Sunday, April 20, 2014

SON-rise Easter 2014

Psalm 118:17-24

So who does not know why we are here?  There are no secrets, though there is a Great Mystery.  Even people outside of the Church, outside of the Covenant are aware of what Easter is to Christians.  I submit to you, however, that there are many both outside AND inside this Covenant who do not fully comprehend what Easter means beyond a Moment 2000 years ago!

To one facing imminent death, this Great Mystery is about to unfold; but for the time we think we still have in this life, for all we think we know, for all we think we have figured out, nothing is quite so settled.  And this is because when we finish this celebration we will pretty much go about our business as if nothing happened.  Though I will grant that it takes a little more devotion and discipline to get out of bed earlier than we need to and requires a certain knowledge of something worth rising early for, we will pretty much walk away unchanged.

Those we love ... we will still love.  Those we hate ... we will still hate.  The things we must do ... we will do.  And the things we don't have to do but need to be done  ... we probably won't do.

Why is this so?  Of course we hope lives will be touched, we hope souls will be transformed, and we hope our society will clean itself up.  We hope new guests will come to church on Sunday.  We may be confident in the psalmist's declaration that "I shall not die", but whether we will "live AND recount the deeds of the Lord" remains to be seen.  I am afraid it is just another Easter Sunday.

St Paul wrote to the Romans: "How are they to call on One in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in One of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him?  And who are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent?  As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News!'  But not all have obeyed the Good News; for Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?'  So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the Word of Christ." 

So indeed, who is to be believed?  Perhaps more importantly, what is to be believed?  A message never heard?   A message never proclaimed except safely in church on Sunday? Yes, and more: a message we are ashamed to proclaim!!  It is scandalous!  It is radical!  It is pure insanity! 

As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "The message of the Crucifixion is insanity to the lost!  But to those of us who have life it is the power of God!"  But even we who have life don't want to be perceived as one of those Holier-than-thou Bible-beaters who talk constantly about Jesus and being saved!  We are Christians; respectable, wholesome, socially responsible Christians. 

It is easy to tell people what we think they should do (or not do) and what they should or should not believe, but it is easier still to just keep our mouths shut, mind our business, and just go to church ... most Sundays.  And we mean well when we do (or don't do) these things, but there is a significant component present in our best intentions: fear.  We are afraid.  We are afraid of what people will think of us.  We are afraid of alienating friends.  We are afraid of being challenged on something we cannot prove.  We are afraid of being labeled as anything other than simply "Christian".  Actually we would probably just prefer to be known as "good" people. 

But where does fear actually come from?  Are we not afraid most often when we lack confidence?  I used to believe I was just a bad test-taker in high school when I didn't take my studies seriously, so I was always afraid when test time came around.  But my fear, while in that moment well-founded and well justified, was the result of my own neglect.  My fear was the result of my own failure to engage in my education in a meaningful and life-transforming way!

Now I had hoped that just by being in class and listening to the teacher would be enough; that I would retain the knowledge imparted in that single moment without having to do any more than to simply listen that one time.  Clearly it does not work that way, and our Wesleyan heritage affirms this. 

We must understand Methodism did not come strictly from John Wesley's opinions and good ideas about what Christians should or should not be doing.  Methodism arose from the confidence gained by disciples who intentionally engaged in the many means of grace including the fellowship of the Church and mutual accountability; becoming and being purposeful students of the Good Teacher.  Confidence came from willfully and purposefully engaging in the WHOLE life of Christ Jesus and following faithfully - in spite of the obstacles and the derisions of the general public, even from those within the established and respectable Church.

So much has changed - and remains the same.  Yet this morning, on this grand and glorious morning, I submit to you this is indeed a New Day.  It is a day for rejoicing for it is the Day our Lord has made for just this moment.  It is the Day in which our confidence may be restored and our souls to be uplifted and even transformed - if we are willing.  It cannot be just another Easter Sunday.  For it is the Day our Lord has made for us to rejoice and be glad!  For there is Life beyond the one we think we live now - for Christ is Risen indeed!

Glory to Almighty God!  Amen.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday: A Road paved with Good Intentions

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

If you knew there was something which had to be done - that not doing it was not an option, that it was a matter of life and death for people you never knew and may never know, and those you do know will flee at the first sign of trouble and leave you standing alone - would you still do it?

This is essentially the challenge St. Paul posed to the Philippians when he wrote them to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5), even though he was not exactly posing to them such a philosophical abstract as "would you under certain circumstances" as much as he was declaring "you must under all circumstances".  

The imperative, however, is not so much about doing as a matter of law but rather allowing to be done as a matter of willfulness - and not strictly human will but in submitting to the reality that: "It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil 2:13).

I think we always intend good things from what we seek to accomplish, but I also think the "mindfulness" with which we work is usually (and ironically) the very handicap that slows the work and mission of the Church because we each have minds and ideas of our own.  Yet St. Paul challenges us to get past that narrow mindfulness we call our own by submitting to the Divine Will that can work from within us if we willfully push beyond self; "standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind" (Phil 1:27); that is, the mind of Christ. 

Exactly what is this "mind", and how is it expressed?  It is not a matter of simply agreeing or compromising for the sake of peace which can only mean someone has to give in, someone has to "lose" - and not many of us are ok with this!  It is rather a matter of all willing to "give in" to the reality that we may be wrong in positions we currently hold.  It means taking a second look at our human willfulness and stubbornness for the sake of the Glory of our Lord.   Being "objective" rather than "subjective".

This ideal was expressed by Christ Jesus Himself, as St. Paul writes, when He "emptied Himself" (Phil 2:7,8).  It is the mindfulness that has Divine intentions rather than personal (albeit noble) motives toward the Gospel that is alive in all who are alive in Christ Jesus, the One who set His face toward Jerusalem KNOWING what was to become of Him in a matter of days and willfully "emptying Himself" of His own will, His own thoughts, His own opinions, and His own desires.  And knowing all He surely did know in the circumstances of betrayal and abandonment of current and future disciples, Jesus nevertheless went through with it - knowing without doubt He would very soon be standing alone.

Palm Sunday is always a challenge because the entry into Jerusalem is usually billed as a "triumph".  I suppose long-term when all the dust is settled and knowing how the Story ultimately ends, it would be easy to consider it a "triumph".  Doing this, however, ignores certain realities not least of which is this Journey was for Jesus the Journey we of the Church face even today - and will face until the Final Trumpet sounds.  It is that very Journey which compels us and beckons us.  There is no alternate route.  We may enter only through the "sheep gate".

Yet lacking the common "mindfulness" which can come only from the Holy Spirit, we each set our own course according to what seems good to us under our own circumstances. We always have the best of intentions, but then life gets in the way to the point of distraction.  We forget, even momentarily, that what we do on any given day is not intended for discipleship but for personal survival. 

Oh, we are mindful that Jesus saves.  We are mindful of that great mystery that the Blood of Christ has set us free from sin and death, but we are often mindful of this great mystery very nearly to the total exclusion of what took place prior to this. 

Like Christmas, we are mindful of something which took place some 2000 years ago - but we are not so mindful that to this day our Lord has a claim and a purpose for which He "emptied Himself", the same purpose for which the Church exists even today, the same holy purpose for which the people of the Living God - that is, the Church - must empty ourselves; that is, put our own agendas and opinions and desires aside to submit to the will of God ... without trying to manipulate Divine Will according to our own preconceived mold.

We can even embrace the Glory of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem knowing He was doing what He had to do, but we can do this without actually engaging in the reality of what was taking place then - and what must take place today - being counter-cultural, being "in the world but not of the world".  I have heard it said (and I think I have even said it myself) that Jesus did what He did so we would not have to.  While this is a true statement in the very narrow sense, the sentiment misses the mark when we put so much on Jesus that we are unwilling to put upon ourselves. 

The prophet Isaiah writes, "The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word" (Isaiah 50:4).  This is not what we generally think of when we think of the prophets who came to Israel and to Judah to warn them of impending judgment.  The prophets are hard to read because there is just a little too much gloom and doom for our tastes, too much judgment for Christians who believe themselves to have escaped the Judgment by the Blood of the Lamb - choosing to be defined by an event rather than by a willfully chosen life of holiness. 

When we reject the words of the prophets and reach instead for the Lamb's blood, we stop "paving the road" altogether because whatever it may have been that we intended in the beginning of our journey of discipleship has, we believe, been largely achieved once we were "saved".  We stop asking questions, we stop looking for answers and choose to look for "loopholes", and we settle for whatever it may be that gives us comfort strictly for ourselves, and expect it to be the same for everyone else - according to our own terms.  In this we have no mind of Christ.

As the adage goes, however, "a road paved with good intentions still leads to hell".  Like a road lined with cloaks and palm leaves, we may mean well in the beginning and we would certainly be eager to welcome the Son of David into our midst ... until the fur starts flying and the danger Messiah was willing to face for us soon becomes our own danger which we can walk clean away from with hardly a scratch.  This, I think, has largely become our idea of discipleship.

The Journey we face in the coming Holy Week - if we are to take the Scripture readings seriously - is not going to be pleasant.  We simply cannot leap from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and pretend we are walking with Jesus.  If we are to really understand what Jesus endured for salvation's sake, we must - WE MUST - endure the Journey with Him, not watching safely from the sidelines.  Only then will we pave the road not with "good" intentions but with GODLY purpose.  This is Christ Jesus our Lord.  This is the mission of the Church.  Amen.

Monday, April 07, 2014

5th Sunday of Lent: Why did Jesus weep?

Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

We are not told specifically what it was that drove Jesus to tears, but we can be reasonably sure Jesus was quite capable of empathizing with (that is, sharing and feeling) the emotions of those who so deeply grieved at Lazarus' death.  Jesus could feel human emotions because He was Himself as fully human as He is fully Divine.  He is no less capable of feeling our pain and grief now than He was when He walked the earth.

Reflecting on this, then, I got hung up on this one tiny verse among these forty-five verses of Lazarus' resurrection story: "Jesus began to weep."  We've read in other stories how Jesus was moved with compassion or pity or profound love, but this is the only verse I can think of that speaks directly of Jesus shedding tears of sorrow for others.  What makes Jesus shed tears for and with us?

You may be aware of World Vision, a credible Christian humanitarian organization through which we can sponsor children on just about every continent in the world.  You may also be aware of World Vision's controversial decision a few weeks ago to allow the hiring of same-gender couples who are legally married.  Yet only two days later World Vision did an about-face on this decision because of the outcry from the evangelical world.  They were compelled to backtrack because thousands of sponsors either withheld their financial support or threatened to do so.

Now we conservatives may believe some victory for Christian purity was achieved in this dispute, but it could only be a hollow victory at best.  Thousands of children from impoverished countries around the world who depend on this generosity were put at risk - if only for a day or two (shall we go two full days without food or clean water??). 

As I was reading about this dispute, I could envision a newly sponsored child getting her first decent meal in weeks - or maybe ever!  She is about to sit down and enjoy this meal when while she is saying a prayer for her new sponsor - BY NAME! - who made the meal possible, suddenly the tray is pulled away and she is sent home ... because her sponsor whose name she now knows stopped payment on the check which had paid for that meal.  Surely in such a moment "Jesus began to weep."

I am pretty sure it was not quite that dramatic or sudden, but it is necessary for us to insert ourselves into these real-life stories as representatives of Christ Himself in order get a glimpse of how such drama would play out, what our part in the story would be, and how we might react under similar circumstances. 

How might we feel if that child had been our own?  How might we react if we were the World Vision missionaries "on the ground" where the child is and, having told this child of her new American sponsor BY NAME, look her in the eye and say, "I'm sorry.  They changed their mind."  Surely in that moment, "Jesus began to weep".  And most likely, perhaps most importantly, a heart of flesh would turn to stone.

Our Lord would surely weep for a child whose hopes for nourishing food, preventive health care, clean drinking water, and the chance for an education were suddenly taken away; but I also think Jesus would weep even more for those who would use money - or a child - as a political pawn to get their own way.  After all, these are also the ones for whom Jesus gave up His life!  I have to believe the outcry and protest came from well-meaning people who probably believed they were doing the right thing by withholding their financial support in order to force World Vision into an ideal of their own vision. 

This happens in churches all across America, not one excluded.  Money is the one "weapon" many believe they have that will get someone's attention.  It is the one tangible thing we can do to make known our personal displeasure.  Frankly, I am not sure why World Vision would find it necessary to make such a public announcement knowing some would be antagonized.  Were they so naive?  Or were they so bold?  Even in that moment, World Vision took their eye off the ball and lost sight of their own mission.

Maybe they simply could not imagine earnest, generous, and devoted Christians who would do such a thing as to offer hope to a hungry child in Armenia, for instance, and then pull it away - for any reason, let alone a political reason that has nothing to do with charity, nothing to do with Divine Love.  It is rather an act that betrays the reality that every dollar we have may well be earned by our hands but is claimed by our Lord!  Like every other blessing, even money is not "ours" to withhold!

I think, however, the reason it was so easy for these thousands to threaten to withhold their support is because while they may be sympathetic to a hungry child as I believe we all are, it is virtually impossible to empathize with such a child because we are so far removed geographically and financially - perhaps even spiritually.  It is very difficult, if not impossible to empathize with anyone if we have not ourselves suffered similar challenges or watched our own children do without basic needs. 

Our theology of plenty does not allow a lot of wiggle room when it comes to fully understanding what people in other parts of the world have to deal with on a daily basis, and even folks in this country who struggle don't get a lot of sympathy because of our national doctrine of "rugged individualism" and equal opportunity.  We reason that our own success, however limited, can be as easily enjoyed by others if they are willing to do the work and put in the hours because we simply cannot imagine otherwise.  Hard work got us what we wanted; why can't it be so for others?

Even Bible stories are hard for us to understand because these events took place so long ago and in another culture completely alien to us.  I think maybe this is the reason we can so easily take a small snippet of Scripture away from its context and try to force it into our own setting - because we do not understand the cultural context it came from.  Historians and archaeologists can give us a pretty good idea of what other cultures looked like, but we can never fully empathize with something we have never experienced ourselves.

Jesus was sharing the emotions of those who were around Him.  He was WITH them, He was one of them, and so He was sharing the grief they suffered rather than merely observing.  It is part of the Christian doctrine which teaches that our Lord shared our humanity so we may hope to one day share in His divinity as co-heirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.  But what this doctrine also expresses is an understanding of our fully sharing in His ministry as the Body of Christ in the world today in "bearing one another's burdens" as Jesus was surely doing in this moment with Mary and her friends. 

We can pick our battles (or our own poison!) as we will, but we can never be selective when it comes to faith and evangelism; that is, sharing the Gospel in practical ways as St. Paul and St. James demanded of their audiences ('not only hearers, but DOERS of the Law').  We cannot be selective about who is worthy of the Gospel of our Lord, and we must never try to manipulate by any means an outcome that suits our personal preferences - especially at the expense of a hungry child or the mission of the Holy Church which is Christ in the world today. 

The choices are not always easy, of course, because we often let our emotions get in the way; but we must always remember that the fullness of Christ in the world today is weakened when we who call ourselves "disciples" or think ourselves "saved" would withdraw our support and participation by any means.  That is not Jesus, the One who sat and ate with what was considered the worst of humanity!  Even with what we believe to be the noblest of intentions, we can still grieve the Spirit if we do not stop to count the cost of our protest, consider more seriously any potential "collateral damage", and remember who will ultimately be harmed rather than helped; it will always be the weakest among us.  Always.  And Jesus will surely weep.

"If Christ is in you ... the Spirit is life because of righteousness."  We are the Body of Christ, and "the world is our parish", even (perhaps especially) the world we do not always agree with - for He died for them as well.  We can never allow needless suffering when it is within our power to alleviate such suffering.  And when we act in accordance with the righteousness of Christ our Lord, "many" who see us suffering WITH THEM - as they saw Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus - will believe in Him ... because we, too, truly and deeply believe.  Amen.

Monday, March 31, 2014

4th Sunday of Lent: The Strength of Handicap

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Running some errands last week with my wife, we swung by her employer (Hope Landing), a pediatric therapy and rehab service based in El Dorado.  There are lots of children with all sorts of special needs who are served through this ministry, and the work they do is inspiring.  From the outside looking in, as I can only do, it is hard to really appreciate what they do and how deeply they impact these children AND their families.

I waited outside on a bench while my wife was inside doing paperwork.  While I was enjoying the quiet on a beautiful day, a mother and her young daughter came out (the child is a client).  This in itself was not such a big deal because patients and clients are always going and coming.  What was a big deal is that this child was positively delighted!  Maybe it was a successful session.  Maybe she had reached another milestone in her therapy and development.  Or maybe she just had a good time (the therapy is often play-time-like).  The Lord alone knows exactly what was going on in her mind, but she was giggling and laughing all the way to her mother's car!  And in that moment I was so deeply moved in being reminded our Lord reveals His beauty and His perfection in the laughter of a child, especially such a child as she!

We sometimes think we don't see such witness often enough, but the truth is we are blinded to these moments.  It is always an awesome moment when such simple witness can open us to clarity, a moment in eternity when the chaos of the world is abruptly pushed aside, when Light completely overwhelms the darkness so that, as St. Paul writes, the "fruit of the Light is found in all that is good and right and true" (Eph 5:9).  There are no greater moments than these brief glimpses of Heaven's glory!  I would suggest Moses' own "burning bush" moment could not have been any more revealing about the glory and majesty and mercy of our Holy Father than in the innocence of a child's laughter!

We do not always see such things, and this Gospel story about the man who was born blind reflects this human reality.  It is easy to get so bound up in the physical that we often overlook the spiritual because even though the subject is the man's physical blindness and his sight restoration, Jesus turns the story toward a blindness which is much more compelling - and spiritually useful.

Imagine a world in which we could "hear" before we "see".  There can be no doubt we are a judgmental people because we judge what we see.  We notice and predetermine value initially based on what we take in with our eyes, so this initial assessment will determine whether we will give someone a chance to draw closer, let alone allow a second chance ... and we do not often give second chances. 

Sometimes our sight assessments serve us well because we can also determine whether some persons represent a potential threat to our safety and well-being; so if they appear dangerous or even suspicious, they are going to have to jump through some hoops to prove themselves to be worthy of our trust.  Our narrow and limited "sight" requires that the burden of proof falls on them because our minds are already made up!  A news article last week about some suspicious men going door-to-door in SE Arkansas posing as vacuum cleaner salesmen reminds us we can never be too careful.  We have good reason to be suspicious.

Our Lord, however, challenges the value of what we think we see by suggesting a good dose of "blindness" may be just the ticket for our deliverance from our own self-inflicted bondage and our own narrow judgments based on our limited capacity to see all there is to really see: "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind" (John 9:39). 

The Pharisees did not quite grasp Jesus' meaning because they were still speaking of physical blindness - and because they obviously could see very clearly, they proposed they had no real problem.  The latter part of this story, however, must not be removed from its setting.  Back to the first few verses, even Jesus' disciples believe they are "seeing" quite well through what is written in the Scriptures when they ask about the state of sin which must have caused this man's blindness.  The only matter not settled for them was whether it was this man's own sin which caused his blindness - or the sins of his parents.

This religious understanding comes from a narrow interpretation of Exodus 20:5b (as well as Ex 34:6-7 & Num 14:18) in which it seems clear according to the Word of the Lord that the man's blindness "from birth" must have been caused by sins committed before the man even had a chance, as it is written: "I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me".  This is to say, the 3rd and 4th generations of those who have been taught to hate the Lord.

Yet the Lord speaks through the prophet Ezekiel (18:20): "The soul who sins shall die.  The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son.  The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself."

The seeming contradiction is nothing to get in a twist over because in the earlier verses, the judgment seems to come upon generations living in the messes made and attitudes created by previous generations - such as those born in slavery in Egypt or born during the Exile or, a little closer to home, children raised in a home in which religion and faith are barely incidental and not at all purposeful and deliberate.  We should also remember that in spite of the judgment of the Lord upon the Israelites in the Exodus who would die in the wilderness because of their faithlessness, Caleb and Joshua would see the Promised Land with their own eyes because of their faithfulness. 

This reality serves to remind us that biblical interpretations must not be made strictly verse by verse.  There are stories upon stories all connected one to the other that give us a much better view of what is really being seen - because the Lord our God "does not change" nor can He contradict Himself or violate His own nature.

So Jesus told His disciples the man was "born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him" (vs 3).  Was he born strictly for this specific moment in Jesus' ministry?  The context seems to suggest so, but surely future generations such as we who are invited into this moment by the written text can also see something much more profound and enduring than this single moment - much broader and far-reaching than just this one person.

Remember the precious child who virtually danced out the door at Hope Landing.  Done in a quiet setting far removed from the hustle and bustle and busy-ness of a chaotic world, coming from a place in which Christ's name is deliberately lifted up, surely that single child in a moment in eternity was also "born ... so that God's works might be revealed in her".  In a world we are called to be "in" but not "of", we are still shown the Holy Father in all His glory and in all His mercy in the smallest of moments - so that we remember we are not forgotten, that we have not been forsaken.  But we must be blinded to something in order to see these moments.

In that precious moment, my sight was at least partially restored - because I realized our blindness would see only a child with a handicap ... but in that child and in that moment our Lord showed His enduring strength.  For me - AND - for you ... and for everyone who would truly be blinded to what we think we see so that we may truly see.  Amen. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Lenten Thought

“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light – for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.  Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.  Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”  Ephesians 5:8-11

Touching on the theme of last night’s class discussion of the 18th-century Methodist classes and societies, what St. Paul is encouraging of the Ephesians is what Wesley encouraged of the early Methodists (who were still Anglican and were encouraged to attend worship at the Anglican parish).  There were such rules of these early classes that encouraged participants to be always mindful of what they do and fail to do, and they were required to report each week to their classes how they had fulfilled the class’s three standing rules; 1) to do good, 2) to avoid all known sin, and 3) to attend to the means of grace (prayer, fasting, Scripture study, the sacraments of the Church and, of course, to regularly attend worship at the parish church).  As long as evidence was presented that one was purposely fulfilling the requirements of the class and working toward disciplined fellowship and discipleship, one could stay in the class.  The goal of the class, of course, was that one would soon (in God’s time) experience justification.

It was not an easy thing to do, but the success of these classes which grew until well after Wesley’s death was entirely dependent on class members’ willingness to hold one another accountable to spiritual growth – and to be held accountable.  It did not mean that an occasion of sin would automatically disqualify a member of the class; rather it meant that one was committed to consciously living as disciples are expected to live.  It also meant a reasonable expectation that when one struggled with sin and temptation, there were fellow disciples who were willing to struggle with them to overcome!

This is a practice which is almost entirely foreign to the contemporary Church.  We think nothing of asking a friend about the family or a sick relative, but we have somehow been convinced that asking about the state of a friend’s soul is too personal, that this is strictly between them and the Lord.  To ask about the state of one’s soul seems to require much more of us than we are willing to risk.  Yet we cannot ignore this certain reality that as the Church today seems to have become much more concerned with being popular and fitting in with the modern culture, the Church has become increasingly less popular (note the very many empty pews) because the many programs we believe will work to bring new guests in are themselves foreign to the culture of that particular church.  They are “put-on’s” that, more often than not, make people feel as though they are being manipulated or played for fools.  The “millennials”, the so-called “none’s”, the 18-29 year old groups are no longer falling for it.  They have seen behind this facade, and they do not like what they have seen and experienced.  I doubt very much that each individual who will read this likes to be played for a fool.

Remember St. Paul was not writing to a single Ephesian; he was writing to the Ephesian Church, the entire body.  The entire body was (and is) responsible for the overall well-being of that body.  There are no “lone rangers” in Christianity, for the very nature of our faith is entirely social.  We are called to care for one another at the deepest and most intimate level … to shed that very light we have become in Christ Jesus.


3rd Sunday of Lent: The True Gift

Exodus 17:1-7
John 4:5-42

You may remember the mini-series "Roots" that came out in the 70's, I believe.  Author Alex Haley put together a remarkable story of his own ancestry and his search for his African origin.  It was a great story and Mr. Haley had found his ancestor who had been forcibly taken from his African homeland and sold into slavery, so there was that measure of success.  Still, I wonder if he really found what he was looking for.  If that one ancestor was his goal, then yes.  But if he was trying to learn more about who he really is in the present, he may have come up short.

Though there were many memorable scenes from that movie, the one that stands out in my memory to this day was when Mr. Haley had found his ancestor's village.  One of the elders of that village began to tell the story of that particular tribe, and he seemed to go on forever.  Mr. Haley was shown to be fighting sleep until the elder finally mentioned the name: Kunta Kinte.  It was surely an exciting moment for Mr. Haley to have found the one he set out to find, but what was most remarkable about that scene was the tribal elder who told the entire story from the 20th century to the 16th century when Kunta Kinte was captured!  Who can do that now??

Moses commanded that the people of Israel should always be able to repeat this awesome task of telling THE story of the Exodus and Israel's deliverance from slavery to their children and their grandchildren - in other words, in perpetuity (Deuteronomy 4-6).  It would be necessary for the people of the Covenant to remember their past - but not exclusively to know their ancestors. 

It would be more important for them to remember Moses' warning not to get too attached to their own flesh, their own comforts, "the cities you did not build, houses full of good things you did not fill, wells you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees you did not plant" (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).  In other words, do not look to the "things" that give us pleasure and satisfaction only in the moment; look instead to the Creator of these "things" who gives this and much more.

I suspect if the woman at the well had remembered what she should have been told, she would have acknowledged much more than the ancestor Jacob "who gave us the well".  She would have perhaps been more mindful of YHWH who gave His people water (Exodus 17:7); the same God who gave them the entire land - AND - a future they would otherwise never know about.

We Christians, however, are stuck.  We make the mistake of believing ours is a story which only began at Pentecost - or perhaps in Bethlehem.  Even then, we do not often even try to go back even further - back to that moment the woman at the well was referring to when she said, "I know Messiah is coming" (John 4:25). 

The danger in mistakenly believing we have been fully satisfied and are no longer hungry or thirsty is that we stop looking.  When we stop looking, we fulfill not Christ and the New Covenant; rather we fulfill Moses' prophecy that "when you have eaten and are full ... you forget the Lord ..." (Deuteronomy 6:12). 

Yes, even "justified" Christians forget - and probably more easily than most others who are still searching.  We think we have found the Source of all things in Christ, so we too often overlook the 'True Gift" by taking far too much for granted - or worse, overlooking that which matters most.

Jesus told the Samaritan woman, "If you knew the gift of God ... you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water."  And the woman, having missed the point entirely, asked in return, "Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob who gave us the well?" 

There are a couple of items that should draw our attention in this brief exchange.  First, the woman wrongly attributes the well to Jacob.  It is known as "Jacob's well", but that is only a geographical, maybe historical, reference.  Through Jacob, the people of Israel were given an identity; they were made a nation in fulfillment of the Covenant YHWH made with Abraham.  And they were given a land AND a future through this Covenant.

The woman shows us a little more about "grasping for straws", however.  Too often this woman and her marital situation are misappropriated to the issue of marriage and divorce, but I cannot see that this is the point especially when we are not told why the five marriages ended (and we have no reason to read something into this exchange).  Rather, we must understand this is a culture in which unattached women do not fare well.  This is a culture in which women are wholly dependent on being legitimately attached - that is, claimed and perhaps owned - for the sake of their well-being.

Knowing this, then, what do we see from a woman who has had five husbands and is apparently living with another man who is not her husband?  I see a woman who is looking for something tangible she can hold on to.  I see a woman - perhaps a nation of YHWH's chosen - seeking and reaching desperately for worldly safety and security.  I see a nation keenly aware of its physical lineage and needs but wholly unaware of their very source of existence.  Jacob is the past; he had a unique place in Israel's history, but that moment is gone and the well attributed to Jacob could very well go dry and soon be useless.

We cannot pretend we can look past our physical needs for the basic necessities of food and water, but we also must not try to pretend physical satisfaction will ultimately sustain us, food that gives to US but offers nothing back.  Jesus identifies the "living water" that is given from Above which becomes in us a "spring of water gushing up to Eternal Life" and real "food which is to do the will of the One" who sent Jesus; that is, food which wholly and eternally sustains us, food that nourishes not only our own immortality but which also sends us beyond ourselvesIt is food and water which constantly reproduces.

The danger in forgetting the Exodus story and failing to tell that story is that we become a people without a story. Yes, we are made whole in Christ Jesus and that by faith, but even that wholeness has a source of its own which is not tangible as something we can purchase for ourselves.  But the True Gift is revealed in that story - and that is the story which tells us who we truly are.  Apart from this we become little more than the woman at the well who will continually thirst and never be fully satisfied. 

Israel's story IS our story - and that is the True Gift because that story is our Savior's story - the story we are invited into, for now and forever.  Amen.    

Sunday, March 16, 2014

2nd Sunday of Lent: Asking the right questions

John 3:1-17

“Doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.”  Khalil Gibran

It occurs to me, without overstating what should be obvious, the world might be a better place if we would put more energy and effort into asking questions than in making proclamations, if we would work harder to understand our neighbors rather than demand they accept us and what we believe first.  There is nothing wrong with expressing confidence in what we believe (but not to the point of arrogance) but if we care to learn more about a subject or - more importantly - a person, questions AND a willingness to receive answers we may not agree with become necessary.  It is first about getting to know them.

In the pilot episode of a new TV series, "Resurrection", a young American boy suddenly woke up in the middle of field in China with no explanation as to how he got there.  Once he was finally returned to his home in Missouri, we learned the boy had been dead 32 years from drowning in a river behind his house in Missouri! 

Through the twists and turns of the yet-undetermined plot, the boy ran into a local pastor who remembered this boy to have been his childhood friend.  The preacher expressed his utter dismay and confusion to a friend when he said, "I'm seeing something I cannot believe, and I cannot explain it.  I'm supposed to have the answers!"  His friend replied, "Should you not rather help your congregation to ask the right questions than to think you can have all the answers?"

Check mate!  The preacher found peace in the reality that when we enter into the realm of mystery - especially the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven and of life and death - we are always in a much better position to ask questions than we are to have ready answers; asking is far better than making something up that sounds good to us!  This is especially important when we enter into the "mission field" to seek out the lost and the marginalized and the alienated as Jesus commands and expects of us, His Body the Church.  But in order to gain the trust and confidence of our neighbors who are too often strangers to us, should we not first set out to establish a relationship?  And is the first step in any relationship not geared toward learning more about the other person by freely entering into his or her world before we impose ourselves and our world upon them - especially if they have come to feel alienated from our world?  

Nicodemus approached Jesus very carefully "by night", as the Scripture says, but also by words.  He seemed to be feeling Jesus out not by challenging Him but by trying to determine exactly where Jesus was coming from.  The inquiry seems to be more about the nature of Jesus Himself rather than about the nature of His "signs".  Is this just another prophet, self-appointed rather than anointed, or is there more to Him than meets the eye?  We stopped asking questions like this a long time ago.

The Church has been so caught up in the tension between faith and works-righteousness as to what we "have to" do for so long that we seem more concerned about what it takes to be "saved" than we are concerned about being "sanctified" which will necessarily involve others.  Even in our efforts to reach out, we have become a little too obsessed with new "programs" that might attract new members - yet not nearly concerned with new ministries that seek to serve others rather than to serve ourselves.

"No one can SEE the Kingdom of God ..."  So when others in the New Testament preach and proclaim that the Kingdom of God has "come near", perhaps they are getting closer to what becomes necessary for us to be enabled to "see" this Kingdom which has "come near"; that there is something we must seek after so we can "see" this Kingdom which is upon us - without being so distracted by worldly things ... or our own concerns.

We must also remember that very little works in isolation to itself.  Just as fasting is meaningless without prayer, baptism by water can have no lasting effect if the Holy Spirit is not present.  So baptism (Exodus 30:18 and Matthew 3:6) and the reality of the Holy Spirit - which is the essence of the Living God (Micah 3:8) - were (are) not foreign concepts to Judaism, yet Nicodemus did not fully understand what Jesus was saying. 

As a "teacher of Israel", Nicodemus was well aware of the Presence of God in the Spirit and the use of water as a means of cleansing (some passages use "sanctifying" as ritually purifying oneself with water) as a matter of Law perhaps, but he was missing the crucial element: that what Jesus was proposing was something Nicodemus and the Sanhedrin (Jewish council) should have already been doing and preaching just as Jesus teaches "when you fast" rather than "if".  Nicodemus asks, "How can this be?"  Jesus seems to reply, "How can this NOT be?"

It must be understood from this passage, I think, that Nicodemus would have discovered nothing had he not approached Jesus the way he had.  The religious leaders of Jesus' day were never shy about "challenging" Jesus even as they asked what may be better described as "sarcastic" questions with ulterior motives, but few approached Jesus as Nicodemus did; i.e., "we know you are a teacher from God"; that is, acknowledging Jesus in a positive and inquisitive way rather than in a negative and challenging one.  Trying to learn something rather than trying to impose or defend something.

Recall that Jesus quotes the Scriptures when challenged by the tempter in the wilderness, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:7).  Quoting from Deuteronomy, Jesus was mindful of Moses' instruction to the people not to test the limits of the Holy Father's patience and mercy, for it follows that Moses states: "You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God".

I recall an online conversation I had some time back with a messianic rabbi about kosher law (messianic being Jews who embrace Messiah Jesus).  The rabbi pointed out that such laws are not strictly about diet and what one can or cannot eat; rather it is about a God who cares deeply about His people and that this thought alone should be enough for us who claim to "trust" the Lord.  He also reminded me that the prohibitions against certain meats should not provoke a "why not" from us but more along the lines of "what will I learn from this?"  Not in search for excuses but honest, genuine answers.  From the very beginning, even the Law calls the Lord's people to a life filled with the struggle of "right questions" that serve to prepare us for life's next moments.

Think about it in this way.  We parents know - or should reasonably know - that telling our children to "do" or "don't do" - BECAUSE I SAID SO - is asking for rebellion sooner or later!  They might be obedient for the moment, but they will have learned nothing.  Demanding blind obedience even when we answer "because I care" fails to teach our children the value of any particular lesson and does not help them to think through things for themselves.  The lesson is lost on them because we often feel our authority is being challenged or threatened because our children don't accept our inadequate answers that often do not speak to the topic at hand but rather to our parental authority.

"Going on to perfection" (what we Methodists understand as sanctifying grace) requires a certain resolve from each of us to always strive to do our very best in the Lord's name, but discipleship also requires that we "ask the right questions" - not to try and affirm what we think we already know but to grow spiritually in faith and in love of God and neighbor.

Lent is the time to ask questions - and lots of them.  Lent challenges us in prayer, in fasting, in Scripture study - alone and in fellowship with other disciples - in submission to the Spirit to always reach higher and go deeper. 

Our Lord Jesus assures us that when we seek, we will find ... not necessarily what we may be looking for only for ourselves, and certainly no excuses - but surely we will find what our Lord has in store for us.  IF we trust Him enough to ask.

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

1st Sunday of Lent 2014: "Starting here, starting now"

Matthew 4:1-11

I think maybe to begin what I hope to share, I must first back-pedal on a statement I made recently.  I had suggested that when we are faced with our "moment in eternity", that glorious moment when the Lord reaches out to us in an unmistakable and intensely personal way, our response in that moment must never be "maybe" or "I'll get back to you"; that "not now" can be construed as "not ever".

Clearly this is an unfair statement for a couple of reasons, not least of which is our Lord cannot "misunderstand" us as we often misunderstand one another.  The Lord knows what He is asking of us - discipleship is no cake walk - and He surely knows above all else we humans fear the "unknown" more than we fear almost anything else. 

Jesus clearly states commitment to discipleship, to following Him, requires much more than blind faith - especially if we, as many do, have trust issues.  Jesus calls us to "count the cost" before we jump into something lest we come off looking foolish when we decide it's more than we bargained for (Luke 14:25-33).  In other words, there must be a period of thought, prayer, testing and preparation - because we are never called only to be justified (saved); we are beckoned into sanctification (the journey of continued spiritual growth AND service to one another - two sides of the same coin).

Some traditions believe the Lord's call is compelling beyond our capacity to resist or to doubt, that we are so moved by the Holy Spirit in such a way that we literally cannot resist or be forced to act against our own will.  Our Arminian-Wesleyan tradition does not see it quite that way.  The calling is compelling, to be sure, and unmistakable; but our tradition and heritage teach us our ability to reason and to think things through is truly among our Creator's great gifts and thus cannot be denied.  Working within that free will, however, still requires that we seriously consider an appropriate response to what is being asked of us while we explore discipleship honestly and openly within the many means of grace; prayer, fasting, Scripture study, and worship to name only a few.    

Lent is always a good place for seekers to start asking the hard questions because it is during this time when many begin to look at Jesus' life and ministry in a more challenging way; and the reason many look more critically is we know this journey will come to a head on what has become known as "Good Friday", that most cursed and blessed of days when even Jesus Himself cried out to the Holy Father, "Why have You forsaken Me?"

Surely we have all had those moments at some point; those moments when we questioned this God who promised, "I will never forsake you", especially when bad things happen to us.  And we try to embrace that certain promise in the midst of chaos and despair when we feel completely and utterly forsaken.  And I promise you this: if we stand firm in Christ, in what is written in the Scriptures as Jesus did in the wilderness, we can be sure even some "Christians" will turn on us when we seek to do what is right in the eyes of our Holy Father rather than worry about what our "friends" or our culture may think of us. 

These attempts at destruction happen all the time in cliquish social circles, private gossip circles, on social media, and even in "conversation forums" such as one I am currently engaged in at the local university.  People do not want to hear anything other than what they already think they know (I doubt any of us can be excepted from this!); and anyone who speaks outside that particular frame of reference is at least a potential "enemy" - but certainly a threat.

Sometimes the attempts to undermine our faith are more subtle, such as when the "tempter" takes Holy Scripture out of its appropriate context in an effort to make a self-serving point.  He does so when we are at our weakest and most vulnerable as Jesus surely was, or at least as vulnerable as the "tempter" hoped He would be.  Lest we forget, however, it is probably even easier to be tempted when we think we are at our strongest - you know, when we are pretty full of ourselves and have lost all sense of humility and spiritual need. 

Fasting alone does not bring us temptation even though we should understand taking on such a spiritual practice can be quite a test of spiritual endurance.  Yet fasting alone does not serve a spiritual purpose if our only measure of success is whether we were able to "go the distance" and do without something for a specified period of time without cheating.  It must never be fasting alone or strictly "giving up something for Lent"; it must be fasting AND prayer AND Scripture study AND self-sacrifice AND the other means of grace by which we connect or reconnect with our Lord in a meaningful way.

This is why a statement of suggesting "now or never" is unfair and borderline manipulative; it leaves no room for the Holy Spirit to work.  It puts people on OUR time table.  We observe Lent every year, and for good reason.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus refers to fasting as a presumed and necessary spiritual practice already in place as He says, "When you fast ..." - not "if".  Like repentance, fasting is not a "one-and-done" proposition.

Lent is a reminder for us that discipleship is not a static "thing" that just sits there after we have been baptized; that false notion of believing we are "saved" only for our own sakes and not for the sake of the Lord's Kingdom AND His people who have yet to make a commitment, those who find it difficult to let go, those who are lost, those who feel "forsaken", angry, and bitter because of what they have suffered and cannot find their way back. 

Jesus clearly teaches that the "end" of spiritual life in Him is not at baptism; rather that baptism is a means to an end, a way to something greater and clearly beyond oneself as being "led ... into the wilderness" as Jesus was.  I suppose it can be said that after baptism is when the real work begins, when perhaps we become a greater threat to the "father of lies", when we have been marked with the sign of faith and means of grace by which our Lord claims us and we declare our allegiance to the Kingdom of Heaven and to the Lord's people on earth - His Body the Church - as well as to those who continue to struggle or are struggling perhaps for the first time.

But we also must never overlook or soft sell Jesus' use of the Holy Scriptures to endure and overcome this "testing", this "temptation" - NOT clever bumper sticker slogans we make up for ourselves that are, more often than not, not quite biblical.  Standing firm in the Word, returning to that Word after we have drifted away, or entering into that Word as a new beginning, is a daily challenge for us all.  This is the justification and necessity of the fellowship of the Church, the congregation of disciples who continue to struggle themselves and are glad for the company of others who so struggle.  This is discipleship; to struggle rather than to settle.

So if we really care about the state of this nation, if we are truly concerned about the state of the Church, it is time to more seriously and prayerfully consider what our Lord asks of us and WHEN He asks it of us.  We must resolve to "start here, and start now" each day to affirm for the first time - or reaffirm once again our commitment to our Lord.  Let the sacraments of the Church be to us our Lord's call to Reconciliation - to Him AND to one another. 

All glory and honor to the most High God, and peace to His people on earth.  Amen.