Sunday, February 28, 2010

Blind Indulgence

Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

The other night at our OT Survey class I quoted a TV character and was promptly told that I probably watch too much TV. Well, I’ve admitted that much, but M*A*S*H and gangster movies don’t count as “too much”. Besides, sometimes even TV writers have something worth listening to!

Though I’ve never actually watched this particular show, A&E has a series called “Intervention” which is about addicts and their loved ones who pull out all the stops and “intervene” in their lives before they are completely destroyed. As it goes for addicts, including alcoholics, interventions become necessary because just when we might think someone has actually “hit bottom”, we find their downward spiral to be substantially “bottomless”. And we intervene because we genuinely care. We actually “love” that person whose life is spinning out of control, that person who is on the road to perdition and, ultimately, his own destruction; we love because we care enough to go out of our way and actually DO something for them, regardless of what may be required of us.

I often wonder why we Christians are not so aggressive when it comes to “intervention” on behalf of those whose souls are “in danger of the judgment”. And I don’t mean public protests and curses and name-calling against those who do not live according to our personal mandates and preferences. I mean a genuine, heartfelt, soulful, sanctified way of love by which we can see these persons and feel genuine care and concern for these persons because, through the spiritual growth that is sanctification, we have been empowered and enabled to see them through the eyes of the Lord.

Paul challenges the Philippians in much the same way, particularly when he challenges them to “imitate” him but most notably when he speaks of those “enemies of the Cross” for whom he weeps. There is a spiritual certainty within his compassion by which he is convinced that these people who worship their own “bellies” (i.e., fleshly desires) and are on the path of spiritual destruction are completely unaware of their impending doom, blinded as they are by their own selfish indulgences. In their blissful ignorance, these have become “enemies of the Cross” because they fail to comprehend the sacrificial nature of Christianity itself. Perhaps it is they fail to understand that when it comes to allegiance to Christ, there is no middle ground, there is no “kinda sorta”, there is no “after I finish everything else”. Jesus clearly admonishes His disciples that they either “is” or they “ain’t”, and that allegiance goes much further and much deeper than self-proclaimed salvation.

These to whom Paul refers – and these many whom we know today – are also the very ones to whom Jesus refers when He speaks of the many who were and are “unwilling” to be gathered into His protective embrace. And yet, in spite of their “unwillingness”, Jesus is still on the path of the mother of all “interventions” even as those on the path of self-destruction cannot appreciate it or even comprehend what is about to take place, so engrossed in their own lives as they are to the point of being deaf and blind, not only living in darkness but taking genuine joy and pleasure from it. Worse, perhaps, is that they find no shame.

St John Chrysostom, a 4th century Church father and bishop of Constantinople, reckoned that it might not be as bad to live such a life as one of such self-destruction “in secret” as it would to bring such behavior better suited to darkness out into the light. At least in the darkness, there is evidence of a conscience, an element of one’s being that may still have hope of redemption. These seem to at least be aware of their own shame and would much prefer that it not be so well known. For the “enemies of the Cross”, however, they bring what they believe to be their own “glory” into the light where it is revealed by the Word of the Lord, by the Light that is Christ, as their ultimate shame. Just as it will soon be their judgment and spiritual death. The Church does not use such language much anymore, does it?

For an example we could be so bold as to point to a protest which took place at a cathedral in Chicago on February 14. The church was celebrating its regular Sunday Mass but was also inviting married couples to renew their own vows to one another during the Mass. It was to be a celebration of married love. A homosexual rights group chose to use this cathedral and its celebratory Mass as a venue by which to “protest” the Catholic Church’s refusal to change its stand on homosexual behavior. These people obviously have no shame and are so blinded as to believe that the Lord God is subject to our protests. Even worse, they showed an utter disrespect and disregard for the rights of those in worship and for the rights of those who simply do not and will not agree with them.

Or we could choose other, less conspicuous examples of personal excess, selfish indulgences, ignoring the Body of Christ in favor of pursuing one’s own personal desires. And there are any number of examples that fall somewhere between the seemingly innocuous and the blatantly obvious. In the end, however, the standard of one’s own faith can be measured by the willful efforts made to grow in faith … and in Christ-like, sacrificial love; that love which ignores the needs and the glory of self and actively pursues the needs and the glory of others.

“Whatever”, that cavalier proclamation spanning a couple of generations that suggests a “take it or leave it” attitude, is not an option in the Body of Christ just as such condescension was not an option for Jesus. The commitment was as absolute and as unwavering as the compassion felt for those who kept – and still keep – the Church and life in the Body of Christ safely at arm’s length. There can be no such thing as a benign faith that simply exists but does not actually “live” and grow and flourish and that feels no shame in its contempt and hatefulness. Simply believing in a possibility or a concept is not the same as abiding faith.

I think there is much more that is exemplified in Jesus’ lamentation and Paul’s tears to those who are still working and striving and growing in such faith and in such love that they can appreciate Jesus’ sacrificial love even for those kept Him at arm’s length, those who “killed the prophets and stoned those who were sent” to them to proclaim the Day of the Lord, as well as for those many who were prepared – at all costs – to intervene and stop the cycle of self-destruction and ultimate judgment that will come sooner or later.

I read an article years ago written by a tax protester who not only tried to use the US Constitution to prove that he did not have to pay taxes but also used Paul’s statement of “citizenship” to prove that he was not subject to the nation’s laws because he was not a citizen of the US. It was a stretch, to say the least, but there have been others who have tried and failed. The problem with these few, however, is that they missed the entire point of what Paul was suggesting, blinded as they were by trying to use Scripture – and the Lord’s name in VAIN! – to their own selfish ends.

We cannot “use” our heavenly citizenship as a means to our own end, and we must not use our “resident” status to avoid those things we would rather not do. Instead, we embrace our faith and sanctification to do those things we GET TO DO, like share the Good News, to sacrifice even ourselves in spiritual “intervention” for those on the road to destruction.

The Truth is within us according to Holy Scripture. We are of a much higher calling than to simply grab all we can for ourselves. But if the “pursuit of happiness” means more to us than the Lord as our “light” and “salvation” and “stronghold”, if we are more apt to quote the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence than we are Holy Scirpture, then we will spend our lives in blind indulgence and in constant fear of tomorrow because we fear we do not have “enough” today. We will become of those for whom Jesus lamented, those who refused His protective embrace and kept Him at arm’s length, refusing to heed His call to Eternal Life after the grave, and peace and contentment in this life before the grave.

The Lord have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us into everlasting Life.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Checks and (Im)balances

Even as a Republican, I find no fault in a Democratic majority in Congress. Such an overwhelming and near super-majority, however, has the potential to become a foundational problem unique to the republic that is this country. The genuine problem exists, regardless of the party in majority, because the Madisonian system of checks and balances within the federal government is pushed completely out of balance. As it is, the legislative branch and its substantial majority is running in tandem with the executive branch rather than keeping the other in check, deficit spending is completely out of control, unsustainable levels of spending are being initiated, and the polled majority of Americans is completely disenchanted and disenfranchised.

"But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government …This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other -- that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State." – Federalist #51

What happens to the republic, then, when one branch of government virtually surrenders its constitutionally imposed independence from another, even by a vote of the people, to the point that there is no distinction between the two and the minority is all but ignored, regardless of the ideal or principle pursued? James Madison held, seemingly in spite of the intent of the Constitution as expressed in the preamble to “promote the general welfare”, that the rights of an individual should not be usurped.

It has been expressed by the so-called “Tea Party” movement that individual rights are being trampled in favor of the “general welfare” by way of the continuing debate on health care reform. The polled majority clearly rejects any and all government mandates in health care or health insurance matters, yet the majority in Congress seems to be following lock-step behind the president in seeing to a $1 trillion government-sponsored health care/insurance package that compels participation even by those who do not wish to participate. It is, as expressed recently by one speaker in the finest tradition of the Revolution, “taxation without representation” as we are forced to participate or help to finance such an aggressive government mandate.

There can be no easy answers to the dilemma now faced by the Republicans in Congress and those they have been elected to represent. As it happens, the party not in majority is always accused of being that “fly in the ointment” by which progress, in whatever form, is slowed. But when “progress” runs away so callously and so aggressively as to reject, ignore, and dismiss the concerns of those in the minority, we witness again the tyranny of the past by and through which the nation rose up in defiance. Reasonable men did not prevail, and needless bloodshed ensued.

Surely we can do much better today, especially in matters of health care, but such efforts toward a genuine greater good will require honor rather than power, an attribute I fear is in short supply even among the honorable due to the preponderance of anger and vindictiveness.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Broken Barriers

Luke 4:1-13

O Lord our God, on this First Sunday of Lent as we prepare ourselves to endure the coming 40 days, by Your blessed and Holy Spirit, bring us to a remembrance of those times when we completely trusted You and You alone. Bless this gathering and time of worship, that our hearts and minds would be open to Your Presence and Your Grace. Make us mindful of our need to repent, and make us mindful of your mercy to forgive. In the Name and by the Blood of Your Beloved Son, we ask and we pray. Amen.

“When the devil had finished every test, He departed from [Jesus] until an opportune time.”Luke 4:13

I often wonder if there is ever a time in which we are not being tested, at least to one degree or another, by the Lord or by the tempter. And in that vein, I wonder if this is the reason why the Bible and our own John Wesley admonished us to be in constant prayer, “praying without ceasing”, studying Scripture, attending to those means of grace and Sacraments of the Church and learning to look at the world through the Lord’s eyes and not our own. This, of course, is that state of spiritual perfection we strive to achieve as we continue to grow in faith and in love, but we are also reminded almost daily that we are not … quite … there … yet.

The way Luke presents it – or at least, the way our English translation presents Luke – the evil one had exhausted “every” test. To me this means the devil had run out of options…. for the moment. He offered to Jesus every possible temptation that would come near to destroying just about any other mortal human, and Jesus either passed these tests or He failed them – all depending, of course, on one’s perspective.

He passed, of course, according to His divine Being; He really could have done no less, but this we know only with our 20/20 biblical hindsight. Jesus depended on the Word of the Lord to see Him through these particular temptations, these worldly challenges. Yet according to what we might consider to be more “normal” standards of human living, He failed miserably.

Think about it. According to your standards and mine, what fool in his right mind would turn down all that Jesus had turned down: FOOD after a 40-day fast, unlimited power and authority over all the kingdoms of the world, or super-human strength so as to never be hurt or feel pain?? Think of how much we could do FOR THE LORD if we only had all these resources and these powers at our command and disposal! Isn’t this a more “normal” standard of how the faithful think in terms of worldly possessions and relationships?? And then to use Scripture passages, regardless of proper context or appropriate application and only in increments as they will personally suit us at any particular time, well, isn’t this also how the faithful world turns?

To wait “until an opportune time” is somewhat ominous because what is implied, if not outright stated, is that the battle between good and evil, between Heaven and hell is far from over. Surely the evil one saw this moment as much of an “opportune” time as there would be and knowing human behavior as he must surely know, if “now” does not quite work out, there will always be “later”. What is “opportune” on any given day may not work as well, for instance, three days after payday as it might three days BEFORE payday, right?

The “opportune” time is usually at our weak moments, when we are stressed, when we are under the gun in any given situation whether it is at work, at home, or at play. There will always be a “more” opportune time to trip someone up. Always. And isn’t it ironic that in these moments of weakness when we are more subject to temptation, it is also in these moments of weakness when the Lord is at His mightiest, according to St. Paul (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)? Or is it that we are more susceptible to whatever influence will give us immediate relief or satisfaction? Of course, it all depends on which part of our self we choose to please and nurture.

The way this encounter reads, we are presented with an image of Jesus that is very hungry and maybe a bit physically weakened by the lack of food but is still calm, cool, and collected. The evil one offers one thing, and Jesus very casually dismisses him. However, some scholars suggest Jesus may have been internally conflicted. This is an interesting perspective when we consider that traditionally we have been taught that after His baptism, Jesus was led “by the Spirit”, of course, just as it is written, to deal exclusively with this imminent confrontation. In other words, Jesus knew by the Spirit exactly where He was going and what or whom He would be faced with.

Now to say that Jesus was simply going to the wilderness to pray and to fast in preparation for His earthly ministry is not off the mark, but it would be difficult to make this connection if He were to have been led only to deal with the evil one, the evil one perhaps waiting 40 days until Jesus is weakened to the point of human temptation. All of this matters and it all makes perfect sense, but we also must remember that Jesus was both divine and human. Surely it is possible for a conflict, at least on some level, to be present even within Jesus Himself. In fact, would a broader perspective on this passage suggest that the evil one could well represent the “flesh” that seems to be in almost constant conflict with the Spirit? Surely we can attest to this truth on any given day. Be hurt by someone? Hate them. It’s easy, it pleases us, and it suits us for the moment. But to forgive them? That takes some doing, some effort, some prayer, some spiritual discipline. We have to choose.

We know what struggle and temptation mean to us on a human level, but we don’t often make the disconnect between what we want and what we genuinely need because we confuse the two. To us, they are often one and the same. This “disconnect” is that barrier by which we relate to what we are tempted with only in how it will affect us physically or emotionally. In other words, we refuse something not because it may harm us spiritually but because it may wreck our diets, hurt our budgets, or damage a relationship. I dare suggest that we do not consider how powerful temptations can be and how spiritually destructive they can be if we surrender to them.

We are reminded on Ash Wednesday that there is a distinctive disconnect between our bodies and minds – and – our souls even as they can work in unison to a particular end. One will absolutely, positively, imminently die; there is no escape from this harsh truth even as we will virtually go to the ends of the earth and spare no expense in avoiding this certain reality.

The other seems more incidental to us and is often taken for granted. We don’t pay nearly as much attention to our spiritual well-being as we do our physical, mental, or emotional well-being. And we worry more about our human relationships than we do our spiritual one with the Lord. If we foul up with someone we love, we will pull out all the stops and beg and plead for forgiveness. But how many of us have heard Christians wave their hands and very casually, almost mindlessly say, ‘The Lord forgives me’ – yet they never really bothered to ask for that forgiveness. They simply expect it and thus take it for granted. How many of US are guilty of this very thing?

When we avoid those means of grace and those Sacraments of the Church, we avoid dealing with that better part of us which was imparted to us from Heaven and was given to us for a specific purpose: to empower us to reject evil and embrace good. We must surely understand that when humanity was created in the Divine Image, it had nothing to do with our faces, our skin tone, or the color of our hair. It stands to reason, then, that it is the SOUL that is the true reflection of that Divine part of us that requires as much, or more, attention than the rest of our being because it is the part which will endure forever.

There was once a barrier that prevented our human self from violating that spiritual and better part of our self. It was the Divine Image in which we were created. And that barrier was broken the day humanity chose the pleasure and self-satisfaction of the mortal self over the edification of the spiritual self, when it was made clear that we trust our own instincts over our soul that is informed, taught, and led by the Holy One. Once that barrier was broken, it just got easier to the point that today we attempt to re-create God into an image more aesthetically pleasing to our mortal, physical self.

As we navigate this challenge time that is Lent, let us recognize that better part of our self – our soul – as that part which enables and empowers us to reconstruct that broken barrier by learning again to Trust In Him, to surrender ourselves to Him so that He may, by His own Mighty Acts, restore us to that Divine Image. Amen.

Almighty and Everlasting God and Father, your blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan and to prepare Himself for His earthly ministry. Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by these many and same temptations we face each day. And as You know the weakness of each of us, let each of us find You mighty to save – from ourselves AND from the evil one; through Christ Jesus our Lord, Your beloved Son. Amen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Truth Hurts

Las Vegas NV mayor Oscar Goodman is still stinging from President Obama having singled out that town as an example of what not to do if money is tight, so much so that the mayor has refused an invitation to meet with the president while he’s in town. The president simply said, and I say this as a non-supporter of Mr. Obama, that we must all set our own priorities according to our own means and needs: don’t spend a weekend in Vegas if you’re saving for your kids’ college. What’s wrong with that?

What is wrong with that is that Vegas depends heavily, if not entirely, on tourism and gambling, and apparently Mr. Obama has referenced Las Vegas and perhaps Reno more than once in speaking about priorities. For you and me, it is important that we save our money. For Goodman, it is important that we come to Vegas and spend our money - and then leave with empty pockets.

Come on, America. There is plenty with which to take issue against President Obama but when he’s right, he’s right. Give him a little credit. Maybe he’s not a gambler. Maybe he and his wife are as successful as they are because they do not take unnecessary or foolish risks. Maybe they recognize that with limited resources, there are limited choices. Maybe Mr. Obama’s point would not have been lost had he simply said something like, ‘there are less expensive vacations and get-aways than gambling junkets’. Then again, the president would then likely have over-torqued the screws of more than one city mayor since gambling has become so pervasive in this country.

So what? Those who do not have money to burn are indeed fools if they take their limited resources and lay them on a craps table (surely there is a relevant reason why it is called “craps”) or buy lottery tickets. They have that freedom, that right to do what they please with what they have, however much or little they do have, but maybe sometimes we all need to be kicked in the teeth when we become so overwhelmed with our own brand of stupid that we cannot see how ridiculous we can sometimes be when we forget that with “rights” come “responsibility”.

I’m not crazy about the choices Mr. Obama has made as president and I’ve lost all confidence in this administration (not like there was much to lose although I try always to be at least hopeful) and this Congress. This does not mean that the president cannot sometimes say something worth listening to: if you do not have it to blow, don’t blow it!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thus Begins the Journey

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

For many, Ash Wednesday is very nearly comical especially if done in the morning because it gives folks all day to make wise cracks about the “smudge” on our foreheads while trying not to be disrespectful of our faith or our religion. Still, even among the faithful Ash Wednesday is not taken very seriously. It has, unfortunately, been reduced to little more than a dogmatic “something we do”, sort of like “opening ceremonies” into that strange time in the church calendar called Lent. Lent will still be Lent whether we attend an Ash Wednesday service or not.

The significance of Ash Wednesday is epitomized in what Jesus is teaching the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel, summed up in vs. 21: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, but there is much more to the significance of Ash Wednesday, far more than a mere mark of time or smudge on the forehead. Before we can enter into the season of Lent and begin that incredible – and, yes, necessarily painful - journey to the Cross, there is something we must be mindful of first.

This small passage [from Matthew] is taken too often to mean exclusively material possessions. This is not entirely wrong, of course, but there is no single category exclusive to this passage because our hearts are broad and our desires varied. It is not only material possessions that come between us and the Lord. I recall a political science class I took a few years ago in which the instructor challenged us to name just one part of our lives that is not affected by politics. Whether or not we would agree with any particular public policy was not the point. The point was simply that there is no portion of our lives that is not addressed or affected, directly or indirectly, by public policy. In this same vein, then, it is reasonable to conclude that there is no thing and no person that does not have at least the potential to come between us and the Lord.

It has been debated in philosophy and theology whether we are bodies with souls – or – souls with bodies. The debate centers on which is purposeful and which is incidental, which is primary and which is secondary. Can one act independently of the other? If so, which one is dependent? In other words, does the body tell the soul how the cow ate the cabbage – or – does the soul inform and influence the actions of the body? Obviously the answers will depend on one’s perspective. The Talmud offers this much: The character of a life depends upon the care which the individual devotes to keeping his soul pure and unstained.

Throughout other Talmudic literature there are taught the distinctions between the soul and the body, the soul being that portion of us which enables us to choose the good and reject the evil. However, we are painfully aware of that other certain fact: we have minds filled with thoughts, principles, and ideals that are imparted to us as we grow and learn. We are influenced by our senses that pick up on things which please us, things which seem to make perfect sense and fit so well into our lives, especially since we also live in a world in which it is proclaimed as a virtual doctrine and virtue of man: look out for #1.

Clearly our bodies (including our minds) are influenced by external forces that surround us throughout our lives while our souls, imparted to us from Heaven, come predisposed toward good and equipped with the ability to identify and reject evil. Somewhere along the line, it becomes a matter of will. The struggle which seems to be inherent to our very existence, body and soul, from the beginning is a matter of worldly influence and spiritual contemplation.

This all brought to mind the movie, “Radio”, with Ed Harris and Cuba Gooding, Jr. Cuba played the part of “Radio”, a mentally handicapped man who was befriended by “Coach” Ed Harris. Long story made short, “Coach” came to realize while we may presume to have the desire and the need to “teach” such folks as “Radio”, in reality it is folks like “Radio” who teach us – if we are willing to learn. “Radio” was not the handicapped one; it is we who are handicapped who are unable or unwilling to see, and be influenced by, the goodness that surrounds us. As “Coach” pointed out, “Radio treats us ALL THE TIME the way we wish we treated each other even PART OF THE TIME.” We of a more cynical if worldly nature, we who call ourselves “normal”, have been conditioned and have conditioned ourselves toward survival and self-indulgence. This is the body which is at odds with that predisposed and divine soul.

Ash Wednesday is an important discipline that helps us to begin the incredible journey called Lent by challenging us to empty ourselves of all those conditions, those things, those persons, those influences that serve to do little more than to separate us from the Holy. It is the time when we are reminded of the curse of our humanity, that free will curse that chose knowledge over faith, when humanity chose the mortal body over the immortal soul. It is where the truly desired “treasure” of self was chosen, and humanity was cast out – body AND soul – from Paradise, that perfect place and state of being for which we were created in the very beginning.

It is the time when we are reminded that our bodies are simply the dust of the earth, to which they are destined to return. That is the value and worth of our mere mortal bodies in the realm of eternity. The state of our souls, however, will be determined by how we navigate this incredible journey and how near to the Cross we will choose to go.


Hear No Evil ...

Not that I completely disagree with the Palins in this latest battle with TV’s “Family Guy”, a ridiculous animated show (not a serious endeavor like my beloved “South Park”, of course) in which nothing is sacred. Not that such things should not be challenged at least on some fundamental level, of course, because ignorance and bigotry run amuck is justice denied. We as a nation are a little better than that. However, in this particular case and with Gov. Palin’s scrap with David Letterman still relatively fresh, something becomes clear, I think: the Palins perhaps spend too much time watching TV. And I say this because surely they have actually seen and heard for themselves (rather than heard about) that which they judge to be offensive.

I think many are sure Gov. Palin may be spending so much time on the road and giving speeches because she is positioning herself for a possible presidential run in 2012. No problem in that, of course, but here is a very serious problem: she may be a little too sensitive for her own good AND she needs to pick her battles. A chief executive cannot possibly address every single issue and its minute details that come down the pike, so the president must prioritize and delegate. If Mrs. Palin has delegated her daughter to seek out and/or deal with these issues that really are not issues, then so much for the judgment of this potential candidate.

This nation has some serious problems that require serious solutions. Spending too much time worrying about TV personalities and animated shows, both of which are impossible to take seriously, may indicate a very shallow perspective on what is truly important. A naïve belief that all social idiots and insensitive jerks can or even should be dealt with is naiveté at its very worst, and there is no place in the Oval Office for that.

The current administration alone should be ample proof that idealism, even at its very best, must be tempered with a certain realism by which we can imagine a better world and work toward a better world, but we cannot demand it by simply complaining about it or calling names through the media. Take a look at how congressional Democrats and Republicans deal with one another. THEY DON’T. They “release” letters to one another through the national media (do they ever actually mail them or send them to the intended recipient via courier?) and they stand at the rotunda and give speeches filled with accusations toward one another, but they don’t talk to one another.

Gov. Palin may give great and rousing speeches and be a good cheerleader for the GOP, but the Democrats have President Obama. See how well that seems to be working for them.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Majesty of it All

Exodus 34:29-35
Luke 9:28-36

Holy God and Father, upon the mountain You revealed Your Messiah, who by His death and Resurrection would fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. By His Transfiguration enlighten our path that we may dare to share and suffer with Him in the service of humanity and so share in the everlasting glory of Him who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit. One God, forever and ever. AMEN.

Last year on Transfiguration Sunday, I shared this: Moses and Elijah could well be a part of the “great cloud of witnesses”, those having lived such lives to which we should all aspire while we also recognize that we cannot have Jesus without the journey to the Cross. It is admirable, perhaps, to want to build dwellings for these so their glorified presence can be known, but this world is not where they belong. They had their time and their task, and they fulfilled these faithfully. Now it is our time, and our task lay just ahead.

We do not “belong here”, either. But we have our places here just as they did. And we will one day have our places in the light of the glory witnessed by Jesus’ disciples. And spoken of only AFTER the Resurrection. Because, I think, that is ultimately the Way – and destination - of the Cross.

It is rare, if ever, that I go back and dig through old sermons because I believe that if the Word of the Lord is living and dynamic – and I do – then it is utterly unfair to rehash old thoughts. If the Lord is continually moving in and through us, then we must continually be moving in and through Him – but forward, not backward. An entire year has passed since I spoke those words, and we would all hope I’ve learned at least a little something in the course of a year! Besides, it is often that I read my old stuff and wonder just what in the world I was thinking when I wrote it!!

I remember Billy Graham once preaching that the Bible gives us very little information about hell except in Luke’s Gospel about Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-26). By the same token, the Gospels give us very little of a literal view of the full glory of the Lord except in the Transfiguration. There are also glorified images in the apocalyptic literature of the last days, such as in Revelation and Daniel, but in all instances we are given the best description human words can offer to describe that which is fully incomprehensible. The 2nd century scholar and theologian, Origen, put it this way: [Jesus] is beheld in the form of God according to our capacity for knowledge.

So it is in the limited capacity of our ability to comprehend by which we are shown the fullness of the Divine Glory and Majesty, not unlike the days when Moses descended from the mountain “with the skin of his face … shining” so much so that the Israelites “were afraid to come near him.” They knew something remarkable had taken place and they knew Moses had had an encounter with the Lord but because it was beyond their ability to understand what they were seeing, it made them afraid.

The disciples were “terrified”, according to Luke, as they were overshadowed by that great cloud from which the Voice of the Lord affirmed what Peter had previously confessed (Luke 9:20a): that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Moses and Elijah join Jesus in this moment in eternity and, according to Luke, speak with Him concerning His impending death. NRSV uses the term, “departure”, but Greek translations suggest a more literal use of “exodus” to more accurately describe what will soon take place in Jerusalem. If we think in terms of “exodus” rather than merely “departure”, then we can segue from Epiphany to Lent and, ultimately, to Easter not only in the earthly life of Jesus Himself but also in the life cycle of the faithful – here and now and for what is to come, even if we are incapable of comprehending.

Something really big is taking place at this incredible moment of the Transfiguration, and the disciples maybe came very near to missing the whole thing, “weighed down with sleep” as they were, but the language of Luke also seems to suggest they managed to somehow stay awake in spite of their fatigue, making the encounter surreal, almost dream-like. And this may be significant because the Lord has spoken so often and so clearly to many of his prophets by way of dreams. It is during this state when we are most vulnerable, of course, but we are also quiet, still, and better able to hear what the Lord says because we are not distracted by the noise of the world. In our dreams the Lord has our undivided attention.

In this moment in eternity, what we may be witnessing is the complete, unabridged, and unmanipulated (by human thought and opinion) image of the fullness and glory of the Lord’s majesty in the Law (Moses), the prophets (Elijah) and the Gospel (the Good News in and through the Christ). Even with all this, while we may be getting a small taste of a Divine Image, there is also something much more that is being presented to us: the “conversation” Luke refers to of Jesus’ impending “departure”, or “exodus”.

Thinking in terms of the Exodus of the OT when the Israelites were set free from bondage, the imagery is made more powerful for us when we grasp the notion that even though the Lord came to us freely in the person of Jesus, there may still be the need to somehow be set “free” from that human body, divine though He was because humanity has limits. As was previously shared, there is only so much we can do. Thinking about Jesus performing miracles in that human body, there are still limits to even His humanity; the human body, resilient though it may be, can only take so much especially in a world that is utterly and completely, if only physically, separated from the Divine.

Just as the Israelites had to be freed from their human bondage by incomprehensible power, so must we be released from our own humanity and the incomprehensible power of sin and death by sharing in the divinity of the Christ, if only for a moment, in the Eucharist, when we are in complete submission and sharing in the Passover meal just before the New Exodus, prepared as we must be to follow Him without hesitation or reservation into what will soon be our New Reality. It is within this context that John Wesley encouraged Methodists to share the Lord’s Supper as often as they gathered together in His Holy Name.

Before we can go WITH Him, however, we must prepare ourselves THROUGH Him. This preparation necessarily includes those means of grace, including the Sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, so that we can be enabled to endure the journey He endured while on this earth. We share in His earthly experiences so that we may soon share in His Heavenly Glory. The Transfiguration was necessary not only as a means of revealing the fullness and majesty of the Heavenly Glory of the Lord, but also as The End to which we must all aspire: life without end.


Saturday, February 06, 2010

Pure Religion

Luke 5:1-11

A couple of thoughts from John Wesley:

• In the year 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, I met with Bishop Taylor's Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying. In reading several parts of this book, I was exceedingly affected; that part in particular which relates to purity of intention. Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts, and words, and actions; being thoroughly convinced, there was no medium; but that every part of my life (not some only) must either be a sacrifice to God, or myself, that is, in effect, to the devil. Can any serious person doubt of this, or find a medium between serving God and serving the devil?

• In the year 1729, I began not only to read, but to study, the Bible, as the one, the only standard of truth, and the only model of pure religion. Hence I saw, in a clearer and clearer light, the indispensable necessity of having "the mind which was in Christ," and of "walking as Christ also walked;" even of having, not some part only, but all the mind which was in him; and of walking as he walked, not only in many or in most respects, but in all things. And this was the light, wherein at this time I generally considered religion, as an uniform following of Christ, an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master.

Even though the year has only just begun, it’s already been a busy one. There have been those heart-wrenching appeals from UMCOR and other agencies for Haiti’s earthquake recovery efforts and UMCOR’s continued work in Indonesia, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world; there was the “Catch the Vision” appeal and the Wesley Foundation, the Hannah Medical Baby Bottle Campaign, the regular tithes and offerings, and the other grateful recipients of your benevolence and generosity. When the dust finally began to settle, I found myself agreeing almost mindlessly to the MDA lock-up thing for “Jerry’s kids”, and now we are handing out the Lenten jars to prepare for our annual gift to mission. And let’s not forget Emily’s need for 500lbs of sugar for the homeless shelter!

Before I entered the preaching ministry, I was lay leader at another church. I recall a time when it seemed that no matter which way I turned, someone had his or her hand out in an appeal for money. Some were fund-raisers for one thing or another, some were charitable endeavors, but all were important in their own way and in their own place. When the fund-raisers began setting up in the narthex and virtually blocked the door into the sanctuary, however, I began to make some noise because what I believed I was witnessing was the creation of an inhospitable worship environment.

Visitors who were not familiar with the goings-on at our little church felt like they had to pay “admission” to attend worship! What is worse is that these efforts “weeded out” those who just did not have the money to spare, or they were made to feel as though what they had given was “not enough”. It was not that they did not want to give; it simply was that they didn’t have any more to give – so they stopped coming. Often I didn’t even want to be there. It made me think of Jesus’ efforts to cleanse the Temple and rid the place of the money-changers who sold overpriced, but arguably necessary, items for worship such as animals and “local money”. Jesus blasted them all by accusing them of turning the Holy Father’s “house of prayer” into a “den of thieves”. I don’t think we’re quite there, of course, but I see the necessity of raising the “red flag” so that we evaluate what we do and why we do it.

It is fair and honest that we should be made aware of what is happening in our communities and in our United Methodist Church, at home and abroad. Indeed, it is a way by which we take ownership through our apportionments for the work of the Church and to know what is going on and to be given an opportunity to help where we can. In the midst of “information overload”, however, is the very real danger of distractions of such an overwhelming magnitude that we forget why we gather here in the first place. I guess I’m always mindful of, and a little sensitive to, the many who have walked away and freely separated themselves from the Body of Christ because of the so-called “money grubbers”, those who stand accused of making “church” about little more than the acquisition of money to create a “feel good” religion consisting of dollars but very little sense of self, purpose, or mission.

In Luke’s gospel (5:1-11) we clearly see the power of the Lord working, but I don’t think we see clearly enough that there is far more to the story than simply a boat-load of fish, a miracle of sorts attributed to the Lord since they didn’t catch anything before. There is an analogy at work in the story that probably doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It is a prelude of things to come for the disciples … and for Christ’s Holy Church. And it has not so much to do with the fish or the nets themselves but what must take place before the first net is cast. It is a matter of not only knowing where to cast the nets … but when … and how often. And there is only One Way we are going to come by that knowledge. Anything outside of this is a guess.

As the earlier quotes from John Wesley indicated, he was also aware of the dangers of the many distractions we are continually faced with, as much within the Church as out. There is not a charity or a church mission out there that does not deserve at least our prayerful consideration, but we must also be mindful of our limitations; there is only so much we can do. Even in my morning prayer time, I get a little overwhelmed myself whenever I try to remember everyone and everything I’ve been requested to pray for. Needless to say, the list is endless! Whenever I walk away from the prayer time, I often feel like such an utter failure because there is never a time that I don’t make it out of the sanctuary before I realize there was someone or something I forgot to mention in my prayers! Often I cannot even recall whether I simply said, “Thank you, Lord”.

To be perfectly honest, there are some days when I cannot bring myself to my knees at the prayer rail because the need is so great out there that I don’t even know where to begin – or where to end. I tell myself that my own “net” is only so big and will only do so much and that I shouldn’t wear myself out worrying about such things, but that’s not so easy to walk away from – or into! It occurs to me, however, that this is probably the thrust of the story in Luke’s gospel. It seems to be as simple as this: the nets came back empty before because the disciples did it all on their own based on their OWN experiences, their OWN knowledge, for their OWN gain. They were relying on their OWN resources to get the job done, not realizing that the REAL job was just ahead.

Wesley saw the Bible as the “only” model, the “only” standard of what we can know of “pure religion”, but it also seems a pretty broad stroke when the Bible is as big as it is. It covers a lot of ground, a great expanse of human history, and there are a lot of different English translations. How can we possibly narrow it down to what constitutes “pure religion” and what our proper focus should be? Grace? Of course. Generosity? Certainly. Charity? Absolutely. But without proper spiritual guidance, we are casting our individual nets into an open sea based solely on what WE like, what WE think, and what WE think we know, and what we may personally gain from it. We hope for the best, of course, but then blame the weather or any number of other factors – including one another – when the net result is not what we expected or hoped for.

In the middle of all this, however, this “scatter-shot” affect of religious endeavor, we finally reach that point of spiritual fatigue because we finally realize that no matter how much we do or how much we give, it will never be enough. We give to one, and find that there are three more waiting in the wings. As happens too often, when we get tired we … just … quit. We run out of juice, we run out of money, and we even run out of prayer.

The focus of the effort to restore Methodism is to restore holiness. Not “social” holiness, as in finding our place in society or within this secular culture, important as that is in its own context. But I think we have fallen away from what should be our focus as we gather. This is not a “meetin’ house”, and it is not a social gathering. It is a place of worship, and our focus must necessarily be on adoration of Him, worshipping Him, giving thanks to Him, praying to Him not for special favors but simply trying to find the words to express what is on our hearts –absent the “wish list”, of course.

We focus on Him and Him alone so that we know exactly where – and when - we are to cast our one “net” as the Body of Christ we are called to be, not the several “nets” working independently to see who can catch the most, who might have been “more” right. But we must also be mindful of the possibility that we may also be called to draw in our “nets” from efforts that produce nothing, to stop wasting our resources, our time, and our energies on that which may make us feel good about ourselves but will do nothing for the Kingdom of Heaven. There is no place in the Body of Christ for “feel good” religion, and there certainly is no place in the Kingdom of Heaven for “sacred cows”.

Let us search for and find the “pure religion” we desperately need in our worship of the Lord. Let worship be about “pure worship” and let the “purity of our intentions” be revealed to us as His will … and not our own.


Friday, February 05, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The Congress, at the behest of the president, is beginning debate to consider a repeal of the 1993 “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy regarding homosexuals serving in the US armed forces. Prior to the 1993 law, those accused of homosexual conduct could be separated from the armed forces for that alone. In a nutshell, no gays allowed.

Enter the “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” law. Under the current law homosexuals can serve, but they are required to keep their orientation to themselves; recruiters and commanders are prohibited from asking. On its surface, it sounds like the current policy is at least adequate for the time being and for probably more reasons than any can list. There are many questions, however, and one can only suppose the Congress and Pentagon will hash these out as the debate progresses.

Whether the president wishes to acknowledge this fact or not, however, we are a nation at war. Our military members are stretched thin with more than enough on their plates. Now may not be the best time to distract them with social policy debates, particularly debates that attempt to re-engineer that very unique culture that is the US armed forces. We are into an election year; the last thing we need is political grand-standing on so important a subject as this in a time of war; election-year grandstanding needs no more ammo.

Our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our fathers and our mothers who proudly wear the uniform of the United States of America are warriors. They are trained, geared, and oriented toward battle. Theirs is a culture foreign to the typical civilian, and what they are trained to do is virtually unthinkable in many respects.

It must also be noted that the enemy we currently face is one like no other. We are not at war with nations; there is no cohesive entity with which treaties may be negotiated. The enemy we face is cold, calculating, and blood-thirsty. They are, for all intents and purposes, entirely uncivilized. They are barbarians, murderers, and thieves. They willingly, if eagerly, cut the throats of their prisoners, military or civilian, with jagged swords and record the screams and images as their innocent victims beg and plead for their lives to be spared. Some may suggest they do it for kicks and giggles, but it is more likely they calculate such acts to invoke raw terror into the hearts of potential enemies and future targets, primarily civilian targets. They have no honor, they know no shame, and they lack any sense of human compassion or decency on any level. The brave men and women of our armed forces must be not only trained but conditioned to face this enemy.

The mindset of a warrior trained to face this enemy is a focused one … and a harsh one. These are not “killers” we ask to defend us; they are warriors. There is a distinctive difference, of course, but these warriors must always be mindful that theirs is not a social culture or even a sub-culture, and the military does not exist so that folks who run out of other career options have somewhere to go, but exists only because a strong national defense is a fundamental key to the stability of our nation. Like a movie character military commander once stated so aptly, “We are here to defend democracy; not practice it.”

It stands to reason, then, that what is being discussed and proposed for the military community and culture may be entirely out of place, at least during this critical time. Military commanders have a full mission plate. And while this may sound somewhat sub-human, they cannot be overly concerned with individual feelings, “feel good” social justice, or even individual human rights. Members of the armed forces exist for one reason: to prepare for, and engage in if necessary, armed conflict. Social distractions and individual rights are not conducive to such an environment for this reason alone: we care more that they come home alive, having done their jobs well.

In the military culture, it must also be considered that one is not “free to be me” because such a mindset implies and actually promotes individualism. The military functions in terms of “units”, not persons. So while the military commander should not be so eager to sacrifice an entire unit toward a foolish endeavor, what they do on a daily basis is always dangerous because the mission itself must necessarily be the primary focus. Considering a military venture in terms of individual lives that might be lost would cause most rational, reasonable civilians to withdraw; the military and its commanders cannot. This entire debate can be reduced to its most common denominator, in terms of human relationships and the potential risks they pose in the military environment.

For instance, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, “fraternization” is prohibited. Simply stated, those in authority must not become chummy with those subordinates who serve or might serve under their authority. In my own time in the Marine Corps, I witnessed ineffective NCO’s who were buddies with some pretty bad actors. When it came time for the sergeants to act like sergeants, they found themselves bound by friendship rather than by duty. Those of us outside that special circle found ourselves bearing the brunt of whatever consequences may have been because the sergeants expended more energy trying to preserve the friendship rather than exercise the authority entrusted to them.

You wanna talk about poor morale? Trying spending extra time on guard duty or in the chow hall scrubbing pots and pans because “Sergeant Buddy-Chum” saved his pal from taking his turn. It happens, and it has likely been happening for far too long, and it does cause problems within the social and authoritarian structure of that unit. The problem is not corrected until authority is recovered. Will a repeal of DADT further complicate such disciplinary and morale problems because Sergeant So-And-So now has the hots for Private This-and-That?

A repeal of the current policy opens doors that few have yet to seriously consider. For all practical purposes, an individual ceases to be an individual once he or she steps off the bus at the recruit training center. It does not even matter whether one is married. Under this nation’s current circumstances, one is all but “owned”; lock, stock, and barrel by the US government for one purpose: maintaining a strong national defense and facing a cold-blooded enemy. Neither personal feelings nor social standing have a place in the readiness of a unit trained, equipped, and geared to fight. It is not pretty nor can it be made more attractive. It is bloody, it is dangerous, and lives will be lost. Let’s leave this fight for perhaps another day so that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines can deal with the task at hand.