Sunday, January 15, 2017

Priceless - 2nd Sunday of Epiphany


Isaiah 49:1-7
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all he had and bought it.”  Matthew 13:45-46

In the telling of this parable, I dare say that if the merchant really understood the value of what is priceless, he would have also given the shirt off his back – for “all he had” would not have been nearly enough! 

That’s the rub for us, isn’t it?  That while we may find it within ourselves to express gratitude for salvation in Christ in certain moments, as when things are going our way, we do not fully appreciate its true value when things are not going our way.  Another preacher has said, For the ‘believer’ who has not comprehended the gift of God, he or she is living in bondage from a self-imposed form of reproach” (Damian Phillips, 2012, “The Free Gift of Grace”).  If we are still being ugly to each other and are willing to harm those we don’t happen to like, what can we possibly think we understand about “grace” that we would claim it for ourselves but deny it to others?  Gratitude is not expressed by what we have but in what we give – what we do with what we have.

How can we measure that which is priceless (that is, no human value can be assigned) and yet comes at such great cost?  This, I think is an important element in understanding a Priceless Treasure.  There are many references to Divine Grace as being a “free gift”, and there are some Bible translations that use the word “free”.  But what is a “gift” if it is not free?  What is a gift if there is a cost attached to that gift?  In other words, if someone gives us a gift but actually expects something in return, then it is not a gift – not if there are strings attached. 

But what is more perplexing is how eagerly we will rush out to buy a gift we had not intended to give only when we are given a gift, yet knowing what we have been given from our God through Christ does not produce that same enthusiastic, truly transformational response.  And the question is why? 

Why are there good Christians who would literally give the shirt off their backs to someone in distress, but there are other professed Christians who would politicize the distressed person and ultimately turn away, “judging” the neighbor rather than blessing them?  Why do some Christians tithe faithfully as a matter of gratitude while other Christians see tithing as “old law” – or at least use that excuse to keep their money for themselves?  After all, worship should not cost us … right?

St. Paul expresses “free” in this way: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  That is, while humanity was in active rebellion and least deserving of anything, The Lord still did this thing.  Even as we were showing Him we are not interested in being children of God, He still made reconciliation with Him possible.  Possible … but not necessarily probable.  Still, calling it “free” or “without cost” (depending on the Bible translation you use) is being dishonest not only with the text but with the principle.

St. Paul also wrote, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).  However, it seems The Lord did not do this thing just because.  Even He had a purpose, an ulterior motive, perhaps?  “We are what He has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). 

“Good works” as our “way of life”.  But is this the “catch” as if The Lord wanted something out of it?  Or is it restoration and fulfillment of the created Divine Order established “beforehand”?  Before sin entered into the world? 

Could this Divine Order actually be why The Lord created the heavens, the earth, and humanity?  What must it be for our understanding so that it may become so “priceless” for us that we would willingly and literally give up all we have – our homes, our cars, our pensions, our savings - to obtain it?  What must it become for us that it is not already?

20th century pastor and author A.W. Tozer once said, “The reason why many are still troubled, still seeking, still making little forward progress [in going “on to perfection”, Hebrews 6:1] is because they haven't yet come to the end of themselves.  We're still trying to give orders, and interfering with God's work within us.”

And if we find ourselves in such a state of being in which we have not – and will not, reasoning we “don’t have to” in order to be saved – we do not see nor do we acknowledge or even comprehend “the Lamb of God” as St. John the Baptizer did.  And more’s the pity … because we are cheating ourselves – and one another – out of not only a genuinely Priceless Treasure but the fullness of life which comes with that Treasure and cannot be measured in human terms.

As if Mr. Tozer were actually speaking directly to me this past week, he also challenged me as I now challenge you.  He wrote: “By the authority of all that is revealed in the Word of God, I say any man or woman on this earth who is bored and turned off by worship is not ready for heaven.” 

By this he surely means mot only corporate worship when we gather on Sundays, but also the worship of participating in the means of grace meant to draw us closer to The Lord.  Fasting is worship.  Tithing is worship.  Scripture study alone and in small group is worship.  Prayer is worship – or should be.  So if we will not and cannot find any sense of fulfillment in these religious practices and disciplines designed to prepare us for something greater, how can we say we are ready for something greater?

We cannot say we are not still looking for something, though.  Can we?  When the Baptizer was standing with two of his own disciples, he exclaimed, “Look, there is the Lamb of God” (John 1:35-36)!  Once these disciples heard this, they began following Jesus.  When Jesus noticed them following Him, He asked what they were looking for.  And the best answer they could come up with was, “Where are You staying?” 

I would like to think if Jesus were to turn to me and ask me what I’m looking for, what I’ve been seeking for a very long time, I would like to think I could come up with something a little more profound than, “What’s up?”  Now we may think they wanted to know where He was staying so they could stay with Him just as they did.  But if following Him and staying with Him in order to learn more about Him were the point in the first place, why didn’t they just say so?

Though the Baptizer was continuing to fulfill his mission by “making straight the way of The Lord” and leading his own disciples to the Messiah, it may be said these disciples still had no real idea about Jesus, the Promised One, the Coming Messiah, the Lamb of God, and what He meant to them then … and what He means to us now.

For us, up to this point, it may be as the prophet wrote; “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with The Lord, and my reward is with my God … my God who has become my strength” (Isaiah 49:4, 5c)

So it may be said that while we may conceptually know of our God as the very “strength” of our being, it may also be said that much of our lives has been spent “for nothing and vanity”.  That is, we do not appreciate what is priceless more than we value what is most important to us.  C.S. Lewis once wrote, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get comfort or truth - only soft soap or wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair.”

So when the Lamb of God teaches us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), He is telling us what sort of answer He will expect when He turns to us and says, “What are you looking for?”  More than even this, however, He is teaching us what must be our focus from the time we awake to the time we lie down again.  Everything we do and everything we are must be devoted to the Kingdom of Heaven and for the sake of His righteousness; i.e., mercy and justice.  Everything. 

Our God, our Holy Father “whose Name is Jealous” (Exodus 34:14), will never play second fiddle to the world we have created for ourselves because only He knows what it is we truly need.  There is, however, a catch to even this.  In order for us to get what it is we truly need, even if it is adversity to strengthen us, we must first give ourselves completely to Him.  That is the “catch”.  That is the “cost”.

Only then will we come to know of what is truly Priceless, and only then will we come to comprehend its value.  For ourselves, for our “neighbor”, and for the sake of the mission of the Church.  Amen.

Monday, January 09, 2017

What was said; what was heard

What does “diversity” really mean?  That we do not all look alike?  That we do not all think alike? That some of us appreciate the arts while others appreciate sports – and some appreciate both?  From where I sit, the battle cry for “diversity” seems to mean, “Shut up and agree with me”. 

Meryl Streep stirred a hornet’s nest in her acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, ostensibly cracking wise about Donald Trump and his public positions on immigration but ultimately offending yet another crowd that is not typically known to be so easily offended.  Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) promoters, supporters, fans, and athletes as well as National Football League (NFL) fans and athletes took exception to her using them as examples of all we will be left with if Hollywood somehow shriveled up and blew away … or were deported.

I cannot say I am surprised or disappointed at Streep taking that particular forum to promote her own political agenda, but I can say her example (as well as what the “Hamilton” cast thrust upon Mike Pence and what Madonna has done so often) is the reason I will not pay good money to see a live show.  Whenever I pay to see a movie, I do not generally care about the actors or their personal beliefs about … well, anything.  I go to be entertained.  When I wish to be informed about any particular subject, I read a book, a magazine, or a website.

I don’t think Streep was deliberately taking a dig at athletes or sports fans more than she was simply saying, well, exactly what she said: do away with the arts, and all that is left is sports.  Understand I am not at all connected to or interested in the MMA or the NFL, so I suppose it is easy for me to have not been offended by what she said.  Frankly, I don’t care what she said.  What I do care about is how easily now even “Middle America” is so offended

Other entertainers have made derogatory comments about religion in general and Christianity in particular (subjects I am very interested in), but I attributed their very shallow observations to the equally shallow part of their being, as worldly and as tolerant as they believe themselves to be.  Jennifer Lawrence once made a comment about scratching her behind on a religious symbol in Hawaii for which she quickly apologized, saying she had no intentions of offending anyone.  Yet before even that incident, she made a comment about the Crucifix being somehow synonymous with destructive weapons in the hands of believers, but I am aware of no apology following that statement. 

As a Christian, I could not find it within myself to be offended because I think I know where she was coming from because, as a Christian, I am probably the chief among hypocrites.  I am not the best example of discipleship and Christian service.  I strive for better, but I fail more often than I can claim any measure of righteousness.  I still thought the comment was inappropriate.  More inappropriate still, however, is that this incident was reported on a national news site – one of those places I go to for, well, news.  Otherwise I would never have been the wiser.  I think maybe someone was just trying to stir something up.

There is a reason why I do not remember the date, the site, the time, or any other memorable mark … because Jennifer Lawrence and what she thinks is just not important to me.  It concerned me, of course, that this is her view of Christians in general but it did not offend me.  At least she didn’t say somethin’ ‘bout my mama …

Tolerance and diversity are both subjective terms to be defined only by the context of those who attempt to use them, and that is unfortunate.  The truth is we do not all look alike, we do not think alike, and we do not all share common beliefs about anything.  Common sense is itself a myth because what may be common for me is not common to all, but this is okay because what was once uncommon to me I learned through the words and examples of someone else.  Once I embraced what I learned, then it became common.  And if I rejected what was said or read, it remained and will remain uncommon.

I hope we can get past the ugliness of the past year and a very nasty election campaign.  I hope we can all heed Vice President Joe Biden’s declaration that “It is over” once the Congress certified the election results, and move on.  I will say this, however; if we are easily offended by anything at all, it may have more to do with the fact that we carry a perpetual chip on our shoulders and are actively seeking out fault more than that someone actually said something offensive.  Meryl Streep is an actor, not a philosopher.  The measure of her entire success is her ability to pretend.  Yet she has opinions not commonly held throughout the country; so does Jennifer Lawrence.  So does Donald Trump.  That they simply say something does not make it so.  Can we just let it go at that?  

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Same ol' (Auld) Lang Syne

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

“[My servant] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth, and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”  Isaiah 42:4

Peter’s vision (told in Acts 10:9-16 & retold by Peter himself in Acts 11:4-12) was as perplexing to him at first as it still seems to be to us today.  He did not understand what was being revealed to him until he arrived at the home of Cornelius. 

We are told Peter was getting hungry and that food was being prepared for him as he prayed on the roof, but we are also told that what The Lord revealed to Peter seemed to be an invitation to eat what was spread out before him in his hunger.  Let’s face it; this is where we stop reading, is it not?    

Reading it in its appropriate context, which involves all of chapter 10 as well as extending into chapter 11, we find that the vision had nothing to do with Peter’s hunger or what is fit to eat.  In fact we discover that the vision had nothing at all to do with food, Peter’s appetite, or even his faithfulness to Torah which prohibits the consumption of certain animals.

It may be an assumption many of us make whenever we pray; that the first thing that occurs to us in the midst of our prayers may be The Lord’s answer – when, in fact, it may be only an invitation to draw closer and listen more carefully.  Yet it may be more likely that in our devotions and prayers, we have a defined “start” and “stop” time – and when the time is up, we “stop”.

As Peter retells of his vision to the apostles and the “circumcised believers” (i.e., “Jewish Christians”), he affirmed in the face of their criticism of his having taken the Word of God to the Gentiles (11:1) that The Lord had revealed to him the vision was entirely about people rather than the “things” on the sheet; that those whom the Jews had once considered unclean and unfit for the Covenant had been deemed worthy of the Word by The Lord Himself. 

The vision occurred three times, and the first two times Peter refused to partake of what Torah deemed “unclean” – still missing what was being revealed to him, still answering according to his own cultural instincts.  When the visitors from Caesarea had arrived to call on Peter to come with them, it was the Spirit who told him not only to go with them but also to “not to make a distinction between them and us(11:12).  He then concluded to those gathered (apostles and circumcised believers) that “If God gave them the same gift that He gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”  Their response?  “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

This is – or should be – the narrative of the Church.  It certainly is the mission as defined by Jesus in Mark 1:15 (“Repent, and believe in the Good News!”), and many ministries have been borne of this mission to lead persons to repentance and the Gift of Life.  It is unfortunate, however, that this narrative has been modified and muddled over time to the point that repentance is no longer an acceptable word (coming closer to fitting the culture’s definition of “hate speech” rather than of the hope of New Life) because it insinuates what most of us – maybe all of us – do not wish to hear; that we are called and required to change the course and direction of our lives; that “Just as I am” is nothing more than the title to a hymn.  It seems to have become, however, the entire narrative of the individualist, consumerist-minded Church.

But what happens to society when the narrative of the Church which leads to Eternal Life is so modified as to lose entirely its meaning AND its power?  What happens when repentance becomes little more than a prayer of apology and a plea for mercy but lacks any resolve to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8), to fully turn away from destructive behavior and toward building a life and a community of support and accountability more reflective of the original Narrative?  We have lost (assuming we ever had) a passion for leading souls to The Lord.

What has happened over time is the distinction between “us and them” has become even more pronounced and distinct.  We end up – as we have - with a host of persons or groups of persons whom we deliberately exclude from the Narrative, having judged them unworthy of our mercy, unworthy of our prayers. 

Rather than to “fix the problem” which we know clearly exists, we are more attuned to “fixing the blame”.  Consequently we end up with an entirely different narrative from the one Narrative handed down to us.  We have learned to live within a narrative strangely similar to the culture’s narrative of “Just as I am” – BUT – “them” must repent … not “us”.

Such social distinctions have split the Church throughout history more times than I care to count.  I have no idea how many different Christian denominations and non-denominations there are, but each one stands as a testimony to a narrative each chose to create for itself for the sole purpose of “exclusion”.  The United Methodist Church is no exception, and we should be especially concerned that the “Commission on A Way Forward” borne of the 2016 General Conference may try yet again to create a whole new – and alien – narrative from the One Narrative which gives Life but not necessarily comfort – especially if we have found comfort in the wrong things.

Peter was among those who was not okay with including Gentiles in this Narrative, the very inclusion expressed by the prophet Isaiah; i.e., “justice to the nations”, “light to the nations” – not “the” nation or “a” nation.  Peter revealed in his own vision a man who was unwilling to compromise what he believed to be good and right as it pertains to “things” (“Nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth”, Acts 11:8).  At first, and on his own, he missed the point entirely just as we still often do.

Make no mistake, however.  There is still what is good and right, and there is still what is evil and wrong.  Peter’s vision changed nothing of what has long been written in the Eternal Narrative.  What Peter initially failed to comprehend was that the vision was not at all about him; not about what is fit to eat, not about satisfying his own cravings, and not even about his own sense of righteousness. 

That very narrative we have created and embraced for ourselves must change.  If “Auld Lang Syne” can really be translated “for the sake of old times”, I submit that as conservative and as traditional as we may believe ourselves to be, it may be time for us to consider the theological and social value of whatever traditions we may embrace and whatever it is we hope to conserve – and whether what we hope to gain from our conservative, traditional values is not more about what we are already comfortable with and what pleases us but is, instead, entirely about reconnecting with the Eternal Narrative which invites everyone rather than deliberately excluding anyone.    

This mindset is, I think, a significant factor in the large number of persons walking away from the Church, a profound reason why there is seen of “church” little more than a burden of subjective traditions but lacking entirely the JOY in the “hope that is ours” (1 Peter 3:15); the JOY of serving The Lord and one another – even “them”. 

Can this be true?  That this HOPE is somehow missing and that the corresponding JOY is nowhere to be found within us or within the Body as a whole?  Can it be true that we’re just … here in the moment?  That we brought nothing to this moment and that we will also leave with nothing from this moment unless it fits our already-established personal narrative?

The vision revealed to Peter ran counter to the culture Peter had become familiar and comfortable with.  This was surely the reason why Peter was so uncomfortable with the vision.  Yet when Peter came to realize that the only narrative which had changed was his own, he was joyful and glad to know of the magnitude, the reach, the desire of His God … of our God.  That The Lord truly does love “all” and that Jesus died on the Cross for “all” … even those who put Him there.

Our challenge for 2017?  We must heed the call of the Spirit and be willing to get off the roof!  The “auld lang syne” we have become comfortable with is a false narrative assuring us we are safe as long as we stay on the roof, safe as long as we continue to exclude certain others, safe in our meaningless prayers that fulfill a religious obligation but do not call us from the roof and into mission to a dark world which, like Cornelius, is eager to hear the Word of God, the Narrative of Eternal Life!  It is only the Church capable of delivering such a Narrative; whether we are willing, however, remains to be seen.

We must stop telling the same stories and draw closer and learn to listen more carefully; for it is written for us to know that “the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare”, says The Lord.  Show us the Way, O Lord!  Amen.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day 2016

“Anno Domini (AD): the Year of our Lord”

Isaiah 52:7-10
Hebrews 1:1-12
Mark 1:21-28

“Do not be afraid or discouraged … for the battle is not yours, but God's.”  2 Chronicles 20:15

Anno Domini (or AD) is a Latin phrase translated to mean, “The Year of the Lord”.  When I was a child, I guess I had been taught that BC meant “Before Christ” and AD meant “after Death”.  In some circles this is probably still what is believed; and for Christians, it is the constant reminder that human history was profoundly impacted by the Birth of Messiah.  For people of faith there is no “Before Common Era” (BCE) nor “Common Era” (CE) – for the Messiah of The Holy God is anything but “common”.

Yet because society has chosen the generic BCE and CE designations, the Church must be on constant guard against allowing “The Year of The Lord” to become generic, “common”, routine, mundane.  A pseudo-religious means of designating a point in history when Messiah came into the world must not be rendered meaningless by the neglect of the Church. 

If we as the Church are the Body of Christ In The World today (and indeed we are!), then every year must truly belong to Him not simply because of His birth and not because we say so - but because of the Honor and Glory expressed by the Whole Church because He is truly Lord and Head of the obedient Church.

Even what is “common” (or “unclean”) can come into the Church and often does so without challenge or accountability because we think we’re being non-judgmental in vainly trying to make peace by appeasing rather than confronting what is “common”.  Yet what is so striking about this portion of Mark’s Gospel is not that Jesus taught in a synagogue with extraordinary authority or even that He cast out an unclean spirit.  What is most eye-catching about this reading is the fact – even the idea!! – that an “unclean spirit” could even be in a place of worship, let alone function there! 

That Jesus is no ordinary Person or Teacher goes without saying among Christians.  When we think of worship of the One True God, we generally think of The Word being read and expounded upon; drawing as much meaning as possible so the Word can be better understood and received for all its sacred value.  This is how the Word becomes flesh in the Church! 

So while it may go without saying the Scriptures were surely being read in the synagogue, it had to be The Word Himself which provoked the unclean spirit.  Not the words on the scrolls – the Word in the Flesh, the Presence of something remarkable rather than ordinary; maybe sometimes even confounding, but never “common”.

This may disturb some of us on a fundamental level because of the value we place in the Written Word, and rightly so, yet we cannot pretend words on a page can possibly have the same effect as The Word in the Flesh – not only in Christ Himself but in the Church whose entire life and well-being depend on, and is defined by, the Word which became Flesh and is yet alive today only in the fruits of the Spirit in the flesh of the Church. 

So what was it that provoked this unclean spirit that it would have made itself known in the Presence of Jesus – especially if there was any suspicion Jesus had indeed “come to destroy” them?  4th century Church Father St. Ambrose believed the unclean spirit could not help itself because it was “compelled and tormented” by the very Presence of the Word, but not the reading of “the words”. 

This, I think, is important for us in understanding the significant difference between “words” and “The Word”; the difference between common knowledge of written words – and faith in the Living Word.  It is the profound difference between a “common” world without Christmas and an extraordinary world because of the Birth of Messiah.  It also signifies the difference between those who will respond to the Word, whether happy or unsettling – and those who reject the accountability inherent to the Word.

St. James reminded his readers “even the demons believe … and tremble” (2:19).  This is to say, the demons have absolute knowledge of the reality of The Holy One.  Where you and I may have our moments of doubt when we are tested, these demons never experience moments like this.  They know.  They “believe” that knowledge as objective Truth, having direct experience with that Truth – not subjective truth as often experienced in human interpretation – especially when the Word is watered down in a vain effort to accommodate and appease as many as possible. 

St. Athanasius believed even this Truth, however, cannot come from an unclean mouth – hence Jesus’ command of silence even as the demon confessed Jesus as the Son of God.  It may not be so much that Jesus did not want to be so identified so early in His ministry, but that such an “unclean” mouth was unworthy of speaking the Truth.

Recall that St. Peter also made a similar confession (Matthew 16:16).  Essentially the same words were spoken, the same declaration made, but Jesus didn’t shut Peter down.  One would be blessed for this confession and the other cursed because the difference between them is that one was spoken from faith, the other from fear.  And not the kind of biblical fear we associate with intense respect, but the kind of fear we may experience when we are at risk of losing something and lack the power to prevent it from happening. 

It must also be said Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Son of God comes not just with the kind of faith as revealed from Above, as Jesus spoke to Peter, but with a deep and abiding love – the absence of which renders faith void and reduces “belief” to nothing more than intellectual knowledge.  Without love, faith is theoretical and has no meaning beyond what one may expect to gain only for oneself – as when we wish to be saved or forgiven, but will not break a sweat to save or forgive another as the Word commands us to. 

What this interaction in Mark’s Gospel suggests for us may be as simple as saying the absence of genuine, abiding, sacrificial Love means the presence of something unclean, something common to the world but ultimately unrecognizable and, thus, unacceptable, in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Religion without faith; faith without deliberate and purposeful expressions of love.

We live in the “Common Era” only if The Living Word is not present in the Holy Church and in our lives as expressions of something wonderful, a sure Peace this world has proved itself incapable of producing – perhaps unwilling to produce in spite of the Word, both inside the Church and outside. 

Anno Domini, on the other hand, is the faithful Proclamation of the Church and the Profession of Her Faith that our Lord came not to condemn but to save; to build up the Church to witness to The Truth, to render aid to those in distress, to demand and provide justice and mercy even to those who seem less than deserving, and to lift up those who have fallen or have been pushed aside.  EVERY.  SINGLE. DAY. That makes up and fully occupies the entire Year of The Lord.

This is the Life we are called into, the Life we are set apart to live and to provide.  For it is that Life which gives and sustains Life even beyond the grave; the very Life offered to us all.  Always in the Year of our Lord.  Amen.

Christmas Eve 2016

“Sometimes The Lord has a Child’s face”

Matthew 1:18-25                                                                                                                                  John 1:1-18

Without overstating the obvious, the Holy God and Creator of all that is seen and unseen revealed Himself in as humble a place and in as innocent a way as we can imagine.  The only ones more humble than the Holy One in this Sacred Moment were those to whom the Message had been entrusted: the shepherds.  Because it may not be a matter of who is more worthy to receive the Message (the entire world had been judged worthy!) – but who is more likely and willing to share it … those who perhaps had nothing to lose or were unafraid to lose what little they may have had.

It is the kind of Message with the capacity not to simply change our way of thinking but to completely transform our whole being - not in a single event or a single profession of faith but in being constantly renewed not only in what we choose to believe but in how we choose to live according to those beliefs.  It is the difference in being an adult convinced there is nothing more to know or to see or to learn – and a child for whom every single day is a new adventure, a new friend, a new joy – the perpetual hope only a child can fully appreciate and express.  Jesus Himself said as much: “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:3). 

It stands to reason, then, that the best and purest form of what we can offer to The Lord is not found in our religious practices or our prayers or our tithes, though these things are important as expressions of our gratitude, faith, joy, and hope.  The purest form is in our child-like willingness to trust in spite of risk, to share in spite of risk, to make new friends in spite of risk, to open the joy of our world and our lives and all we have to others in spite of risk.  Faith is not about believing only one thing and calling it “good”; faith is trusting and living in perpetual hope that one thing will always lead to so much more. 

This is the necessary excitement we too often lack as adults.

Think of it in the terms of a child.  We know children must be taught to share, but we also know a child who refuses to share will eventually be found alone.  No child wants to hang out with the kid who closes off his world if there is no hope of being invited to share in those good things and in that joy. 

It is only when the kid finally understands that selfishness and greed bring only loneliness that the child will begin to take a chance and open his world – and his joys - to others … not to give away but to fully share without reservation, to share his joy with others and begin to understand the sacred value of True Joy found only in fellowship and community.

This is why the news of the Birth of Christ could not be restricted to any single individual.  This remarkable News is not meant to be “personalized” or modified in any way to fit only our individual need – thus shutting others out.  Rather, it is in this astonishing Invitation from the Eternal Kingdom that “me” no longer exists but becomes all of Christ in all of us in the purest of forms – that of a Child. 

Renewing ourselves in the Birth of Messiah, breaking away from the mundane, and discovering yet again that necessary child-like faith is as being “born again” in the newness of Life, the purity of innocence, and the renewed hope that tomorrow can and will always be better than today.

We celebrate this Day as the Newness of Life offered to all without reservation and the renewed commitment it is meant to be – in the face of the Holy Child and in the child-like faith of our transformed lives. 

Merry Christmas tonight … and to all a better tomorrow!  Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent 2016 - "Silent no more"

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Luke 1:26-38

“The Lord is our Father and loves us deeply, even when His silence is incomprehensible”.  Pope Benedict XVI

There is a lot of history, obviously, in the 400 years of silence between the recorded end of the First Testament period and the beginning of the New, a lot of history leading up to the Maccabean Revolt in the 2nd century BC – and leading up to Messiah’s birth.  There is also theological speculation about the significance of this period of silence or whether there is meaning at all. 

I believe there must be deep meaning in the Silence which suggests there is no silence after all; there is only a lack of written material in the Bible. 

I mention the Maccabean Revolt because the books of the Apocrypha (extrabiblical books included in the so-called Catholic Bible) include the books of the Maccabees which tell of this significant period.  There is meaning for Christians because even as we think there was this period in which the Heavens were silent, it was actually a time when The Lord had the most to do.

In 168 BC (and a lot happened to lead to this point), the ruler of the Syrian kingdom (Antiochus Epiphanes IV) stepped up his campaign to wipe out Judaism (foretold by the prophet Daniel 400 years earlier) so that everyone in his empire — which included the Land of Israel — would share the same culture and worship the same gods.  So it was “game on” for the Israelites and the Maccabees who would stand strong to not only cleanse the Temple which had been profaned by unholy worship practices (including the slaughter of swine); they would also stand to protect Israel from this unholy encroachment.

Long story short, you are familiar with the menorah, the six-pronged candle holder described in Exodus 25:31-40 (modern day version has eight – for a reason).  The Temple had only enough oil to keep the candles burning for a single day, but the Presence of The Lord kept the Light burning for eight days, long enough to finish what the Maccabees had begun.  And so in 164 BC began the Jewish observance of Hanukkah which, incidentally, begins this year at sunset on December 24, a remembrance of Divine Light in one of Israel’s darkest periods.  (Though Hanukkah must not be confused with Christmas or be considered the “Jewish Christmas”, there are certain theological parallels regarding darkness and Divine light!)

There are other extrabiblical accounts, ancient books not considered canonical (authoritative) but still offer many stories by which it seems clear that through the supposed “Silent Period”, the world stage was being set for the Messianic Age.  Just as we must never think Jesus just “popped up” from nothing, neither did the Blessed Mother nor Joseph.  We have enough prophecy and history to know our God had not forgotten His people nor had He turned a blind eye or a deaf ear to His Created Order.  Quite the contrary, history and nature were continuing to unfold in what would come to be known as “The Greatest Story Ever Told”.

Silence can sometimes seem awkward in certain circumstances, but silence is also an underappreciated discipline and is even more so in our hyper-stimulated culture in which many of us – certainly our children - cannot seem to take more than a few steps away from cell phones or other electronic devices without going into convulsions.  We’ve lost our capacity for contemplation, our ability to think in silence while giving The Lord time and space in which to speak!  We’ve surrendered our ability to listen!

There have been (and still are) periods in religious history in which it was debated about any particular issue the Bible seems “silent” about – and whether that silence has meaning.  

For instance, many suggest Jesus never specifically condemned homosexuality.  Well, that observation is limited in its scope in looking only for specific words while overlooking all else.  Jesus Himself claimed to be “the Law and the prophets fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17) – meaning “Torah” (what we Christians typically refer to as “Law”) is still very much the Book of The Lord’s people.  It is alive and well … in Eternity.  This is consistent with the Gospel of John which describes Jesus as “The Word which became flesh” (John 1:14), that very same Eternal “Word which was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1). 

The point, of course, is not human sexuality – not even a little bit.  The point is to show how we try to rearrange The Divine Narrative by speaking in the silence instead of listening to the Spirit of the Word in that silence.  We often fail to realize these periods of silence may be among The Lord’s greatest gifts – and perhaps His most rigorous tests to determine whether we will “wait patiently” (Psalm 37:7).

Some scholars and theologians say that whatever is not expressly forbidden in Scripture (preceded by “Thou shalt not …”) is allowed; others say anything not specifically authorized is not permitted.  During the early Reformation period, Martin Luther (1483-1546) taught that “whatever is without the word of God is, by that very fact, against God”, usually citing biblical admonitions not to take away from or add to the Divine revelation of the Word (Deuteronomy 4:2; Joshua 1:7; Proverbs 4:27; Revelation 22:18).

Gradually, however, Luther and other reformers softened their stands, more often than not in an effort to accommodate the dominant culture much like the Church seems determined to do today, catering to the culture rather than ministering to the people who cannot comprehend the Silence just as the “Darkness could not comprehend (or overcome) the Light” (John 1:5). 

Yet few seemed mindful of the wisdom of the Scriptures in which it is written in the Proverbs, “There is a way that seems right, but it is the way of death” (16:25) – meaning “a way” which may fit our culture’s narrative or satisfy our own desires, but it may also stray from the Divine Narrative spoken in Eternity … and heard only in the Silence.  And is always consistent with the Written Word.

All this is to suggest this perceived silence is perhaps when The Lord speaks most clearly, but we cannot hear The Lord in the midst of the all the cultural noise nor in our mind’s demands to have our own way or to be constantly entertained or stimulated.  If the discipline of the Advent season teaches us anything, it is the discipline to “be still before The Lord, and wait patiently for Him” (Psalm 37:7).

In the Catholic tradition there is much more to Mary than that she was only Joseph’s future bride.  According to ancient sources (Protevangelium), Mary had been given over to service in the Temple by her mother, St. Anne, just as the prophet Samuel had been given over to the Temple by his mother, Hannah, for her gratitude in being able to bear a child against the odds (1 Samuel 1:20-28).  Once Mary reached the age of female maturity, however, she could not stay in service in the Temple.  The priests, then, chose Joseph from among all eligible men to take her as his bride (there is yet another miracle attributed to the selection of Joseph, but I don’t want to digress).

The point being made is to suggest that as the stage was being set, Mary had been disciplined and prepared to “wait patiently”, having been in service to The Lord in the Temple for the first 12-14 years of her life.  And clearly she had been deemed worthy to bear this Most Remarkable Gift just as Joseph had been deemed worthy to care for and protect Mary and The Child. 

During this most intense period of silence before the record of the New Testament, The Lord was setting the stage for the redemption of Israel and the entire human race, and The Lord would need serious actors capable of and willing to not only hear Him but submit themselves entirely to His instruction which could only be fully revealed in the Silence.  Think of Joseph’s dreams.

The last of the New Testament is believed to have been written somewhere around 70AD-80AD.  What does this say to New Covenant people in 2016 and beyond?  That The Lord has stopped speaking to us?  That we are allowed to make up new stuff to fit our own chosen narrative?  That we cannot seem to function without explicit, printed instructions?

None of this can be true because the assurance we live with is Jesus’ assurance of Perpetual Presence made manifest at Pentecost when the Spirit would “remind us of all Jesus had taught” (John 14:26). 

The Lord’s people have not been abandoned nor forsaken, for the Spirit of The Lord is never silent.  And though “heaven and earth will pass away, [the Word of The Lord] shall never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). 

The Eternal Word of The Eternal God will endure long after the created order has faded away – but only in the stillness of our hearts and the silence of our minds will we be able to hear it.  “Be still, and know that I am The Lord!  I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”  Psalm 46:10-11

The Lord be with us now and forever.  Amen.

Monday, December 05, 2016

2nd Sunday of Advent 2016, “Imagine the Possibilities”

Isaiah 11:1-10
Romans 15:4-13
Luke 3:1-18

“The weapons of divine justice are blunted by the confession and sorrow of the offender.”  Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy II: Purgatory

The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of a ruler who will restore justice to Israel, perhaps to the entire world, and the passage is typical of the readings of the Advent season as we “prepare the way of The Lord” – not only to celebrate the Incarnation at Christmas when “the Word became flesh” but also to anticipate the coming of Messiah when life as we know it will be turned upside down.

It is a challenge and is often uncomfortable to look more closely at these passages which, in their New Testament context, seem to speak specifically of the birth of Jesus, especially when we get a vision of an ideal society which will come about when this King takes His rightful place. 

It is a sensitive subject for many because tradition has long held these prophecies to “prove” Jesus is the Messiah; so the idea that Isaiah may not be a direct and specific reference to Jesus challenges what we have traditionally been taught for so long.  It becomes uncomfortable for us when we are challenged to think outside the box we’ve contained ourselves in and look more closely at these passages and the full biblical context rather than to simply take for granted what we’ve long assumed.  Yet no matter how we choose to look at them, Jesus is still the long-awaited Messiah.

There is nothing to disprove Jesus as the Son of God, of course, for Jesus Himself says, “If I am not doing the works of My Father, then do not believe Me.  But if I do them, even though you do not believe Me, believe the works so that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37-38). 

It is not hard for us to see that this ideal, prophetic society simply does not exist – not here, not now, and not even during the time of Jesus.  So how do we approach such passages in a way that celebrates a Divine Promise come to fruition in the Incarnation - because it has! - and yet also gives us a Divine Vision of possibilities.  In other words, why must we wait for the literal return of Messiah to have a spirit of justice and peace in our society?  Why can we not have this now?

We can.  Of course it takes two to tango, as the saying goes.  As nice as we may try to be – and we must always try – others will not always cooperate.  Praying for our enemies becomes more and more difficult, and turning the other cheek is a near impossibility – not because we cannot but because we will not.  And we will not because “We are “mad as h*ll, and we’re not gonna take it anymore”!  We’re reached the limits of our patience, and we’ve run out of cheeks to turn. 

But “pride goes before destruction” as it is written (Proverbs 16:18); and when we are on our way down to our own destruction as we choose to live on the world’s terms, make our own judgments, and return evil for evil as we determine what is just, it is impossible to imagine Divine possibilities.  It is hard to imagine what we can actually do even when others will not cooperate.  Even within the ekklesia, the congregation, there is often this dominant attitude to “get mine while the gettin’ is good” – missing entirely the point of living well and faithfully - and ignoring altogether the possibility of a peaceful and just and merciful society right here and right now.

Though the prescribed Gospel reading for this 2nd Sunday of Advent is Matthew’s account of John the Baptizer, I chose instead to read from Luke’s account because there is more detail in the conversation St. John had with those who heeded his call to repentance.  John didn’t just call them to stop doing unjust things; John called them to fully repent – to turn about and do exactly the opposite of what they had been doing.  Essentially he called them to stop taking and start giving – for this is the only way to begin to undo the damage which had been done.

Even then there will not always be cooperation.  Not everyone will go along, not everyone will help, and those who choose to exploit our earnest repentance will make the penitent life more challenging.  This is, however, the very point of the Church, the ekklesia, the congregation of the faithful who choose to live according to Divine Law – that is, the Law of the Eternal Kingdom! – and stop living according to a society that seems intent on its own destruction.  The people of the ekklesia, the Church, must find and make justice, peace, and mercy together.  Welcome those who seek after the same righteousness – and show the door to those who won’t.

The account of the ekklesia in the Acts of the Apostles shows us what a just society looks like, and also shows us what is entirely possible – even when others do not cooperate.  To these new believers who accepted the Word of The Lord and the teachings of the apostles with joy and gladness found themselves not just “personally saved” but called into the greater Body in which such things as justice, mercy, and fellowship are not only possible but very likely.

It will not always be easy.  In fact, living in such a way is the “narrow gate” (Matthew 7:13) through which we must enter into this new life of Divine Possibilities.  And let us not confuse refraining from evil acts with actually doing acts of mercy and justice because the difference is profound.  Simply doing nothing is still nothing.  We are not being moral and righteous people of the Covenant when we do nothing.  Rather it is the “fruit we bear worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8) that makes us whole and holy and righteous and just and merciful and hospitable and invitational. 

It is the Presence of the Holy Spirit and our desire to reflect our Lord in our life together that not only begins to undo the damage we’ve done by our actions and our neglect; it soon comes to be that we move beyond repairing and begin building upon goodness and mercy and justice, allowing the kind of community envisioned by so many of the prophets who have announced that this ideal society will exist one way or another, one day or another – with us or without us.

Above all, we must free ourselves from the shackles of a careless theology that insists Christians don’t have to do anything – for if Christians choose to do nothing but continue to live on the world’s terms and standards which shift from one generation to the next, then nothing will happen.  All will remain the same, and we will continue to settle for whatever we can gain from this world on this world’s terms.

So let this new life of Divine Possibility begin here today.  Let our prayers and our repentance be the beginning of something wonderful rather than merely the end of evil.  Let us stop worrying about what others may do or whether others will cooperate, and begin acting as though the entire Church is depending on us individually.  Because if we do this, it is the beginning.

Only then will we begin to see and feel a difference.  And we will be blessed beyond any standard of human measurement because we will have chosen to be the blessing.  And the Possibilities we have only up to this point tried to imagine through the prophets will soon be our reality in the Eternal Covenant.  This is the Promise and the Reality of the Body of Christ in the world today.  It is the very Life Jesus calls us into – today and forever.  Amen.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Near the End? Or at the Beginning?

1st Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

"Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which [one] must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs [our] life, and it is grace because it gives [us] the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and [it is] grace because it justifies the sinner.  Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: 'Ye were bought at a price', and what has cost God so much cannot be cheap for us.  Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His own Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us.  Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

This is “costly grace” as opposed to what Bonhoeffer termed “cheap grace” which, among other things, promises forgiveness without repentance.  That is, believing ourselves to be saved in our sins rather than freed from them.  And if we think about it in the light of the chaos our world and our nation face today, it makes no sense that salvation from all this can be found without a resolve on our part to fully repent, to willfully turn away from the path of death and into the glory of Life.  The ugliness, the hatefulness, the spitefulness, the vindictiveness, and the violence we are sunk into up to our necks?  No one in his or her right mind would care to be left in that swamp of self- and social destruction!  We should wish to be delivered from it!  That is, unless we are actively engaged in it and take some perverse pleasure from the destruction of others.

Yet there must be a reason for wishing to be delivered from this peculiar and not-so-subtle evil we face today.  Humanity is in an extreme mode of self-destruction.  Authority at all levels has been called into question so much so that some feel free to take shots at police officers whose sole purpose in our society is to keep the peace and enforce the laws.  The badge, which should serve to represent the community, has become little more than a target.

Violent protests can crop up at any time and at any place without warning to the point that we cannot plan a day trip without at least being mindful of the possibility of being caught in the cross fire.  Every little thing said – in politics and perhaps especially in the pulpits – can be easily twisted and manipulated to our “offense”because we have not only lost our ability to reason; we have surrendered our willingness to even listen except to hear only what we wish to hear.

We should be so lucky that The Lord would return today!  But we are also compelled to ask ourselves the very question Jesus posed when He taught about The Lord’s demand for justice and our need to pray constantly: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:8).    

This is the question of Advent because what we must actually be preparing ourselves for goes far beyond the celebration of the birth of Messiah; we are awaiting the return of the Son of Man who will “judge the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed).  And as St. Paul sounded the alarm to his Roman audience; the time is “nearer to us now than when we became believers” (Romans 13:11b).  Nearer with each passing day.

In our world and especially in our churches, however, we face a much more sinister force than open violence.  We face the insidious deception by means of manipulation of the Bible and what is written for our instruction to build up the whole Body of Christ beyond each individual.  Maybe there were once noble intentions of telling people only what they wanted to hear initially so they would come to church and fill the pews (and maybe even the collection plates!); but as it is often said, the road to hell is paved with noble intentions.

So what to do?  The first Sunday of Advent is to celebrate Christ our Hope.  So what do we hope?   That when “two are in the field and one is taken”, we are not the one who is left?  Sure, but I think we will have to go a little deeper and look a little closer.  We will have to do better than this not only for the sake of our own souls but for the souls of our children, our grandchildren, our great-grands as well as those whom our Lord defines as our “neighbor” – those in distress, those whom the world has beaten to a bloody pulp and left for dead! 

We must also not get caught up in the doom-and-gloom mindset that we are only preparing for the End because this is not at all what Advent is about!  The very nature of repentance itself is not to prepare for the End; rather, it is the start of a whole new life, a whole new way of thinking and doing that not only prepares us for an unknown End to a world we once knew but a known and well-defined Beginning of a whole new life and a new world!  It is the Beginning of a sanctified Life, the Life which purposefully grows in more godly perfection with each passing day!  Not accidentally or incidentally, but purposefully.

Every day is a new Beginning when we enter into that day with a profound sense and spirit of Hope rather than of dread.  And if we are only trying to avoid hell for ourselves, every day is a day of dread and fear!  Yet we cannot overlook Jesus’ warning in Matthew’s Gospel.  We cannot pretend this is not written.  That Day, that “unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44) will come with certainty, but note what precedes Jesus’ warning about those who will be left behind and how they will come to such a state of being unworthy to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

False messiahs with false messages of false hope.  Our willingness to believe anything which sounds good, requires nothing from us, and fits our own life’s narrative but is not measured against the weight of Holy Scriptures.  All “good news” with no warnings, no cautions.  Personal salvation with no concern for others.  A sense of forgiveness without having repented.  Baptism without church discipline.  Communion without confession.  Grace without discipleship.  Grace without the Cross.  Life without a sense of having died to oneself so we may live fully in and for Christ

This is Bonhoeffer’s take on Matthew 24 – and then some!  I dare to say Bonhoeffer’s message was directed to the Christians of the world – and perhaps especially to those of Germany during the Nazi era – who remained silent in their fear while “others” – those whom Jesus defined as our “neighbor” (Luke 10:25-37) - faced unspeakable evil.  A calling of conscience for those who claimed – and still claim – an affiliation and “personal relationship” with Messiah but with a blind eye and deaf ear to those who suffer, to those who struggle for justice and mercy.

And when Advent is just another “count-down to Christmas” without a closer look and profound resolve and when Christmas itself remains more about family, favored friends, Santa Claus, and gluttony than about The Lord (but we feel perfectly ok about this), we have lost our resolve for any sort of a “beginning” and have rejected the prophetic “Light of The Lord” as spoken of by Isaiah (2:5).  We have chosen instead the darkness of a godless culture; a culture which presumes “all is well” and that “no harm will come to us” (Jeremiah 23:17).

It does not have to be this way, though.  The point of Grace – the very merciful and forgiving nature of our God and Father – is that it is never too late to begin anew – this New Beginning which always involves “others” where once it never did.  It is never too late to repent – and no one of us is above a need to repent from something.  We are never too old or too set in our ways that we cannot embrace the “costly” nature of Divine Grace by which “God did not reckon His own Son too dear a price to pay for our life”.

There is a catch, though.  It is “costly” Grace because it requires our whole life (not just our “Sunday life”) and yet offers to us the fullness of a Life worth living in the here-and-now and worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven when the “Unexpected Hour” (Matthew 24:44) is upon us.  For in Christ Jesus, the Eternal Word, every day can be the very Beginning of something wonderful.  Let it begin here.  Let it begin now.  Amen.