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.


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