Monday, October 20, 2014

A Thought for Monday 20 October 2014

“Jesus said [to Joseph and Mary], ‘Why did you seek Me?  Did you not know I must be about My Father’s business?’  But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.”  Luke 2:49-50

Recall that the Holy Family had gone to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.  On this particular occasion it is believed Jesus was about 12 years old.  We can only imagine the panic which surely gripped Mary and Joseph when they finally realized Jesus was not with them as they were headed back to Nazareth.  When they found Him in the Temple, He was interacting with the religion teachers and “astounding” them with His questions and answers.

It is the answer Jesus gave to His parents, however, that is at the heart of the story and speaks to us today in the midst of our busy-ness and subsequent spiritual thirst.  We cry out to The Lord and expect Him to come running as we seek His comfort and care in the midst of our self-pity.  Hardly ever do we consider what His answer would be when we finally found Him: “Did you not know I must be about My Father’s business?”

It is so easy and comforting to take a few bits and pieces of the Gospel stories to justify our reasonable expectation that Jesus will come when He is summoned, but it is much more difficult to comprehend the certain reality that searching for Jesus is going to take us to places we might rather not be as Jesus goes “about My Father’s business”!
Where will we find Him?  Exactly where He expects to be found: in the pain and suffering of those who mourn, in the growling of young bellies in perpetual hunger, in the hearts of young parents with a cancer-stricken child, in the loneliness of the shut-in.  We will not often find Jesus in the comfortable and “cool” places on Sunday morning (though this is where we will find one another AND the Holy Spirit).  Rather we will find Him going “about the Father’s business”, showing us where He expects us to be found, where He wants us to find Him: in the midst of pain and suffering and loneliness and hunger and doubt and fear.  He wants us to find Him there because He wants us to be there with Him, with His beloved who need Him – and who need us. 

The religion of our Christian faith hinges on this perpetual search; finding The Lord in what we would consider the most unlikely places – AND – understanding there is a reason why He wants to be found among the “least”, the “last”, and the “lost” … because this is where He needs US to be found, “going about the Father’s business”.



Sunday, October 19, 2014

What's left for us?

Romans 13:1-7
Matthew 22:15-22

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." 

Moses commended this "great" commandment to Israel before they were to cross into the Promised Land.  As much as they were about to be given, it would come at great risk.  They could (and did!) get too full of themselves and forget Who made their entry into "the land of milk and honey" possible.  They would be taking possession of "large and beautiful cities you did not build, houses full of all good things you did not fill, wells you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees you did not plant - when you have eaten and are full - then beware, lest you forget The Lord who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).

Jesus affirmed this commandment as the "first and great" commandment (Mt 22:38), the commandment upon which all else in the Covenant is established - "You shall have no other gods before Me".  This commandment, however, is meaningless without a full understanding of and deep appreciation for the depth and breadth of the love which is called for in this commandment.  We may also do well to think more deeply about what constitutes "gods" in our lives, what or whom we really pay homage to.

Thinking through Jesus' admonition to render appropriately what belongs to "Caesar" and to The Lord, it is hard not to think specifically about money - especially since Jesus is referring to a coin with the emperor's image.  On the surface, money is the issue because it is what we use to pay taxes.  However, we are compelled to think more broadly than simply paying taxes to the "empire".

By the text itself, we may be led to believe all currency with any image belongs strictly to that image - meaning that even though we earn it, someone or something else can legitimately claim it.  Actually, it seems strictly by Jesus' words, the currency is never really ours since it bears an image ("You shall not make a carved image") - and government has the authority to tax per its need to provide for the "common defense" and good order.

Human words can be deceiving, however.  There is a much broader context - AND - the reality of the "Word made flesh" offering something that cannot be found in a literal reading of the words on the page.  In fact, there is no interpretation and no depth in reading literally.  The words are the words, and there is no more to see than what is on the surface.

"My ways ... and My thoughts", The Lord says, demand that we move beyond the human interpretation that is the English translation from the original Greek text that was rewritten in Latin and then back to Greek and then finally to English (in its many forms!).  The Holy Scriptures require that we get over our own "awesomeness" in claiming "common sense" (which is actually human tradition from generations past) when it comes to understanding the depth of Jesus' many lessons and the greater context from which these lessons come.

Money in our economy and culture is our primary currency.  We trade the money we earn for the goods and services we need, and to pay our taxes.  Money is also the tithe we offer in our worship of The Lord, the gift we bring in thanksgiving.  The "empire" cannot have it all.

Yet Jesus commends to us an abiding respect for the "empire" and its authority.  St. Paul (and St. Peter) both write of respect for the legitimate authority of the "empire", the state.  St. Paul goes so far as to give credit to The Lord as having "ordained" and "appointed" this authority.  In our system of representative government, however, we appoint our own authorities and make our own laws through our chosen representatives.  So if something is wrong, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  We cannot call out "tyranny" without exposing ourselves as the "tyrants".  Sometimes, however, we question the usefulness and meaning of what is written when we remember Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and so many others who abused their authority and utterly failed in their "divinely appointed" mission.

But the question of what rightly belongs to the "empire" commands our attention since Jesus gives legitimacy to this claim.  The bigger question, however, is what belongs to The Lord.  This is a big question, too, because the "empire" - as per Jesus and Paul and Peter - can take as much as it claims to need!  The implication by Jesus that the whole of the currency belongs to "Caesar" - because of the image it bears - suggests there is something much more substantial and enduring which belongs to The Lord.

Going back to Moses' "great" commandment, remember Moses was speaking to a whole new generation, the old generation which lived Torah, created "The Story", having died in the wilderness.  The old generation suffered the trials and tribulations of making the difficult transition from "slave" of the "empire" to "servants" of The Lord - AND - one another!  What they were about to enter into and take possession of was never "theirs".  They didn't earn it.  They didn't build the cities, and they did not plant the vineyards.  Yet they were about to pick the fruit with The Lord's blessing and permission.

We are to discern between what is "given" by Divine decree and what is "acquired" by human means.  In this discernment as well, we still have that tension between what belongs to "Caesar" and what belongs to The Lord - and THEN try to decide what is left for us!  Where, when, and how do we get ours??

That's the rub, though, isn't it?  In the 21st century, we are very aware of what is "mine".  While many are generous with what they have, there is still an undeniable cut-off point at which we draw the line.  We will not jeopardize our financial well-being for anyone.  We will not give beyond our capacity - and willingness - to give.  And while we may loathe the proliferation of the misleading so-called "prosperity gospel" in our modern culture, we cannot deny a remnant of that false teaching in our own lives.

When Jesus encounters the "rich, young ruler" (Matthew 19:16-22), we are often shocked at what Jesus requires of those who express a desire to follow Him.  To sell "all" we have and give it to the poor makes no sense to us because our culture - which is undeniably dominant in our lives - calls this "foolish".  The "prosperity gospel" suggests it is also unnecessary.  It is also undeniable that we are exposed by the "ruler" who, when told by Jesus that he must "keep the commandments" in order to enter into eternal life, still tries to negotiate with The Lord; "Which [commandments must I keep]?"

Thus we miss the point of what it means to "love" The Lord with all we have and with all we are.  The "empire" can and will take what it thinks it needs, but we must remember that which can be taken from us was never ours in the first place.  This includes our very lives ("Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell", Mt 10:28b). 

Once we are finally and completely freed from the tyranny of stuff and money, we will be able to realize and appreciate that what we thought were "blessings" were only chains and shackles keeping us from "perfection", from true holiness.  This is what is left for us; and it is more than we will ever need in this life or in the Life to come.  Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Thought for Monday 13 October 2014

“The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan, across from Jericho, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their engraved stones, destroy all their molded images, and demolish all their high places … but if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell.  Moreover it shall be that I will do to you as I thought to do to them’.”  Numbers 33:50-52, 55-56 NKJV

Often even the most devoted Christian can have difficulties with certain stories in Torah, particularly those stories in which Israel is commanded to destroy everything – and everyone.  We cannot begin to imagine the blood baths that may have actually taken place and how each warrior may have felt in faithfully executing his duties.  It is even more problematic when each account is taken literally, when we are then prevented from getting anything useful from such passages as applicable to ourselves and our lives now.  I get that some Christian traditions dismiss the First Testament altogether as irrelevant (even as they are often quick to quote “eye for an eye”), but our United Methodist tradition does not allow us to walk away so easily – especially from such difficult passages.

These passages are made even more difficult when we consider that what is unfolding in the Middle East by the hands of the Islamic State comes eerily close to matching what we read; like locusts, they are devouring everything and everyone in their path.  It does not matter whether they are right or wrong in what they do; it is the reality the world currently faces and must contend with.  Consider this, however; the Koran also contains some equally problematic passages often cited by outsiders who try to disprove the idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion”.  The brutality of the Islamic State – and the hatefulness of Westboro Baptist Church – are what happens when we read the words in the Scriptures but fail to engage the Spirit in reading.

Israel had been enslaved 400 years and they had only come together as a nation, as an army, as a people, during the latter part of their 40-year journey to the Promised Land.  It would not do for them to be confronted with Canaanite cultural and religious practices lest they be tempted away from the God of Israel and His Torah.  So every speck of their religion and their practices had to be put away and destroyed.  Otherwise there would always be that “irritant”, that remnant of what must be driven out.  Failing to destroy everything and drive out everyone would be the risk of subjecting Israel to even the slightest temptation we know all too well: that which is once tolerated will soon be embraced.

There are some things – and persons – we cannot literally destroy or drive out, but there are many things – and persons - we must consider to be legitimate threats to our faith and the well-being of our families and our churches, our communities of faith.  Some may seem harmless; but the point of putting these things away from our presence and our thoughts is not about how strong we may be.  We must always consider what may be a “stumbling block” for others.  If we do not protect them from these temptations, who will? 

So it is not entirely about literally destroying everything we deem offensive; it may be more about what we must do to protect the “little ones” of the faith so they are not drawn away from the One True God.  This takes prayer, fasting, and serious consideration of everything we encounter and then measuring it according to what is written in the Scriptures.  Once we determine for ourselves it is not so bad, however, we leave that door open to others who may not share the strength of our convictions, our devotion to prayer and fasting, and our spiritual capacity to walk away.

We must not act impulsively according to our social sensibilities, however.  Jesus warns that there are some things so powerful that can only be confronted with prayer and fasting.  These must therefore become our own spiritual practices before we consider any sort of social “crusade” in the name of The Lord.  In our faithfulness and by His Word, we will be given what we need.  So we take heart that while we are defenders of the Gospel itself by our baptism, much more is expected of us than to simply curse or attempt to destroy those things and persons we do not like.  It is not our impulse or instinct being called forth; it is our faithfulness in obedience and our care for others.  This is who we really are in Christ.



Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Witness of Self

Exodus 32:1-14
Matthew 22:1-14
"Letter from the Birmingham Jail"

"Those who see beyond the shadows and lies of their culture will never be understood, let alone believed, by the masses."  Plato

In other words, if one refuses to go along with the crowd and the dominant culture, one is considered a "weirdo" and will not be taken seriously.  They are "non-conformists".  But as MLK observed, "But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body [of Christ] through ... fear of being non-conformists."

One of the most significant works of Martin Luther King was his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail".   The letter was written in response to concerns publicly expressed by eight white Alabama religious leaders, Gentile and Jewish, who had referred to the protests in Birmingham as "unwise and untimely", concerned as they were for social stability. 

They probably meant well in expressing a concern that while Dr. King's efforts were well intended, it was perhaps not quite the right time or the right method.  At the very least, the concern was that such a drastic change in local culture would be better attended to gradually and through the legal system rather than immediately and so radically by public protest.  Yet it was noted by Dr. King in this 1963 letter that the "change" through the legal system had come in 1954 by the USSC in Brown v Board of Education which outlawed segregation.

Dr. King began by writing, "I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms ... since you have been influenced by the argument of 'outsiders coming in'."

These "criticisms" seemed to center around the fact that Dr. King was from Atlanta, so his coming to Birmingham to meddle in local affairs was inappropriate because it was none of his business.  In Dr. King's absence, they seemed to believe, all would be well.  The irony of the complaint, however, was that even though these eight clergy seemed to acknowledge a legitimate problem, they did not seem to appreciate that they were being forced to see things as they really were rather than as they perhaps wished they were.

It is like walking through the same door at the same place time and again.  At first something out of place is noticed but eventually put out of mind through repetition and lack of concern.  Soon that which is out of place (chipped and/or faded paint, carpet stains, rust, broken things, etc) is hardly noticed.  We get used to what it is; we "conform" to the present reality. 

"Status quo" does not mesh with the very essence of life because life itself is not static.  Life is dynamic and vibrant and should always be thriving and progressing.  But when we begin to notice - or are forced to acknowledge - that life is not so dynamic or vibrant for some, that something is wrong, we are compelled by Christ Himself to confront rather than conform to the ugly reality that while our own individual lives may be perfectly fine, things are not so fine for others.  It is easy to delegate individual responsibility, but it is much harder to look at the world through the lenses imposed on us by "outsiders" who force us to see things - and people - in a whole different light.  The Bible does precisely this.

Dr. King posed a question I find unsettling because it speaks all too clearly to our current social climate: "Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?"  "If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century."

Welcome to the 21st-century church and the reality of Dr. King's greatest fear: the very Body of Christ being "dismissed [by the masses] as an irrelevant social club with no meaning", a body which has "lost its authenticity and has forfeited the loyalty of [quite literally] millions".  There is harsh truth to all Dr. King wrote in this "Letter"; philosophical, social, and biblical Truth that was summarily dismissed in his time as not only having been written by a black man but by an "outside agitator".

I thought about this "Letter" as I was reading the Exodus account of the 'golden calf' which, more than anything, challenges us to come closer to understanding how lost the "millions" may be - not strictly because they made bad choices but because the contemporary Church is lost itself.  We have become comfortable with "fitting in" to the popular culture rather than challenging it, quite likely because we have allowed ourselves over time to be so oriented. 

We like to believe we are independent thinkers, free men and women who are masters of our own universe, captains of our own charted courses, doing and believing because we think we have drawn our own conclusions independent of "outside" influence.  However, the text of the 'golden calf' reveals much more than an impatient and faithless people so easily enticed by shiny baubles.  We get a glimpse into the reality of the human psyche that is much more "conditioned" than it is "informed".  

By this I mean this was a people who had endured 400 years of slavery.  They had been overpowered and tricked into slavery ("Let us deal shrewdly with them", Exodus 1:10), they were fed and cared for as slaves.  Soon they were treated as slaves until they began to breed as slaves.  The culture which had held them captive for generations worshipped lifeless idols of all sorts, including cast animal images; so for 400 years this was the life which had become normal to them.  It was what they knew even if they did not participate.  It was what they had witnessed for so long that they could not know anything else.  They had been sufficiently "conditioned" to the point that nothing less than a Divine Miracle and an "outside agitator" would lead them to freedom.

For a time they were willing and surely excited to follow Moses out of their familiarity, but any interruption in the new routine would confuse them.  We must be mindful that in their 400 years of "social conditioning", they had severely limited social capacity.  So when Moses disappeared for so long, the people reverted back to what they had long been used to, the only "way" they really knew; and Aaron had no problem with it because he had long been one of them.  For all they knew, the "outside agitator" was dead.

In their state of confusion and anxiety they returned to the safety of familiarity, the misleading premise and false promise of "the good ol' days". 

What they could not know at the time was that turning back (even metaphorically) was a return to "status quo" and, ultimately, death.  Their former lives in Egypt held no promise but death.  Yet they were afraid of "change" and lacked the capacity to see beyond "the shadow and lies of their [known and familiar] culture".  It was not that they did not want a new life; it was that they were unable to envision anything else.

When Jesus shares His "parable of the wedding feast", we must realize we are the ones who are so enmeshed in the culture we've become accustomed to, the Americanized way of life we are familiar with, than even such a Divine Invitation that calls us OUT of that culture and into something glorious may not be as welcome as it will be a serious disruption and threat to the only life we really know. 

As it is now, we can very comfortably compartmentalize our "church" life apart from our "real" life and find no difficulty in doing so because we can tune in and tune out as the situation may warrant; our "real" life demands our fullest attention because that's where the money is - the bills and paychecks and pensions.  And the "SELF" which has been called out by Christ from the "bondage of myths and half-truths" has been lost to the "unbiblical distinction between ... the secular and the sacred" - as Dr. King had observed. 

Some have suggested religion is little more than a social "brain washing" designed to control the masses.  What we must see, however, is that the TRUE SELF was created in the Divine Image, distorted through social and cultural conformity, and reoriented to the TRUE SELF with the Advent of Messiah and the radical nature of the Gospel.  It is the INVITATION extended to us when we are challenged to self and social evaluation - and - critical analysis not to determine if we are "popular" with our neighbors but whether we are faithful to our Redeemer.

We must not ignore the reality of what Messiah is teaching: that "many are called, but few are chosen" (Mt 22:14).  This is not a human abstract; it is the mind and foreknowledge of The Lord.  It will be the "faithful" who are "chosen", but the "popular" (the "many") will not even recognize the Call.

We are not called to social "conformity"; we are called to Divine Glory.  It is long past time to awaken and answer that Call.  Amen.  

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Go Anyway

[Jesus said], "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem; the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!  See!  Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of The Lord!'" (Matthew 23:37-39).

There is a saying that going to church will no more make you a Christian than standing in a garage will make you a car.  Go anyway.  Go because there is much more at stake than merely fulfilling a religious or even social obligation.  Go because there is Someone much greater calling us into fellowship with others so we may become greater than self.  Go because as much as one may (or may not) get out of the worship service itself, it is not about "you".  Go because as much as you have convinced yourself The Lord understands what you and what you believe to be such a unique situation, the Redeemer laments when any refuse to gather into His Body.  Go because you also do not like being "stood up" or shunned or rejected.

Some don't like the preacher or priest or rabbi.  Some don't like the music.  Some don't like the liturgy, the order of worship.  Some don't like "so-and-so" who is a gossip, a cheat, a hypocrite, a jerk.  Go anyway because there is another saying: "There is always room for one more "gossip" or "cheat" or "hypocrite" or "jerk".  Go because the church is where sinners should gather - not because they need their sinfulness affirmed but because we all need to be reminded from time to time that the worst among us still needs to know that we are not accepted or left "just as I am".  Rather we are called to become just as He is, much greater than self.  And this takes time and effort and support and prayer because it is the single, most difficult thing we will ever undertake. 

Go because that "gossip" needs to be affirmed in his sacred worth.  Go because that "cheat" has not yet learned to be content.  Go because that "hypocrite" has yet to find stability.  Go because that "jerk" needs to be held accountable for her actions.  Go because all these and many more apply to each of us in some measure - without exception. 

Go because it is where we are spiritually fed and nurtured especially when we hear something that does not quite fit into our own mold of self-righteousness.  Go because there is someone in that fellowship who loves you enough to walk with you in your pain and sorrow and brokenness.  Go because someone in that fellowship needs the special gifts you have been uniquely endowed with. 

There are a thousand reasons (excuses, actually) for not attending worship; and when each layer of each lie is peeled away, at the core we will find there is only one reason to attend worship.  We are not being entertained nor are we called to entertain.  We are not worshipping ourselves or our pot lucks or our facilities.  We worship and praise the One who calls us to gather because it is not about "you", and it is not about the one sitting next to you.  It is about only One.  It is about THE One.  And as much as it is not about "making" us become Christians, it is entirely about showing us the fullness of the Life we are invited into - and rejoicing that this Invitation is still being extended.

Go anyway because when the "house is finally left desolate", the fellowship of the Body of Christ Himself will be all that is left standing.

Monday, October 06, 2014

A Thought for Monday 10/6/14

“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land I will show you.  I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’.”  Genesis 12:1-3 NKJV

Of course we know what happened next.  Seemingly without question and without hesitation, “Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him” (vs 4).  Abram had no insight or foreknowledge of what would come of this journey.  He functioned strictly under the assurance given that he would be “shown” a land (unknown), that he would become a “great nation” (whatever that might come to mean), that he would be completely under Divine Protection, and that those he would surely come into contact with in the course of this journey would be “blessed” or “cursed”.  Everything would depend on The Lord.

Walking by faith rather than by sight is the single, most challenging effort we can undertake.  There is not likely a day that goes by in which we are not equally challenged to trust in The Lord’s providence to some degree, but it is also likely that we miss out on those opportunities because we are too caught up in our own individual agendas.  We are overwhelmed by the challenges of daily life, we are confronted with those who seem determined to do us harm, and we now are faced with the possibility of Ebola getting out of hand in the United States.  And still the Church continues to dwindle.

At a time when the people should be running to The Lord, it seems rather they are determined to find for themselves the answers they seek … and they always come up short – as do we when we depend on our own cunning, our own ideas, and our own opinions about what is needed.

I find it hard to believe Abram is the only one who is ever called away from his safety and security and familiar surroundings.  Given the “Great Commission” issued by the Lord Jesus before His Ascension, it seems likely the Church is being called away from its comfort, away from its security, away from its familiarity, and into a Journey from which we will find real identity; but it takes the whole Church, not pieces.  And while we will not know beforehand how the Journey will unfold, we can embrace the same assurance that we will be “shown” what we need to see and that we will be protected along the way. 

It will not be easy and it will likely not be personally rewarding for a few individuals, but it will be exactly what The Lord has in mind for those who do not yet know His Name or His Word.  It will be what The Lord desires it to be, and that will be good enough.



Sunday, October 05, 2014

Semper Fidelis

Exodus 20:1-20
Psalm 19
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
Matthew 21:33-46

“By faithfulness we are collected and wound up into unity within ourselves [as one Body], whereas before we had been scattered abroad in multiplicity.”  St. Augustine

St. Augustine's observation fits very nicely into the greater "saved by grace through faith" (Eph 2:8) which makes a bold statement about Divine Mercy but says nothing about how we should respond.  The Reformation added the word "alone" to this salvation formula even though the only "alone" relative to this Divine Mercy and discipleship is connected to St. James who clearly stipulated "NOT by faith alone ..." (James 2:14-17). 

There is that constant biblical debate and theological tension between faith and works which has become so convoluted over the centuries (or worse, summarized to the point of fitting on a bumper sticker) that the statement St. Paul made to the Ephesians (2:8) has been rendered meaningless.  That is, there is no substance.  It has become dessert before we've even bothered with the Meal.

I cannot help but to wonder if it got so complicated because it is by its nature complicated (in Divine terms: 'mysterious') - OR - if we have over-complicated the matter not by over-thinking it but by under-doing it, as if works become the curse rather than the blessing, seeking out for ourselves "minimum requirements" of faithfulness without interfering with our jobs, our lives, our current "idols" which we uphold in conjunction with The One True God.  In other words, how can we be faithful to The Lord AND to self without actually sacrificing our time or treasures?

"Semper Fidelis" is the motto of the US Marine Corps.  In its meaning ("always faithful") is expressed the ideal of service to God, country, and Corps.  Its fullest and most complete manifestation (as it comes to fruition) is expressed as "Semper Fi; do or die".  That is, real life and real purpose are found only in full engagement rather than half-hearted measures; full engagement with the unit, full engagement with the mission or training, and full engagement with the enemy until no one is left standing (ideally, the enemy).

In the movie, "Full Metal Jacket", set during the Vietnam era, the senior drill instructor is giving his speech to the new platoon of recruits; and he introduces the recruits to the reality of recruit training: "If you survive recruit training, you will become weapons, ministers of death praying for war.  Until that time you are the lowest form of life ... you are not even human beings.  You are unorganized ... pieces of amphibian [refuse]" (I cleaned up the language, but a lot is lost in the translation!).  In short, each recruit showed up as an individual but will not survive or complete recruit training until that individual learns to become an integral part of the whole - learning to work and actually thrive within the dynamics of a team.

Very idealistic, of course.  Being strictly a peace-time Marine I never got a chance to find out how this idealism is expressed on the battlefield, but it was not hard to see how things can easily fall apart in the training field if each individual is not willing to put "self" aside and work within the whole unit for the greater purpose.  The unit becomes weak, the mission becomes fragmented, and widows and orphans are made through flag-draped coffins because some individual was much more concerned with personal safety and comfort than with the success of the mission and the well-being of his fellow Marines.

Sometimes the individualism got worse as rank was achieved.  The higher the rank, the higher the sense of personal privilege rather than the sense of duty and greater responsibility in leading by example.  The lower ranks were demoralized and soon found it much easier to disengage from the whole.  It was easy to go through the motions, of course, but something was seriously lost when the higher rank was evidently more concerned with personal comfort than with the Marines in his charge.  And the mission always suffered.

The Church is no different.  Though we claim we take none of the written Word lightly, the truth is we are not interested in much beyond self-satisfaction - and we begin doing this by taking the task of scriptural interpretation strictly upon ourselves.  In so doing without the accountability, support, and perspective of the Church and of small group discussions and study, we become the fulfillment of the prophecy of 2 Timothy 4:3: "The time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear."

The statement assumes we would even bother with teachers if we become self-declared and self-defined biblical authorities unto ourselves.  We must also consider that this statement was written as a reflection of the future Church and what will certainly go wrong if the "whole" is broken into "pieces".  Brothers and sisters, we are that "future Church" the author was referring to.

We are beholden to no one or nothing beyond what we are willing to give without actually giving up anything; and in the name of "grace" itself, we seem perfectly content within this reality and cannot (or will not) entertain an alternate reality.  So within the context of Jesus' parable of the 'wicked vinedressers' (Mt 21:33-46), we are (or should be) convicted of the nature of what we call "blessings" or a "cup that runneth over" to understand that none is intended strictly for "me". 

The reality of the parable is that we are given nothing but are entrusted with everything for purposes much greater than "self".  What is even worse than using The Lord's name to justify our own choices and satisfy our own demands, however, is that we miss out on so much more when we refuse to consider the bigger picture, the larger mission. 

We reject the "servants" who are sent by the "Land Owner" (Jesus was referring to the prophets who tried to warn Israel before their downfall) to reclaim what rightfully belongs to the "Land Owner".  In spite of this utter rejection, the "Land Owner" then decides to send His Son whom He seems sure the tenants will respect.  Of course we know how that story ends.

The stink of this whole thing is that this parable did not end with the Resurrection of Messiah because Messiah will one day return.  The "prophets" of our time are those committed to the Living Word rather than a "pliable" word that fits us by our own subjective measures.  These "prophets" are not only priests, rabbis, or preachers; these are also Sunday school and Bible study leaders and other laity who take their baptismal and confirmation vows seriously, as well as those unafraid to hold fellow disciples accountable - able and willing, as they are, to see the much bigger picture, understanding that no church is set for personal comfort or individual satisfaction.

We make the mistake of convincing ourselves that life as a Christian is exclusively defined by whether or not we attend worship once in awhile or convince ourselves we are going to Heaven without evaluating the lives we choose to lead.  We claim a full knowledge of the "Ten Commandments", but we are much more interested in demanding that others adhere to that strict standard from which "saved" Christians claim to be spared. 

It is the single, most ironic statement that expresses too often the image in which the modern Church is perceived.  It is the reason we are laughed at, mocked, and ultimately rejected.  We are not being "persecuted" for our faith; we are being "prosecuted" by the court of public opinion.  And the evidence against us, such as it is, is compelling.  "Therefore ... the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom" (Mt 21:43).

Just because reality and the current condition are what we see, however, is no indication that it must remain so.  This is entirely the point of Divine Grace!  Grace does not grant to us the excuses we need to justify ourselves; rather Grace gives us the necessary latitude to correct our errors and gives us room to grow as disciples.  Grace does not mean "God loves me no matter what"!  It means The Lord loves US enough to lift us up when we fall rather than to leave us to wallow in our own filth.

We find this in the parable.  In spite of the wicked vinedressers, the God who is "always faithful" nevertheless sent His beloved Son even after His servants the prophets had been so cruelly rejected.  And even though the Son was rejected with equal cruelty, The Lord raised Him from the grave to show US ALL that Divine Love from the Heart of God is faithful until the very end.  The depth of that Love demands a response. What will ours be?  Amen.