would come about by the due diligence and the faith of the apostles … especially including Mary.

The Lord our God be praised, for He was once dead but is now alive … alive in the Father, alive in the Spirit, alive in His Body the Church.  The “worst” of Mary became the very best of Messiah!  Now go and tell it … for Christ has been raised, and death is no more!  Amen.

Let's Get Real - a sermon for Easter Sunrise

Luke 24:1-5, 11

“He is Risen”.  So?  “The tomb is empty.”  And?  “Well, this proves The Lord has overcome death”.  How? 

And this, I think, is the difficulty we as the Body of Christ face: this Good News does not seem to travel well outside the Sunday gathering.  We pastors study it, teach it, and preach it.  All too often, however, we AND the congregations we serve leave it where we found it.

It is almost like a private, “inside” story reserved strictly for those already in the know.  For some odd reason – or perhaps for many reasons – this news of a Risen Messiah has not come to mean much except for those who claim to already believe … and maybe hardly even then.

Think about this, for instance.  When was the last time you had a discussion about The Lord with anyone outside of the Sunday school or Bible study setting, beyond what is theoretical?  I mean genuine heartfelt discussions about how the Gospel informs and the Resurrection impacts your life.  Not in the past tense, but in the present.  Can’t remember?  Neither can I. 

So we must not overlook the possibility that this News, remarkable though it is, has become stale, redundant.  It’s the same ol’ same ol’.  Year after year we hear the same stories, we read the same Scripture passages, we look forward to this gathering every year, but something is still missing.  There is an undeniable element that seems to escape us year after uneventful year as well as throughout the year. 

Could it be that as much as we claim to believe it, maybe it just isn’t real to us?

This would explain why so many of us are running on empty.  This would explain why there is no real excitement.  This would explain why we spend more time hating on and talking about one another than reaching out to strangers.  This would help to explain why so many move from church to church in search of something they cannot quite identify until they finally give up and leave the Church altogether – because they never found what they were looking for in the One Place where evidence should be in abundance?

No wonder seekers do not feel welcome enough or even curious enough to come see what the fuss is about – because there is no fuss though there seems to be no shortage of fussin’.  Many of us feel unwelcome to make an unorthodox observation - for fear that others may pounce at the chance to set us straight, often very publiclyby telling us just how wrong we are, making us feel foolish, stupid, and unwelcome to think out loud as we try to work things out in our minds and in our hearts. 

Some may say, “Well, if we had a different pastor, things would be different, let me tell you!”  Or “Well, if more would participate in this or that, things would be different, let me tell you!”   Which, of course, we know isn’t true because what we are already doing and have been doing for so long is what we will likely be doing tomorrow and the next day …

Someone once said the reason things get so ugly in the Church is because there are so many willing and eager to criticize what is but will not envision or participate in what could be.  And the reason this is so is because the very News that should inform the Church’s every action, every decision, every step, every breath is not only “old” news … it’s not even news.

Think about it.  We will talk about sports and politics, work and school, children and family, and just about every little thing under the sun in our casual conversations, but to talk about what happened at Mt. Sinai, or the deeper meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, or to discuss any sermon for that matter (beyond criticizing the preacher) … well, that’s being all “religious”.  And while we may not mind being known as “Christian” (that identity being more of a cultural thing), we do not wish to be perceived as Jesus Freaks!  Something more reminiscent of the 60’s and all those long-haired, peace-loving pot smokers.

Why can’t we have conversations around the dinner table and the pot luck tables and our living rooms about The Lord and the Gospel instead of the inane conversations about a new rifle, a new truck, a new fishing rod, or a new putter?  Could it be that we have been so overwhelmed by life and death and taxes, that just as surely as Jesus assured His Church He would be with us for all time, we simply have not noticed that He truly is … with us … for all time … still?

I pray for an awakening.  I yearn, I ache for an “He’s in the next room” experience.  I fear, however, that we’ve become so wrapped up in being Christians, we have forgotten our deepest need to be genuine disciples.  For, you see, it is in earnest discipleship by which we discover how the Gospel must inform our actions.  It is in earnest discipleship by which we have any chance to discover why it matters that Christ our Lord was indeed raised from Death and now sits at the Right Hand of our Holy Father.  For that matter, we may even finally discover exactly what THAT means beyond what is theoretical!

We talk about what is real to us, and we think about those things that are truly important to us.  We allow the preachers and Sunday school teachers to “talk” to us on Sunday morning about Jesus and stuff, but then we go on from there as if nothing happened … because nothing happened. 

And yet … the Eternal Kingdom is the only “real” thing we have.  This is the undeniable element that is often missing.  The Kingdom of Heaven is the only thing in our lives that cannot be taken, cannot rust, and cannot be destroyed.  The Kingdom of Heaven is the only thing we have that will not have to be repaired or replaced or upgraded in the course of our lives.  Everything else is an illusion, a temporal state of being that will absolutely, unequivocally come to an end.  One day the “vanity” we devoted a lifetime in pursuit of will not even be a distant memory. 

The only way the Glory of the Kingdom – the fullness of which is revealed in the Resurrection – will be real to us is when we get real about the Kingdom which is already at hand.  It is ours for the taking only because it is so freely offered.  “Come”, our Holy Father beckons us, "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isaiah 55:1). 

For I have already covered the tab, says The Lord.  Your debt is no more.  Oh, and by the way, in case you HAVE forgotten, I love you.  Amen.

Friday, March 25, 2016

How low must we go to be raised up? A Sermon for Holy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-14
1 Corinthians 6:1-11
John 13:1-17

For all He was about to do – to stand as only the Innocent can, to be beaten to within an inch of His life, AND THEN to be hung up until dead – Jesus, for some reason, still found it necessary to display yet another act of extreme humility. 

Reading this account about the Son of the Most High God, then, and envisioning Him stooping so low – literally and figuratively – to wash the foot of another goes far beyond the act itself.  It is incredibly intimate, deeply personal, and remarkably humbling.  It is about as low as one can go in relating to others.

So as Jesus finishes washing Peter’s feet, our Lord asks, “Do you know what I have done to you?”   Chances are Peter had no more a clue than you or I beyond having witnessed a foot washing, a ritual.  And indeed Jesus tells them they must wash one another’s feet, but what we are seeing has nothing to do with hygiene or foot care.  There is something else going on, something so far-reaching as to have escaped the notice of the Church probably since the time when Jesus did it Himself.  We do it once a year – if then - to commemorate this moment, but in daily living it seems clear we really don’t understand it.

Yet Jesus chastised Peter AND those who would dare to refuse it: “You have no share in Me”. 

So if we are not talking about foot washing, what can we see in this act of extreme humility?  What is missing from the very heart of the Church today that is signified by Jesus in this humble act as a must-do

American poet, Maya Angelou, may have expressed it best: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So how do others – those we consider to be outsiders, guests, unbelievers, non-Christians, or any others who are not like us in any way - feel after having had an encounter with any one of us?  With the Church as a whole?  Do they feel unconditionally accepted … or judged and rejected?  Do they feel comforted … or are they cast out and even lonelier than before? 

It is a haunting question, but it is also a necessary evaluation not only of how we relate to others but, more importantly, how we do so in the spirit of such humble service in the Name of Christ – acting as He did, acting as He would still, acting as He commands.

And this is the point about the deeper meaning in the act.  Until we actually engage in such acts of humility in service to one another, we will never be able to fully understand what it is Jesus wants us – NEEDS US – to know.  Reading it only makes it theoretical.  Actual engagement in the act makes it real.  And this is the essence of faith: trusting Him to reveal it to us as we trust Him to so engage.

It is not about washing feet.  The foot washing represents something much deeper and more far reaching than merely stooping down to wash the feet of another.  The significance of this act comes before THE Act we must allow, THE Act we must engage before we can have a share of Christ Jesus: the Crucifixion.

What can this mean to those of us who do not deny the Crucifixion?  Surely we believe it happened; and every year we hear it and maybe try to understand it.  I think, however, that what Jesus is actually conveying is the depth of His Crucifixion and what it ultimately means.  If it is the forgiveness of sins, then it has to go beyond a single moment, beyond a one-time-and-only-very-general confession.

In order to have that “share” in Christ Jesus, we have to allow the fullness of the Crucifixion; but we do not merely allow Him to die.  Rather we allow Him to take away sin – our own sin.  And not just sin in general, but specific grievances and burdens and deep, dark secrets we continue to bear; for only in this may we expect to reach a point at which we can – or will – excuse the sins of others.  Do you see there is only so much we can do – even if we were so willing - when we are so overwhelmingly burdened ourselves? 

We cannot love unless we know we are loved.  We cannot forgive unless we know we are forgiven.  So if we do not fully love and will not completely forgive, it is likely we have yet to experience the fullness of that love and the depth of that forgiveness.  When we have the weight of sin on our own shoulders, when we are shackled about our necks and having the spiritual life choked out of us, we have only the spiritual energy to worry about ourselves – and often not enough even for this!  We are not at all interested in worrying about or helping others as long as we are so heavily burdened and our own needs so great.

So as Peter allowed Jesus to serve him in this incredible way – even if Peter did not fully understand it at the time – Peter was, unbeknownst to himself, enabled to serve others in the same way.  It is the “example” Jesus left for His Church, His Body; not as a warm-and-fuzzy, feel-good organization of people who like each other as long as they play by our rules but as the genuine Body of Christ willing to love and serve others as we have been so thoroughly loved and served.

Sometimes we worry a little too much about “getting saved” as pertaining to what we are personally saved from and do not spend nearly enough time and thought and prayer and discernment considering exactly what we have been “saved” for

The apostles were still not quite getting what was coming, let alone what it would come to mean; but we have the benefit of knowing we are about to be set free – if we will allow ourselves to be freed!  This includes the sin in our lives we have left buried and ignored for too long.  It is time to allow our Lord to do this thing for us we’ve been aching for, yearning for, but were too afraid to bring up – maybe hoping it would just go away.  Heaven forbid we face it again when all we want to do is forget it and pretend it never happened!

Yet “Unless I wash you”, our Lord says, you have no share in Me”. 

Let it be so, Blessed Savior!  Teach us to face it, confess it, and hand it over to You!  Wash us clean.  Break our chains!  Free us from the anxiety that so weighs us down so we may have that “SHARE” in You that You so freely offer as You call us also to share as freely with others!  By Your Mercy and in Your Most Holy Name, may it come to be!  Amen.