Sunday, September 06, 2009

Mercy: the Divine Judgment

James 2:1-17
Mark 7:24-30

I love gangster movies, but my wife does not understand my fascination with them. Truth be told, I’m not even sure why I’m so fascinated. I can probably quote all three “Godfather” movies verbatim and I always cheer for Michael Corleone, reasoning that even though Michael Corleone is a “bad guy” himself, the other gangsters who bought the farm by his order were worse and had it coming anyway. It’s what happens when we choose to dance with the devil. Besides, it’s probably illegal in some states to root against Al Pacino.

Gangsters have been around for a very long time in some form or fashion and gained extensive notoriety in America during the days of Prohibition; some were actually hailed as folk heroes. I’m not sure why anyone would have looked up to these guys who were little more than cold-blooded murderers except that it is said there were acts of charity performed by some of these very dangerous criminals during the days of the Great Depression. For instance, it is said that the “soup kitchen” idea was initiated by none other than Al Capone, ol’ Scarface himself. Why he did it is probably not nearly as important as the reality that many who might otherwise have gone hungry got three hot meals a day.

And think of the perceived romanticism of the era in such names as “Pretty Boy Floyd”, “Baby Face Nelson” and, of course, “Public Enemy #1” John Dillinger. There was the bootleg liquor, gambling, and prostitution that flourished in gangland, but for the most part these guys were bank robbers. They stole from banks, the very banks that put many out of their homes and businesses and jobs. So it may have been a “Robin Hood” mentality that led some to regard these gangsters so highly. But even as some poor and often desperate folks would accept these handouts, they would never have even thought about actually joining forces with them. And as dangerous as crime continues to be in this country, it is still often said that most folks, while not always safe from crime, are relatively safe from gangsters … until they become one of them. Then one is said to be, from that moment, “fair game”.

We don’t have to join the Mafia or become a gang-banger to do evil deeds. Joining forces with evil can happen in the most innocuous ways, subtle ways often disguised as “good intentions” or what we may brush off as “natural”, if inappropriate, reactions though these reactions be clearly contrary to Holy Scripture. And we become involved in such ways as when we “react” emotionally rather than “evaluate” spiritually, as I suggested last week. And once we make our choices with these less-than-holy endeavors, we become “fair game” to the forces of evil even if we don’t mean to be evil.

Earlier this week I came across Romans 1 as I was looking for something else and was drawn aside by verse 28: “Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting”, after which is the dreaded list that mentions evil in just about every form humanity can possibly conceive of. Sexual immorality is included, of course, but this list is not strictly limited only to this particular category, even as often as we conveniently skip over other such accusations as “covetousness”, “maliciousness”, “strife”, and “unforgiving”. It is hard to remember that Paul is not speaking exclusively of sexual immorality when he speaks of a “debased mind” that finally surrenders itself to one’s seemingly “natural” inclinations - certainly personal desires and wishes, those “lusts” that draw us away from the Lord.

"Unforgiving”. This is the big one, yes? For if we are not forgiven, what is left for us? Jesus says if we do not forgive, we are not forgiven; that mercy comes only to those who show mercy. So as often and as intently as we hold a grudge against someone, anyone – for any reason – there is biblical assurance of a Divine Grudge that is being held against us. It is, quite literally, the difference between life and death.

I have often warned against taking Bible passages out of their proper context, but often we tend to lock a passage into a very restricted and confining context and fail to think more broadly, such as is so often done with Romans 1:28. Consider also James 2:6: “You have dishonored the poor.” James seems stuck on “poor” strictly in financial terms, but Jesus uses the term “poor” on a much broader scale: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” So even if James is using “poor” in its most common and practical application as those who lack the necessities of life, Jesus reminds us that there are many more “poor” than we can practically imagine.

It is not enough to recognize or merely acknowledge our short-comings, particularly when we realize that our behavior, our actions, our words, and our deeds can be indicative of a “debased” mind that has been given over to itself – as when our consciences no longer bother us - especially when we try to justify our behavior, our actions, our words, and our deeds – even when we have a Bible right in front of us and can clearly see and hear Scripture speaking to us. I have heard far too many people acknowledge the shortcoming, and then slough it off by simply saying, “God forgives me” without actually asking for forgiveness and showing an intent and an effort and a desire to repent. If there lacks an effort to overcome these things, then what exactly can we say about salvation? That we can treat “the least of these” like the devil but call ourselves “saved’?

The most difficult thing to overcome is a natural inclination – whether it is a trait we are born with or an attribute we develop as we mature, it requires our attention especially if we mean to strive toward “spiritual perfection” in our state of sanctification, that spiritual journey that can be mindful of only one thing: seeing ALL through the eyes of the Lord and understanding that we are – in this life and in the life to come – witnesses to goodness and mercy, and not judges.

There are a couple of ways we can consider Jesus’ seeming refusal to grant this woman’s request for mercy for her daughter. One is to simply acknowledge that Jesus’ mission and ministry was directed toward the “Jews first” as Scripture seems to suggest.


We can recognize what is really taking place. A Gentile – a non-Jew considered “unclean” – is begging for mercy, is actively pursuing Christ and eager to accept what little He may be willing to offer, even “table scraps”. This woman did not just ask for Jesus’ mercy and then walk away when He initially refused. She kept after Him; she refused to walk away. At this moment in Mark’s story, this woman’s life is no longer her own. She is giving her entire being to the Lord not for what she can gain for herself but for what she can gain for someone else, even her own child.

But I also see something else. I see the difference between those who expect Messiah to come to them – and those who are willing to pursue Messiah; those who expect a Covenant to be delivered to them, and those who will pursue The Covenant. It marks a difference between those who take but never give, those who expect without asking, those who demand without seeking, those who walk through the door without knocking. There is a term for such a state of mind: CHEAP GRACE.

This does not mean, however, that we are to merely walk away without hope of redemption because it cannot be said that the Lord gives up on us so easily. In fact, Paul’s admonition to the Romans makes it clear that the Lord does not choose but, rather, respects the choices we make for ourselves. It makes perfect sense that - if there is a God at all and He deems it good and necessary to put Himself in our place, to humble Himself to share in our humanity for the sole purpose of offering to us His divinity – He is not so easily swayed to turn His back on us especially if we refuse to simply surrender to our flesh but choose instead to fight back against our nature inclinations.

The Divine Judgment comes to us as we are actively engaged in the process of sanctification. That is to say, the Lord is not going to magically transform our state of mind nor is He going to interfere with the free will with which we are blessed. Indeed, there can be no “love” relationship between God and man if man lacks the will to love Him back. But man must also acknowledge that this love relationship began long before we came into being. And in Holy Communion, it is this very Love we commemorate together.

We have indeed been judged. And the Lord God chose Life … for you and for me. Blessed be His Holy Name – now and forever.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

What say you, Mr. President?

President Obama wishes to address the nation’s school children on Tuesday, and the outcry has already begun. “Indoctrination” is the accusation of the day since teachers across the country are going to be challenged with lesson plans on how to make the most of the opportunity for the students.

Am I missing something? I am not an Obama supporter and am not happy with the way things are transpiring with the economy, the health care debate, the lack of attention to Social Security, etc. Name it, and I’m pretty much not happy with it. But accusing any term-limited president of attempting to “indoctrinate” school-age kids by challenging them to “work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning", as stated by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, hardly sounds like an attempt at “indoctrination”.

I’ve said before and many times since that trust is a major issue among the electorate right now, and it really doesn’t matter whether we are talking about this president, that speaker, or some congressman. The Congress as a whole cannot seem to rise above its well-earned 30% approval rating, and this president’s approval numbers seem to be in steady decline, according to Rasmussen and others. So it may well be that anyone, particularly political adversaries, would view such a far-reaching event as suspect, given the intended audience.

The Department of Education is also offering suggested “classroom activities” to coincide with the president’s address, presumably to get the kids to more fully engage in what might otherwise be pretty much of a boring lecture. I just finished my first day as a substitute teacher in a local high school, and I can say from that one day that these kids may or may not choose to pay attention. It is questionable whether they will even be willing to actively listen. As a parent, I can also honestly say that young children do not tend to listen well especially if they are being called on to do more than they might be willing to do.

Still, it is an important endeavor and it could be spun in a positive enough way that young people understand that they are not merely “incidental” to life in this country, that what they do matters not only in the present but also very much in the future. I recall listening to some very silly people who suggested that their personal problems would suddenly disappear under an Obama administration. With these few, a message of “personal responsibility” has not gone over well and could partly account for Mr. Obama’s sliding approval rating.

I think we can think of many other things to complain and be concerned about, but the president addressing the nation’s school children is not one of them.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Little Ones

Mark 7:1-23

If you have ever worked with computers or have had a bad experience with a utility or credit company that uses computers, you know the adage, “Garbage in, garbage out”. That is, if you put bad information into the computer, it will stay there no matter how well you do the job, no matter if the stars are all properly aligned; the computer will only be able to do what it was originally told to do with what it has. It will not correct itself sooner or later nor will it adjust any new information that comes after the first bad batch. It will still function as if the bad information is as valid as any subsequent, “good” information. The only way such a thing can be corrected is if the bad information is replaced by new and more accurate information.

According to Mark (7:15), Jesus said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile”, but according to Matthew (18:6-7), Jesus also said: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Both statements refer to outside influences, external forces at work in our lives both of which impart good and bad information. However, one statement seems clear that regardless of the source of input, we as individuals are still responsible for how we process that external information and what we choose to do with that information. The other statement still refers to external forces but holds these forces responsible for “causing” the other to sin, perhaps the operative term and distinction in the latter statement being “the little ones who believe in Me”.

There can be no doubt that Jesus is referring to biological children, of course, but His statement can also be extended to include those who are “little” (ie, “new”), or weak, in the faith; that is, newly converted Christians as well as those who could be vulnerable under trying circumstances such as a recent death of a loved one, divorce, loss of job, or any other traumatic and life-changing event; or those who have been mistreated by Christians in the past, regardless of their biological age. The Lord makes it very clear not only in these passages but also throughout scripture that those who do harm to His people in any way will answer to Him sooner or later. It’s not about karma or that old “what goes around comes around” mantra. It will not be “fate” or cosmic forces that bite evil-doers in the rear-end. The wrath will be just, it will be fierce, it will be intentional, and it will come directly from the Lord Himself. There is nothing ambiguous about this, nothing uncertain. “Vengeance is Mine”, says the Lord.

These statements are also a spiritual wake-up call to those who might try to dismiss certain personal behaviors and attributes by suggesting that “the devil made me do it” because Jesus is not talking to the evil one; He’s not even talking ABOUT the evil one. He is talking to regular people, religious people, pious people and not-so-pious people but people, all with minds and wills of their own. And while Jesus’ words sound ominous, they should be a source of great comfort to those who will be and have been victimized by gossips and slanderers, cheaters and predators. The major problem with any of this is that those who are hurting or have been hurt in some way need to see those responsible for their pain suffer in some real and tangible way. This answers why our judicial system in this country is so overrun with civil lawsuits. While the “little ones” watch from near and far.

We don’t trust justice; not really. In fact, it would be difficult to prove that we really believe in “true justice”. We mean to come out on top in a legal situation. But if we have truly been harmed, it is unfortunate that we sometimes have to go to law to force another to do the right thing. Even then, however, we put more faith in the fallible, man-made system. We are also stating to the Lord on some level – and more notably, to the ‘little ones’ who may be watching and learning - that the Lord need not bother with vengeance “later”; we’ll see to it now – and on our own terms. And the “little ones” are always watching.

But this is not about going before a judge to settle a matter rather than taking the law into one’s own hands. Rather, it is about the daily occurrences in our lives, things we all but take for granted as simply “the way it is”. So many of us subject ourselves to the contemporary mantra that “things are what they are”, and to a certain extent it is true enough. However, we tend to react to what “is” according to secular standards rather than evaluate according to biblical ones. That is, we use our experiences and our knowledge and even our education to deal with things as they come up, but we rarely evaluate “what is” according to what we’ve learned from Bible study and prayer. It is such behavior that marks the difference between a genuine disciple and those who are merely Christian by affiliation with a church or by name only. And the “little ones” are always watching.

In this contemporary and decidedly secular culture, Christians are probably THE MOST WATCHED group of people. Some look to us for hope or as an example of what faith can actually do, but far too many others watch and wait in joyful anticipation of the moment when our human nature will come pouring through the cracks, those moments when we simply show what we really are. And sad to say, we reveal ourselves all too often when we allow our emotions to run away with us and ultimately betray not who we really are but, rather, who we should be. And the “little ones” are always watching.

John Wesley often encouraged the early Methodists to be very slow to speak and not waste words. Being slow to speak does not necessarily mean we have nothing constructive to say or that we cannot keep up with what’s going on, but we should evaluate rather than react to any given situation according to what Christ calls us to do, to be, and to say. And if we feel no spiritual compulsion to speak, it is best to remain silent lest our humanity betray our faith. And “wasting words” was simply an admonishment to speak only when it is profitable to the glory of the Lord and not for our own recognition, mindful that the “little ones” are watching.

Jesus seems clear that what we say says a lot about who and what we are, but I also think the WAY we choose to express ourselves in any given situation also probably reveals more than mere words would. And not only are we defined in such a way, we are also defiled – if we are defiled at all. We often reveal an uglier side of ourselves when we speak without thinking – and it is made worse by public knowledge that we are Christians and are presumed to be acting as Christians on behalf of Christ Himself. And the “little ones” learn by watching, just as biological children do. If a Christian drinks to excess, hangs out a casinos, sleeps off a hangover on Sunday morning, or curses and gossips and even slanders another, so will the “little ones”. It’s what they see, it’s how they learn.

I remember years ago Charles Barkley, the former professional basketball player, absolutely rejected the notion that he was a role model on any level. He maintained that people are responsible for themselves and that he should not be to blame for the behavior of others, even children. To a degree, he’s right, of course, but he was only kidding himself by refusing the inherent influence that comes from being a celebrity. He may not have asked for it, but he got it anyway, along with fame and fortune. And the “little ones” were watching.

Being an adult alone comes with certain duties and responsibilities, but being a disciple of Christ – a witness to The Truth – comes with it not only these duties and responsibilities but also – and more importantly – opportunities to use these duties and responsibilities to reveal to the “little ones” the glory and majesty of the Lord. And we do this, as James reveals, by weaving the Word into the very fabric of our essence, our total being. And this is done as we move far beyond simply “hearing” the Word and taking it unto ourselves only for our own benefit as we declare our own salvation and never mind our ultimate duty and responsibility to others, never minding the very real and very inescapable fact that we are placed in charge of the “little ones”.

The Word was “made flesh” in Christ, but the Word is given hands and feet and LIGHT through faithful discipleship. We don’t have to agree with this awesome responsibility – in fact, we can actually reject it outright, but we cannot deny the Reality that we cannot have justification without sanctification. That is to say, it is careless and dangerous to suggest we can have the Destination without enduring the Journey.

The Word of the Lord is not only life-changing but life-giving through faithful witness. It is not completely unlike the Word of the Lord in the Ark of the Covenant: handle it very carefully according to the Lord’s instructions lest it bring about destruction rather than edification. While the “little ones” watch from near and far.