Sunday, September 08, 2019

What We Believe: Making Disciples

Jeremiah 18:1-11; Philemon 6-17; Luke 14:25-33

“You have nothing to do but to save souls.  Therefore, spend and be spent in this work.”  John Wesley, 12 Rules for Helpers (lay preachers)

To fulfill this charge, it becomes necessary for the Church to so order – or perhaps reorder - its life – and perhaps language - to the missional end to “make disciples”; we must “spend and be spent” to no other task.  Before this can happen, though, we must first learn to listen. 

What is perhaps even more shocking than Jesus declaring His own flesh and blood as “real food and real drink” (John 6:55) is His declaration that if we do not “hate” those closest to us, we can never be His disciples.  Just as the “real food and drink” teaching caused many to walk away as it is written, we can easily imagine at least an equal number turning away from Jesus at this point in His ministry.

Language matters, so the idea of hating anyone, let alone those we love the most, is not well received no matter who it comes from.  When we say we hate someone or something, we know what we mean.  These persons or things have earned our disdain by violating our lives in some way, and we don’t want to be anywhere near them.  We protect ourselves and those we love by keeping what we “hate” at a safe distance.

So when Jesus admonishes us to “hate” our own blood, rather than try to change the meaning of the word itself, that word which disturbs us most, it becomes necessary for us to engage more carefully.  We cannot write it off as an ancient lesson for an ancient people no longer relevant to us.  If Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” as it is written in the Letter to the Hebrews (13:8), what He meant then, He means now.

So at a time when I thought I was getting a handle on what people mean when they declare their salvation, I became even more confused because by the end of his story, I had no idea what he meant even though I’m sure he did.  Within the broader context of his story, as best I can recall, I wonder if he was telling how he was “called”; and in each subsequent instance, his calling was being affirmed.

It can happen, then, that if we are not careful to try and understand what is written in the Scriptures or hear from the pulpit, not only do others fail to understand what we mean, but we can take something which is priceless and carelessly toss it into the dollar bin.  Like the Holy Name itself, if we are not careful about speaking the Holy Name reverently and with as much respect and awe as possible, it becomes just another word; cheap, easy, and culturally subjective.

Making disciples should not be confused with striving to be a “relevant” church, which seems to be all the rage today.  As one writer shared, it is much more important that the Church be “repentant” rather than “relevant”.  That is, before we can expect others to “get right with God”, we must first make sure we are working to that end ourselves.  Being “saved” comes near to suggesting we are done.  We have arrived.  We are safe, no longer in any danger, and in no need of further instruction. 

Making disciples is not a numbers game, as when King David ordered a census and was punished by The Lord (2 Samuel 24).  The desire for numbers can be likened to a source of pride which precedes a fall (Proverbs 16:18), it can lead to a false sense of achievement, or, perhaps in David’s case, a false sense of security, trusting in human metrics rather than in Divine Providence. 

We all need to be comforted from time to time, but our greater need is to grow in Christ, not to stand “just as I am”.  What our Shepherd is expressing in Luke’s passage is not only for new persons seeking a relationship with Him for the first time; it is a continuing challenge especially for those of us who have become perhaps complacent.  That is, if all is well with “me”, then all must be well period. 

However, the vitality of the Church is measured precisely by Whom we love and how we go about expressing that Love.  If we are to “make disciples”, we must first be willing to live as disciples.  But as our Lord Jesus teaches, we have to know what the true cost will be.  He Himself needs us to know.  And as we understand that our families are our own lives, our own blood, what we are hearing Jesus teach is that if we are unwilling to love The Lord with our whole heart and full self, holding nothing back, we can never really love those closest to us, let alone a strange “neighbor” whom we do not particularly care for.

The passage is not about “hating”; it is about what we love first and fully and the price of that Love which was first offered to us.  It is that which we are called to share without encumbrances – because that is how it was shared with us.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

What We Believe: The First Will Be Last

1 September 2019

Psalm 82; Exodus 20:2-17; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

It was told that after President Reagan was shot in 1981, he was no less his humorous self.  And I think what was most endearing about him was his willingness to poke fun at himself.  Aside from his telling the surgical team, “I hope you’re all Republicans”, and telling his wife he “forgot to duck”, after some days in the hospital and round-the-clock care, he told a nurse, “If I had gotten this much attention in Hollywood, I would have stayed there”.

St. Augustine believed humility to be the foundation of all other virtues because from that sense of being real with oneself, that we ain’t “all that and a bag of chips”, that there is always someone or something more important that any one of us at any given time, there is room for other virtues to develop and grow - including faith itself.  If we lack humility, however, if we are always more concerned with ourselves than with the well-being of others, there can be no room for virtue at all.

Though virtue is generally defined as behavior showing high moral standards, it may be said the Church and the Scriptures define virtue as “holy habits”, which acknowledges virtue as mindful choice.  Since moral standards are subjective to any given generation, and especially in the post-Christian world in which the Church’s influence has sharply diminished, it serves us best to consider virtue as the product of a submissive heart.

St. Jude wrote about those who “turn the grace of our God into unrestrained immorality” (vs 4) – and let us remember “immorality” is not exclusively about issues of physical intimacy.  He also wrote that these “are destroyed by what they know instinctively, as though they were irrational animals” (vs 10).

We’ve talked about this before.  Though a well-developed conscience can be a trustworthy guide, our base instincts - those impulses innate to our being which are focused on self-preservation - can and do often betray us just like unchecked emotions.  We cannot be faithful both to our God and to our impulses.  One will be pushed out because we trust the other more.  It’s like trying to serve two masters which our Shepherd and Teacher says is impossible (Matthew 6:24).

Humility is mentioned often in the Bible and Jesus Himself showed us what humility looks like, and yet it is perhaps one of the most neglected of the biblical virtues.  Unfortunately, like the “meek who will inherit the earth”, we often see such attributes as a sign of weakness, believing our true strength is measured by how “on top” of things we are, how aggressive we are willing to be in going after the things we want. 

Yet by the biblical virtues which are fruits of the Spirit of our God and our willingness to participate, we are reminded there are some things – persons, actually – much more deserving of our time and attention than only getting what we want. 

Humility, however, is not about completely neglecting our own needs, but it does require us not only to thoughtfully discern the difference between a genuine need and what we only desire but to be equally mindful of the genuine needs of others.  The idea of “suffering”, as biblically expressed, is not about deliberately bringing misery onto ourselves.  Rather, “suffering” is the strength to take a back seat to something with more meaning for others than it would mean for ourselves.  It is the difference between our desire for a turkey sandwich and our neighbor’s need to eat.

This does not mean others are always more deserving, but it does mean we should not take it upon ourselves to decide whose need is greater.  A humble heart refuses to be concerned with the pettiness about who is more deserving.  Humility submits to the reality of the needs of others and trusts that our own needs will be met in due time.  That is, a humble heart is focused on a Promise that “the first will be last”.

Even though the Letter to the Hebrews emphasizes “mutual love” (13:1), we are also reminded that The Lord can and will show up in the most unlikely places and perhaps even with the most unlikely faces. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it”. 

This may well be a reference to Abraham in the wilderness as “three men” showed up unexpectedly (Genesis 18:1-8).  Though the chapter opens by telling us “The Lord appeared to Abraham”, the text says, “Abraham looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him” (vs 2).  Presumably not knowing who these men were at first, Abraham offered them food, drink, and a chance to rest. 

In a modern setting, Abraham could easily have said, “What?”  Think about how we would respond if we were sitting on our front porch and strangers approached … or even were “suddenly standing near”!  We might be inclined to say perhaps, “May I help you?”, but what we are really digging for is “What do you want?”  Though there is the opportunity to express The Lord’s hospitality, they are “instinctively” perceived as a potential threat.

Humility, as expressed by Abraham, the very father of our faith, does not presume anything.  Before the Law was revealed to Moses which, among other things, commands kindness to strangers because “you were once strangers in a strange land”, Abraham personified it.

Fully trusting that The Lord will meet our needs, as our Shepherd and Teacher assures us, we see first to the needs of others.  Whether they will return the favor is beside the point of genuine humility.  In fact, it should be said there is perhaps nothing more un-Christ-like than the idea of “looking out for number 1”.  As the Letter to the Hebrews states, “Remember those who are in prison as though you are in prison with them; remember those who are being tortured as though you yourselves are being tortured”.  That is, we “bear one another’s burdens” as though they are, in fact, our burdens to bear.

If we hope and pray for a kinder, more decent and gentle nation, it must begin with us.  Fighting fire with fire, “returning evil for evil” has not worked yet, and so I wonder how we think it will suddenly start working now.  In fact, the idea of responding in kind is precisely what St. Jude was referring to as the “instincts which will destroy irrational animals”.

In the end, putting ourselves in the lesser positions of personal privilege and even places of honor is what Jesus refers to in teaching us “the first will be last, and the last will be first”.  That is, we can try and seek our reward in the here-and-now, a reward which will, at best, be here today and gone tomorrow … or we can trust that genuine humility will win out in the end in our Father’s good time and according to His good will.

Humility does not come easily to many, perhaps most.  It is, like the other virtues, developed over time with consistency, more than a little patience, and a whole lot of faith – because in the end, humility is entirely about loving The Lord our God with all we have and with all we are, holding nothing back, AND loving our neighbors as purposefully and as willfully as we love ourselves. 

We are, in this life and in this world, being prepared for something Greater in the world to come.  Let us resolve to live as though this were True – because it is.  Amen.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

What We Believe: The Word Became Flesh

25 August 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Romans 11:25-32; John 1:1-5, 10-18

"The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin; so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided; whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt but also for actual sins of men.”  2016 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, Article II, ¶104, pg 66

So for Christianity, Jesus is foundational.  Though He is held in high esteem in Islam as a prophet and in some quarters of Judaism as a teacher, in Christianity He is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God.  As Peter professed and Jesus affirmed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15). 

As if this were not enough, there is more because it cannot be said Jesus was strictly born to die.  If that were so, there would have been no need for the angel to warn Joseph to take his wife and the Child and flee to Egypt to escape the murderous rage of Herod.  In that profound act, we are told there is much more to Jesus the Messiah than to simply anticipate and commemorate His gruesome and tortuous death. 

If He is “the Word which became flesh”, as it is written in the Scriptures and affirmed by our Articles of Religion, then we are challenged to evaluate our relationship with Him not only through His Bride, which is the Church (the congregation, not the institution); we are also required to measure the depth of our relationship with Him based on our knowledge of The Word which “became flesh”.  As it is written in the Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2).

He is, therefore, inseparable from the Eternal Word.  I have stated before, and this statement has caused some consternation with some, that we cannot claim a “personal relationship” with Someone we know virtually nothing about and will make no effort to know.  To know Jesus as “the Word which became flesh”, then, requires a knowledge of The Word itself.  Otherwise, absent a physical body to literally follow, what else is there for us to follow but The Word?

Though I do not mean to diminish the efforts of many to memorize the Scriptures, there is more to the knowledge of the Scriptures and comfortable familiarity with Jesus than mere memorization.  There is context, the setting in which Jesus taught so many lessons.  There is also the necessary context of finding our place within everything He taught. 

It is knowing where He is coming from when He challenged the religious authorities of His day and as He continues to challenge us today who have designated ourselves our own religious authority.  It is to rise from our spiritual complacency and yet remain low in our humility.  It is knowing He never dissuaded the practice of religion but, rather, sought to persuade and invite us into a much deeper relationship – through our practice of religion, which includes Christian education for all ages - with something much greater than ourselves as individuals, something which is – by its very nature and origin - everlasting.

In our Wesleyan tradition, one of the several means of grace is the “search of the Scriptures” rather than merely “reading the Bible”.  By “searching” the Scriptures, we are called to much more than to merely read the words on the pages.  Our “searching” involves not only reading but also hearing and meditating on what we’ve read.  In meditating on the Word, we not only must read it again and again and hear it again and again, we also have to have those moments of silence to reflect on and contemplate what is written and, ultimately, what is revealed.

In this, we cannot overlook the deeper meaning in St. John’s words as he expressed the blindness of the world at large as well as the willful blindness of the ones who should have seen very clearly who Jesus was … and still is.  “He was in the world, and the world came into being through Him; yet the world did not know Him.  He came to what was His own, and His own people did not accept Him” (John 1:10-11).    

The “world” did not know Him, but His “own” did not accept Him.  Given that St. James expresses an innate incompatibility between the Kingdom and the world, there is no real condemnation in that statement more than it is a simple acknowledgement that there were Jews, the people of The Lord, and there were Gentiles – those not Jewish, not familiar with Israel’s God.

However, that His own did not “accept” Him is a statement which should not escape our notice.  What does it mean to “accept” the Messiah?  To acknowledge the historical Jesus of Nazareth as a man who existed is not much of a stretch.  To accept Him as “personal Lord and Savior” is a Reformation thing and a fond notion that expresses a necessary level of intimacy, but it still falls short of what we really need to know about the Messiah and what He means not only to those of His “own” who do not “accept” Him but to the world at large that does not “know” Him but needs to.

Jesus Himself posed this very question to those who would profess Him as “Lord” but ignore what He says.  As it is written in Luke’s Gospel (6:46), “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord’, but do not do what I tell you?”  As He goes on to compare a house with a solid foundation that will withstand the storms of life against a house with no foundation that will certainly fall, our Shepherd says there is much more to “knowing” Him than to simply acknowledge His existence.  Even calling Him “Lord” but refusing to obey Him is of no effect.

At the core of all this, proclaiming faith in Jesus but separating Him from The Word is to strike at the very heart of Jesus’ existence and Lordship.  There is certainly the Man born of the flesh, but we confess He was crucified, dead, and buried.  The Man was killed, but The Word was raised and now sits at the Right Hand of the Father.  It is The Word which will come again “to judge the living and the dead”.   “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My Words will never pass away”, our Shepherd declared (Matthew 24:35).

The Word which became flesh had something to say then … and has something to say now.  It is our blessing, our very Life to learn to listen and listen to learn.  To the edification of our souls and the Holy Church, and to the glory of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, August 19, 2019

What We Believe: the Second Coming

18 August 2019

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

The Revelation is filled with all sorts of what can best be described as incomprehensible images.  What St. John wrote is as mysterious as it is often confusing.  There are probably scads of books one can buy to “decode” the Second Coming as described in The Revelation, but at best these “decodings” are speculation based on individual interpretation. 

It has been suggested by some that if I were to draw a picture of these images according to how I understand them, it will likely look nothing like what someone else may draw according to their own understanding.  It is the same thing with sermons.  A Methodist perspective may vary greatly from a Baptist perspective on any given subject.  It isn’t about who is right or wrong.  It is entirely about approach and, perhaps, expectation.

The “Left Behind” series was popular among certain Christian groups and it was fascinating for me, but the books were the authors’ imaginations according to how they interpret The Revelation.  Whether events will unfold exactly the way they are described in the books and movies remains to be seen. 

Oh, we can argue endlessly about a particular passage and its meaning, but in the end the best we as the United Methodist Church can offer is this: “We believe all stand under the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ, both now and in the Last Day.  We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation” (2016 Book of Discipline, Article XII, ¶104, pg 76).

Very generally speaking, then, the United Methodist Church does not devote too much attention to what the Second Coming will look like; we only know it’s coming.  And though it will certainly be the Day when the “sheep are separated from the goats”, as our Shepherd has taught us (Matthew 25:31-46), the United Methodist focus is more on the here-and-now, inviting people into the flock, teaching them to trust the Good Shepherd.   This is so when that Time is upon us – and it may already be - we may navigate it faithfully and fearlessly … together.

Referred to as “practical divinity”, we believe Divine Grace can be experienced, understood, and reckoned now in the several means of grace so we may enable others to share that experience and so order their lives.  It is that experience which is truly transformative, life-changing.  It is when we learn to “die to self so we may rise in Christ” – NOW, not later.

So the United Methodist emphasis is not on what will be, just as Jesus taught that “tomorrow will have enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).  We believe the Gospel of The Lord and the grace which flows freely through Christ is what is now and which gives meaning and Divine purpose to everything we do. 

Even in the early days of the Methodist movement, the emphasis was on Christian living.  Though one could enter into a Methodist society simply by a desire to “flee from the wrath to come”, the emphasis was – and still must be – on living a life devoted to holiness, growing in faith and in love, “going on to perfection”.  Following and imitating Christ the Shepherd.  Building communities of righteousness by holding one another accountable.  Doing no harm.  Doing good.  And staying in love with God.  

This may all be part of the reason why I have a particular disdain for wanna-be-clever church marquees that express such thoughts as, “If you think it’s hot here …”, or “Stop, drop, and roll won’t work in Hades”.  Some have expressed concern that the Church does not talk about Hades enough or sin enough, that we have become too tolerant and lax to the point of giving license, or at least tacit approval, to careless and haphazard living. 

I may be inclined to agree … but only to a point.  And when that point becomes more about living in fear of the future than about living in faith in the present day, we’ve taken it too far.  Many of the so-called “nones” and “dones” have said as much; hearing very little of Promise but plenty of threats.

This leads to the Church’s perpetual dilemma.  How can we talk about the practical usefulness of a disciplined approach to Christian living through the Means of Grace (prayer, fasting, Scripture study, worship, Sacraments) without talking about consequences?  Our readings for today (Isaiah 5:1-7 & Luke 12:49-56) seem to be entirely focused on consequences, on what some have called “or else” theology; i.e., “Get right with God or else …”  The consequences of failing to heed The Lord’s Word.

Yet when reading our passage from The Letter to the Hebrews, particularly verses 35-38 with graphic illustrations, much of what this “great cloud of witnesses” had endured is not only unspeakable horror; it is also unimaginable that we should aspire to live as they did. 

Yet not only did the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” live under that dark cloud of mocking and threats of violence until the violence finally caught up with Him, our Shepherd saw through all that; and “for the sake of the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of God”.

It is a quandary, to be sure.  When there are the promises of blessings in the midst of such violence, it is very hard to make sense of “present salvation” when our surroundings never change.  Jesus spoke often of the intense and often extreme challenges of following Him, yet He also invited us to trade our own self- and culture-imposed yokes for His and receive “true rest”.  What I think our Lord is inviting us into is that certain and steady Path, “the Way” to the Father which is not subject to varying interpretations.  It is an invitation to be certain that come what may, our Shepherd has already been there and done that, and is now sitting in Glory.

A lot had to happen before Jesus was compelled to make that long walk to Calvary; so it must be that a lot must happen for us AS we make our own long walk to our own Calvary.  Yet we are assured that, even lacking “perfection”, the blessing is found in the earnest effort.  For it will be that when The Lord returns to restore His Kingdom and gather His people unto Himself, even if His faithful are found face-down in the mud and being trampled by the world, He will draw us up.

The Second Coming is not a threat; it is a Promise, an assurance to those who freely choose to follow Him.  Come what may, it is our Lord’s invitation to trust that He is “with us until the end”.   Amen.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

What We Believe: Sanctification (Christian Perfection)

11 August 2019

Isaiah 1:10-20; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

Though not among the Methodist Articles of Religion in our Discipline, the following Article was adopted at the Uniting Conference of 1939.  This Conference brought back together what was once the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Episcopal Church North – all having been born of splits in the Methodist Episcopal Church over lay representation and slavery – to become the Methodist Church.   

The Article states: “Sanctification is that renewal of our fallen nature by the Holy Ghost, received through faith in Jesus Christ, whose blood of atonement cleanses from all sin; whereby we are not only delivered from the guilt of sin, but are washed from its pollution, saved from its power, and are enabled – through grace - to love God with all our hearts and to walk in His holy commandments blameless” (Book of Discipline, 2016, ¶104, pg 72).

Yet from Article XI of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which the Methodist Church merged with in 1968 to create the United Methodist Church, states in part: “We believe this experience does not delver us from the infirmities, ignorance, and mistakes common to man, nor from the possibilities of further sin.  The Christian must continue on guard against spiritual pride and seek to gain victory over every temptation to sin.  He must respond wholly to the will of God so sin will lose its power over him … thus he rules over these enemies with watchfulness through the power of the Holy Spirit” (Discipline 2016, ¶104, pg 75).

Though there will always be disagreements about some sections of our Social Principles – how we are called to interact with one another and with the world at large – there are some doctrinal principles which cannot be denied and which attest to the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the Wesleyan tradition, sanctification is our understanding of what “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1) means.  As I have shared previously, it is much more useful to us as disciples to think in terms of process rather than a stop-and-start series of events.  If we think strictly of events, we come near to creating a check-list of personal achievements rather than to embrace the reality that until we breathe our last in this world, we can never settle.  We can never let our guard down. 

We are sanctified (perfected) not only by faith but with a profound sense of hope in active engagement in the life of a disciple; that hope which gives us a sense of purpose in our being, in the many means of grace, and which can even find gratitude for the trials and tribulations we endure in knowing “The Lord disciplines those whom He loves”.  As it is written, we must not “lose heart when we are punished by Him, for The Lord chastises every child whom He accepts” (Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:5-6). 

Our Holy Father does not take our spiritual growth for granted nor should we.

It isn’t always easy to take our lumps from Above or from one another, but it is always necessary for us to appreciate where those lumps come from and what purpose they are intended to serve.  Moses told the people of Israel in their journey, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of Him upon you so you do not sin (Exodus 20:20).  So must the Spirit and the Church so plainly speak to us now: it isn’t always the devil out to get us.  It may well be The Lord testing us.

Spiritual growth is very easy to take for granted, especially in an age in which too many traditions focus on events rather than where each event is intended to lead us.  We baptize our children, but we fail to bring them to worship and Sunday school.  We confirm our children, but we neglect their Christian education.  We receive new members into the Church and the Covenant, but we refuse to hold them accountable to the tenets of discipleship for fear of risking personal friendships – nor do we allow ourselves to be held accountable.  We’ve become a mind-your-own-business kind of people, and that is not compatible with discipleship nor conducive to spiritual growth.

It stands to reason, however, that as we mature biologically, mentally, and emotionally; we must also be aware that spiritual maturity is just as necessary – and yet spiritual maturity does not happen naturally nor automatically.  It requires patience, but it also requires active engagement and participation.  Spiritual growth demands fellowship within the Body of Christ.

The Lord spoke through His prophet, “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17).  This admonishment was to a people who had been thoroughly chastised, having fallen from the grace of living as The Lord’s Chosen; but because His Grace still stood in His love for His people, what would become necessary for the relationship to be properly restored would be for the people of God to live into the Covenant of God.  And that Covenant requires tangible expressions and acts of love for those who struggle.

Living into sanctifying grace is not a matter of merely existing, having once been “saved” or baptized or confirmed.  Living into sanctifying grace in “going on to perfection” is being in a constant state not only of self-discovery in the Spirit and in the Word; it is also about “being dressed for action and having your lamps lit – as those waiting for the Master to return … [for] blessed are those whom the Master finds alert when He comes” (Luke 12:35-37).

Yet because we have been “waiting” for 2000 years, we have lost sight of His Coming as well as a sense of urgency about His Coming.  Even so, St. Peter reminded his readers: “In the last days there will be scoffers … indulging their own lusts and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’  And Peter’s answer is, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:3, 9).

Sanctifying Grace, however, is not strictly about our watchfulness for His return; it is as much about the watchfulness of the temptations we face constantly – to let down our guard, to become complacent in our relationship with The Lord and with one another in the Body. 

Sanctifying Grace – watchfulness - is reengaging in the life of a disciple, learning to love one another as we love ourselves, learning to overcome the power of sin, and learning to be The People of the Covenant.  It is His Gift which we must learn to receive constantly and share generously.  For it is the Way Home.  Amen.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

What We Believe: Rebirth

4 August 2019

Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

You are probably familiar with the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath (anger, a need for vengeance), and laziness (sloth).  These are not so listed strictly because they are, in and of themselves, “deadly”, though they are.  Rather, what makes them so spiritually dangerous is they open the door to a much deeper level of depravity.  Just as “pride goes before destruction”, as it is written in the Proverbs (16:18), so do each of these sins lead us even deeper into a state of spiritual disrepair.  Unholy habits.

To counter these Deadly Sins are what are known as the Seven Virtues: humility (to counter pride), charity (to counter greed), chastity (to counter lust), gratitude (to counter gluttony), temperance (to counter wrath), and diligence (to counter laziness).  Where the Seven Deadly Sins open the door to further destruction, the Seven Virtues lead to sanctification, to perfection in faith and love.  Habits of holiness and the mark of the New Life.

More than just a point/counterpoint, however, what is also being displayed is the difference between one who is born of the flesh and continues to live according to the flesh,  and one who is reborn of the Spirit and strives to live according to the Spirit, learning to outgrow and overcome our natural impulses to make room for faithful and faith-filled responses.  This is on us because these Virtues do not come naturally or easily.  They are learned.  They are deliberate choices we must consciously make each day.

Just as St. Paul wrote to the Colossians to “get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language” (vs 8), we are reminded that in baptism and regeneration, we have “clothed ourselves with the new self, which is being renewed … according to the Image of the Creator” (vs 10).  Even as we are forgiven, we still must learn to let go of the shackles that hold us to our past, and we must continually choose to live into the Image in which we are created and justified … to become what The Lord intended when He breathed His Life into us.  It is a process rather than an event.

There are two points of Methodist doctrine that speak to rebirth and the regeneration of those who fall away.  First, of course, is the Methodist retention of a long-held practice in both the Anglican Church and the Roman Church: the baptism of infants.  Article VII of our Articles of Religion states: “Original sin (what we are born with) … is the corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil – and that continually”. 

More simply stated, we are born with near-animal instincts, impulses toward our own good, our own survival, our own pleasures.  This is what it means to be born of the flesh.  Our desires and demands inform our choices.  The first part of overcoming that impulse is, in our tradition, baptism.  The family of the child and the whole Church offer the child to The Lord in His Covenant.  As a Sacrament of the Church, we believe it is a Divine Act to which we respond and by which the one to be baptized is endowed with the Holy Spirit.  We do not have to teach our children to accept that remarkable Gift – we must teach them to live into it.

But, many say, how can it be if the child is not consciously aware?  Ah, but the parents are!  The Church is!  Above all, The Lord is!  And this is where the process begins – at the Beginning with the Mark of the New Covenant.  And because we believe baptism to be a Sacrament, a truly Sacred Moment wrought by The Father Himself, it is unnecessary to repeat.  Yet there are necessary measures to take as we continue to grow biologically, mentally, and emotionally as well as spiritually.

Article XII (Sin After Justification) states in part: “After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given and fall into sin, and [yet], by the grace of God, rise again and amend our lives.  Therefore they are to be condemned who say they can no more sin as long as they live here; or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent”.

One may ask how many times one can be “reborn”.  What does it say when Jesus teaches us we must forgive “seventy times seven”?  When it is considered that we are “born of a corrupt nature” and that nature can often overwhelm us, it is hoped – and it must be taught - that awareness plays a part; a conscious awareness of which part of our being is acting and reacting. 

For instance, one can be very religious, always aware of The Lord and one’s faith; but if we get punched, it is very, VERY likely we will punch back!  That is a part of our “corrupt nature” that impulsively reacts before we have had time to think.  It means we still have some work and some growing to do.

To pretend there is some magical moment by which we are completely transformed from flesh to Spirit without any effort on our part is to deny the reality of our base instinct to survive!  So to pretend we are no longer capable of sin after we are justified is just plain silly.  We may not want to commit sin, but heaven help us, to be perfected in faith and in love takes time.  And personal effort.  And taking personal responsibility for our actions and our words rather than to blame the devil. 

To be born again, truly born again of the Spirit, is a mystery.  Our Catholic friends embrace the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) in which one’s sins are verbalized and confronted – because the reality is still before us: we are humans; perfectly imperfect humans who do not always live up to our own expectations, let alone The Lord’s.

It does not make us “bad” and it does not condemn us for all eternity – but it does put us at risk and requires that we are first honest with ourselves before we can pretend to be honest with our Father who nevertheless “sees in secret” (Matthew 6:6).  And if we really are honest first with ourselves, we must acknowledge the impossibility of repenting of any sin we refuse to confront or even fail to name.

Our need to be “born again” is affirmed by Jesus Himself (John 3:3), and thus is an essential component of Christian doctrine; but the incomplete notion of “one and done” leaves us open to further degeneration when we fail to always “keep watch” – for as our Lord also affirmed, “The spirit is willing (this would be our good intentions), but the flesh is weak (the reality) (Matthew 26:41).  In other words, old habits die hard.

So we must always “keep watch”.  We must always reach higher, and we must always continue to move forward; for the old self is in the past and renewal is ahead.  It is the Life in which we are created, the Life which is offered, the very Life we must lean into.  Amen.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

What We Believe: forgiveness

28 July 2019

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Luke 11:1-13

It has been said, “We are most like beasts when we kill.  We are most like humans when we judge.  We are most like God when we forgive”.  (William Arthur Ward)

We Christians are fond of saying forgiveness is the core of Christianity.  While forgiveness is an essential component of the Christian faith, the greater Truth is forgiveness is the core – and the heart - of our Father in heaven.  Whether in the First Testament or the New, the heart of The Father is steadfast.  More than anything, He wants a dynamic, ongoing relationship with His people, but there is also great purpose in that relationship; He means for us to live into our calling and our gifts so others can also become all they are created to be.  It is about the Fullness of Life – in this world and the next.

Yet we must also come to know this: if we are not forgiven, we cannot be of a mind and a heart to offer forgiveness.  Jesus does teach that if we will not forgive the offense of those who have harmed us, “neither will your Father forgive you”.  So it would seem that in order for us to be forgiven, we must first learn to forgive.  Given the depth of pain and the extent of harm many have experienced, that is a pretty tall order AND a very bitter pill to swallow.

A few years ago I found an old rosary I had long forgotten about.  One afternoon when all was quiet, I went into the sanctuary to pray.  Trying to remember the proper rosary order, I finally came to The Lord’s Prayer which, like the Hail Mary, is repeated several times. 

At first I was just mechanically reciting the Prayer.  After a few recitations, I began to replace “thou”, “thee”, and “art” with the language I am more familiar with.  Soon it became my own prayer rather than the Church’s.  Once I was able to make the prayer my own expression and in my own language, I began to recite it more slowly, more thoughtfully. 

Verse by verse, line by line, I began to see some elements of that Prayer take on a whole new meaning – or maybe it was the clarity I needed at the time; the clarity we all need.  Especially the part about asking forgiveness as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

Rather than, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, it became, “Forgive my sins, Father, so I may be freed to forgive those who have hurt me”.  It didn’t come easily at first because I kept trying to remember the Prayer in its proper order.  Sort of like trying to sort things alphabetically, you get somewhere in the middle and have to stop and say, “ABCDEFGHIJK …” until you come to the letter you’re looking at.  I know I’m not the only one!

At any rate, the order became less important.  “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive others”.  And as Luke’s version expresses, “Forgive us our sins, for (because) we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”.  The first one expresses a simultaneous thing happening; that AS we forgive others, we are forgiven in that moment.  But Luke’s version seems to presume we have already forgiven someone; and because “we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”, we may expect to be forgiven our own offenses – that is, if we have truly repented.

Carrying the burden of past mistakes, sins we hope will never be discovered, sins we cannot escape because of our own consciences, is an overwhelming albatross about the neck that weighs us down.  We cannot function as we should, as we must, because something is holding us back.  And this is why it matters: until that weight is lifted, we cannot – we CANNOT – be free to become what we are created to be.

We are often more consciously aware of what we’ve done than of who we really are (the price of conscience), and it is the same principle which applies to those who have hurt us.  We are more aware of the harm they’ve done, perhaps the things they still do, than we are aware of who they really are.  I get that there is some wisdom in believing one acts like a jerk because one really is a jerk, but I also think this can be a more shallow glance than a good, long, hard look.  There must be more to that person – just as there is more to us.

It seems to be the whole point and purpose of forgiveness to aid us to self-discovery, becoming more aware of who we are created to be rather than what we choose to do.  If the very essence of our being is found only in the One who created us, we must come to know why we were created to begin with.  As I have long held, there is no such thing as an accidental or incidental life.  There can, of course, be an unintended pregnancy, but that biological thing does not diminish the sacred value of that life which is called forth.

The psalmist expresses the depth of this concept: “It was You who formed my inward parts; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.  Wonderful are Your works!” (139:13-14).

Do we see it?  Can we see the praise of the “wonderful works” wrought by His mighty Hand?  Our very being as the “wonderful works”?  No, we don’t see that often enough.  Not if we are not fully aware of who we really are, who we were created to be from the beginning.  Not if we are unwilling to see even our enemies as His “wonderful works”.  

It is true enough that forgiveness relieves us of the burden of pain and anguish we have suffered in the past.  It is also true that our willingness to forgive is directly connected to the forgiveness we seek and need.  More than this, however, is the reality that until we break completely free from our own misdeeds and the misdeeds of others, we cannot live into what The Lord had in mind when He breathed His Life into us.

We believe in forgiveness – but not simply forgiveness for its own sake or even for our own sakes.  There is a calling found in forgiveness which can never be fully realized until we repent, turn away from our past, and let go of our misdeeds and the misdeeds of others and pay more attention to souls – the better part of our being, the essence of God With Us – because that is who we really are, and it is the Life we are called into. 

Always to the Glory of The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.