Monday, November 30, 2015

"Wait for The Lord: the membership vow of prayer" - 1st Sunday of Advent 2015

Isaiah 40:28-31
2 Peter 3:8-16
Matthew 25:1-13

Christmas has lost its meaning for us because we have lost the spirit of expectancy. We cannot prepare for an observance. We must prepare for an experience.” Handel Brown

Anticipation demanded of faith rather than expectations as per our own demands.  It is the profound difference between the “foolish” bridesmaids and the “wise” bridesmaids – both of whom represent the Church.  Only five of these ten, however, will be allowed into the Great Banquet at the return of the Bridegroom who is Christ.  These five “wise” ones fully invested themselves in His anticipated return.  The five “foolish” ones took for granted that they were prepared, they didn’t really expect Him, and so they were turned away when they “demanded” to be let in when He did come.

This is the very spirit and discipline of Advent in our anticipation of the Return of Messiah – an Experience - rather than a mere countdown to Christmas – an Observance.  Since we will not be passive observers when Messiah returns, we must prepare ourselves for the infinite Experience rather than settle for a finite Observance according to a date on a calendar!

Like Christmas, the vows of church membership have lost meaning for many – and for the same reasons.  In large measure we come to “observe” with our lamps rather than to prepare ourselves for an “experience” by making sure we have oil for those lamps.  When we join a church, we do so because that church happens to fit neatly into our lives as our lives are already orderedThings in the church are done according to our own expectations and our own specifications, so we decide this is the place for us.  And as long as the Church (and the pastor!) remember their places and continue to cater to individual demands, we’ll all get along just fine. 

In the early Church, long before the Reformation and so many denominational choices we have today, catechumens who were being prepared for membership into the Church were required to undertake a serious course of study not only in doctrine but certainly in discipleship – to learn what it means to literally follow Jesus in daily living as opposed to simply becoming a member of a club in one day.  The discipline of the early Church required that new disciples come to understand what baptism and confirmation in the Church really mean.  They were not becoming mere “members”; they were being prepared to become the Church themselves

This is the current – and expected - practice of the United Methodist Church in preparation for Confirmation.  Too many churches take short-cuts, and consequently the confirmands are not prepared for the demands and the “experience” of discipleship.  They are largely being prepared only for an “observance” of Confirmation Day.  This may partly explain why so many young people leave the Church after high school graduation.  They never really learned how to connect the Church to the Kingdom of Heaven – and then to “real” life.

Probably far from being a perfect system, such an involved process nevertheless seeks to convey to the confirmands that being a member of the Holy Church requires devotion and dedication to The Living Word; a commitment to a life-changing Experience.  This process of spiritual growth should also convey to the confirmands that they should strive to accommodate their new life in Christ rather than to expect the Church to accommodate their old lives.  As it has been so often said, The Lord our God does indeed love us “just as I am”, but He loves us too much to leave us in that sorry state!  We must never forget that “Just as I am” is a hymn, a poem, a song; it is NOT Holy Scripture.

This discipline of “experience” was the driving force behind the early Methodist movement.  It was not about becoming a member of a “popular” club and hanging out with people who are “liked”; it was entirely about discipleship, spiritual growth through the deliberate use of the means of grace, and the discipline of the “cost” of following Jesus in “real” life.  To “flee from the wrath to come” was entirely about the spirit and principle (not the season) of Advent – the anticipated return of Messiah and the Day of Judgment.  It was entirely about preparing for an “experience” rather than a mere “observance”.

All this is to say we do not equate Church life with Kingdom life.  For that matter we do not typically equate Church life with our so-called “real” life.  This is a profound loss not only to the Church and its diminished witness but also to the individuals who are being cheated out of a life-altering “experience” by a lazy, entitled, and complacent Church that is more interested in its marketing strategy than in its necessary discipline. 

Discipleship is costly, challenging, and counter-cultural.  It does not fit into what we consider our “real” life.  It is easy in the abstract to “believe in Jesus” according to the Promises of the Gospel, but it is very hard to actually “follow Jesus” according to His demands; and this is the profound difference between our contemporary concept of church membership and the hard reality of discipleship.  It is a truth the modern-day Church plays down for fear of losing members; but when the Church becomes little more than a habit or nothing more than a social choice rather than a deliberate decision and determination of faith, something is amiss.

So choosing to join a United Methodist Church should not be strictly a matter of social connection or cultural conformity, though there are those elements which are not altogether bad.  We make vows, however – vows to one another AND to The Lord - to uphold and support the Church; the whole Church, its mission, and all (not some) of the Church’s ministries, by our “prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service”.  And lest we think otherwise, these vows are of the same substance as those of a wedding and are taken as seriously by our Lord as our Lord expects of us because it is written in the Scripture more than once, “When you make a vow to The Lord, do not delay to pay it; for The Lord has no pleasure in fools” (Num 30:2; Dt 23:21; Eccl 5:4).  These vows are important components of discipleship rather than strictly for church membership.

Advent is a wonderful time and opportunity to get back to the business of the Church, the business being that of preparing ourselves and one another not for the “observance” of a calendar date which will come and go and soon be forgotten – but for the “experience” of the Kingdom which will come and stay!  It is probably more important than ever before that we re-examine our commitment not only to the Body of Christ but to the Covenant itself – for the commitment to One is in fact the commitment to the Other.

There is no better way to prepare for this “experience” than by prayer, our “waiting for The Lord” and “keeping watch”.  Purposeful prayer.  Contemplative prayer.  Time-consuming rather than convenient prayer.  Alone AND with our fellow disciples as per the vow we made.  Prayer is but one of the essential elements of the “oil” we will need to “trim” our lamps; lamps we were given when we accepted our Holy Father’s invitation and chose to call Jesus our Savior and Lord of the Church.  The oil we must acquire ourselves.

The arrival of the Bridegroom is undetermined by human measure, but we are offered everything we need to be prepared.  Prayer is the beginning of every discipline within the Body of Christ.  Prayer is also what is promised to each disciple from the whole Church.  It is indeed a vow we must not delay to pay and a duty we owe to the Church and to one another.  For it is the “experience” of the Banquet we do not want to miss.  Amen. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sin is lurking at the door ...

“If you do well, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  Genesis 4:7 NRSV

Cain was pretty upset that his offering to The Lord had not been received as Abel’s was.  The whole passage is hard to understand because we are not told exactly why Abel’s gift was somehow a better, or more suitable, offering.  There is plenty of commentary and speculation, but the biblical text itself does not spell it out for us.  Maybe it is better that we not get so caught up in trying to figure it out lest we miss something greater.  The gift may have been received without “regard” (maybe in the manner in which it was offered?), but clearly The Lord had “regard” for Cain himself.

Still, the feeling of resentment Cain was experiencing was deep enough to well up within him to the point of murder – striking the one whom he blamed even though it was The Lord who “had no regard” for Cain’s offering (vs 5).  Again, we do not know with certainty why The Lord favored one offering over another.  What we do know is that Abel had no part in whatever was happening between The Lord and Cain.  This, I think, is the great challenge of reading and studying the Holy Scripture: finding our own places in the stories – in this case, trying to decide whether we are Cain or Abel.

We are owed nothing.  Life is what it is.  There is therefore no one to blame for misfortune, but there is only One to whom we may give thanks for all – even (maybe especially) in those circumstances that challenge our patience and our faith.  We must not forget Abraham was pushed up against a spiritual wall when he was asked to sacrifice his beloved Isaac!

When dealing with the good and the bad, however, there is this: which will overwhelm us and ultimately define us?  As human beings?  As disciples of Christ?  As the Church, the very Body of Christ?  “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Like many Americans, I have been struggling with the reality of refugees from Syria.  Most are just trying to escape a civil war which has destroyed the Syrian economy and rendered routine living impossible.  These refugees are not the cause of the civil war; they are its victims. 

There is another harsh reality.  Vetting those we propose to allow into the United States must be next to impossible by the sheer numbers alone.  Without doubt there are those with evil intentions who will use this crisis to try and enter into the US as they were able to enter into Europe.  These are not looking for a better life; they are looking for targets.  These are not refugees.  They believe themselves to be jihadists, holy warriors, and they have been indoctrinated to die for a cause rather than to live with holy purpose.  Whether they signed up of their own volition or were somehow compelled to join may not be for us to ascertain at this point.  What we do know is they mean harm.

So we’re stuck somewhere in the middle.  We who struggle as disciples of Christ are experiencing what The Lord warned Cain about.  We are struggling to know exactly what we must do as disciples and as responsible citizens.  We must be “wise as serpents” AND “as gentle as doves” (Matthew 10:16) because we are by our baptism “sent out” by Christ.  Jesus suggests those who propose to act in His name can be both.  He actually demands it.

Those who insist the United States is “a Christian nation founded on Christian principles” are in danger of painting themselves into a corner because Christianity does not offer exclusive rights or privileges to any individual, even this land we try to call our own.  That is, our allegiance to Christ does not entitle us … to anything.  It is pure luck that we were born in this wonderful country rather than in Syria or Somalia.  In biblical fact, our allegiance to Christ obligates us to the “least among us” and even to our “enemies” (however this may be defined).

Our challenge is not to find an enemy or a scapegoat as Cain was sure he found, which drove him to murder an innocent man.  Our challenge is to find Christ, for “whatever you do for the least of these, you do it for Me” (Matthew 25:31-46).  The Eternal Christ is The Living Word of the Living God.  That Word speaks to us in the Church, but that same Word compels us to reach out to those who live in the margins of society.

So what we do for the sake of the Eternal Word is how we must approach this current crisis.  We are fond of saying “faith will save us” as it is clearly written, but how we choose to act in the midst of a great humanitarian crisis that seems more like a threat will determine whether we actually believe “faith will save us”.  For we must act in and live by faith in order for faith to save us.

The president is not “right” in this matter nor is he “wrong”, but the president is also not the issue.  The same goes for political candidates who might believe what they are saying but are more likely playing to the populist crowds.  For Christians the issue is striking the right balance between responsible citizenship and faithful discipleship – vigilance and the power of mercy.  Despite what many on either side try to claim, there is no clear answer. 

Sin is indeed “lurking at the door”, but our God insists we “must master it” lest sin overwhelm us.  And if The Lord told Cain he must master it, it must mean we have it within us to master sin – but not to get good at it!!

When we propose to act in the Holy Name, we have to go beyond simply believing The Lord exists.  We must fully trust that The Lord will see to The Lord’s own purposes, and we must be ok with that regardless of what it may cost us.  This does not mean we need be unconcerned, and it does not mean we cannot be vigilant.  There is, however, a component of acting within the Eternal Word we must get next to: The Lord really does know what is best for His own people, and His ways “are not our ways”.  And lest we be confused, The Lord is not an American.

It is ok to have an opinion and even strong feelings about this crisis.  It is not ok to believe one way is absolutely right.  Jesus taught in parables because He demanded that His followers think things through very carefully rather than to act or react spontaneously because there may not always be a “yes” or “no” answer.  In this case it may not be that “our” nation is being invaded.  As with Abraham, this may be among the great tests we face as a people who claim The Lord as our God … because “sin is lurking at the door”.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Ministry of all Christians VIII: Practical Divinity, Practical Faith

Genesis 25:19-28
Romans 9:6-13
John 7:25-36

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”  Carl Jung (father of analytical psychotherapy)

Conversely it must be said that, unlike chemical substances which lack independent will, if there is no reaction in the meeting of two personalities, neither will be transformed; not the one who needs to be transformed nor the one who claims to have been transformed.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2:14 CEB): “People who are unspiritual don’t accept the things from God’s Spirit.  [These things] are foolishness to them and cannot be understood because [these spiritual things] can only be comprehended in a spiritual way”. 

It might even be considered that too many within the Christian faith do not quite understand – or even really care to understand - the Christian religion apart from that often wide gulf between claiming to “believe in Jesus” and “going to heaven”.  Consider that there are about 7.3 million Americans who claim to be “members” of the United Methodist Church, but only 2.9 million of these attend worship (39%).  Of the 2.9 million who attend worship and the rough formula for those who attend any small group or discipleship development study, including Sunday school (35%-45%); that number drops to 1.3 million. 

So of the 7.3 million Americans who call themselves “members” of the United Methodist Church, only 17% are engaged in the full life of the Church.  For the other 83%, Christianity in general may have no meaning for them beyond that single moment of “membership” when their names were recorded in the church rolls.  If Christianity has been reduced to nothing more than a single “burning bush” moment but with no real transformation, no life-altering response, something is missing.

The United Methodist Church holds that “Our theological task is essentially practical.  It informs the individual’s daily decisions and serves the Church’s life and work.  While … theoretical constructions of Christian thought make important contributions to theological understanding, we finally measure the truth of such statements in relation to their practical significance.  Our interest is to incorporate the promises and demands of the Gospel into our daily lives” (¶105, 2012 Book of Discipline, pg 80).

We cannot claim to accept the promises of Christ if we reject the demands of Christ.

In other words, the theology and doctrines of the United Methodist Church are not only theoretical but must become practical and applicable to our daily living.  As has been shared and emphasized so often during this doctrinal series, and as is expressed in our Book of Discipline, a doctrine which lacks outward expression and practical significance can have no real meaning.  If our doctrine cannot inform practical living, the doctrine lacks substance and remains only theoretical.  This includes a benign statement that we “believe” in Jesus.

But when St. Paul is referring to “the message of the Cross as foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Corinthians 1:18), what exactly is he referring to as “the message”?  What does the Cross itself reveal?  That Jesus died?  Yes, but why?  Because of His love for, and complete submission to, the Holy Father’s purpose? 

Of course, but there are other elements of “the message of the Cross”, not least of which is the loud-and-clear message received from those who rejected Jesus and His claims to the point of being willing to deliberately (with “malice aforethought”!) testify falsely so this innocent Man personifying the “message of the Cross” could be executed.  We have to remember Jesus referred to the necessity of the “message of the Cross” in our daily living long before He was nailed to that Cross (Matthew 16:24).  You must take up your Cross and follow Me – IF – you want Eternal Life.  The Promise – AND – the Demand of the Gospel.

At no time did Jesus ever suggest that we need only to say His Name.

That narrative of rejection is as much a part of “the message of the Cross” as is Divine Love.  It cannot be glossed over or ignored because that narrative reveals something written of extensively in the Scripture but is all too often ignored by scriptural (those claiming to be Bible-believing) Christians – just as the Law of Moses (the Scripture, the Torah) was ignored by religious leaders and the mob demanding Jesus’ death. 

That narrative of rejection is the tension between the Promises and the Demands of the Gospel and the tension between our two personalities; who we think we are in “real life” (the life we define strictly on our own terms according to the Promise), and who we are called to be in the “fullness of life” offered to us in Christ according to the Demand (John 10:10).  You see, when “church life” becomes or remains theoretical and compartmentalized rather than practical and complete, the Church itself becomes marginalized and is ultimately deemed useless and therefore easily rejected – even by those who insist upon being referred to as “members” of the very Church they reject.  That 83% of the 7.3 million in the United Methodist Church alone.

There is a matter of whether the Bible can have any significance beyond its literary value for those who do not believe in its Divine Inspiration.  So it falls to disciples, “witnesses” willing to “take up their cross”, to attest to the practicality (rather than the theory) of what is revealed to us. 

This begs the question, then: what has been revealed to us practically?  This, I think, is the essential component of the very existence of Christianity and very being of Christ Jesus as Lord of the Church – because if it is only theoretical, it has yet to be proved as true ... even for those who claim to believe it.

So what is proved?  Circumcision proves only that a circumcision has taken place.  Baptism in the Church proves only that a baptism has taken place, and Holy Communion proves only that the practice took place.  A profession of faith proves only that a profession of faith has been spoken aloud, and confirmation proves only that we put our youth through a process. 

Yet what has been proved to those for whom all this is all just “foolishness” or superstition if these practices end with the benediction?  These who call us foolish or superstitious are the ones who need to know exactly what has taken place transformationally – and they need to know from we who claim to have been transformed; because apart from our practical divinity, practical discipleship, they may never come to know that what we practice, what we do transcends theory.

I mention circumcision because in some circles Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is known as the book of circumcision.  Almost everything Paul writes in this Letter seems to center around his objection to circumcision.  Yet this is not quite what Paul is getting at.  If we were to look more carefully at the principle to which St. Paul defaults, it cannot be strictly about circumcision - for us, anyway – because circumcision is not a practice of the Church.  There must be something for us today, something practical.

Baptism, however, is an important and necessary practice of the Church.  And as important as baptism is as the sign of the New Covenant, it can still be reduced to a meaningless practice if it does not serve as a means to something greater, one of the many means of grace we actually practice as important to us.  So to take a small snippet of Paul’s letter, let us read this: “In Christ Jesus baptism avails nothing; but faith working through love avails everything” (5:6).

“Faith working through love”.  This is the practical component of the Christian faith and practice which takes us beyond a theoretical doctrine or creed and moves us toward the very practical nature of being Christ in the world today as His Body the Church.  This is what it means to “take up the Cross and follow” Jesus daily.  Ridding ourselves of the world’s encumbrances that only weigh us down, we practically put faith into action by our unselfish acts of love. 

Is it “works” that sanctify us?  YES!  But “faith working through love” in a practical way as our daily testimony to what we have long claimed to be true.  It is the Church which takes a doctrine and moves it from theoretical to practical.  It is our “real life”, for it is the only life we have.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Thought for Veterans' Day 2015

“Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.  It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have.”  Ronald Reagan

No truer words have been spoken.  There is no more formidable weapon as one who has something worth defending, something worth sacrificing for, something worth dying for if necessary.  So we commemorate this day (I hesitate to use the word “celebrate”) whose origins come from the declared Armistice Day when WWI officially came to an end at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

We as Americans do not glamorize war, and those who have taken up arms in defense of this nation will hardly romanticize war.  Yet we recognize the reality of evil and tyranny in the world from which no one is safe except by the hands of those who refuse to stand down or appease an adversary who will not be appeased.  So even though armed conflict is often referred to as a sometimes “necessary evil”, we cannot ignore the reality that sometimes force can only be answered with force when other options have been exhausted. 

President Lincoln stated in his second inaugural address that “All dreaded [the Civil War], all sought to avert it.  While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war.” 

We know all too well the harsh reality of war and those who are determined to make war, and we also know politicians have sometimes been too eager to devote American forces to a cause that was not altogether understood or embraced by the American public.  Yet in the face of doubt, uncertainty, and even protest, this nation’s “free men and women” answered the call and have answered that call without regard to the politics, believing first in the ideals of liberty we hold so dear and the principle of service to something greater than self.

So let us remember our veterans who have served and are currently serving at home and abroad.  They served, and continue to serve, freely and selflessly for ideals and principles we have all too often learned to take for granted.  Their service to this nation is a reminder that there is always something worth defending, worth sacrificing for, and worth laying down one’s life for; because America is not a place on a map.  It is a state of mind and heart and being. 

This is the United States veteran.  We worship the God who gifted these men and women with the heart of a lion and a vision beyond their own lives.

Semper Fidelis,

Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Ministry of all Christians, VII: Expressions of the Heart

Exodus 20:8-11
1 John 2:3-14
Matthew 4:1-11

“We believe divine worship is the duty and privilege of [all] who, in the presence of God, bow in adoration, humility, and dedication.  We believe divine worship is essential to the life of the Church, and that the assembling of the people of God for such worship is necessary to Christian fellowship and spiritual growth.”  ¶104, Article XIII, Book of Discipline 2012

Yet another Pew Research poll indicates religion in general is becoming less and less important to Americans – arguably the most blessed people on this planet.  We already know of this decline because we’ve heard it a thousand times and because it is too easily seen even among the people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious” – even among many who claim Christianity.  We may even be experiencing it ourselves to one degree or another when “coming to church” is more of a habit than a genuine anticipation of something wonderful. 

Yet whether we as a people are becoming less religious is a much more complicated matter than whether we consider ourselves believers because belief and intentional, formal worship are more intimately connected than we may be willing to admit.  And if worship is not so important to us that we can take it or leave it, then we are compelled to ask exactly what is important to us.  And to ask within the context of Jesus’ encounter with the evil one in the wilderness.

It is too easy to puff oneself up and disavow “organized religion” as if we are somehow above it all; or criticize worship music that is not quite to our personal liking; or slander a preacher with whom we disagree (or just don’t like), or adversely judge a house “full of hypocrites” as if they are truly beneath us.  Christian bashing has become in many circles the “popular” thing to do – even among Christians. 

There may be legitimate complaints against Christianity or the Church in general, but I tend to think “turn-the-other-cheek Christians” (and there are some!) are just easier targets for social bullies.

Self-righteousness has always been a problem, but it has lately become very trendy, very chic.  Agnosticism implies a deep, philosophical thinker; and atheism is even trendier still because this implies a free thinker, very independent, logical, rational, enlightened ... intelligent.  Yet there is a much deeper element involved in purposefully gathering for worship that we as professed believers do not often consider.  In fact it is so overlooked as to be completely taken for granted. 

One writer put it this way: “Some may say, ‘I can worship God better by myself in the woods or by the lake.’  Perhaps you can.  And God forbid that any of us should be denied our private encounters with God!  But the test of whether any experience of God is genuine or is simply an aesthetic high is whether [that experience] inclines you to obey God.” John Piper

The writer’s observation is perfectly consistent with St. John’s own words: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God … by this you may know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:1-2). 

However, this is not strictly about intellectual “belief”, a conclusion one can draw with the human mind.  It is entirely about whether the Word of God has become the Living Word in us and with us in our daily living and are not just “words” written on some pages in a book covered with dust in our homes.  There are many other ways to unpack St. John’s statement, but essentially it boils down to whether an experience with The Lord is about The Lord and His higher purposes – OR – about His stamp of approval on our personal desires.

This takes us back to that fundamental component of discipleship: the profound difference between mere “belief” and earnest “faith” – that necessary component of worship.  We’ve explored the potential dangers of mechanical responses and lifeless doctrine that lacks outward expression – that danger being the difference between only “saying” something (“I love The Lord and my brothers and sisters”) and actually “doing” something (“I make time to worship The Lord with my brothers and sisters, come hell or high water”).  For the affirmation of what is Truth is found not in what we say (“talk is cheap”), but rather in what we do.  “Saying” something requires no real effort, and “click and share” on Facebook requires even less effort, but “doing” something demands a real investment of time and energy and selfless devotion.

The difference makes me think of a cartoon I saw recently of a solitary person sitting in a funeral home chapel.  The casket is up front, and the funeral director is in the back speaking to his co-worker: “The deceased had over 4,000 Facebook ‘friends’.  I don’t understand why only one showed up.”

We know why even if we won’t admit it.  There is a deep and wide gulf between claiming a relationship exists – and being actively engaged in that relationship.  Worship is an essential part of that relationship with The Lord AND within His Body the Church.

The value of worship is not measured by the quality of the music or the preaching or the appointments of the altar and sanctuary.  It is not even about the beautiful stained glass dedicated to some long-forgotten saint.  The genuine value of worship – as with the value of all doctrine – is measured by the response to The Word, a willingness to “go and do likewise”, a resolve to “go and sin no more” (rather than to try and redefine sin), and an eagerness to not only be filled but to willingly empty ourselves with the sure confidence of faith in knowing we will be filled yet again “with good measure” (Luke 6:38). 

Worship of The Lord our God is the measure of Christ Jesus who “emptied Himself” in giving so fully (Philippians 2:7) to the higher purpose of The Father and not for personal fulfillment or even spiritual satisfaction.  So the value of worship is not measured by the professionalism of the worship team but in what we are willing to invest in worship ourselves.

Worship is not just a thing we do on Sunday morning only up until the noon hour (and heaven help the preacher who does not respect that stroke of 12!), and then go about our business as if nothing happened.  Because if it is true that we can leave worship and go about our business as if nothing happened, then it may be truly said that nothing happened.  There cannot be a more empty feeling.

There is a very real, rather than an abstract, component of Jesus’ encounter with the evil one in the wilderness we must not only heed but embrace.  There is no way – NO WAY – to withstand the devil’s seemingly innocuous and innocent offers (such as bread when we’re truly hungry or the “American Dream” by way of what the “empire” will legally allow or the culture demands); no way to discern temptation if we are not fully engaged in and with the Body of Christ in worship, in fasting, in Scripture study, in mutual accountability, and (not or) in fellowship.  In fact everything the tempter offers to Jesus in the wilderness?  We call them “blessings”!

Why do we worship?  Why is our official position that worship is necessary rather than optional or a nice thing to do once in a while?  While it is true that being in church no more makes one a Christian than being in a carport makes one a car, it is equally true that whatever love we may have for The Lord is entirely dependent on our willingness and eagerness to worship The Lord, giving Him the time He so richly and infinitely deserves, AND doing so with others who need us as much as we need them.

Attending to worship and the sacraments and Scripture study and fellowship is not about being “religious” at all; it is about being faithful.  It is entirely about faithful expressions of what is within us.  With our hearts.  With our prayers.  With our fellowship.  With our singing.  And with our tithes and other offerings.  It is the difference between saying we love Jesus – and doing the loving thing.  It is about admitting we need a Redeemer and then worshiping the One who has actually redeemed us.  It is about worshiping the One who will save “those who endure to the very end” (Matthew 10:22).

It is about giving thanks constantly to the One who can, by His own Word and the fullness of His Being, send the tempter back into the wilderness where he belongs.  For it is our Lord Jesus who commanded: “Away with you, Satan!  For it is written, ‘Worship The Lord your God, and serve only Him’.  Then the devil left Him, and suddenly angels came and waited on Him.”

It is the power of the Most High God and His redeeming love expressed in Christ Jesus we come to acknowledge, to seek, to find, and to embrace.  It is the fullness of the Body of Christ which prepares us and strengthens us for the challenges and temptations we will surely face in the loneliness of our own wilderness.

The only way worship has no value is when we fail to add value to worship.  Our God has given us every reason to worship Him – in Christ Jesus, the Living Word.

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

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Ministry of all Christians VI: Saints among us

Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 21:1-7
Matthew 23:29-39

“Sanctify yourself, and you will sanctify society.”  St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis’ observation was – and is – simple.  We cannot demand or require from others what we are unwilling to demand or require of ourselves.  Today perhaps more than ever, our society needs solid examples and role models of faith and service to others.  When they do not have that, they can only do so much with what little they have.  

United Methodist elder JD Walt put it this way, When we lose sight of the grand vision, we tend to succumb to the closest thing we can see.  Remember when the freed Hebrew slaves wanted to go back to Egypt?  They had lost sight of the vision.  There’s a verse in Proverbs that says something like, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’.” (

So we have visionaries throughout the ages - United Methodists believe in saints, but not in the same manner as the Catholic Church.

We recognize and celebrate All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) and "all the saints who from their labors rest."  All Saints' Day is a time to remember Christians of every time and place, honoring those who lived faithfully and shared their faith with us. 

However, [the United Methodist Church] does not have any system whereby people are elected to sainthood.  We do not pray to saints, nor do we believe they serve as mediators to God.  United Methodists believe "... there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human who gave himself a ransom for all" (1 Timothy 2:5-6a). 

United Methodists call people "saints" because they exemplified the Christian life.  In this sense, every Christian can be considered a saint (that is, those who actually exemplified the Christian life; a significant caveat).

John Wesley believed we have much to learn from the saints, but he did not encourage anyone to worship them.  He expressed concern about the Church of England's focus on saints' days and said that "most of the holy days were at present answering no valuable end" ( 

There are misconceptions about the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine regarding sainthood, not least of which is that recognized saints, including The Blessed Mother, are not in any way “worshiped” (nor is the pope, for that matter).  These faithful are honored and remembered for “taking the road less traveled”, often at great personal risk, but they are not worshiped.  Do not believe otherwise.

The Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Churches mark “feast days” devoted to many of the saints, but the purpose is to remember these saints and honor the work they are remembered for.  They are not honored for merely being Christians.  Those deemed to be “saints” have some significant event in their lives determined to be “miraculous”.  The earliest saints had died martyrs.

I am not going to try and explain the idea of praying to saints for intercession because, frankly, I don’t understand it myself.  Besides, examining the doctrines of the United Methodist Church require that we focus on what we do believe and how useful our beliefs are to the witness of the Church.  It is not our task to try and find fault with what we do not understand.

It is written in the Letter to the Hebrews that “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (12:1), but the author was referring to biblical heroes and the patriarchs of Israel who preceded such “doctors” of the Church as St. Augustine and St. Francis of Assisi.  These men, and many others (including women), are largely responsible for the development and refinement of the doctrines and practices of the Church in general, including many Protestant doctrines.  These saints, just like you and I, had their own struggles as exemplified by St. Augustine who is quoted as once having said, “O Lord, help me to be pure … but not just yet.”

St. Augustine struggled often with the internal war you and I face on an almost daily basis, but his plea for purity came before he finally surrendered fully to The Lord and devoted himself to matters of faith, making sense of doctrine, and service to the Church.  He wanted to have his cake and eat it, too.  He desired holiness, but he also desired the sensual pleasures and comforts of his own world.  The real struggle came, however, as he began to realize the Holy Scripture is not a “general reference” to be used only as needed.  St. Augustine also discovered that there are no loopholes!  There are no escape clauses, and there are no short-cuts to sanctification.

The power of the Holy Spirit became inescapable for these men and women we honor to this day.  And we do not remember them just because some pope declared them “saints”.  They are all very real and significant parts of the history and witness of the Church through the ages.  We remember and honor them for the same reason the author of the Letter to the Hebrews lifts up the patriarchs and others who persevered in the Holy Path when it would have been much easier – and safer - to just join the crowd, be “popular”, and declare their own holiness or salvation without actually living it.

Jesus admonished the Pharisees and the scribes because they were not being realistic in their observations and remembrances of the past.  Even we today cannot imagine having been eye witnesses to the Mighty Signs and Wonders The Lord performed in Egypt, and then being anything less than faithful to The Lord.  Yet as we should learn from the wilderness journey, it only takes a generation or two, however, to forget.  It takes no effort to make these heroes of the faith to be nothing more than fond memories in a book. 

That is, we may remember the names and we may even remember the period in which they lived.  We are not likely, however, to take serious note of the obstacles they confronted and the real dangers they faced … even from those who considered themselves as faithful as they felt they needed to be – on their own terms!  These were dangerous people then – and are no less dangerous now.  So being chastised by someone – anyone – especially an “outsider” did not sit well then – and does not sit well now.

Even today we do not take seriously what the prophets endured in confronting the people of The Lord and calling them to repentance before it was too late.  Prophets of all stripes do this very thing even today, coming from unlikely sources and even from our Sunday pulpits, and we do not take them seriously enough to hear the Word and then “go and do likewise”.  If we do not like what we hear, we either reject it outright OR we simply stop coming to listen.  And if we think Jesus is not referring to us in this admonition of the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, we are not looking closely enough at our own lives or the lives of those around us.

I send (not ‘sent’) you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify (if only their spirit in your slander), and some you will flog in your synagogues (read ‘churches’) and pursue from town to town …” (Mt 23:34).  Unless, of course, that ‘prophet’ is Joel Osteen or some other celebrity ‘pop culture’ preacher who “misleads My people” [says The Lord] by preaching “peace when there is no peace” or by trying to “whitewash a wall” that will soon fall (Ezekiel 13:10).  We will follow them to the ends of the earth – as long as they tell us what we wish to hear, as long as they satisfy our “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3) but refuse to call us to sanctification.

Sometimes the prophets and saints of the past are difficult to read and appreciate because we cannot place ourselves in a culture which no longer exists.  We are certain, as the scribes and Pharisees were in Jesus’ day, that we would not “kill” a prophet or participate in the “mob” desecration of the human soul, but the truth is we do exactly that when we fail to stand up for what is truly righteous. 

More than bringing a curse upon ourselves, however, is the reality that The Lord chastises only those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6).  When we refuse to hear – and then actively respond – to a “hard word”, we decline a genuine blessing being offered to help put us back on the Righteous and Holy Path. 

We’re still on a Journey – and will be until the Final Trumpet sounds – so we must not allow ourselves to fall for the “snake oil” that poses as salve for the soul.  We can easily see our world “going to hell in a hand basket”, yet we often reject the Holy Word that is calling us apart from that destructive path to perdition. 

The Hard Word is not always pleasant to the senses, but it is always edifying and sanctifying to the immortal soul. We celebrate and honor the saints who stood firm in The Eternal Word and, like Jesus Himself, “gave us an example, that we should do the same” (John 13:15).  And let us always remember that these saints were not known or referred to among their peers as “good ol’ boys” or “fine Christian women”.

So let us resolve that we will no longer go about our “business as usual”.  The Ministry of all Christians requires that we take more seriously the “cloud of witnesses” and the mission to which we are called as baptized Christians so we may become, for generations to follow, that same “cloud of witnesses” who persevered in righteousness and faith – not popularity.  There are “Saints among us” today.  Let us be counted in their company.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ministry of all Christians, V: Communion, the Spirit of the Body"

Exodus 12:1-11, 14
1 Corinthians 11:17-34
Luke 22:7-23

“The Supper of The Lord is not only a sign of the love Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather is a sacrament [a sign] of our redemption by Christ’s death …” ¶104, Article XVIII, pg 68, Book of Discipline 2012

Like baptism, The Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion) is a sacrament of the Church.  Understanding a sacrament as an “outward sign of an inward grace”, we can then “see” the abiding principle of sacrament unfolding before our eyes when we gather “together” for Holy Communion.  And I must say there is no more precious sight than when married couples receive Communion while holding hands.  I wish we would all be so willing to hold one another’s hands while partaking of this extraordinary Gift!

Still, the question must be asked: do we really understand all Communion signifies, or is it just a thing we do?  For that matter, can Holy Communion be so narrowly defined as to mean only one thing in only one single moment of participation?

The answer, of course, is no; but this does not necessarily mean Communion can mean different things to different persons as if we can make something up independent of what is written in the Scripture and expressed in doctrine and still remain true to the Spirit of the Gift.  Like all doctrines of the Church – and this can never be overstated – if there is no outward, visible expression (sign) of what is taking place within (and we can mean within the heart AND within the building in which we worship), the doctrine is incomplete, empty, or downright false – utterly useless to the Kingdom and the mission of the Church. 

And we are nothing if not “Kingdom people”.  So if the doctrine of Holy Communion can be reduced only to what it means to “me” personally, then it also might be said the doctrine is not biblically thought out or spiritually understood – and the gift is received “unworthily” (1 Corinthians 11:29). 

In the matter of Holy Communion, which is a practice largely done “in house”, expressing its meaning outwardly as a “sign”, a true sacrament – beyond the walls of the Church – becomes even more important lest we reduce it to only a “thing” we do once in a while.  That reduces The Lord’s Supper to little more than a memorial.  By the very sacramental nature of all it means, however, Holy Communion has to be much more than this – or there is no point in doing it at all since we “remember” The Lord every Sunday when the Scripture is read.

We are already at an awkward place within the Christian faith in which the very means of grace (i.e., the sacraments, worship, fasting, prayer, Scripture study, fellowship; all done alone AND together) have become largely “optional” even for many who otherwise call themselves “saved”.  That is, we don’t really believe these things to be necessary or even useful to spiritual growth. 

We don’t believe we can be made more “perfect” than in that moment when we were “pardoned” (justified).  We don’t really believe the Bible to be the Word of the Most High God.  We are much more comfortable with man-made “talking points” born of the Enlightenment period of the 18th century in which all authority was questioned and community life became “every man for himself”.

Such a narrow mindset and vision misses the entire point of the sacraments of the Church and, consequently, misses or ignores altogether the overarching doctrine and mission of the United Methodist Church: that all baptized Christians are “called” to a ministry within the overall mission of the Church – it’s what makes it the “Body of Christ”.  We all have a place, in some capacity, specifically to “make disciples who are equipped to make disciples”.

Can religion be so practiced and faith taken so personally if we truly understand that it is not now, nor was it ever, nor will it ever, be strictly about “me”?  I think about it in terms of being a member of a human family.  There are certainly those special moments our parents (and we as parents) have devoted to one person or another, as on birthdays; but every other day (including the birthday) is about the well-being of the family as a whole – not a single person, certainly not a “favored” child just as our God “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34) as St. Peter came to know. 

Of course there will always be moments when a single person may require a little extra care or attention from time to time – especially when our babies are sick and our children enter those awkward and often traumatic teen years - but even then the other members of the family are not pushed aside nor are their particular needs ignored.

This is the reality of the human family we willfully embrace.  So how have we come to understand the Christian religion and Christian faith as strictly about “me”?  The fallacy of such a notion is if it is only about “me”, then faith itself and its expressive religion become “optional”.  Not really necessary but kinda nice to have from time to time … as it suits “me” and as it fits “my” own personal agenda.  However, we are justified and baptized and called into a whole “family” when we become brothers and sisters to one another AND of Messiah Himself – as we also become children of the Most High God whom Jesus taught us to address and come to know as “Father”.

The concept of “personal” (and very often private) faith to the exclusion of all others is so far off the spiritual grid that it may be considered unimportant and inconsequential – except that the Church as a whole has become this mish-mash of “individuals” who refuse the idea of “mission” and who deny (or defy) the commandment of our Lord who spoke to all His disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must also love one another.  By this all will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 NKJV).  

In the context of the kind of “love” to which Jesus is referring, it is not insignificant that before Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, He had washed their feet, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

Holy Communion is not exclusively a “private” moment only between ourselves and The Lord.  That notion prevents the word “communion” from having any meaning altogether as the sacrament, the “sign” it must necessarily be.  As we are indeed receiving “real food and real drink” (John 6:55) for the soul and for the journey, it is important to the life and mission of the Church that we are assured we are not undertaking this Journey alone and only for our own salvation’s sake.  Think of Uriah whom King David ordered to be sent out in battle away from the army.  Without the safety and support of the whole army, Uriah was killed (2 Samuel 11:1-27.

This is the Ministry of All Christians, so profoundly expressed when we are bound together in the Body of Christ by the very Body of Christ in Holy Communion; for the doctrine of the United Methodist Church holds that we are truly in “communion” not only with the Savior of the world in and with one another – but also with the world itself, and for this reason: so that none would perish” (2 Peter 3:9).

In the Spirit of the Body of Christ in the union of Communion, let the Body of Christ say together: Amen!