Monday, October 24, 2016

A Thought

“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15 NRSV).

“Now is the time!  Here comes God’s Kingdom!  Change your hearts and lives, and trust this Good News!” (Mark 1:15 Common English Bible)

First things first: did we begin our week with worship of The Lord?  With other disciples?  Did we devote ourselves, our lives, and our gifts to lifting up the Holy Church and being challenged with a new perspective on The Word? 

If the answer is yes, then the week has begun on the right foot, and the tone for the coming week is potentially set.  If not (with exceptions of illness or other infirmities), then there must be a better understanding of what being in the Body of Christ is about, what public worship is about, what being the Church is about.

“Believing the Gospel” and “trusting the Good News” carries much more weight than we often give credit for.  Too often we are determined that this message is for “me”, while the more difficult passages that don’t seem so good-newsy (downright threatening!) is for “them” – whomever “them” may be – usually those who do not live the way we think they should.  In both instances, we miss the essence of the Gospel, the “good news” as well as what it means to “repent”, which is to “change our hearts and lives” – not merely apologize.

Absent the knowledge of the Gospel, we pretty much keep to ourselves.  We do as we please when we please and however it may please us.  We consider ourselves “good people” by our own definitions, and we do for those we love and we may do for others beyond those we love as long as we do not have to go too far out of our way.

To “repent”, however, to “change our hearts and lives” means we cannot – must not - continue as before; such as doing only for those we love, helping others so long as it is not too inconvenient, or not engaging in public worship with and in the Church, the whole Body of Christ – warts and all!  If we claim to “believe” the Gospel but our lives are largely unchanged, how can we claim to have knowledge of salvation?  How can we claim to know Jesus at all if nothing about our daily routine has changed?

There is one sure way to weaken the Church, and it has nothing to do with the devil: that is when believers stay away.  Withhold our hearts, withhold our efforts, withhold our gifts, and withhold all manner of our contributions.  If this is our deliberate choice, what choices were made when we claim to have come to ‘believe’? 

The current political climate is such that getting everyone to vote is important because so much is at stake.  We encourage citizens to vote because it is how our republic is at its best.  How, then, do we think the Church will be just fine without us, without all believers doing our part to “make disciples”, without our contributions (of all kinds), without our active participation?  The answer is that it cannot.  The strength of the Church is fully invested in those who truly “believe” and “trust”, who fully “repent” and “change their hearts and lives”. 

Do we dare to notice Jesus does not say He will change our hearts and lives?  No, His call is an invitation to a life we have not yet known.  It is a challenge to go beyond ourselves and live into a life we had previously denied ourselves – and others!  We are invited to “change our hearts and lives” by our determination to live into the Invitation.  WE have to make that choice!

Each new day is an invitation into this New Life – until such time as we run out of days; and only The Lord knows when that Day is coming.  But with each day that passes without our having chosen to live into that Invitation, we are cheating ourselves out of the kind of life our Lord has in store for us. 

Let not another day pass without making some kind of change.  Accept the Invitation, the challenge to become more today than yesterday!  The Lord assures us He will lead us, but He makes no provision for following us wherever we may choose to go; for there is only one Way and one Gate.  The Church is the Body of Christ, and Christ is the Head of the Body.  There will we find Life – in Him and with one another.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Stewardship: the true measure of devotion

Genesis 2:4-9, 15
1 Corinthians 9:3-14, 17
Luke 12:42-48

“Each of us will be accountable to God.”  Romans 14:12

“Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by [The Lord]. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service, you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already.” 
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

So according to Mr. Lewis (and no less according to sound biblical principles), there can be no part of our being that is not already claimed – and more especially so by the Blood of Christ Himself.  It stands to reason, then, that everything we do and every word we speak are responses to this reality.  We are in a constant state of response to The Eternal Covenant.  This is an important distinction because we must not believe being justified before The Lord automatically makes everything we do or say good or right.  We still possess the capacity to do our own thinking.  It is the power of thinking which is given from Above.

So the first thing the modern Protestant Church needs to do is to shed the common assertion that in the Covenant of Christ, we don’t “have to” do anything.  This is not only held to be blatantly false by Jesus’ many words; it has been proved over the generations to be extremely destructive to the Church and Her mission because at best it is an incomplete statement. 

This “alibi” has led to the statistical reality that only 20% of the people of the Church gives, and only 20% of the people of the Church does the work.  The other 80% simply does not care.  The Church is already limping through the 21st century; imagine what the Church would look like if EVERY Christian decided he or she didn’t “have to” do anything.

On the other hand, imagine what the Church could accomplish for the Kingdom and the communities we are called to serve if every Christian spent more time thinking in terms of stewardship instead of ownership.    

What is most unfortunate about the biblical principle of stewardship is that many, maybe most, Christians immediately think of money; and almost immediately after this thought crosses the mind, we go numb, we shut down, and we stop listening.  Tithing and other offerings are certainly a part of a total heart for stewardship, but money in and of itself is not at all a component of a life devoted to faith and to Christ and His Body, the Church.  Stewardship is entirely about what we do with money and with every other component of our being.

So we must not think of stewardship as an “expensive” proposition but, rather, as an “expansive” one that encompasses every facet of our lives – whether we are working, shopping, playing, babysitting the grandkids, worshiping, or studying the Scriptures.  Stewardship is where the concepts of faith, work, and leisure time come together.  There is no part of our doing that is not “accountable to God”, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans and no part of our speaking that will not be called to account, as Jesus spoke in Matthew’s Gospel (12:36); because every part of our being - in how we worship and work and play in stewardship - is equipped and called for the sake of the Gospel.

The psalmist begins the 24th psalm with, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”  And from the very beginning, humans were created to work.  The work in the beginning was to tend and care for all of creation – not only for man’s own benefit but for the sake of The Lord’s charge to him.  Then, of course, as the Genesis account goes, The Lord determined that man could not do this alone, so woman was created. 

This account can go in a couple of different directions, but for our purposes let us consider what I believe to be the dominant principle: stewardship is too big to do alone.  And let us also consider that each human was not charged to do only so much as what may have been required for individual need or desire.  The charge to care for it all is humanity’s first “commandment”.  And within the structure of woman being created for man, we should consider the very broad principle that we are created to care for one another to make the work possible.

Stewardship, then, is our expression of obedience, a measure of faith and devotion to all The Lord has entrusted to us.  This is part of the reason why the vows we take when we join the United Methodist Church – which must never be taken lightly - challenge us to consider stewardship to be of the utmost importance in the life of the Church; because much like our marriage vows, we are not promising to go along as long as everything is going well.  We vow to The Lord Himself that we are committed to the very end.

Hugh Whelchel is executive director of the Institute for Faith.  In a 2012 article, he pointed out four fundamental principles of stewardship: ownership, responsibility, accountability, and, last but not least, reward.  Each principle has a biblical justification, and each principle speaks volumes about the biblical reality that we own nothing.  And if we do happen to think we are entitled to these things we think we own, even as we worked and saved for and hold title to these things, we are also reminded by the Scripture, as the Israelites were cautioned by Moses, “Remember The Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). 

The “ability to produce wealth” but still with a mind to decide what to do with it, however much or little.  As a nation, we’ve come to expect the so-called “one-percenters” to pay their fair share – whatever “fair” may be; but as the principles of biblical stewardship go, we often fail to realize that no one who claims the Holy Name is immune.  No one of us should consider ourselves so poor or so in debt that we have nothing to offer to The Lord and His Church – or so ‘saved’ that we don’t “have to” - because it simply is not true.  This is why stewardship must never be reduced to only a discussion about money and tithing.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 12 (42-48) combines all the principles of stewardship held forth by Mr. Whelchel (ownership, responsibility, accountability, and reward), but take note that the parable says nothing exclusively about money.  This is not to say that stewardship is about everything except money; but we do see by this parable that while the Master is away, those who live and work and do according to His imminent return will find reward.  Not the reward we think we are entitled to by our own standards, but by our faithfulness with everything entrusted to us will The Lord decide what our reward will be.

It is not enough to think of stewardship in terms of how severe or light our punishment may be when The Lord returns and calls us all to account.  What is most important – above every principle, every standard, every ideal, certainly above every silly superstition – is that in stewardship, we live and work and play and shop with the joyful expectation that our Lord IS coming back!

Like the slave (or servant) in the parable, we must not allow ourselves to be convinced The Lord “is delayed” in His return to the point that we may do according to our own desires and exploit what is at our disposal for our own pleasure or personal gain.  Rather, we must learn to live in the Promise of Joyful Anticipation – the kind of anticipation we experienced as children while counting down to Christmas!  Remember “being good” for Santa?  Helping around the house? 

In the simple mind of children, it was – and still is - all about what might be found underneath the tree on Christmas morning.  For the mature disciple, however, it is entirely about a state of mind and heart to live with the knowledge that The Lord’s Promise is sure and certain – much more certain than our paychecks or Social Security! 

Stewardship is discipleship more clearly defined.  Stewardship goes far beyond believing something to be true; it is a life spent in knowing our Lord is true.  And just.  For the principle of stewardship is not at all about gaining adequate reward; it is entirely about showing The Lord what we can be trusted with in His Eternal Kingdom! 

Because that Kingdom is coming!  Glory to The Lord Most High!  Amen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Where we are, we are

“Where we are, we are”

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

“If we have died with Him, we will live with Him.  If we endure, we will also reign with Him.”  2 Timothy 2:11-12a

As one of the nastiest political campaigns many can recall is mercifully coming to an end, it grieves me that many may already be resigned to their worst fears; that things will not turn out the way they should, that the nation will never be the same again.  What is most grievous is that few are “for” anything, but are rather “against” many things.  Think about how, rather than extol the virtues of a preferred candidate, many are reduced to comparing vices in trying to decide not who is better but which would be worse!

There are some things we’re stuck with as nothing more than further evidence of a long-fallen world drifting further from The Lord, but I also think if the Church’s attention is primarily directed toward trying to reclaim what we may believe to be ours to claim, we are deceiving ourselves and cheating our children – and, consequently, the Church - of a truly prosperous future in The Lord’s Covenant. 

We cheat ourselves and deceive ourselves by denying what is written in the Scriptures for the faithful, in which we are encouraged not to reclaim what we only think we’re losing, but to navigate together in faith “what already is” while encouraging one another to look forward in truly joyful hope to “what is yet to be”.

It is true there are some things we will never be able to change, but what is equally true is that NO ONE will get their own way – and we as individuals must make peace with this.  This is not the appropriate mindset for a Christian anyway; it is the very sort of mentality that has closed many churches, permanently damaged relationships, and destroyed any witness that may have had half a chance – because ultimately, those who do not get their own way would rather see a church – and perhaps this nation - burn to the ground than to give even an inch toward anything resembling unity and sense of collective purpose.  As it is written, “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18).

What we often fail to appreciate, let alone embrace, is the certain reality that Christians are charged with and baptized into one thing: to become and to share the Gospel as the Body of Christ; to live and to do collectively just as Jesus Himself would do.  When we refuse to do even that because we’re too busy or it just “ain’t my thang”, what is left for us but to fight and argue over things that have no bearing on the Church’s mission and witness?  As has been said by people much smarter than I, if we are not focused on doing what is right, we will only focus on what is wrong. 

There are still some who refuse to turn their backs on the witness of the Church, working their fingers to the bone, giving all they can; and still, just as Jesus encountered the lepers in Samaria in which ten were healed of that dreaded disease, there may be only one who will bother to say ‘thank you’ for what is offered faithfully.  Yet, like our Lord, we must persevere in faith because we (hopefully) can better appreciate what is coming much more than we hate what is happening.

We are – or should be – a people of great hope, no matter how dark the clouds may seem; the very hope Paul was certainly speaking into when he wrote, “[I am] chained like a criminal, but the Word of God is not chained” (2 Tim 2:9).  Paul knew he could not change his circumstances, but he also knew he could control the way he thinks and lives – not to engage in the current circumstance which would likely evoke feelings of hatefulness and resentment, even fear (look at us now!).  Rather, Paul was fully engaged in the hope that should regulate the life of the faithful – all for the sake of the Word of The Lord.  Nothing less.

Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles carries a great deal of meaning not only for those who have lost everything but also for those who live in fear of losing what little they may think they have.  ‘Go on about My business’, says The Lord.  “Build houses … plant gardens”.  Don’t engage in the culture, but live right where you are.  Don’t think about where you were, don’t lament where you are – and for Heaven’s sake, do not dread tomorrow!!  And do it all as faithful witnesses to a much Greater Truth.

What stands out in Jeremiah’s letter, however, is not the tone that seems to require that The Lord’s people settle for anything.  Instead, consider what Jeremiah’s words mean to the people of Judah as The Lord encouraged them to “take wives and make babies” … “take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage” … “multiply” right where you are

At first glance it may appear as though Jeremiah is encouraging Judah to mix and mingle in that Babylonian culture.  Marry a local girl or boy.  Get along with the world you’re stuck with, and learn to go with the cultural flow.  However, it has often been said that the only fish that go with the flow are the dead ones.  Going with the flow is not at all what Jeremiah is encouraging The Lord’s people to do! 

Even as they appear to be defeated, as things are not going the way they would like for them to go, as NO ONE is getting his or her own way, The Lord’s people are being called into something much greater than what is right in front of them.  But what they faced in Babylon is what they also faced in the wilderness as a test, just as we are being tested today.  It is as Moses encouraged the people of Israel to never forget that 40-year trek in the wilderness: “The Lord led you … to test you in order to know what is in your hearts, whether or not you would keep His commands” (Deuteronomy 8:2).  Not just what we may be feeling in our hearts, but how we express outwardly what is in our hearts.

As a matter of being tested, how are we doing?  Are we working and living diligently according to this culture’s standards?  Or are we learning more about living and growing in community with one another according to The Lord’s Covenant?  Are we “multiplying”?  Or are we diminishing? 

We all know the sad answer, of course, but we must also take stock of what else is being diminished along with our numbers … our witness.  Somewhere along the line, theology and faith became only about “me and Jesus”.  Along with this narrow viewpoint came a “clubhouse” mentality that has hijacked the Church’s witness and turned it into preferential choice.  Much like our politics, the dominant question is ‘what’s in it for ME’? 

And all the while we are picking and choosing as we are pleased individually, we are fighting amongst ourselves over personal preferences rather than focusing on the one and only reason for which we of the Church are even called to exist: The Gospel.  This, and only this, is what the Church is about.  Living the Gospel, being the Gospel, and sharing the Gospel.  But if we are defensive and think we must protect what we only think is ours, we will never move ahead.

I cannot help but to think about last night’s Razorback game.  Alabama is #1 in the nation and for good reason; they are a formidable force to be reckoned with.  It did not take long for them to dominate the game; and as a result, the Razorbacks were constantly on the defensive even when the offense was on the field.  There were some bright spots, but our quarterback had a very hard time getting anything going because he was being almost constantly overwhelmed.

I am no coach nor can I critique a team or a game, but I see the team much like the Church as the Body of Christ functioning as St. Paul encouraged the Church to function as one - “yet with many members”.  The quarterback could not do what he is very capable of doing because the other members of the body were not functioning as they should.  They were being constantly pushed back.

Thinking about how we often feel swimming against the “tide” of the dominant culture (no pun intended), we may sometimes feel like we are being overwhelmed.  For every single step we seem to gain going forward, we get pushed back two.  The culture is gaining ground offensively because the Church is constantly put on the defensive. 

But we must endure as The Body because of the Promise that is before The Body.  We may end up bruised and bloodied by the time it’s all said and done, but we are assured that “if we endure, we will also reign with Christ.”  We will not overcome this culture, and what we only think we are fighting to gain is not ours to gain because we are “co-heirs” with Christ Jesus to something much greater than we will ever see in this life.

We are the people of The Covenant – now and later.  And if we live and work together faithfully and endure to the bitter end, we will hear our Lord call out to us, “Get up and go your way.  Your faith has made you well.”

Glory to You, O Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Taking? Or Receiving?

Lamentations 1:1-6
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

“Guard the Good Treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”  2 Timothy 1:1-14

“Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way.  I can't wait to look in the mirror ‘cause I get better lookin' each day … Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble, but I'm doin' the best I can!”  Mac Davis, 1997

Sometimes it is hard to be humble when things are going our way, but just when we think we’re riding pretty high, someone – or some THING – lets the air out of our balloon.  If we’re lucky, a slow leak will allow us to drift gently back to earth.  There are more often times, however, when the balloon pops and we crash hard when we get a little too full of ourselves.

There may be no more humbling statement in the Bible than Paul’s words to Timothy: “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to His purpose and grace” (2 Tim 1:8b-9). 

“Not according to our works”.  So we should bear in mind that, even though we have each been endowed and entrusted with certain spiritual gifts unique to each individual, none among these gifts is “personal awesomeness” – and certainly not “personal favor”!  Consistently, we are reminded throughout the Scriptures that it is The Lord alone who is truly “awesome”.  Our works, the very ordering of our lives, are merely responses to the awesome deed that atoned for the sins of the entire human race without our having to ask.

Being so completely and unreservedly loved, then, sometimes it may be hard to be humble; yet “humility” is a spiritual strength, a discipline, and a mark of spiritual maturity that may be among the most misunderstood (and perhaps least desired) of the virtues, much in the same way we confuse “meekness” with “weakness”.  Humility not only keeps us sufficiently in our proper place but also is the virtue which reminds us how and where to appropriate our trust, our faith; not in ourselves or our accomplishments, but in The Lord alone.

Humility as a virtue, then, is defined as a “firm attitude, a stable disposition, the habitual perfection of intellect and will” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1804).  Both are necessary responses as spiritual disciplines when we fully embrace our Lord and His teachings and as we commit ourselves not to our own understandings or our desired interpretations of scriptural precepts - but striving as though there is always more to know … because there is.  No one among us knows “just enough”.  As it is written in the Proverbs (3:5-6); “Trust in The Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways, submit to The Lord, and He will make your paths straight”. 

Jeremiah’s Lamentations is a profound prayer of acknowledgment and confession after intense soul-searching of what Judah once was by the Hand of The Lord, and what Judah had become by their own hands in surrendering their faith in The Lord in favor of trust in their own desires and confidence in their own demands.  Oh, I’m sure they still “believed” there is a God; but they were so busy loving themselves and neglecting one another that they completely forgot how to love The Lord and their neighbors. 

Jesus’ admonishment, according to Luke, is also a bitter pill to swallow.  Yet Jesus takes the time to remind His followers that “doing good” (the 2nd General Rule of United Methodism) is not something for which we should ever seek recognition or even acknowledgment from others.  Rather, we do “only what we ought to have done”.  That is, what should have been done in the first place should never have been neglected nor should it be assumed that “someone else” will take care of those things which demand the attention of the Church.

The broader context of Luke’s Gospel necessarily includes the apostles’ request for an increase in faith.  Such a prayer might seem worthy of recognition and a Divine Pat-On-The-Back for such loyal servants of The Lord seeking to be even more loyal.  Yet with one broad stroke, Jesus teaches us humility. He gut-punches us by reminding us that we are mere servants, “slaves”, “bond servants” as St. Paul often refers to himself – to The Lord AND to one another. 

If genuine humility is lacking in us, what is also lacking is the kind of faith which justifies and sanctifies.  Lacking any real sense of humility, we can actually convince ourselves that we are due something, that if we are not happy or even just satisfied, someone owes us what we think we have been cheated out of. 

Faith cannot function well within such a state of mind and heart and being.  We are owed nothing.  We are entitled to nothing, and we are not due any extra wages for obedience, for doing what we should have been doing all along; for what we demand for ourselves in the here-and-now and try to “take”, our Lord says, “You have received your reward already” (Matthew 6:1-21).

So then it becomes a matter of whether we believe we can “take” what we want when we want it, or if we possess the patience and humility to “receive” what is offered to us when it is offered to us – not according to what we think we are entitled to, but what The Lord Himself decides He wants us to have – and this according to our genuine need rather than according to what we desire.  For it is also written, “What is prized among humans is an abomination in the sight of The Lord” (Luke 16:15b). 

It is Jesus’ statement and parable in Luke 16 that leads us to Luke 17.  Recall that Jesus says, “Since [the time of John the Baptizer], the good news of the Kingdom is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter by force” (16:16).  And then Jesus tells the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus.  The rich man died after having received all the good things this life, this world can offer; yet because he somehow believed he was entitled to these riches for himself, he stepped over and completely neglected poor Lazarus who lay at his gate “covered with sores” (16:20).

We know how the story ends.  The rich man is tormented in Hades while Lazarus rests in the “bosom of Abraham”.  All this is in accordance with the Law of Moses and the prophets, just as Abraham had chastised the rich man (16:31).  Though Lazarus was in dire need, he did not receive by begging nor did he try to take in this life all he had hoped for (just morsels!).  Yet when he received what was finally offered, as opposed to the rich man who took all he could gain for himself with no thought of what he should have been doing – according to the Law of Moses - Lazarus’ hand was full.  It was the rich man who finally came up empty after having been so full for so long.

The assurances of the Kingdom cannot be “taken”.  In humility (no thought of self-worth or self-entitlement) and abiding in sufficient faith, the Kingdom will be “received” in due course and according to the will of The Lord – and no other.  Humility fully trusts this to be true.

The assurance we have is what is offered only to those who “wait for The Lord” (Psalm 27:14) with patience, with humility, with strength of heart and mind … with faith.  And the assurance offered to those faithful to The Lord in the fullness of humility?  “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

There can be no greater gift offered to any of us than that of a heart hungry for our Holy Father and His Eternal Word … for His purposes and not for our own personal gain.  The state of this nation – and the state of the Church today – are clear indications that we have so set our own hearts on what we want and when we want it that we are inclined to “take” more than we are open and patient in our humility to “receive”.

Let this time of celebration, then, be a time in which we learn – together - to wait patiently for The Lord; for whatever it is He chooses to entrust to this particular congregation must be “received” not only as a blessing … but as a calling, a purpose beyond ourselves.  St. Peter and St. Paul both agree that “The Lord shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11) but “welcomes all who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:35).  That is, doing “what we should have been doing all along”.

This IS the Gospel of The Lord, and is the work of Christ in the world today.


Monday, September 26, 2016

Growth Spurt

Ephesians 4:10-16
Romans 8:18-27
Mark 12:28-34

“The gifts He gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the Body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12).

We may get a better sense of what Confirmation means in the United Methodist Church if we consider the analogy of the Exodus.  As the Journey began with babies being carried, along the way these babies became toddlers and then youth.  Soon they were encouraged to join the Journey on their own as they were able.  Their parents no longer needed to carry them the whole way; they were strong enough to begin walking and exploring that same Journey on their own – BUT still with parental guidance and the care and watchful eye of the entire community.

The mark of the Covenant with The Lord for the Hebrews was/is circumcision, and this was done to baby boys at the age of eight days – long before the boys could make their own determination.  The decision to bring their children into the Covenant and offer them to The Lord was solely that of the parents with the encouragement of the community

As with our practice of infant baptism, the vows were made by the parents and the community to work together to bring the children up in the Covenant, learn of The Covenant, and grow in faith – all within the community, the congregation of The Lord. 

Yet though they are considered “members”, they do not know everything they need to know nor can it be said their faith is really their own.  So this important moment for them simply means they begin to take some responsibility for themselves and begin making their own contributions to the building up and the well-being of the entire community.

So it is with Confirmation in the United Methodist Church.  These confirmands have done a lot of serious study, work, and preparation for what is a very big moment in their lives and in the life of the Church.  Yet as much as they have been taught, I hope they have also affirmed – on their own, with parental guidance and the advice of their teachers and pastor - that there is still much to do.  With the help of all these AND the congregation, I hope they are committed to a lifetime of learning in discipleship.  Religious studies are at least as important as secular education.

Study is still required because, like the Jews of the Exodus, we all still have a long way to go.  In this Journey of Faith, we grow stronger as individuals but within the community of faith.  In the United Methodist Church, there is no such thing as “private” faith.  We may not always agree with or even understand everything the Church holds and teaches as doctrine, but this only means we must look closer and try harder.  We must also appreciate that even the most mature Christian knows he or she does not fully understand everything the Church teaches.  The true measure of spiritual maturity is not in deciding we know “enough” to get by; rather it is to understand that as each layer is peeled back, there is always more.

There is also something young confirmands need to know before becoming Professing Members.  You will make your own vows as disciples committed to the way of Christ as members of the world-wide United Methodist Church and members of this United Methodist congregation.  This means you have some say in the life of this church.  It also means this congregation has some say in the way you order your life in discipleship.  You not only have an entire community united in the very same Covenant pulling for you, praying for you, and worrying about you; you also have a community of faith willing to jerk a knot in your young tails to put you back on the path of Righteousness!!  That is true love!

So we must not understand Confirmation as the “end” but, rather, as yet another “means of grace” leading us to the Glorious End of the Journey toward the Eternal Kingdom.  As it must be with us all, reaching the point of Confirmation is a big step in discipleship.  From this moment, then, there is even more to do as confirmands begin to explore and understand their strengths and their weaknesses; this to the purpose of discovering what The Lord has gifted each individual to do and strive to become.  It is not at all about what we choose to “settle” for.

We are not all gifted to be preachers or even teachers, but we all have some spiritual gift intended, as St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, for the “building up of the Body of Christ”; that is, the Church.  Our spiritual gifts have little to do with what we can gain for ourselves in this life, but everything to do with enhancing the life of the Christian Covenant community.  Our individual gifts are meant to help others to get in touch with their own spiritual gifts as we continue to grow together in knowledge, in wisdom, in faith, and in love.

In the early days of the Methodist movement, anyone willing to repent of their sins was welcome to join.  To stay in the society, however, there were/are the General Rules which regulate and inform the individual members and the group.  As a matter of accountability, one was committed to a) Do no harm, b) do good, and c) attend to the ordinances of God.

Each Rule is important and has its place within a community, but no single Rule can stand on its own.  It is not enough, for instance, for a Christian to commit to only refraining from doing harm to someone; one must also be willing and committed to do good for the community, even for an enemy.  To build into any of these Rules, then, is the need, the absolute necessity to “attend to the ordinances of God”. 

These ordinances are the means of grace established by Scripture to teach us the Way of The Lord, the Law of The Lord, and how we are to live with and for one another.  These ordinances also build up our spiritual strength as we are in “constant communion” with The Lord and with one another by regularly participating in the Sacraments of the Church, instilling the discipline to pray alone and with the community, fasting, worship, and studying the Scriptures. 

It was understood and established from the very start that one cannot simply “be” a Christian without actually doing Christian stuff with and within the community.  I’m not sure where along the line we got the idea that Christianity is nothing more than a series of events rather than a life committed to Christ and His people, but these young men deserve better and it is long past time that we break away from this self-contained bubble of “personal salvation” and start acting like the community we are called to be.

These boys are well on their way to manhood and their teachers have given them a good start toward what it means to be a United Methodist disciple of Christ Jesus, but it takes the entire Christian community to teach these boys what being a “man of God” really means – and it means much more than being only a self-designated “good person”.  By The Lord’s own reckoning and according to the vows we will take as a community, we can do no less than to give these young disciples our very best; for the future of the Church – and our immortal souls - depend on it.

“You shall love The Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength”; and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.  More than simply biblical phrases to be memorized, this is the life The Lord our God demands of His people; for “loving” The Lord and our neighbors is much more than a state of mind.  It is a state of “being” and “doing”.  Jesus affirmed it, and the Holy Spirit compels it still.  Let us resolve to teach one another what these “great commandments” really mean.  By this commitment will we find Life renewed within ourselves and within the Holy Church.  By the Grace of Almighty God, we will.  Or we will die trying!  Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Pure Religion

Isaiah 1:1-10
James 1:17-27
Mark 2:23-28

“I will praise The Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long!”  Psalm 146:2

This past week at school – “preacher” school, I might add, for the point I hope to make - was wholly devoted to the study of Methodist history.  I have to say, though, I came away with much more than an immersion in church history.  For all the secondary issues we discussed, secondary issues which led the Church from one point to the next, secondary issues that constantly threatened the unity of the Church and led to more than one split, there was – and still is, I think – one primary issue ignored then and now.  And the reason we continue to struggle with so many secondary issues is that we are distracted from this primary issue that gives the people of the Covenant their true identity - and gives religion itself substance and meaning.

That issue the Church has taken for granted for so long – and struggles with still today – is Sabbath.  And we must not think it “no big deal” or only an “Old Testament” concept.  The Lord spoke to Judah while they were in captivity: “I gave [My people] My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (Ezekiel 20:12).

What makes this essential component of religion so important, so integral to the total life of the Church – the whole Church, not only Methodism – is the life-giving, life-sustaining, life-nurturing substance this profound means of grace offers not only to The Lord’s people but to all who would draw near to know!

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is most often cited in the Methodist doctrine of sanctification as the way of “going on to perfection”.  Recall the author writes, “Let us go on to perfection, leaving behind the basic teachings about Christ” (Hebrews 6:1); but the text goes on to say, regarding the dangers of not progressing in practice, in faith, and in love, “It is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, have tasted the heavenly gift, have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away since, on their own, they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding Him up to public shame” (1:4-6 CEB). 

All this is done when we fail to observe fully this Practice of Sabbath, this wondrous Gift from Above.

I cannot say I’ve had much use for polls and surveys since those numbers can often be suspect.  Yet “surveys and other polls are a bit like running a series of tests during an annual physical. The scale, stethoscope, and blood tests don’t lie. There is no positive spin on your increased weight, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol (speaking of a church that has become largely sedentary).  Pew’s 2007 Religious Landscape study … found that about 16% of Americans claimed no religious affiliation.  By 2015, that number had grown to 23%, almost one in four Americans.”  Ed Stetzer, “The State of the Church in America”

Why?  In such a short period, a significant number of Americans who have pushed religion aside – and maybe more to the point, “organized religion” – has grown substantially.  This trend should disturb all Christians who have genuinely shared in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the goodness of the Word of God”. 

Because it is no longer about “personal salvation”; not once we have “tasted” all that is good.  I question whether it ever was if “personal” comes to be translated as “exclusive”.  The “goodness” we taste in the Word and in the Spirit has everything to do with those who are not yet – or not quite – connected to The Body.

Sadly, this increasing number of those disconnected (probably including many seated in the pews today) seems to be only a small, annoying blip on the Church’s radar screen that the preacher brings up every now and then.  And when I say “church”, I mean the congregation, the community of the faithful, the ecclesia which claims to have once “tasted” all that is good in, and gives real substance to, religion.

This is not entirely about who does and who does not attend corporate worship, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the value or the worth of the preacher or the priest or the rabbi.  This is entirely about all who refuse to have any part in the Church altogether, and why they want no part of being the Church even if they attend worship once in a while.

Think for a moment about the Church as we know it.  What distinguishes the people of YHWH from the rest of society?  What is so unique about the Church that anyone would care to be a part of it in a way that will transform their lives, the lives of their families, and restore their marriages and strengthen their homes? 

Sadly, what predominantly defines the Church today is not a new phenomenon.  Civil religion – attaching Church to State (politics) - has been a component of the Church for a very long time, centuries in fact, and has wrought nothing but trouble and division.  It has been difficult for the Church to separate itself from the very government which, more often than not, regulates its practices not by the force of law but by the political beliefs and practices of its people.  There is no covenantal “sign” distinguishing the people of The Lord from everyone else.

When I was at school, we were going at it from 8:30am to 8:30pm (with breaks for meals, of course).  After that was more studying, more reading, more reviewing.  My classmates and I often stayed up beyond 11pm, and then rose early the next day for more study and prep time before class. 

It isn’t the hard work that got my attention, though.  It was the very fact that even Sunday, the Day of The Lord, was as intense as the day before and the day after.  We began at the usual time, but we then got a break long enough to go to church and have lunch.  The usual day resumed early in the afternoon.

We had plenty of prayer time and worship with one another, but there was no real Sabbath engagement.  You get that?  A bunch of preachers who should be preaching Sabbath were not practicing Sabbath!  Worship attendance was only a break in an otherwise rigid routine. 

On the way home, I began to think about how our own Sunday routines often go; and though our schedules may not be so rigid as a structured class, we have no fewer things to do.  The Day itself is not devoted to worship and prayer and Sacraments and study of the Scriptures.  Worship itself may not even be considered a time of devotion for many, but rather an interruption in what would more likely be just another day.  And we cannot live on that.

Sabbath involves much more than mere worship attendance.  Sabbath is a gift from the God who recognizes and even appreciates the busy-ness of life and what it takes to make a living and try to keep our heads above water.  After six hard days of making and creating and moving and maintaining, our God knows better than anyone how badly we need a break from that busy-ness. 

Make no mistake, however.  Sabbath is much more than a break from the work.  In the midst of that work, we must consider how easily we can become disconnected from our Holy Father AND from one another through the course of the work week.  This Gift, then, comes to us as much more than a break from our work; it comes to us as the primary means of reconnecting to the One who gives meaning to our work, however routine or mundane our work may often seem to be. 

The fullness of this reconnection gives meaning to our prayers and our gifts and tithes when we gather together as the Body of Christ.  Praying, on the fly while driving or otherwise engaged, may keep us mindful of The Lord’s presence in our daily business, but it is the focus of worship and Sabbath to reconnect us to that Presence in a meaningful way. 

More than merely being reminded of His Presence, Sabbath practice is intended to draw us to reconnect to that Presence rather than giving our Lord only a nod or honorable mention.  Instead of only being aware of His Presence, we are invited to engage in His Presence without distraction before AND after worship.  And as St. James points out, the fullness of that connection in our religion necessarily involves others.  There is no such thing as “private” religion within The Covenant of The One True and Living God.

As far as we are to be concerned, the busy-ness of the world is not going away.  But glory to His Good Name, neither is our God and His remarkable Gift.  Sabbath practice, then, is given to offer us rest from the past week and to prepare us for the week to come. 

It is our Father’s assurance that He goes before us always.  It is left to us as a Body to follow Him to the blessedness of His Glory because that is where He is taking us.  We must not merely admire the beautiful gift wrapping and fancy bow; we must RE-learn to open this Gift each and every week and receive it as it is offered: as a Gift of Love, a Gift of Grace, the Gift of Life itself.  Life in the Father, Grace in The Son, Love in the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Thought for 15 September 2016

In her book, One Faithful Promise: the Wesleyan Covenant for Renewal, Magrey R. deVega wrote; “The sum effect of composing your spirit is that you realize you are of equal standing with everyone else in the human community, and we are all connected to each other”.

She was responding to John Wesley’s thoughts in speaking to an over-inflation of our own individual worth: “As Christ will never be accepted, so can the sinner never be received by Christ until the sinner lets go of all other props …”, those “props” being the components of our inflated sense of worth in comparing ourselves to others.

What this means is simply this; we have no standing apart from the value we assign to others.  That is, if we think too highly of ourselves in comparison to others (i.e., “at least I’m not gay”, “at least I don’t cheat on my spouse”, etc.), we subject ourselves to a form of spiritual deception even we soon come to believe to the detriment of our souls and to the community of the Church.  St. Paul wrote, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” (Romans 12:3, NIV).

It is one thing to finally come to know of the saving grace of our Lord; it is another thing altogether to convince ourselves that our Lord so loves an individual that He has no regard for another.  We know (but probably choose not to believe) that “their” sins are no worse than our own.  If we can truly get next to that, it is no telling what the Church community can come to look like, no telling who may choose to become a part of that community, and certainly no telling what The Lord can do for them AND for us!

We are the witnesses to the Truth revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and the plain Truth is The Lord does not love “us” more than He loves “them”.  Wesley would have said to those with an inflated sense of worth, “Get over yourself; you ain’t all that!”

Celebrate the reality of your worth in the eyes of our God and Father!  Celebrate the reality that our sins were once so deep, so scarring, so debilitating that He chose to put Himself on the line for us … for all of us.  This is the essence of our embrace of “universal atonement”: Christ died for all, not a few!  So know this: in His eyes, you really are “all that” … and so is your “neighbor” … and the “alien” … and the “stranger” … and your “enemy” … and …

The Lord is great, is He not?