Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Means of Grace II: living into our gifts


20 January 2019 – Human Relations Day

1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Matthew 22:34-40

There are many popular and biblical references to the idea that our relationship with The Lord through Christ is the single, most important relationship we can have.  It is primary; it must come first but also cannot be “last” if it is to inform other relationships.  In that broad context, then, this primary relationship cannot be exclusive. 

Just as St. John expressed in his epistle, “If you say you love God but hate your brother, you are a liar” (1 John 4:20), we understand the way by which we may fully express our love for The Lord is found in how we relate to and treat others, “loving our neighbors as ourselves” as our Lord commands – even (maybe especially) those we don’t really like.

I will grant there are those whose mere presence in our lives can be downright toxic, pure poison.  These are the ones who can tax our patience and test our religion.  These can be detrimental to our spiritual, emotional, and even mental well-being.  Yet even these relationships, challenging though they may be, can be redeemed and restored – even strengthened – when we understand and embrace our Spiritual Gifts; these talents and strengths given by The Lord “as He chooses” (1 Cor 12:11) – and for His purposes.

When we last gathered, we talked about the Sacrament of baptism as a means of grace; a profoundly sacred moment when Heaven directly interacts with humanity.  Baptism, as a means of grace, is the way in which we can experience our Lord’s mercy – as we are welcomed into the Holy Covenant, confirmed in our faith, or serve as witnesses to this Sacred Moment.

Today we will share another means of grace in another Sacrament – Holy Communion – by which we experience yet again His mercy in His means to feed us and strengthen us in our Journey of Faith, affirm our faith, and connect us to one another and to Christians around the world to the One Body which is Christ. 

For both Communion and baptism, there is also the requisite “sending forth” with a strong sense of conviction and sacred purpose.  One does not merely leave worship!  We are given much more than we often realize so we have much to give; to go into the world to love and to serve The Lord – by loving and serving one another … even those who will not love nor serve us in return.

The late Christian author and redeemed atheist, C.S. Lewis, once wrote, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”  Remembering Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan as answering the question, ‘Who is our neighbor?’, then, we hear in Mr. Lewis’ observation that what we see and serve as holy and sacred is the one who is in distress – that equally sacred moment when we most resemble Christ Himself by giving fully of ourselves for the sake of another.  It doesn’t matter if we know them or even like them.  What matters is whether we are willing to love them as The Lord loves them – and us.

The Spiritual Gifts we are endowed with are given for this very reason.  We are not gifted from Above so we can make a living; we are gifted by His Spirit so others may find a life worth living – and living well!  It is, as St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, that we are so endowed by these gifts “as the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7).  That is, we find yet another means of grace in a profoundly sacred moment when we come to know our gifts, embrace our gifts, and put our gifts to good use in the lives of others in the Name of The Lord and His Church.

I’ve shared before that the Roman Catholic Sacrament of “holy orders” had been taught in my childhood catechism classes as that Sacrament of giving oneself fully to Christ and His Church through the priesthood or becoming a nun or a monk. 

Yet over time I have come to believe there are many sacramental, very sacred moments in our lives which must also be given a) to remind us He is always with us, and b) to discern those moments for where they will lead us next.  In that period of discernment, then, we become more acutely aware not only of His Presence but of His Gifts – AND – His call; not necessarily to pastoral ministry but certainly to ministry nonetheless.  It is as so often expressed: the pastor is the pastor, but the congregation becomes ministers in and through baptism and the Gift of the Holy Spirit.

But where to go from baptism or confirmation or even Holy Communion can be anyone’s guess – and even personal desire (or lack thereof) – if we fail to discern our particular Gifts which will go a long way toward directing us; for having the Gift, whatever it may be, is not about the Gift itself.  It is entirely about where the Gift will take us.  Spiritual Gifts are means to a greater end, like baptism and Communion, prayer and fasting – so why should these not also be considered means of grace?

Identifying our Gifts, however, is no easy task.  Nothing worthwhile ever is.  Our Spiritual Gifts are not – ARE NOT – our impulses!  I don’t think they come to us easily or naturally; and if what we think are our Gifts serve as means only to our own ends, we are either not using these Gifts properly or we have completely misread what The Spirit is calling us to.

When Jesus turned water into wine, as St. John wrote, and “revealed His glory” (John 2:11), it was no impulsive, magic-trick-moment only for the sake of the moment.  The ministry of our Shepherd and Teacher would move from that moment and into the lives of The Lord’s people – further revealing the Holy Father whose desire was – and still is - to reveal Himself in our lives. 

The Spiritual Gifts with which we are each endowed are intended for no less.  So failing or refusing to discern and acknowledge these Gifts cheats not only ourselves but those whom our Father means to touch.  We cannot “love The Lord our God” or “our neighbor as ourselves” with anything less than what He has entrusted us with – “as He chooses”. 

I dare say, dear friends, He has chosen you – and He has chosen everyone we will come into contact with beyond this moment.  And He has done so to the glory of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Means of Grace, Part I: Baptism


13 January 2019 – Baptism of The Lord

Isaiah 43:1-7; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Aside from that disheartening, perplexing, infuriating, confusing issue that threatens the unity of the United Methodist Church (yes, that issue) is another issue which has divided Catholics from Protestants and even some Protestants from other Protestants.  This issue is a Sacrament of the Church – but it is also a means of grace; a way of experiencing The Lord and His mercy. 

Baptism.  As a Sacrament, we define it as evidence of The Lord’s self-giving; a sacred moment. Thus it is not something we do; it is something offered and freely given to which we respond.  Yet as fundamental as baptism is to the Christian life and the beginning of discipleship, we split even further when we dispute the means of delivery (i.e., sprinkling, pouring, or immersion) even though the Bible offers no prescription.  Then there is the issue of appropriate age, whether a few words must be spoken by the candidate before getting wet (like a profession of faith or the ‘sinner’s prayer’), ‘getting saved’, etc.  There are even disputes about whether one needs to be baptized at all. 

In short, we place a lot of man-made conditions and preconditions upon the Sacrament in spite of centuries of consistently taught doctrine, and we work most diligently to make the ritual as aesthetically pleasing for ourselves as we possibly can without realizing we are virtually tying The Lord’s Hands behind His back!  What is worse is we make the Sacrament more about “me” than about The Lord.

If there is a “bottom line” to baptism in the United Methodist Church, it is this: one cannot become a member of the United Methodist Church without having been baptized in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  This is the biblical prescription from the mouth of our Lord.  This, of course, means adults coming from another denomination who have been so baptized – regardless of the means of delivery - are not required to be baptized again.  In fact, rebaptism in the UMC is prohibited.  For the tradition of baptizing infants, that infant becomes a preparatory member and then becomes a full member after instruction leading to Confirmation – when the child can profess and reasonably articulate his or her own faith.

Even in that light, however, there must be one thing we have to agree on for the sake of sound biblical doctrine: baptism ends nothing.  We have not “arrived” at glory merely by baptism.  Baptism is the beginning, a means to a much Greater End.  For the sake of numbers, it can make a pastor look very effective if he or she reports a great number of professions of faith; but if, after baptism, the person disengages from the life of the Church, refusing Scripture study and/or worship, something has gone wrong.  This is the reasoning behind our Lord’s “Great Commission” to the Holy Church to baptize AND make disciples.  It is not an either/or proposition.  If we baptize but do not make disciples, we’ve accomplished very little.  In a manner of speaking, we have disputed our Lord’s Word and His Commission to the Church.

Baptism is foundational for the whole of the Church universal, yet we stand divided even within our Wesleyan Methodist tradition.  The contemporary church has been a little too accommodating to individual tastes and preferences to responsibly teach what baptism really means and why it is important. 

It is our long-held belief, predating the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, and predating John Wesley, that baptism is initiation into the Church and into the Holy Covenant.  It is also the long-held belief that something much more profound than getting wet happens in this sacramental moment regardless of one’s age – and that, based in no small measure on what is written in the Scriptures.

Our sins, our past, our inclinations are symbolically washed away, but there is much more than mere symbolism.  Symbolism appeases us.  Symbolism is what we do for ourselves.  Yet in understanding the sacramental nature of baptism, something is done for us.  In the symbolic washing away of our sins, original or otherwise, we are substantially freed from the things of this world that have – and certainly will – interfere with our relationship with our truest self.

That True Self is the Divine Image in which we are created.  Thus it must be understood and believed that baptism – as a Sacrament, a means of grace – is ultimately an act of The Father.  When we present ourselves and our children to Him through His Holy Covenant in faith, He responds faithfully. 

However, it must also be understood that as we are adopted into the Holy Family as heirs to the Eternal Kingdom, it is no magic trick.  This is to say our Father does not take away our capacity to think and act independently.  From that moment, for young and old alike, instruction in the Word and the doctrines of the Church – Christian Education – is essential.  The relationship which begins in that moment must be developed and lived into, for it is that relationship which will enter into Eternity – not our relationship to US History or Algebra.

Getting baptized as a mere ritual, doing it because it was expected, and then walking away as though nothing happened almost literally means “nothing happened”.  Something was offered, but that Something was left hanging and unclaimed.  That Something is the Holy Spirit of the Living God.  That Something is the True Image in which we are created – and to which we must be restored.

This is the Gift which must be not only acknowledged and received but also fully embraced.  That Gift does not follow us around to be handy and available should we think we need it – sort of like a lucky rabbit’s foot.  Rather, that Gift is what we must become so that Gift may be conveyed to others in an unmistakable way.  And that can happen only if it becomes not just a part of us but the Whole Self; heart, mind, soul, and strength.

If baptism, then, is to serve the Church as a genuine and heaven-sent means of grace, it must be received as grace, as Divine Mercy, as a new beginning of a life we will never regret.  For it is the heart of our Holy Father we receive, and His Gift of Life.  Amen.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A Thought

"If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold His own Son, but gave Him up for all of us, will He not with Him also give us everything else?" Romans 8:31b-32

There is a pretext to this passage we either ignore or take for granted: "We know all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose ..." (Romans 8:28).

The reason this is important is that, while we must certainly praise Him when things are wonderful, we must also find it within ourselves to praise Him even though things are not so wonderful.

Our God is not a favor-doer. He is impartial and no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), yet He loves ones as surely as He loves all regardless of the state of one's soul. Still the question for us remains: do we, will we, love Him back regardless?

The Gift of Christ - His Life, His Death, His Resurrection - stands for all time and is the clearest evidence that The Lord is for us, giving us the means of redemption and hope. He is faithful!

Regardless of where life may find us, regardless of our circumstances, He is for us "according to His purpose". Are we good with that if His purpose does not align with our desires?

We usually know what we want, but we rarely know what we really need. Sometimes when things don't work out in our favor according to our desires, maybe what is being offered is what we really need.

This is what it means to have faith; that we trust The Lord to see us through our brightest moments AND our darkest hours; for the Word of The Lord is consistent and clear - He is for us. Now and always.
Blessings,
Michael

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

A Thought

"The tyrant dies, and his rule is over; the martyr dies, and his rule begins." Soren Kierkegaard
Looking to Jesus' teaching about storing treasure in heaven rather than seeking treasure on earth, what Kierkegaard is expressing is the reality of the temporal world we live in vs. Divine and Eternal Kingdom which awaits us.
But notice the difference. What we try to take from this life never really becomes ours, and we certainly cannot take it with us when our time is past. Yet when we give completely of ourselves in this life, when we put self aside for the well-being of others first, we likely gain nothing here but store up treasure in heaven, as our Lord has taught us.
What may trip us up, however, is the idea of a martyr's death. We've come to associate "martyr" with literally dying for the sake and the cause of Christ. Yet the world "martyr" itself simply means "witness" (from the Greek "martur"). If we think of giving so completely of ourselves, then, we figuratively "die to self" in order to live for another.
So it goes that as we give up more and more of ourselves for what we claim to believe, our lives become more about our beliefs, our faith, that it does about ourselves. And when this happens, Christ increases!
The very best we can give to our spouses, our children, and our church is our "martyrdom". We do not have to physically cease existing; we simply have to allow The Lord His rightful, prominent place. Only then will others believe our witness. Only then does He truly reign. Only then is He glorified above all else.
The Lord bless you this very day,
Michael

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Believing is Seeing - Epiphany of The Lord 2019


Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Often when someone says they’ve had an epiphany, they mean they’ve had a new thought or an idea that had never occurred to them before.  Yet when we think of epiphany in the Church’s liturgical year, we express the reality of Christ made manifest in the flesh.  For the Church, especially in light of the visit of the wise men, the reality is not only for The Lord’s Chosen; He is made manifest to the Gentiles as well.

There is so much packed into this Visit that it’s hard to know where to begin.  Yet we should begin by asking ourselves this question: would we have traveled so far based on a prophecy we did not quite believe?  Would we travel so far on a mere hope?  Especially if we are perfectly content with our lives as they are?

There are extrabiblical sources that specifically name three men who came to visit, but the Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were.  We are only told of three specific gifts.  We sing the popular hymn of three kings, but the Bible does not mention kings; only wise men who could have been priests, scribes, or astrologers.  Astrologers seem likely since the Star was what was being followed.

“Kings” seem most unlikely, however, because legitimate kings would have been more likely to send emissaries to find out more.  And if these “kings” had political or military alliances with Herod, they would likely be prodding the idea of a new born “king” and how this might affect their alliances. 

They came from “the east”, but we have no idea exactly how far east.  They could have been from as near as Jordan as easily as they could have come from Arabia or Persia.  This travel time line is significant only in that the narrative tells us Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manger, a feed trough, because there was “no room at the inn” (Luke 2:7).  Yet when the wise men showed up, they went to a “house” and found the Child and Mary.  Where was Joseph? 

This leads into another part of the narrative to help explain why Herod panicked and ordered the slaughter of all male children “two years old and under, according to the time he had learned from the wise men” (vs 16); this because the wise men had set out “at the star’s rising” (vs 2).  The Holy Child could have been as old as two years.

The point is not to discredit the story, however.  The point is to set out in search of something as profound as what the wise men had hoped for – the Truth.  The only “fact” we have is that Jesus was born, but is this enough?

I began to wonder if “believing” is enough if we stopped “searching” a long time ago.  That is, if we think we are already in the know about anything at all, do we bother to look further or go deeper?  Can we be “believers” if, by a sense of complacency, we stopped “seeking”, “asking”, or “knocking”?  And if we are no longer on a quest, no longer interested in learning, no longer interested in discovering, no longer open to a new perspective from our Shepherd and Teacher, can we call ourselves disciples?

If we are unwilling to live for The Lord now, what makes us think we will be willing to live for The Lord later?

All this was swirling through my mind yesterday as I was driving home not only because I was trying to finish my sermon in my head but also because of a thought about the upcoming General Conference.  It occurred to me that “this side” and “that” will show up at the Conference with their own agendas, their own ideas, their own “bullet points”, and with their own expectations about how it all needs to play out.

This is in striking contrast to the report of the first Conference of the Wesleyan Covenant Association a year or so ago when it was reported that they all gathered seeking one thing: the Will of The Father in the Presence of the Holy Spirit. 

They gathered to worship, to pray, to learn, to “seek”, to “ask”, to “knock”.  The delegates of the General Conference are not likely open to anything but, instead, will be entirely focused on their own agendas, their own will – gathering for battle rather than for worship.

It is no less than what we do – or don’t do – when we gather for worship.  If we come through those doors with no sense of anticipation, no questions, no open hearts, this gathering will have been reduced to little more than a collection of tithes and offerings so we can pay the utilities and the apportionments. 

The wise men had set out on a quest.  They knew enough of the prophecies to know a Messiah was expected.  They expressed their intent to “pay Him homage” upon their arrival in Jerusalem; and when sent to Bethlehem, they were “overwhelmed with joy” when they arrived at where the Star had led them (vs 10). 

When was the last time we were “overwhelmed” at worship?  At Communion?  At the singing of hymns?  At the reading of The Word?  When was the last time we walked through those doors in search of anything Divine? 

It is no less than the vitality, the sacred measure of our worth as the Body of Christ which is at stake, but it has little to do with the upcoming General Conference.  The outcome of the General Conference, not only for 2019 but for 2020 as well as Conferences past is determined by each of us as we come through these doors. 

The vitality of the Church is measured not only by worship attendance but by Bible study and prayer service participation; determined by whether we are seekers at all.  The measure of our belief is relative, especially when we “believe” gathering for worship is unnecessary, gathering for Bible study is unnecessary, Christian education for our children is unimportant, and gathering for prayers to seek the will of Our Father is futile.

The wise men set out with great expectations and high hopes; and as the narrative indicates, they were not disappointed, having been “overwhelmed with joy” even before they entered into the house to see their joy complete. 

It would be interesting to know what became of these wise men after their search for The Truth had been fulfilled.  They believed they would see, and they did.  They brought gifts to offer, and they did offer them.  Then they went home, never to be heard from again. 

Has merely believing become enough for us?  I dare say there is much more we are overlooking as we seem to be completely underwhelmed by The Truth.  In the next few weeks, we will examine each of the means of grace, those practices offered to us by our Lord in which we will resolve to “ask”, to “seek”, to “knock”.  And we will (hopefully) discover the value of learning more than a mere fact.  We will indeed find Life.  And that in Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Monday, December 10, 2018

What If - 2nd Sunday of Advent


9 December 2018 – 2nd Sunday of Advent

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

The idea of a “rapture” is fascinating to me even if I don’t completely agree with the 18th-century concept.  Paul’s words to the Thessalonians seem to leave no ambiguity (“We who are alive … will be caught up in the clouds together [with the dead] to meet The Lord in the air”, 1 Thess 4:17), but Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel seem to suggest something not quite consistent with “being spirited away” – as if taken by force (“The one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat”, 24:17, 18).  I’ve wondered if this idea is more like making our last choice – and that choice according to how we had previously ordered our lives.

Think about Lot’s wife who had been warned, along with her family, not to look back as they were fleeing.  And when Lot’s wife turned back as though she were longing for what she was leaving behind, she turned into a pillar of salt – virtually trapped in the past she had longed for; “left behind” by her own choice, her own desires.

The original “Left Behind” movie was equally fascinating in that so many just up and disappeared without a trace.  Those who had been left behind were caught completely by surprise.  They had not been given a choice; the choice had been made without them.  Or we may possibly say their choices prior to this moment had determined the outcome.

But what has long stood out for me was one character in particular, a pastor.  He had been “left behind”.  His wife and kids and congregation were gone, but he was still around.  Once he got next to the idea of what had happened, he was alone in the sanctuary, not quite praying but questioning The Lord, wondering why he was still there.

While he was trying to work it all out, maybe arguing with himself more than with The Lord, it occurred to him that even though he preached it and taught it and “they all bought it” (his words), he never really believed it himself. 

I wonder, though, if there was at least some hope within him as he preached it and taught it.  Given that his entire congregation was gone, I tend to think he had certainly preached it with profound hope!  St. Paul wrote to the Romans that “hope does not disappoint” (5:5), so can there be a difference between belief and hope?

I suppose it may all depend on what exactly we really hope for.  Do we, for instance, hope our will be done?  Or do we earnestly pray The Lord’s will be done?  We’ve sufficiently memorized The Lord’s Prayer to that end.  We say it, but do we mean it?

And when preachers (or prophets) show up and call upon us to repent, do we listen and respond with a measure of sincere hope?  Or do we write them off as though they are talking to “them” but not to “us”?  The Baptizer was telling his audiences The Lord was coming, so they needed to prepare themselves.  They needed to look ahead with hope, not look behind with longing.

These are hard questions we must answer for ourselves.  We say we hope in Christ, we sing as hoping in Christ … but is that really what we hope for?  Eventually, I’m sure, we get around to that idea, but what does tomorrow hold for us immediately?  A raise?  A promotion?  A new car? 

These are, for many, the things we genuinely hope for.  These are the things that preoccupy many of us, maybe most of us.  But as Advent teaches us to expect Christ to return, do we dare hope?  Or do we hope more for daily living to go our way?

The Baptizer had a message of hope, and people responded in droves.  Yet his message does not resonate well today even in the Church, and I’m not really sure why.  Could it be that a call to “repent” does not go over very well?  Do we not believe we need to “flee the wrath that is to come”?  That was the Baptizer’s message, and it was John Wesley’s fundamental requirement for all who wanted to be a part of his classes.  It is the basis upon which Methodism took root.

Here’s the thing about repentance, though, and I think it is the reason the word does not play well.  We know that to “repent” means we have to change the direction and the order of our lives.  To “repent” quite possibly will mean we give up portions of our lives that have us weighed down.  To “repent” may mean some persons in our lives will have to go. 

In other words, to “repent” may well mean our lives will no longer be our own.  Our will can no longer be ours to determine.  Our choices are not really ours to make – not if we earnestly hope for the return of Messiah.

The Baptizer’s being, his very life, was not nearly as important to him as The Lord’s purpose in his life.  What if you and I were more tuned into The Lord’s purposes than our own being?  What if we were more concerned with The Lord’s work than with our own life’s work?  What if we were more concerned with growing the Faith of the Church rather than the size of our paychecks?  Or even the size of our congregation? 

What if The Lord shows up tomorrow, and we are fully prepared and conditioned NOT to “go back” for things we’ve become far too attached to? 

As we continue through the journey that is Advent, let us further condition ourselves to “judge (and test) ourselves so we may not come under judgement” (1 Cor 11:31).  Let us learn to be a little harder and a little more honest with ourselves according to His Word and not according to our culture. 

Let us dare to hope for salvation that is to come much more likely to those who least expect it rather than to those who think they are entitled.  What if what St. Peter wrote is true:If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth” (1 Peter 1:17)?

What if He is even more merciful than we dared to hope?  I think He must be … if that is truly what we hope for above all else.  Amen.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Measure Once, Give Twice - 1st Sunday of Advent 2018


2 December 2018 – 1st Sunday of Advent – 1st day of Hanukkah

1 Chronicles 29:10-17; Luke 6:32-38

Although each Sunday of Advent has its own theme designations (hope, peace, love, and joy), it occurs to me the very best thing we can do to honor our God, breathe revitalized life into the Church, and give meaning and substance to hope, peace, love, and joy is to reflect on and learn to respond to The Lord’s radical generosity.

I share this thought with the deepest hope that the spirit of Advent – our eager anticipation of The Lord’s return and our sense of Emmanuel (God with us) - will not be lost to us the day after Christmas; that day when we breathe a collective sigh of relief and say, “Thank God it’s over!”

I assure you it is only the beginning!  Advent marks the beginning of the new Church year rather than the end of the calendar year.  Like our secular New Year’s practices, Advent is a time for reflection and resolve.  There is much more to Advent, however, as we also commit to prayer and fasting for renewal of heart, mind, body, soul, and strength.  We do these things not only preparing ourselves for the Return of our Lord but also for renewing our dedication and strengthening our faith in the reality of Emmanuel!

In all this, it is a celebration of radical generosity given from a Father’s Heart as a constant reminder of who we were created to be, who we can become once more: reflections of the radically generous and Holy Father.  The Lord has revealed Himself, has given Himself, and has taken upon Himself the very worst of us to prove the very best of Himself. 

From the Incarnation, then, when “The Word became flesh”, we are to press onward – for our Shepherd is not still lying in a manger.  He has moved from there, into our lives, and into Glory, and so must we.  There must be a remembrance of that glorious time when Emmanuel (God with us) became a reality, but that remembrance must be marked by a faithful – and faith-filled – response.  Christmas trees and “stockings hung by the chimney with care” are fun (for those who can afford it), but these have nothing at all to do with what The Lord teaches us.

Jesus’ discourse in Luke’s Gospel calls us beyond ourselves, beyond the impulses which come easily to us; giving fully for our children, our friends, those who love us.  Yet Jesus teaches, “Even sinners love those who love them” (6:32).  “Even sinners do good to those who do good to them” (6:33).  “Even sinners lend to sinners, [expecting] to receive as much again” (6:34).  In other words, our generosity to ourselves is nothing to celebrate.  For when we “do” while expecting a return, that is lust – not love.  We “give” only with the proviso, “What’s in it for me?”

Our Shepherd calls us beyond those restrictions so we can fully become once again who we are created to be – the Image of the holy, merciful, and radically generous God, our Creator and Father.  “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return” (6:35).  Like Christmas trees and stockings, there is no Divine purpose in serving only ourselves or only those who love us or only those who will be expected to return the favor.

When The Word became flesh, human culture became meaningless.  Human standards were no longer the standard.  Everything that was once deemed “normal” suddenly became insufficient.  Suddenly “love” had nothing to do with how we may be feeling at any given time but became a willingness to do for others (outside our families and circle of friends) whether they can or will ever do for us in return. 

And I have to be honest: this is my spiritual bug-a-boo.  Whenever I do for others, though I know in the back of my mind I should not expect anything, I do expect something.  I do expect, at the very least, an acknowledgment, even a thank-you.  It is very hard for me to stick out my neck and risk, well, anything if nothing is to come from it except criticism for not doing it “right” or not doing “enough”.

I can be very protective of the churches I serve in that I am not easily swayed to let the church be “used” for any purpose that does not fulfill the mission of the Church: making disciples.  That is, to let the church be used (and sometimes abused) for narrow purposes but then watching them walk away when the church has served their own purposes.

There is some value in being that protective, but there is also a fine line which must never be crossed.  That is, the Church should be as much a teaching instrument of the Gospel as she is a living example of everything Jesus teaches us.  At the risk of repeating myself, if we are unwilling to live and to love and to risk as Christ taught us by His own example, everything is theoretical.  Nothing has been – and cannot be - “proved”.  Including the Birth of Messiah.

In vs 46 of the same chapter, Jesus asks the mother of questions: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’, and do not do what I tell you?”  In our love and appreciation for catchy phrases, let’s paraphrase that: If I am the ‘reason for the season’, why do you not live as I taught you?  From there Jesus teaches about the house built upon a solid foundation when (not “if”) the inevitable storms of life come.  Jesus is not being rhetorical nor is He giving people an ultimatum.  There is much more to this discourse than a series of short sayings and quotable quotes. 

More than anything else, Jesus is teaching us how to be free!  Free from our social constraints.  Free from cultural expectations.  Free even from our own selves.  For in giving beyond ourselves, withholding nothing, and being unafraid to stick our necks out for the sake of the Gospel regardless of the outcome or the risk is the ultimate in freedom.  But when we withhold anything – our time, our talents, our treasures - we do so out of a sense of fear, a false sense of security, a false sense of thinking there may never be “enough”.

If we are going to celebrate the birth of Messiah, live in Emmanuel, and joyously anticipate His Return with the greatest of our hopes, then Love must be given generously, radically.  Only then, when we act outside ourselves, outside our fears, may Christ be our true Hope, our true Peace, our true Love, our true and everlasting Joy.  Amen and amen.