Monday, March 28, 2011

Hope or Habit: the things we do

Malachi 3:8-12 2 Corinthians 9:5-15 Matthew 22:15-22

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).

The difference between genuine "religious belief" and "superstition" is manifest in what the writer of Hebrews is expressing. Superstition deals primarily with the here-and-now while religious faith deals almost exclusively with what is to be. Faith does not simply acknowledge a present reality; faith deals in the substance of the future reality, the "substance of things HOPED FOR, the evidence of things NOT SEEN" (I might add, not seen "yet"). In other words, religious belief expressed in faith is about what is to come, not about what has been and not even about what currently is. Faith is all about the future!

When the Church calls the faithful into the season of Lent, it is not for the purpose of continuing a practice that was conceived in the past; it is not just something we are "supposed to" do. When the faithful are called to make sacrifices during Lent, it is not with an eye on what is right before us such as seeing if we can go 40 days without ______. The season, the practices, the devotions, the sacrifices - if done with the right spirit and heart - are all done with a sound belief not in what was previously established, not in what is the current dogma (or practice) of the contemporary Church, but in what is to come. It is expressed not merely in what we believe in right now, but that we TRUST what is to be.

The same thing can be said about the giving of tithes. It is not about what we are "supposed to" do, it is not about what we happen to have to spare right now (which is predominantly an act of fear), and it most certainly is not about paying the local church's bills. As a spiritual practice, tithing must be an expression of "faith" - the substance of things "hoped for", the evidence of things not seen "yet". Like Lent, like Holy Communion, like prayer, like worship, like fasting, like tithing; if all these things are done simply because we have come to believe they are expected of us, then we are stuck in the present "habit" of engaging in empty religious (if superstitious) practices. Hope as trust in that which is to come cannot exist in such empty, shallow practices. Such empty practices are little more than a reflection of the current reality.

There are some who might suggest that in the New Covenant, the tithe does not have the same substance. They suggest the tithe was just something the ancient Hebrews were engaged in as merely a test of obedience, little more than a "legal" requirement that all should fulfill. But this is not what is expressed by the Lord through His prophet Malachi. The Lord is challenging the faithful not to "be tested"; they are actually encouraged to test the Lord! A word of caution about the interpretation of this text, however. The Lord is not promising that in the "here-and-now" He will magically increase what is offered just to prove to them that their present is secure; the Lord is promising His faithful A FUTURE filled with hope! But we must believe in the Promise with hope and eager anticipation. Habit is a mere grudging acceptance of what is right now.

It is necessarily the same interpretation of what St. Paul is expressing to the Corinthians. A gift cannot be reduced merely to the "tithe" or strictly 10% because there can be no hope in such a mathematical equation that merely reflects the current reality and has nothing to do with the future reality. It then becomes not a "gift" to the Lord but a "tax" to the Church.

In some of the larger, so-called "mega" churches, absolute proof is required of a 10% "cut" for those who are employed by the church or are assigned leadership positions such as committee chairs, and in some cases even to participate in choir or other more public endeavors of worship on behalf of that particular church. They call it "spiritual integrity"; I call it a cryin' shame because the very concept of "gift" is in jeopardy. They are invoking and forcing a "habit" that is completely void of any sense or semblance of "hope". It is a "habit" that is being enforced by threat of the loss of a job or other worship participation. I don't know, maybe even the threat of a loss of fellowship in that particular church. These so-called "spiritual leaders" have completely missed the point! But these mega-churches also have overwhelming financial realities they must contend with. They are not freed from any shackles of bondage; THEY ARE "TRAPPED".

St. Paul admonishes the Corinthians, however, that "those who sow sparingly will reap sparingly" as those who "sow bountifully will also reap bountifully". St. Paul is not talking about the "here-and-now" for the Corinthians, though. He is talking about expressions of a faith in what is to come, what is "yet to be seen". The FUTURE reality filled with hope and promise; not the present reality in which is found only empty, almost mindless habits; habits that come to be resented as "grudging". Like Malachi, St. Paul is talking about a future; specifically the future of the Church and what the Lord will call forth from that Church.

What we must learn to get past when the collection plate comes by is the notion that we are merely contributing to the "bill-paying" apparatus of our local churches, bills that must be paid before we can even think about ministry to the community. We must realize that what goes into the plate cannot be a mere contribution to the budget which comes out of our pockets. It is our gift to the Lord which comes from a heart filled with joy and hope! It is a gift of thanksgiving that expresses not the current reality or necessity - but rather the future reality that is firmly in the hands of our Lord. The gift we offer must be an expression of that hope if it is a spiritual practice at all.

I'll grant that there are budgetary realities every church must be mindful of, but overall giving has declined. There are many reasons why some would choose to withhold. Some out of some silent protest, a protest we may never know the nature of, but some - perhaps many - withhold out of a sense of fear.

We still live in very strange and very unsettling economic climate. People are still losing their jobs, and people are still living in fear of losing their jobs. Many of us are genuinely afraid of tomorrow's unknown challenges - and for good, practical reasons! And we're not stupid! We can see the writing on the wall, and we have every practical reason to be apprehensive.

But faith is not practical. Hope is virtually nonsensical. And promises of what "might" be? Almost completely empty ... to the practical mind. But what is faith without substance? And what is hope without evidence? Superstitious nonsense. Fear without foundation. We're jumping at shadows. We are afraid of the unknown.

And this is the very reason why faith itself is a divinely imparted Gift from the Lord. It is not something you and I can "go get" or "come to". I'm not even sure if the substance of faith itself can be "developed" or "reasoned" because anything we reach for in books or studies or from our own minds cannot make us unafraid of the unknown. There is nothing man-made that can give us the substance of hope because anything that comes from humans will last only as long as humanity lasts. Politicians have been promising us a better life for I don't know how long - and by now we should know they are making promises they CANNOT keep. They may mean it when they say it, but what the human race really needs - TRULY NEEDS - will not and cannot be politically assigned.

The challenge is before us today. We are here in this sanctuary because we believe we have been given life - and in abundance, as Jesus Himself promised. Knowing you and I will never taste death by protection of the Mighty Hand of the Living God, what exactly would we give in return? And seeing that the Life we are promised is before us, so much more our hope and faith in what is before us ... YET to be seen, YET to be reaped ... perhaps because it is yet to be sown.

Only you and the Lord know. Amen.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Holiness

John 3:1-17

A Dallas TX therapist once wrote, "If religion is not used as a magic pill but as a source of spiritual and moral strength and guidance, then it can be a major contributing factor to preserving marriage ... [HOWEVER, bumper sticker slogans like] 'Put God first in your marriage', whatever that means to them, 'be faithful in church, be a good Christian, pray a lot, attend church, and God will work everything out for you' [can be significant, contributing factors to the failures of many Christian marriages]. - Dr. Roy Austin, therapist and Southwestern Seminary graduate

Before I go further, let me say that what I want to share and hope to convey is not exclusively about marriage or divorce; but an article I stumbled on recently brought to light certain realities about the Christian faith and the correlation between spiritual realities and spiritual expectations; all of which are related not only in marriage but in daily faithful living. The numbers themselves did not really surprise me, but the corresponding comments explaining some of the numbers, such as the comment I shared, did catch me a little off guard.

For instance, would you have guessed that the rate of divorce among the so-called evangelical, fundamentalist, typically very conservative, 'born again' Christians was significantly higher than the divorce rate among atheists and agnostics? Of course every poll can be slanted to manipulate a certain conclusion even though statisticians claim to be as fair and impartial as humanly possible. And maybe they are.

Some Christian groups have tried to claim that such numbers are a deliberate, manipulative, and concentrated effort to undermine Christianity in general. But when a pollster concludes that there is very little discernable difference between Christians and non-Christians in public life regardless of circumstances or categories - and the numbers seem to bear out these conclusions - now that is saying something. And the Church must sit up and take notice not exclusively because of public perceptions but primarily because of the notion - I might suggest "superstition" - of religious faith as that "magic pill" that will cure what ails us with little or no input or effort on our part; in other words, a "magical" transformation that does not take into account the Arminian doctrine of free will. It is not a "PR" nightmare the Church faces; rather it is a theological crisis of identity that goes far beyond marriage and divorce.

In my humble opinion and estimation, the term "born-again Christian" is very much misunderstood, often over-used, and profoundly misappropriated. John's text must be read very carefully in order to understand what Jesus is talking about. Notice vs. 10 when Jesus admonishes the "teacher of Israel" Nicodemus for not understanding what is being referred to. What seems directly implied is that there is existing Scripture sufficient to speak to Nicodemus and those he may be representing in what should already be known.

The concept of being "born again", then, is not exactly a "new" thing Jesus is initiating. Spiritual rebirth should have been widely known AND taught among the faithful of Israel, but it seems clear that this spiritual reality has been completely forgotten or, at the very least, misunderstood. I would suggest the misunderstanding might be more appropriate to what is being witnessed today by these pollsters and the general public.

It is written in Ezekiel 36:25-27, 29 (NRSV): "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you, and make you follow My statutes and be careful to observe My ordinances ... I will save you from all your uncleanness."

In case you are wondering, Ezekiel is Old Testament; and "old" does not seem appropriate to the text especially in the context in which Jesus is speaking. It must also be noted that Nicodemus is being admonished not only for being apparently unfamiliar with Scripture but also for failing to fulfill his role as a "teacher of Israel". The Sanhedrin, the Jewish council that may have served more of an 'enforcement' role rather than a teaching role in the life of Israel, is being admonished as a whole by Jesus not because they cannot grasp something "new". Rather, Nicodemus and those he may represent are being admonished for not knowing what already is a certain spiritual reality.

Remembering that contextual reading is everything in studying Scripture, we must remember that Ezekiel is speaking to Israel to and through the Exile. The Exile came when Israel and Judah both seemed determined to live by the "flesh". They were hopelessly spiritually and politically corrupt and profoundly idolatrous. Even though these were the "Lord's chosen" who had a clear Law and an equally clear sense of identity, the people of the Lord had betrayed them both by their idolatry - their love of self and their utter disregard for the Spirit and the Law of the Lord.

They had fallen back to the time of the Judges when everyone in Israel did "what was right in his own eyes"; every person for himself or herself, disregard for the Lord and His way, disregard for justice, and disregard for the "widow and the orphan". They had, by the works of their own hands and their "hearts of stone", become like every other kingdom and by their idolatrous acts, the lives they chose to lead, they had ignored the Lord. And because they were so headstrong, "stiff-necked", stubborn, and selfish like all their pagan neighbors, they were soon overwhelmed by their pagan neighbors, the Assyrians, in the Exile; they were run off their land. The people of the Lord devoted their lives to the chasing of their own tails rather than to the pursuit of holiness. And because holiness - spiritual cleanness - was obviously so unimportant to them, holiness was taken from them and they were handed over to their enemies because it was "happiness" they sought; not holiness.

In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with being happy. I surely do not believe the Lord calls us to a life of misery and pain, but the "pursuit of happiness" is much more vague, much more difficult to define than is the spiritual reality of simply being content, satisfied with where we are and with what we have; grateful to receive more as it comes, but not wholly devoted to that pursuit because those who are content with what is can devote time to those "means of grace" we employ to grow in faith. Being solely devoted to the "pursuit of happiness", personal pleasure, and personal accumulation of wealth means something must necessarily be pushed aside.

Jesus teaches as much when He tells us it simply is not possible to serve two masters because we will love one and hate the other. One will get in the way of the other so that in order to pursue one, the other must be rejected. Such as this may be at the heart of the conservation Jesus is having with Nicodemus, especially when Jesus clearly distinguishes "earthly things" from "heavenly things". Like Nicodemus, we are much more likely to put stock in what we can see, smell, taste, and touch than we are to pursue that which cannot be seen and may actually run contrary to what we please.

In the end, however, Jesus offers the heart of what He is sharing with Nicodemus. The Lord did not come to "condemn"; He came to "save" - EVERYONE who believes in Him. And as the Bible teaches, those who reject Him stand condemned already. Those who have chosen one "master" over another can be relatively and spiritually certain at just about any given time where they stand with the Lord because devotion to Him is not an "event" nor is there a "magic pill" that will simply make it all happen - it is the choice of Life in the pursuit of holiness. Period. The alternative is death.

As ironic as it may sound, the Lord loves enough that we are indeed at liberty to choose which it will be. Amen.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Potential of Self

Matthew 4:1-11

"Who are we? A good United Methodist disciple of Christ is one who understands that discipleship is more than just a personal, feel-good state of being; a disciple is one who is willing to live with hopeful and faith-filled risk in an earthquake kind of world where all the platforms and ways of doing with which we have become comfortable are shifting."
"I have become more and more convinced that a living faith is a risking faith. It is about Abraham and Sarah packing up the family to go on a journey simply because the Lord called. It is about Moses and the children of Israel being willing to wander in the wilderness and ultimately not lose faith in the rightness of the journey. It is about finding our way through a new wilderness."

"It is more about who we can become than about who we are."
- Charles Crutchfield, UM bishop of Arkansas

The sermon title itself betrays what I hope to share because as I have long maintained, a covenant relationship of any kind cannot be one-sided. It cannot be reduced to "self", and it must transcend the "personal". To place conditions upon a relationship to one's own benefit would be to define one's limits within that relationship and would be almost exclusively about self - i.e., 'what's in it for me', which is no commitment at all and betrays the sacrificial nature of the biblical context of "love", the very foundation upon which the Church is built.

To completely deny self, however, is to deny what is equally important and necessary to the covenant relationship: our "personal" involvement, our active participation, and yes, our own edification. In other words, a relationship involving us as individuals would not exist if we were not personally AND actively involved. There is no relationship, covenant or otherwise, that involves only "taking".

The sacramental relationship within the Covenant of the Lord is open to all who would come forward to present themselves and their children to the Sacrament of Baptism, but those not baptized into the Covenant cannot reasonably claim to be a part of the covenant relationship simply because they have given nothing. Nor can those who will do only according to their personal desires, wishes, and terms claim to be active participants in the covenant relationship.

A life of faith and discipleship must necessarily begin within the covenant relationship, but this relationship also should not be entered into blindly. Jesus Himself admonishes us to "count the cost" (Luke 14:28) to decide if we are willing to give all that will be required and asked of us because no relationship, especially the Covenant relationship, can be defined strictly according to our own wants and wishes; not when a standard and conditions already exist.

Entering into the Covenant, then, is not about who we currently are, as Bishop Crutchfield points out; it is about who we can and will - perhaps must - become. It is not about getting "right with God" by our own deeds before entering into His covenant. It is entirely about allowing Him to lead us into righteousness according to His own purposes. This is one of the reasons why United Methodism has maintained the centuries-old practice of the baptism of infants and children: it is entirely about what is ahead for young and old alike. It is about who we will become for Him. This portrait is the essence of Jesus' journey into the wilderness.

Faith is an adventure because faith is always risky; if there is no risk, there can be no faith because we would then step only according to what we know in our flesh, what we can see with our own eyes, and what we can touch with our hands and feet. Faith is essentially a step into the unknown but faith is also a confident step because even though we cannot "see" or "feel", we nevertheless "know". So it must have been with Jesus going into the wilderness. There is no indication Jesus knew this leg of His journey would last exactly 40 days, but there is every indication that Jesus "followed" the Spirit without hesitation; secure in the "rightness" of this risk, this journey.

Early Church theologians maintained that Jesus took this journey to "show us the way". The ancient Church practice of Lent begins with this understanding, but Lent has become a "season" that has a beginning and an ending. This is obviously not the case, of course, because Jesus' journey into the wilderness for this 40-day period was obviously a beginning but was not the journey in itself; the journey did not end when the fast ended. It was a time of preparation, a time of "tempting", and a time of "testing" perhaps, for all that would eventually unfold. Even in the riskiest of adventures, those "extreme" practitioners always prepare and train for the event. To jump straight into such extremes without adequate preparation is sheer madness, if not suicide! Lack of preparation virtually guarantees failure.

So it seems that before the evil one comes onto the scene, Jesus must endure the fast. The evil one wants a reasonable assurance of success, so it is to his advantage to wait until Jesus the Man is weak with hunger and susceptible to temptation. It must be remembered, however, that the "summons" which led Jesus into the wilderness was divine and, thus, for divine purposes, not evil. Evil can have no legitimate claim on this moment. This moment in the wilderness as a time of preparation may have served as a warning to the evil one, but it cannot be said that this moment was exclusively for the evil one. If this were the case, the moment would definitely have an ending.

We cannot always know what is ahead for us, but this is entirely the point about faith. It is not about who or where we already are, and it is not exclusively about what we hope to gain for ourselves. I think it would be quite a stretch to suggest Jesus went into the wilderness only for Himself, but what He could reasonably expect to gain by such an act of faith would be immeasurable: strength not only to endure the moment - but the strength to push through and beyond the moment ... and the next one and the next one. In other words, this time of preparation is for the same kind of journey endured by Abraham and by Moses; not knowing the destination or even the conditions - but believing and trusting that even though the journey is much bigger than "self", "self" will still come out victorious in the end.

The Lenten journey is a beginning; it is not a test of endurance. To allow it to be measured as such is to depend entirely on one's own ability because the "end" is marked on a calendar; we can see it coming. We know how to pace ourselves so that we have enough strength to last X amount of time. This is not faith. In fact, if it were a test of faith it might be safe to say that most of us would fail if we were to succumb to the temptation to do only the bare minimum. You wanna talk about the "uselessness of organized religion"? There it is. Dogma. Just doing "stuff" to meet some vague religious requirement, but doing nothing to follow it up.

We can do better. Indeed we must. Look around. Our nation's Supreme Court whose rulings become the "law of the land" recently ruled that pure, unadulterated hatred that clearly shows no respect even for the dead, let alone the grieving family, is constitutionally protected. Men and women from all over, in various forms, are demanding "rights" but denying responsibility - and almost always at the expense of others. We are sacrificing our children, born and unborn, at the altar of self-indulgence. And we are, on almost all levels, more concerned about how others are carrying on than we are about how Christ the Lord is portrayed by our own lives. And we are demanding that the Lord come to terms with us ... on our terms, that is.

I am not going to talk about the earthquakes, the tsunamis, the riots, the protests, the "wars and rumors of wars" as a way of trying to make you afraid of the future. I am not - nor will I ever - suggest to you that you need to be afraid of the Day of Judgment. We must, however, acknowledge the present reality. What I am telling you is that the Lord Himself needed to be prepared as He confronted the present reality which involved the evil one. He Himself needed to take time to get ready for what lay ahead. He did not stock up on food, He did not hoard cash, and He did not stock up on weapons or ammo. He did, however, receive more than enough Help just by His willingness to take that first step.

He went straight to the Almighty with nothing but His heart. He left the world behind and removed Himself from all distractions to hear only One Voice. And He met evil face-to-face. And in so doing, He denied Himself food but was nevertheless adequately fed. He refused to put the Holy Father to the test, perhaps believing He was enduring a divine test. And in denying Himself the "kingdoms of the world and their splendor", He was nevertheless crowned the King of Kings.

Can we honestly believe that the Lord our God, our Holy Father, would offer any among His faithful - His own beloved children - any less?

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will forever be. Amen.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Who needs to know?

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 51:1-17 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Within a Lenten context of Jesus' lesson, the question is not what or even whether we are giving UP something for Lent. Perhaps the more appropriate question for disciples and for the Church as the Body of Christ should be about what we are GIVING for Lent.

Jesus speaks of "giving alms" which is the language of charitable giving to the poor, and He speaks clearly of fasting and praying as well. He does not seem to give one priority over another, but rather speaks of each as of equal importance - none of which seems inclined toward personal benefit or personal achievement on any level. As a point in fact, Jesus clearly speaks of keeping such things rather quiet lest we endanger ourselves - and deny the Holy Father His due glory - by pursuing our own personal glory or individual achievement.

It is a common thing for Christians to speak of giving up something for Lent, but I have noticed a substantial degradation of these spiritual practices when we speak of them publicly as some grand sacrifice that many do not understand and do not see as even necessary. Even worse, we speak of "giving up _____ for Lent" as some grand personal achievement as we feebly attempt to "one-up" a fellow practitioner or judge whether another's sacrificial choice is adequate. When we do this, are we not "sounding the trumpet" or perhaps implicitly soliciting pity if not admiration - "like the hypocrites" - when we do such things so publicly?

In the historic Church, Lent was a time of preparation for new catechumens; new Christians who were preparing and being prepared for baptism on Easter into the Church, the Covenant, and a life of discipleship. For the catechumen, it was not a matter of "personal" salvation or receiving a "personal" Lord and Savior, as intensely personal as the journey must have surely been; it was a time to "count the cost" of choosing to follow Jesus. It was a time of preparation for a much larger and broader application within the Holy Church. This time of intense preparation was reminiscent of Jesus' forty-day journey in the wilderness in preparation for His earthly ministry. It was not at all about Jesus "personally".

As such, Lent was necessarily a time of intense prayer, intense study, and intense fasting. It was a time of self-denial and ideally a time of a great spiritual awakening; and because of this, it must surely have also been a time of great trial and even greater temptation - for there is nothing more desirable and tempting for us than that which we cannot have.

Are such practices "mandatory"? Are they biblically required? They don't seem to be, but notice also that Jesus speaks of these practices as presumed; that is, they should already be regular spiritual practices. He never says nor does He suggest, however, that one no longer needs to do these things. But asking about "minimum requirements" suggests that we may be willing to do almost anything for the Lord ... but only what we must ... and only within reason. It is rather like a student approaching the teacher and asking what he or she can do "just to pass the course". No concern for an "A", and even less concern for the knowledge to be gained. Just wanna pass the course. No more.

Rather than tell us we no longer "must" do these things, Jesus speaks of praying, fasting, and charitable giving in a much more profound way. Was Jesus' journey in the wilderness mandated as a continuing practice of the Church? Well, Matthew tells of Jesus being "led up by the Spirit into the wilderness" (4:1). Are we now in any less of a "wilderness"? And Jesus seems also to have been "called out" for the purpose of confrontation with the evil one. The way it is written and the way it has been traditionally taught, it seems implied that it was a spiritual "show-down". "IF You are the Son of God ..."

But it is also written in such a way that Jesus is indeed being "led" by the Spirit of the Lord for the purpose of being "tempted", which seems to have come AFTER He had endured the forty-day fast and was weak with hunger. Jesus was "famished", as it is written, and must surely have been in a rather delicate state in which most of us would have stumbled.

Was it the evil one who was administering this test? Was the evil one really trying to figure out exactly who he was dealing with? Some say yes; others say no, but they say "no" in the tradition of Abraham being called forward to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. The Lord God Himself needed to know something about Abraham. It was the Spirit of the Lord who led Jesus into the wilderness; He had not been "summoned" by the evil one, so the temptation had to be according to the Lord's own purposes; not Satan's. What Satan knows or is even entitled to know is inconsequential.

You and I do not have to figure this out, but there is something we must be mindful of as we enter into this forty-day journey of Lent that precedes Easter. We must be mindful that the evil one will tempt us, but the Lord our God may test us - but not beyond our capacity to endure. This is a crazy world that offers up all kinds of deceitful comforts, things we embrace rather easily as "normal". Some are good, of course, and don't seem harmful but some are spiritually questionable not because they are inherently so but because of the dominant place we allow such things in our lives. It could well be that whenever we choose to pursue personal comfort, security, and happiness for ourselves and for those whom we love, our fidelity to the Lord our God is called into question. Perhaps it is that the Almighty Himself begins to wonder whether we can be trusted with what He means to impart to us.

Prayer, fasting, and charitable giving are spiritual disciplines of the Church, but they are also intensely personal choices you and I must make not only during the season of Lent but each and every day when we are called to decide to "choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15), the same challenge Joshua put forth to the people of the Lord - to serve the "gods" of their past or to serve the One, True, and Living God who calls us forward into His future: "'For I know the thoughts that I think toward you', says the Lord [through His prophet Jeremiah]; 'thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.'" Jeremiah 29:11-13

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will forever be. Amen.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

To What End?

The retired UM bishops' statement of protest against the Book of Discipline (ostensibly taking exception to only one, small segment of the entire book) is a shameful example of precisely what is wrong within the United Methodist Church and within the hearts of believers who try to make a theological case without scriptural reference but choose instead to rely on the worldly wisdom of the contemporary age. Of course we will not always agree on matters of human opinion because we all come from different backgrounds and different experiences. When it comes to matters of scriptural authority, however, the Bible must stand as the final word to break all ties just as church governance must depend on the final authority of the Discipline to keep the local church from going in too many different directions and causing nothing but confusion and hard feelings. In both instances these sources help to keep us united and focused but cannot serve these purposes if we do not take the Bible seriously, reject it as "antiquated", or worse; grant to ourselves authority to edit holy writ.

What is most profoundly disappointing, however, are the statements from some active bishops who have publicly expressed support for the sentiments of the retired bishops but nevertheless insist upon the authority of the Discipline without bothering to mention that the Discipline itself derives its authority from the Holy Scripture. The Bible is not justified by the Discipline. Rather, the Discipline can only be justified by the Holy Word.

Yet there is a continued call for "holy conferencing" to further discuss an issue that has been, in my humble opinion and according to the written Word, divinely settled. All are welcome, yet all are called to repentance. All are called to turn away from a life of self-indulgence and self-fulfillment, so what is left to conference about? I do grieve that homosexuality has come to be labeled the "mother of all sins", but I grieve even more that some elements within the United Methodist Church - especially those in positions of authority - seem determined to redefine sin altogether to a more secular notion of feel-good theology in which the pursuit of personal happiness trumps Jesus' clear call to deny oneself and follow Him.

There is nothing more to discuss. There is no new ground to be broken, and there is no "new" scripture or revelation that will shed new light. Homosexual conduct was denounced long ago; when did it become ok and where in Scripture is this reference? We have the Word of the Lord to inform us, to feed us, to sustain us, and to teach and correct us; it "contains ALL things necessary to salvation".

How dare we reach a point in which we declare by "holy conferencing" that the "manna" is no longer adequate or even desired (Numbers 11), remembering instead the "good ol' days" before the Lord justified us and called us His own?

Sunday, March 06, 2011

We Confess

Ephesians 4:1-16
John 17:20-23

"There is hope. God is raising up men and women in the Methodist church that are being faithful to Jesus and His kingdom. They are embracing the Bible as the inerrant Word of God, that Jesus Christ is fully God and He alone is the way of salvation, that God desires holiness and that He wants all the nations to hear His gospel."

Unity in faith, being one in Christ and with one another, sounds wonderful and wonderfully idealistic. This is the biblical principle expressed by St. Paul to the Ephesians but more importantly, it is the prayer of Jesus Himself that in order for us to be one in Him and in the Holy Father, we must necessarily be one in each other. We must be of the same mind and united in faith, but we must also be mindful of the divine reality of individual gifts we are all given so that the Church as the Body of Christ can grow in discipleship to the glory of our heavenly Father.

Idealistic this all is, but in reality it is hardly a true portrait of the genuine condition of the Church. We are not allowed to "sup" at the Roman Catholic table of the Lord's Supper, and we cannot join many Baptist or Church of Christ churches as baptized Christians because many of these do not recognize any baptism outside of their own which has as much to do with their own understanding of the "ordinance" that requires a verbal confession of faith AND total submersion rather than the pouring or sprinkling of water.

But we are Wesleyan Methodists ideally united in our doctrinal standards and our understanding of discipleship that has as much to do with the pursuit of personal holiness as with social holiness, which is to say that we understand and embrace the duties and responsibilities we have outside of our own personal spiritual journey. And within all this is the understanding that our final measure of holiness is defined by our understanding of the authority of Holy Scripture. We must decide whether we accept the Bible as the "tie-breaker" when we cannot agree on anything else.

But even this basic principle is not as easy as it sounds because among this very group, there is disagreement about whether or not we are truly prohibited from eating certain meats. A seemingly minor point we've had a little fun with, but it is still a point of disagreement that goes to the core of the authority of Scripture when we each decide for ourselves what is and what is not authoritative. Though this particular point seems insignificant on the surface, it is only one of so many other points throughout what has been deemed "holy" and "canonical" - that is, "complete" and "authoritative" - by the historic church and scripturally discounted - OR - justified, ironically, by the same Scripture.

Then we might make some innocuous statement of faith by which we are united in Christ. John Wesley himself insisted that "true religion is the knowledge of God in Christ Jesus", so we seem to be on the right track. Doctrinal disputes arise, however, when we cannot agree on one basic - but profound - principle of Christianity: "love". The truth is we don't really know what this word means, yet it is foundational! We confuse "love" with "lust", and I do not mean "lust" in exclusive terms of sexual ethics, conduct, and behavior. "Lust" is more appropriately related to "personal desire" and is applicable to anything we will choose to pursue INSTEAD of holiness.

Finally, when it comes to "unity" in Christ and when we speak so eloquently of being one with each other, united in love and faith, what we really seem to mean is that unity can only be achieved if others will surrender their own beliefs and submit to ours. That, by and large, is what we mean when we say "unity". And in my humble opinion, it is then when we are as far and away from the Lord as we can possibly be and will not be reconciled with Him until we can get past and over ourselves!

So what to do? How do we move beyond all these things that separate us? How can we sit down to a meal of pork chops and catfish? How do we reconcile with those who violate the traditional understanding of sexual ethics by living with and employing a whole new standard that seems entirely incompatible with Scripture but is perversely justified by a very loose interpretation - or a total disregard - of that same Scripture - all in the name of "grace"?

Notice that Jesus did not simply demand unity among His disciples; He PRAYED to the Father for the unity that would be necessary for the sake of the Church He would call forth. So the obvious answer seems to be prayer; honest, earnest, soul-searching, open, genuine, tears-inducing, personal submission prayer. But our prayers must not be entered into with our own agendas and itineraries, and we must take great pains to avoid entering into a time of prayer in which we are determined to influence the Lord by our fancy words and eloquent arguments.

We must be willing to enter into a time of prayer with NO AGENDA - AND - with a willingness to believe, accept, and respect that the answer we receive might not be compatible with our personal and long-held beliefs. If we enter into prayer with a preset notion that the Lord already agrees with us or can be convinced to go against what is clearly "written for our edification", then we probably need not bother at all.

The greatest confession we can make to our Holy God is to kneel before Him and "be still"; that is, speak no words. Ask nothing. Request nothing. Certainly demand nothing. And above all else, dare not presume to think the Lord is waiting to act only according to what we bring to Him.

This is the only way faithful United Methodist men and women will rise up and honestly face the challenges of an age that seeks instant gratification and self-will. It is not about "restoring Methodism" or "rethinking Church" or any other quip that can fit on a bumper sticker. It is not even about restoring traditional, conservative Church teachings. It is about taking the Bible at its own Word and coming to terms with the reality that the Lord does not always agree with us but, rather, that we must necessarily agree with the Lord perhaps especially when we do not understand. After all, is this not the entire point?

Who are we, really?

2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

I don't remember if it was during the 60's or the 70's that the big thing was to "find yourself", but I will also grant that many who were young, active, and coming of age during these tumultuous times might be inclined to say there is not a lot they remember - or want to remember! These were some challenging times because the entire nation was in such upheaval, and it became a challenge to trust the US government after we had our eyes opened perhaps for the first time and discovered exactly what our government was capable of.

It was also during this time when mainstream Christianity began to lose its footing, and many began to challenge the authority of the Church. It could have been just as simple as challenging all authority in general, but it was a legitimate challenge because it seemed clear that whether we were talking about the Church or the government, leaders of these institutions had failed and betrayed their charges. They discovered that heavy-handed tactics would no longer work. People were no longer willing to blindly believe or trust just because they were "supposed to". Threats were ignored, and ultimatums were laughed at. It seemed to be that the entire nation was trying to "find" itself because what we had previously known to be true seemed, well, not so true after all.

And it was forgotten that in the midst of this chaos, the Lord was still sitting on His throne. Some had suggested this was a period in which the Lord chose to turn His back on America, but such a statement could not stand in the reality of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the right and just thing that was long overdue, and Dr. King's entire message and ministry were based almost entirely on the Gospel of the Lord. And because Dr. King refused to be moved by anyone or anything other than the Gospel, a nation was transformed. Tragically his life was cut short - by human standards - and his message got hijacked by political opportunists, but the Lord is still on His throne.

Dr. King's untimely death left a power vacuum that was virtually impossible to fill because as important as he was to the Civil Rights Movement and to that particular period in American history, he was not the Lord. Indeed he never claimed to be, but people tend to either marginalize or elevate persons of social significance according to their usefulness and the perceptions of the people. In Dr. King's case he was revered - and feared. He was a powerfully dynamic speaker who "moved mountains" with his words, and people responded positively AND negatively.

It was just not possible to be ambivalent about Dr. Martin Luther King. Those who did not consider him a "threat" most likely elevated Dr. King to near-messianic status. Strangely enough, as much as Dr. King talked about the Lord, the Gospel, and Divine Justice, society in general did not really make the connection because there was still a clear distinction between the ideal of Divine Justice and the reality of social justice. This distinction is made even today because human society makes its own rules according to its own standards as to what it deems "just" and "right", divine principles notwithstanding.

So there may be a reasonable parallel with Jesus' time, His disciples, AND His nemeses. Jesus spoke constantly about the principles of the Law and the Holy God who commanded and ordained the Law, and He made real connections between the life people knew and the ideal of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the end, however, it was clear that people - disciples and opponents alike - didn't really make the connection. If it is possible to put "too much" emphasis on Jesus the fully human person, this may have had a lot to do with how easily the masses turned on Him prior to His death.

It is perhaps no different today. We can talk about Jesus being THE Way, THE Truth, and THE Life and we can quote the several NT Scripture passages that proclaim the salvation that comes from believing on His name, but these proclamations have no connection in any real way to our "real life" if this reality does not cause a real transformation in the way we think and act. Social justice is still relative to the dominant elements of society, and rules are made according to what sounds good to us at any particular time to fit any particular need; social justice defined by whichever way the political winds happen to be blowing.

In the post-9/11 America, for instance, social justice does not extend to persons of Middle-Eastern descent, particularly Muslims. The hope-filled social invitation and idealistic promise of the Statue of Liberty to the "poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free", the "wretched refuse", the "homeless and tempest-tossed" for whom the "lamp is lifted beside the golden door" - as an expression of the best of American idealism and Christian hospitality - seems no more the open invitation it once was but has been reduced instead to little more than a cheesy tourist attraction. There is, after all, this very serious - and very real - national security consideration that has a tendency to make us hostile rather than hospitable to foreigners and other outsiders. The realities of a hostile world have made us very afraid because we have learned to depend on the physical senses and trust the social realities that behold the hostility in its truest forms.

I am more convinced than ever that the Transfiguration of the Christ came at an important time not for Jesus Himself but, rather, for the Church which would soon be called forth. The world - which was no more or less hostile than now - still held the potential for overwhelming those who would choose to follow Jesus to the very end. It is interesting to note St. Augustine's commentary on the Lord's glorified garments as an analogy of the Church itself. He wrote of the Transfiguration: "His garments are a type of His Church. For garments fall unless they are held up by the One who wears them" (Sermon 78.2).

This was an important moment in the lives of Jesus' disciples because of what precedes this moment. Recall that in Matthew 16 Jesus had foretold of His coming arrest and crucifixion - but the disciples did not seem to hear "resurrection". Peter is not prepared to accept this certain reality and tries to pull Jesus aside to call Him on it, but he is rebuked rather harshly by Jesus when he is told that he is much too mindful of "human" things rather than on the things of the Lord. In the language of the Church AND for the sake of the Church, this is a bona fide threat that undercuts the very foundation of the divine nature of the Body of Christ. Being more mindful of "human" things rather than Godly things; that is, being more mindful of our own will and our own desires and our own likes and dislikes rather than the will of the Lord, threatens the spiritual integrity and the moral authority of the institution itself.

Could it perhaps be that the Church, the very Body of Christ Himself, was in danger until this profound moment when the fullness of the glory of the Lord our God was manifest in the eyes of these few disciples, at least one of whom would later write, "We ourselves heard this Voice come from heaven while we were with Him on the holy mountain" (2 Peter 1:18)? And could it be that the fullness of the glory of the Lord is manifest, fulfilled, and perfected in Christ the Covenant by the presence of the Law in Moses and the prophets in Elijah? And could it be that this fullness which can hardly be adequately described in human language is the fullness so lacking in the Church today?

Yes, yes, and yes, but this is not all there is to it. Peter writes of this moment yet speaks only of the Voice that was so clearly heard. He did not describe a vision even though we are offered Matthew's vision that still cannot be fully understood. Why? It is because this is the fullest vision of the Lord's glory that cannot be comprehended with limited human senses. It is a vision that can only be approached with intense respect and trembling and faith. It is a vision offered only to those willing to look beyond their physical senses. It is a vision only to those who realize that the human Jesus, real though He was, is not the "whole" Christ who is glorified in the Lord God and in whom the Lord God Himself is glorified.

It is the same way we must learn to identify and to be identified. We can take measures to change our physical appearances and we can make such drastic changes that we would not be recognized by those who know us intimately, but none of these changes has anything to do with who we really are, who we choose to be, and how we choose to be known. But before we can embrace this true reality of who we really are, we must be able to speak of an incomprehensible vision that will judge us "not by the color of our skin" or even "by the content of our character". The truest vision of who we are in Christ Jesus is by the measure of our faith and our willingness to see the Lord as He truly is - not as we would wish Him to be.

Such a concept challenges our physical limitations to the very core, but the spiritual vision that is borne only of faith is the method and the means by which we must act, by which we must believe, and by which we must truly see not only ourselves and our Lord, but also our "neighbor". It is Christianity at its very core. It is Christ in His fullness and in the glory of Almighty God our Father. AMEN.