Sunday, May 06, 2018

All Up, All In

6 May 2018 – 6th Sunday of Easter
Acts 10:44-48; John 15:9-17

“I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”  John 15:17

What does our Lord mean by saying His commands are given “so [we] may love one another”?  Does He suggest that without these commands, we are incapable of love?  Or that without His commands we may lack a willingness to love “as He has loved us”?  Does it even matter whether we are willing just so long as we do it … which is, of course, another way of asking if it matters whether our hearts are really in it?

Attitude is everything, of course, and a good attitude makes any task bearable, no matter how mundane or difficult the task – like loving someone we don’t even like.  The trick is to understand and appreciate every task in a positive light as something needed, something that serves a greater purpose beyond the task itself, as something that matters not to ourselves but to others.  Because this cannot be emphasized enough: the kind of love Jesus is referring to is not subject to how we may be feeling at any given time, and it is absolutely not subject to our cultural standards.

There is even more to what Jesus is talking about.  Doing for the sake of doing because the work needs to be done is important, but often our challenge is in finding real joy in what we do – not only for the sake of personal satisfaction in the “abundant life” Jesus offers but for the joy of knowing we enhance our Holy Father’s reputation among those who may question His goodness, His mercy.  Just as importantly, so we may experience Divine Love ourselves because we all need that affirmation.

There are too many quests for “personal” in religion anymore to the point of rendering the Church meaningless, truly irrelevant, and only an afterthought.  We often miss altogether our need to live, to work, and to love in community with one another.  Too much “personal”, too much “me first, me only”, too much in expectations of joy falling into our laps rather than seeking it out is all very subjective.  We miss the universal element, meaning love for one (even for oneself) must be love for all – or it cannot be said to have come from The Lord.

The “circumcised believers” who were with Peter (probably meaning the Jews) were “astounded” to learn that The Holy Spirit visited even the Gentiles (Acts 10:45). Peter himself was equally astounded about the vision he had experienced prior to his meeting with Cornelius and the other Gentiles.  The killing and eating of that which is, by The Word, “unclean” was reprehensible to him only because he thought the vision was about “food”, about what is applicable only to himself and what he can or cannot do, what he can or cannot eat.

Yet when Peter put together the experience of the vision and the Gentiles who would summon him to preach the Good News, suddenly what Peter had experienced in the vision was not at all about food, not at all about himself.  “I understand now that our Lord does not show partiality”.  That is, He does not love one more than another, He does not favor any group over another, and He does not recognize our “personal” sense of religion or faith, our sense of right and wrong, our sense of good vs. evil, our sense of “love” outside of His “commands”.

Our feelings, our moods, how we choose to experience and express “love” are all subjective outside the “commands” of The Lord.  We may say aloud how much we love Jesus, but we overlook Jesus’ “commands” within the context of the kind of love He is referring to; loving one another when we don’t even like them.  Expressing to them the depth of the sacred value The Lord attaches to them even when we cannot find that value ourselves.  And in so doing, finding within ourselves that very Love coming from the One who perfected love at Calvary.

It is not always easy, but I think there is an element of understanding what Jesus means when He teaches us to avoid the “easy path”, the path of least resistance, the path with fewer challenges, fewer obstacles – because the Truth is that “easy path” is far more dangerous than we can possibly realize, comfortable though it may seem. 

The danger lies in the deception that the abundant life found only in Christ, that abundant life hijacked by the so-called “prosperity gospel”, is marked by material wealth and feel-good notions of faith that are incompatible with Scripture.  Living in ignorance of what the Scriptures teach is not the answer nor can the answers be found when we choose to interpret the Scriptures independent of over 2000 years of apostolic revelation and interpretation.

If we are going to be “all up, all in” for the sake of Divine Love within the context of Divine “commands”, it must first begin with trust; trusting The Lord not only for the sake of “going to heaven” but also trusting that our Lord knows what He’s talking about in the here-and-now.  If we withhold The Lord’s love from anyone for any reason, we are effectively stating we do not trust Jesus, we do not trust The Word.  We trust only our instincts and our own feelings.

What if our Lord had not been “all up, all in”?  What if our Shepherd had trusted His own feelings, His own fears, and simply walked away rather than to allow Himself to be arrested, beaten to within an inch of His life, and hung on a cross until dead?  What if our Lord had said, “I’m just not feelin’ it today for these jerks who are just going to abandon Me anyway”?  What if our Lord had embraced the cheap notion of religion we have created for ourselves – that if our God loved us, really loved us, He would not ask so much of us?

But He didn’t.  “I am giving you these commands so you may love one another … as I have loved you”.  It is the depth of Love He has even for those we cannot stand, the very ones for whom Christ died, the very ones upon whom the Holy Spirit fell.

Christ has died.  Christ has risen, and Christ will come again”.  For you, for me, and even for them.  To the glory of The Father, The Son, The Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Must We Really?

Today is the nationally designated Day of Prayer (established in 1952 by President Truman, not the Holy Scriptures), and I've been asked before why I don't actively participate. While I don't go out of my way to avoid NDP, I have a hard time fully embracing it.

Every Sabbath (Saturday) is a day of prayer. Every Day of The Lord (Sunday) is a day of prayer; these days established by The Lord and by the early Church, respectively, to devote to worship, prayer, The Word, and the Sacraments. Each of these is devoted to the community of faith coming together to give thanks for the past week and to pray and to prepare for the week ahead.

As I continue to develop into my role in the Church as a pastor as well as a disciple of Christ and seek to become more actively engaged in The Way (as we all must), I become less concerned about gathering for prayer only because the president or the governor has declared it. I agree the nation must always seek ways to come together, but the faithful must first find it within themselves to worship The Lord deliberately, purposefully, and with holy intentions.

I do not discourage NDP. Any opportunity to engage the secular within the holy narrative is a worthwhile endeavor - until "what is holy is thrown to the dogs" and eventually loses any real meaning.

I do pray The Lord will deliver this nation, but the "leadership" from Washington DC cannot ask for or expect a national day of prayer to have any real impact while they actively seek ways to destroy those with whom they disagree and continue to deceive those whom they claim to represent. This unholy conduct, unfortunately, is not limited to Washington DC.

It bleeds into the Church which, in too many instances, has become more concerned with political action and social justice than with Her standing before The Lord. Not to impugn social justice, but often it seems to be that our sense of social justice is highly subjective, with no real shared value, and not based strictly on The Word which requires we look out for one another. Social justice, then, becomes a "god" unto itself, and prayer becomes self-serving only to that end.

Will The Lord hear a collective prayer nationally designated? Only The Lord knows. Prayer is never a wasted effort nor an empty gesture - unless we are seeking "our will be done" rather than His. Then, as The Word seems to infer, will our prayers fall on deaf Ears.

It is often said, "As the Church goes, so goes the nation". I might ask, then, how're we doin' so far? Until the Church finds Her way according to The Way, until the Church takes its role as spiritual leader to the nation seriously, we will continue to be lead by the nose according to the whims of "Caesar".

Looking at the state of this nation, I suggest we "seek The Lord while He may be found". Then may we expect our prayers to be heard ... and answered.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Unraveling at the Point of Dispute

"Methodism was not born because of any doctrinal dispute”.

Disciples studying for the ministry in the United Methodist Church (UMC) as elders, deacons, and licensed pastors have surely read and heard this declaration from many seminary and course of study professors.  John Wesley was a priest of the Church of England, and there is no indication he ever had disputes with Anglican (catholic, little “c”) doctrine.  His disputes with the powers-that-be were that the church needed to more proactive in the lives of the marginalized, that the church needed to go to the people rather than to merely expect the people to show up. 

However, it was not social justice or social principles Wesley took to the people.  It was the Good News of The Lord faithfully delivered, and the people were left to decide for themselves which “side” they would choose – the full promise of the Gospel or the empty promises of the world.   Only the Holy Spirit compelled many to step forward and receive that Good News for themselves.

It is strangely ironic, then, that disputes of doctrine may soon be the undoing of the United Methodist Church - as we now know it - whose only mission is to “make disciples” but whose mission has been seriously compromised in favor of a very highly subjective “social justice”.  The UMC’s steadfast teaching on human sexual ethics has been ruled by the UM Judicial Council as having the force of church law, and it was recently affirmed in decision 1341 that “Under the long-standing principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore, or negate Church law”.  This includes matters of sexual conduct.

Since 1972, there have been those who have insisted that the church’s stance be changed to be more accommodating of the dominant human culture.  Now we are at a point of official declarations of disobedience by bishops, clergy, and even whole Annual Conferences because the covenant they all freely entered into is no longer tolerable to them.  

“Holy Conferencing” is upheld as one of many means of grace in the UMC.  That is, we gather to worship, to pray, and to celebrate our common ministry in Christ with one another and with the communities we are called to serve.  Included in this principle of “holy conferencing” is our need to be held to account for the very challenging components of discipleship with a sincere and expected offer of help and support when (not if) we falter.  Sometimes we or our fellows must be challenged in some chosen courses of action not merely because we disagree with the action but because we understand the Judgment is coming and is perhaps upon us now, and that it is our intense desire that “all” be found in good standing with The Lord.

While the circus continues on the national stage as some of our fellows insist upon publicly airing the Church’s dirty laundry (note that the secular press will gleefully report these disputes and protests but are virtually silent on the remarkable work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief {UMCOR} during this challenging hurricane season and other disasters!), the local church is having a difficult time trying to wade through the nonsense and find some measure of good sense as it pertains to the doctrinal practices of the United Methodist Church.  It isn’t always easy to maintain a solid composure and missional focus on the local level, and it certainly presents challenges to clergy and laity alike to stay focused on the “main thing”.  If the Primary Mission of the UMC is to “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world”, how do we stay focused on that Great Commission while some insist we first hear, and agree with, them and their ideas on what is most important?  And frame it under “social justice” just for good measure – in case we’re not biting?

It matters because the UMC continues a steady decline in worship attendance, Sunday school and small group participation, professions of faith, and tithing – all measures of the Church’s vitality.  It matters not to a connectional Church that one Conference may be faring better than another, for we can be no better off than the weakest among us.  Of course we must acknowledge there are many who are only looking for a reason to bow out of the life of the Church and/or to withhold funds – all spiritually very risky – and we cannot accommodate the demands of every individual nor must we cave to those who scream the loudest or give (or threaten to withhold) the most money. 

And this is the very reason why this “issue” is so troublesome to so many.  It seems one side (or maybe both) may be willing to see the whole Church burned to the ground rather than to concede the greater point.  Perhaps we need King Solomon’s wisdom to guide us from this point (1 Kings 3:16-27

Even those who might be willing to be more accommodating have acknowledged the difficulty with trying to stay on task and remove ourselves from any sort of political posturing; and on the local level, what happens at General Conference does not always flow easily to the local church.  Clergy are in a very difficult position in trying to maintain the vitality of our Connection without making members feel compelled to pick a side before we can continue on The Way.

Yet this is how many are left to feel.  The raging battles make many feel as though the UMC cannot continue to “make disciples” until we first choose which “side” we will make disciples with.  At least, this how the advocates of a much more liberal doctrine make us (me) feel.  It is as if I cannot continue until I decide whether or not I will agree to marry any and all who demand to be married regardless of my personal beliefs.  It is as if the Gospel itself has no meaning or purpose until we choose which “side” we will work with.

Worse than this is the false dichotomy that we must choose between what we understand about “faithfulness” to The Lord and another’s notion of secular and cultural “inclusiveness”.  It is an impossible choice to make and an unfair burden to place on Christians, many of whom are not yet equipped to deal with such matters.  Never mind the “milk” vs “solid food” of theology; we’re trying to serve these “babes” hard liquor!!  It is, I believe, the primary reason so many are choosing to leave the UMC.  They come to hear the Good News, not the latest political or social news “from the front”.

Regardless of the outcome of the “Commission on a way forward” and the called session of General Conference, the UMC is going to walk away from this bruised and bloody.  Only The Lord knows whether we will recover and remain intact (or even useful) for His Purposes rather than for our own.

Monday, August 21, 2017

On Circumstantial Hatred

Genesis 45:1-15
Matthew 15:10-20

If anyone had reason to be bitter and vengeful, it would have been Joseph.  Though he was favored by his father Jacob (Israel), his brothers hated him.  Recall that from an early age, Joseph had dreams; dreams he probably did not fully understand and so should have kept to himself … at least among his siblings, because these dreams foretold of a time when his older brothers and even his parents would bow down to him (Genesis 37:7). 

Little did Joseph know what he would be forced to endure before this would take place!  He knew he was “favored”, but he had no idea what The Lord may ask of those who have found favor with Him.  Like the “beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”.  Remember Him?

His brothers had conspired to kill Joseph, so deep was their hatred for him.  It was his brother, Reuben, who had convinced the brothers to spare his life (Genesis 37:21-22).  Yet it was also Reuben who had the idea to throw him into a pit. 

We don’t know why the pit seemed a good idea but when a caravan of traveling merchants came by, it was his brother Judah who proposed the idea to sell Joseph to these traders to be rid of him once and for all.  Even if they had no idea what would become of Joseph, they had to know that they were about to break their father’s heart.  But they did it anyway.

Joseph had plenty to be angry and resentful about, and he had every reason to use his substantial power and influence to make his brothers pay for their crime against him.  For a time it looked as though he would have done that very thing but, as the saying goes, all’s well that ends well!  It wasn’t “fate”, however, that turned the tables; it was Joseph’s unflinching faith!

There are a couple of things for us to bear in mind in reading this passage.  First is to listen to Joseph as he testifies it was The Lord who sold him rather than his brothers; second is to hear Joseph reveal why this thing had been done: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth” (45:7).  This “remnant” is important for the sake of the Covenant The Lord had long before made with Abraham.  The “remnant” would keep the Promise alive.

Let us also consider, however, that it was not The Lord who threw Joseph into the pit and it was not The Lord who sold Joseph into slavery; it was his brothers who did this horrible thing and lied to their father about Joseph’s fate.  It was The Lord who turned the story around by way of one agent – Joseph – who refused to submit to the dominant culture, who refused to renounce his faith, who refused to give up hope!

We know there are those who have learned to resent The Father because life has been unfair to them.  Things have not worked out the way they had hoped or intended, so it must be God’s fault in directly causing the harm, or God’s non-existence or unwillingness to intervene for His “favored”.  Either way we slice it, The Lord takes a pretty big hit.  And because He is not physically present to sit down with us to help us to work through whatever it is, it becomes easier still to blame Him for all the misfortune in our lives.

We must always bear in mind this kind of “genie-god” only exists on the lips of some certain TV preachers whose end game is money, not making disciples.  Even in the early centuries of the church’s history when there were conflicts about the nature of God and the very being of Jesus, there was no “prosperity gospel” that offered material wealth and perpetual happiness in exchange for real faith.

But because we have learned to make this God into our own image and discovering it does not quite work that way, we develop the very angry and bitter heart which not only defines us but also defiles us, as Jesus points out.  We might like to believe we have every right and reason to be angry and bitter, and there are some worldly (even Christian) remnants that would tell us it’s ok, but Jesus also points out that when the blind follows the blind, both will nevertheless fall into the same pit (Matthew 15:14).  In other words, our anger and bitterness may be understandable under certain circumstances, but it is never ok.

This is important for us to understand because even though we might like to believe someone else is at fault for whatever misery may befall us and should pay the price, the reality is if we follow a narrative that goes along with what we’ve already made up our minds about, the fault will have to be shared – by the “blind guides” as well as the blind who follow them.

A lot has been written about what happened in Charlottesville VA last weekend, but most of what I’ve read so far is trying to create an exclusive narrative of racism and our legitimate need to confront this particular evil.  I do not suggest racism does not exist and did not play a part; but when the dust settled and a young woman lay dead, it became extremely difficult to confine the narrative to a single issue – unless that issue is ultimately hatred borne of a lack of hope – spawned by defiled hearts and brought about by profound spiritual blindness and a perverse need to be defensive.

The very essence of the character of the Holy Church is our mission to make disciples.  In the name of “social justice”, however, we seem unconcerned with making disciples and more concerned with identifying enemies.  The manner in which we conduct ourselves while angrily shouting in the streets or cursing the president or ANTIFA or white supremacists on social media reveals we are doing the very thing Jesus warns us against.  While cursing those whom we seem to believe are already defiled, we ourselves become defiled.

It has long been said Christians are better known for what we stand against rather than what we stand for.  Can we really stand with anarchists toward the same cause?  By being anti-racist, are we being pro-Gospel?  How is fighting by any means promoting the Good News of The Lord and making disciples?  As if we have even a right to be angry and bitter as Joseph truly did.

So many on both sides of this culture war are claiming to be angry and bitter and resentful for what has been heaped on us, but where can we show direct harm and, ultimately, direct offense?  Unlike Joseph, we have not been thrown into a pit or sold off against our will – by our own siblings, no less!! - and yet we seem eager to freely jump into the pit of defilement rather than to offer to help someone out of that pit.

Our cause is Christ, the Eternal Word which became flesh.  Our cause is the Good News that speaks to the Hope we share in our redemption and adoption.  Our curse, however, comes upon us when we choose to “return evil for evil” as our Lord prohibits instead of “praying for our enemies” as our Lord commands His followers.  Our false bravado impresses only the weak-minded who are equally ignorant of what our Lord expects and demands of all who are baptized into His Covenant.

So if we live in hope rather than to dwell in darkness, we can expect to be like Joseph.  Through the ashes of our despair and refusing to become defiled and defined by our circumstances but trusting fully in The Lord and His Word, we can be sure we will be raised up! 

Sooner or later The Lord will save His people – but only those who play by His Rules and not by the rules of this self-destructive culture.  “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.  Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but The Lord rescues them from [all those afflictions]” (Psalm 34:18-19).

Trust in this, dear friends, and He will deliver us from our own anger and afflictions.  Believe and live into this assurance, and we will also be looking down on our enemies who tried to crush us.  But let it come in The Lord’s time and not our own, for it will come soon enough.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Leave it alone

"As you enter a house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your worlds, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." Matthew 10:12-14
The twelve disciples had been given "authority over unclean spirits ... and to cure every disease and every sickness" (vs 1) and were instructed on exactly how they must go about announcing the Good News that "the kingdom of heaven has come near". They were also specifically instructed to "go nowhere among the Gentiles".
What's more, Jesus also instructed them; "Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave".
I suppose we can turn this passage any way it suits us, but it is careless to suppose Jesus has sent these men out to confront social ills. What was the charge? "Announce that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near". And what is the instruction? "If they will not hear you, shake the dust from your feet" ... and move along.
Jesus has not asked His followers to get involved in useless arguments and shouting matches. Discipleship is dangerous enough without deliberately walking into a volatile situation and asking for trouble. In fact, He further says, "If you are persecuted in one town, flee to the next" (vs 23).
It's not always easy to know what to do in today's political climate in The Lord's Name, but stoking an already burning fire is not a good choice. Trouble is around every turn but Jesus seems pretty clear that if emotions are already stoked to the point of irrationality, it is best to move on. Irrational mobs cannot be reasoned with, and we should know this by now. People who come looking for trouble are not going to settle for less than the trouble they were seeking in the first place!
What can we do? Appeal to those who know The Lord (hence Jesus' call to "go nowhere among the Gentiles") and encourage them to remove themselves from the situation. If we can thin out the crowd, we can not only perhaps calm the situation, we can also prevent someone from getting hurt needlessly.
This is not about refusing to speak for Good in the face of evil; it is about creating an environment conducive to rational thought. There are some hate groups that will not hear us, no matter what we say. "Leave them alone", Jesus seems to say. And why must we "flee to the next town"? Because there is perhaps someone there who wants to hear the Good News! And we should not waste our time, breath, or energy trying to shout down those who will not hear us in the first place!!
The Good News is only for those willing to hear it. We must not waste our time getting into shouting matches with those who will not hear it under the best of circumstances. Proclaim the Good News; and if you are told to go jump in a lake, move along. "Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town" (vs 15).
Imagine what The Church might look like if we would actually heed Jesus' words and follow His instructions ... to ... the ... letter. Surely if the Word of The Lord is powerful enough to save us, it is good enough to guide us. Yes?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville and the Truth

I am not quite sure what to make of what happened in Charlottesville VA over the weekend.  Since I was not there I have to depend on the news media.  The problem with the media is the facts are not quite clear even though many insist there are clear facts.  More than getting to facts, however, I would prefer the Truth.  What was (is) at the heart of the conflict?

Some say it boils down to race.  White Nationalists were there to protest a city decision to dismantle a statue of Robert E. Lee, the statue presumably being city property.  Since Dylann Roof mercilessly gunned down those nine innocent black persons in Charleston SC in 2015, there has been a movement to remove any and all monuments to the long-dead Confederacy.  Sadly, it was Roof’s stated desire to start a race war.  Sadder still, he apparently succeeded.

The truth goes much deeper than race, however.  Various Antifa groups converged on the protest – some armed (there are photos) – to counter-protest in an effort to prevent a “normalization” of a white supremacy narrative.  In other words, it was the stated intent of Antifa to deny the White Nationalists their 1st Amendment right to protest a government action.

President Trump condemned the violence wrought by all; but because he did not single out the White Nationalists, many condemned his response as “tepid”, even “racist”.  Two days later the president condemned the actions of all white supremacy groups, but the condemnation was rejected and judged as insincere.  Because President Trump is blamed for the rise in white nationalism, there would be no words he could have possibly spoken that would have been accepted by any.

Aside from facts, however, the Truth may be more disturbing.  According to the New York Times, a Charlottesville-based network of activists and clergy members called ‘Solidarity Cville’ called attention to the “Unite the Right” rally and urged people to show their opposition. The group includes ministers from local churches. 

Violence was expected.  Brittany Caine-Conley, a minister at Sojourners United Church of Christ in Charlottesville who is part of Solidarity Cville, sent a warning message in advance of the rally. “There is an extremely high potential for physical violence and brutality directed at our community,” she wrote. “We need your help — we don’t have the numbers to stand up to this on our own.”  Note she did not discourage attendance nor encourage peaceful persons to avoid the area; she invited and encouraged a bigger crowd.

Could the Truth be that the only threat of violence was the determined presence of counter-protesters?  Would the White Nationalists have had anyone toward which violence could be directed?  They were not, to my knowledge, threatening to blow up government buildings or shoot anyone; they were protesting the planned destruction of government property.  When they were confronted with angry counter-protesters, however, the threat of violence escalated with words.

It may seem as though I am defending the White Nationalists.  In a manner of speaking, I suppose I am only in that I am not ok with tearing down historical markers of any kind.  At the same time, I am not ok with idealizing and sanitizing the Confederacy on any level.  It is undeniable history, but idealizing it does bring legitimate offense to some.  Yet angry confrontation with that offense – in an offensive manner – does not justify violence, though it will inevitably invite and incite violence.  It’s the “mob mentality”, an angry mob always being perhaps the most dangerous and irrational animal on the face of the planet.

It is said the White Nationalists had a permit to be there, and it must be said the Solidarity Cville group had every right to be there.  Having a right to do something, however, does not mean it is always prudent to do so.  Walking into a volatile situation with a confrontational attitude is a lot like walking into a hay barn with an open flame – damage is imminent.  Confronting any kind of protest with a counter-protest will always be counter-productive.  Trying to shout down a voice with which we may disagree only makes us look foolish and afraid.

That is what happened in Charlottesville.  “The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh’." (Abraham Lincoln, 4 March 1865).

Both sides were asking for trouble, yet both sides were demanding to be heard at the expense of the other side.  And a young woman is dead.  I cannot help but to wonder if her family believes her counter-protest was worth the cost.  I wonder if the clergy person who put out a call to action for help – knowing there was the “potential for violence” – may rethink her chosen language in encouraging someone to bring matches and gasoline to a powder-keg situation. 

I do not know the mind of the White Nationalist movement though I can probably guess.  Whether I disagree with them, however, does not necessitate my presence and protest each time they make headlines.  The Gospel of The Lord requires wisdom and prudence; and “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that … town” (Matthew 10:14).  Note that Jesus did not say, “Press harder and call in reinforcements”.

There is a moral issue at the heart of it all, to be sure, but I don’t think it can be boiled down to race.  It seems to go much deeper.  I pray we figure it out before someone else gets hurt.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mistaken Identity: a sermon for 13 August 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

Dr. Tom Caneta has spent the last nine years sequestered in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan in northern Africa.  Because he is the very last doctor left in a war-torn region marked by starvation, disease, death, and rocket attacks, he alone treats up to 500 persons per day.

Dr. Caneta summarized his life’s work to the 2015 graduating class at his alma mater, Brown University: ‘Everyone is searching for happiness.  Everyone is searching for fulfillment.  I think if you really want fulfillment in this life, what I would suggest to you is go and get rid of everything you have.  Sell everything you have.  Get rid of all your baggage and go live a life of full and total service to other people.  If you do that, you will find that the rewards are incredible.  You will find that you have fulfillment more than you could ever have imagined.  So I throw that challenge out to you’.  “Good News” magazine, July/August 2017, pg 37

Can we get so busy with doing or having whatever it is we do or have that we forget who we are?  Is it possible to lose our sense of identity when we accumulate too much “stuff”?  This, I think, must be at the heart of Dr. Caneta’s observation as well as Jesus’ own lesson about becoming “perfect”; whole, holy, “perfect” (Matthew 19:21).

I think it is entirely possible, even likely, that we can get so caught up in what we do for the Church that we forget we should always be not just representing The Lord but, rather, revealing Him.  It is easy to forget, especially when we receive personal recognition, maybe get our picture in the paper, or community service credit for school or the courts.  Sometimes a genuine desire to serve can be obscured by our own need to feel good about ourselves, to make our lives count for something. 

In the name of religion or in a personal quest to ‘save souls’, what we do for others can often become confused if we take on the mantle of ‘crusader’ rather than the identity of ‘servant’.  ‘Crusader’ is what we choose to do; ‘servant’ is what Jesus was, is, and has called His Church to be (“I came not to be served but to serve”, Matthew 20:28).

I cannot help but to wonder if this may have been at least part of Peter’s great challenge, the same challenge we often face ourselves when we lose sight of Who not only gives our lives real and everlasting meaning but is our True Identity, bearing the Image in which we are created.  But when we are more aware of the world around us and our uncertain place in that world than we are aware of the One who calls us out of that world of obscurity and distraction, we become afraid.  And we become afraid, I think, because we begin to lose sight of who we really are.  Not who we think we are, but who we are created to be.

Think about it like this.  We strive to get a good education, get good jobs, find a mate, get married, have children, buy a home; in all this, we are making a life for ourselves.  It is normal, it is expected.  It is, in fact, the American Dream. 

Aside from the education, however, all these other things – even persons – will absolutely be lost.  None of this will last beyond its own time, including those we love.  We’ve all been to funerals; we know how every life story ends.  So if what we acquire can be so easily lost – and we lose ourselves in trying to keep all we’ve acquired – how can any of this be our true identity?  Stuff that can be lost, stolen, or can rust and rot?  Other persons with their own identities?  Where is our own, unique, individual identity if we are only someone’s husband or wife?  Someone’s father/mother/brother/sister, employee, employer, etc?

On the other hand, if we seek to be connected first to the One who created us “fearfully and wonderfully”, the One who redeemed us, claimed us, and adopted us, the One who gifted us and calls us into the Life He has already established – if we go there first, then all the other things, all the other persons, all the other jobs will fall into place.  Then we can know who we really are – which is much more than who or what the world expects us to be.  Think of it; the world expects us to be generous, to give a little; but to give it all, the world would call “foolish”. 

We must also bear in mind that perhaps Peter’s first mistake was in “testing” The Lord.  Could this be construed as a means of testing our own identity?  Remember what Moses had affirmed to the Israelites in the wilderness; trust The Lord, but do not test Him.  Do not test His mercy.  Do not test His power.  Do not test His determination that we can only be – for all eternity! – what He has created us to be from the very beginning. 

Absent that, like Peter, we will lose sight of The Lord at the first sign of trouble because The Lord was incidental to begin with.  We even teach our children this way, do we not??  Think about it.  We will fight with and encourage our children to get them to school, to do their homework, to become involved in extracurricular activities, to excel and succeed … but we do not put that same energy into getting them to Sunday school.  Worse, we fail to teach them why this is important in the first place.  From the beginning!

They may be prepared to find a place in this world which demands all that and more, but they – like we – will one day struggle to find out who they really are, who they were “fearfully and wonderfully made” to be from the very beginning.  They will know only what the world expects and demands from them.  And at the first crisis point, whatever that crisis may be, they will be lost – as many of us have been.

Then when they, like Peter and like we, “notice the strong wind” and the waves of the sea lapping over their feet and getting what we refer to as “that strong, sinking feeling”, we “test” The Lord to see if He’s still there – mindful of our own will rather than His.  Or, like Peter and the others in the boat, whether we can even recognize Him – especially if The Lord was the last One we expected to see!

We can spare ourselves and our loved ones a lot of anxiety if we will take the means of grace at our disposal more seriously than we take our jobs and our education.  Those means of grace – worship, study of Scriptures, fasting, praying, the Sacraments, even fellowship with other Christians – are offered to us so we can not only discover who we are in The Lord but grow more faithfully into that role. 

Then, like Dr. Caneta (Mother Teresa, MLK) and so many others who have come before us, we will have no doubts, no worries.  The “strong winds” of human culture will not disorient us – because we will know who we are in Him.  The case of ‘mistaken identity’ can only apply when we worry more about what the world thinks of us and what we do than what The Lord has created and called us to be before we were even conceived by human means!

He knows us, all of us as The Body, each of us as individuals.  And He wants us to know Him … first.  Only n that Identity will we find peace and calm and confidence.  Even in the face of life’s storms, adversity, and our own doubts.  This is what He wants for us all.  Let us together find the courage and the identity to live into that.  Amen.