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.

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