Monday, June 27, 2011

Customs and Courtesies: the hollow shell

Genesis 28:10-15
Matthew 5:21-26

In the armed forces (and specifically to my knowledge, the Marine Corps), saluting is a big deal. In boot camp our drill instructors even walked around us and adjusted our arms and even our fingers (and not gently, I might add) if they were not completely straight, upper arm precisely parallel to the deck, and fingertips touching the brim of the cover (hat) in precisely the right place because if it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well.

I was a private in the beginning so if it didn't move it probably required a salute, so saluting soon became somewhat routine, if automatic. I will never forget the day, though, when I was walking from a guard post to my battalion area which required walking past the Commanding General's lawn (base headquarters). It was late in the day and about the time when "colors" is announced (the raising and lowering of the US flag). When "colors" is announced by a bugle call, all are required to stop, face the flag, and offer a salute until the flag is completely down or up. If not in uniform, one is expected to face the standard and stand at attention.

So this happens each day, morning and evening, without exception. No biggie. Except for this one particular day. For some reason the flag seemed especially majestic as it swayed in the breeze, and the sun shone just right that suddenly all the US flag means, all that flag has endured, all the flag stands for just hit me like a truck! I suddenly became acutely aware that I was wearing the uniform of a United States Marine and watching with extreme reverence the retiring of the "colors" I was trained and expected to defend. In that moment I was awash with such a sense of pride and privilege, duty and honor, that I could barely contain my emotions. That day the salute I offered was not given because I was expected to do. That day the sharp, rigid, and picture-perfect salute came straight from my heart. I don't think I was ever more aware of who I was and what I was than in that moment when I was completely connected to an entire nation and an ideal much bigger than myself.

Worship should be like that. Worship is to a great extent a social gathering, of course, because we are social animals. It is good that we enjoy gathering for worship, and it is even better that we enjoy gathering together to worship. The "Church" is not quite the Body of Christ if it is missing an arm and a leg while everyone and his brother-in-law are all out doing their own thing. So we gather together, sing hymns of praise, offer the Lord our gifts and tithes, offer prayers, enjoy the choir, hear a sermon, do communion, and then go on our way.

The next week we do it all over again. And the next week. And the next ... and the next. From one week to the next, nothing much will really change. Gathering for worship soon becomes the fulfillment of an expectation, an empty gesture, just something we do because we are expected to and have in some sense come to believe we "must" do (as indeed we certainly must), but we are not really connected beyond ourselves. We are more aware of the people around us than we are of the Divine Presence.

I fear that a sense of social obligation - and maybe pride - has overwhelmed us to the point that we have a greater anticipation of seeing a dear friend than there is an eager expectation of the Lord moving our souls. I am probably guiltier than most when I wonder whether we will break 90 in attendance or fall below 70 souls. As the worship leader and pastor of this church, I wonder if I can put together a "program" that will sufficiently enlighten, fulfill, or "entertain" enough folks to keep them coming back - and maybe bring or invite a friend next time. I wonder so much so that I have asked our music director to join in my anxiety. And it occurs to me that during all this worry and planning, there is not a single moment I can readily recall in which I actually wondered - or asked! - "Will this be pleasing to our Lord?" I find myself more concerned with your reaction.

The Lord speaks through the prophet Isaiah as Israel's downfall and exile are imminent: "When you come to appear before Me, who asked this from your hand? Trample My courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation - I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity" (1:12-13).

Why? Why is the Father suddenly not pleased with the sacrifices and offerings He requires and has actually commanded? Because we do not offer these as gifts from the depth of a grateful soul; we are merely going through the motions, paying a "tax" by writing a check or simply being in the pew - while being spiritually disconnected. We claim Jesus as our Savior - in word - yet in our actions when we readily and eagerly embrace something or someone - including our own children - more eagerly than we embrace our Savior, we are deemed by the mouth of that same Lord "not worthy" (Mt 10:37).

When we enter into a sanctuary of a church and allow - or demand - someone to make or break our experience, we betray the One who is faithful. When we come before the Lord and hastily reach into our pockets for whatever is loose (while making sure there is enough left for lunch!) so that our neighbors can see us putting something in the plate, we deceive ourselves in our own self-imposed darkness even in the Light of Christ our Lord. When we refuse to enter into a sanctuary of any church because "so-and-so" might be there - "and I can't STAND so-and-so" - we are "Trampling His courts" and proving to the Lord that His words ring hollow in the "empty shells" of our souls.

John Wesley, Methodism's founder, once said: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

If we worry about the direction of this nation and the continued degeneration of our society, we must first worry about whether we are sufficiently salvageable ourselves. If we have convinced ourselves that there is such a profound evil that even the Lord cannot or will not forgive, we must first consider whether we have placed ourselves beyond redemption.

If it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing well; and the Lord demands no less. Customs and courtesies of the Church exist for a reason, for it is the discipline of the Church which holds us accountable to one another to support and encourage one another lest we fall into the hands of the evil one. We must take the Lord by His outstretched Hand. We must reach from deep within the pit of our soul and offer to Him everything we have and everything we are; for without Him we are no good. It is only when our practices, our customs, and our courtesies are directed at the Lord that we will ever have "the power". Through Him, with Him, and in Him. Amen.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

How many times ...

It never fails. Every four years the issue of homosexuality invades the United Methodist Church at the General Conference, the law-making body of the Church. Approximately two years prior to GC the heated debates and rehashed arguments are once again pulled out, dusted off, and thrown back out into the blogosphere and other online religious sites. And every four years the advocates for homosexual rights (however these rights may be defined) insist that this single issue is not the issue in and of itself, yet they continue to slam home this issue because it is the issue they want specifically addressed. It is indeed the issue that is thrust before the Church rather aggressively, forcing a confrontation that is needless and fruitless.

The Lutherans, the Episcopalians, and the Presbyterians have all succumbed to this perpetual battle cry for social justice, and they all continue to bleed members left and right. They have yet to fully realize that changing in such a way as to accommodate the world and its fickle standards does nothing edifying for the Church universal, for their particular denominations, and certainly not for the human soul. If such were to be true, these denominations should be standing-room-only each Sunday for worship. As it is, these worldly forces have only managed to force these denominations to surrender their moral authority and very simply be beaten into submission. These advocacy forces got what they wanted and only what they wanted: complete capitulation. They did not want "equal rights", or else they would be flocking to these churches to exercise these rights. Why can't the faithful see this?

I've said before what I (and many others) will say again: sexual issues outside the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman are symptoms of a much greater ill, testimony to just how sexualized and animalistic our society has become. I agree that homosexuality is not the "mother" of all sinful behavior and I agree that *ALL* are (and must be) welcomed into the Body of Christ to explore a relationship with the Lord through His Church, but within the realm of the Holy Church I do not agree that it is a social justice or civil rights issue that warrants such attention as to be debated, discussed, or "holy conferenced" year after tiresome year. The Church cannot - must not - attempt to redefine and ultimately sanctify what is clearly by biblical standards sinful and unworthy of consideration within the Church because homosexuality is not about giving glory or love to the Lord; it is entirely about getting one's own way - demanding the goodness of the Gospel while rejecting the disciple of repentance from one's own life and life choices; in essence, ignoring the call of Christ Himself to "repent (change the current direction of one's life) and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). Notice the two-pronged statement that suggests one is to do both; not either/or.

As has become clear, however, quoting the Bible does no good for these progressive sorts who seem to earnestly believe that the Church must evolve and keep up with worldly standards. They reject the biblical reality that the Lord our God is "the same yesterday, today and forever. Do not be carried about with various and strange doctrines" (Hebrews 13:8-9a). The shifting winds of progressiveness carry us about from here to there, changing our minds and allegiances from generation to generation. When the Church willingly and eagerly jumps aboard this unstable foundation of sand, it has no right or reason to wonder or to ask: Where is everyone going?

I believe people need stability. I believe people need certainty. I believe people need something they can count on "yesterday, today, and forever". I believe people need a firm foundation that will support and not give way to the shifting tide of secularism and the fickle standards of humanity. People need the Lord who "does not change"(Malachi 3:6), whether they believe in the Lord or not. What people want, however ... well, that remains to be seen.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Proper Authority

Psalm 8 Matthew 28:16-20

There are some "reality" shows I just cannot get enough of not because I enjoy watching people making fools of themselves (even though I do!) but because I am often curious to know, "What were they thinking??" I've seen tons of silly but dangerous - and not very well-thought-out -stunts performed by these "wanna-be's" who think Hollywood, riches, and fame are just around the corner. More often than not, the first thing they usually hear after their ill-conceived "stunt", besides that ringing in their ears, is, "Dude. You ok?"

Besides these colorful daredevils, though, are those even more daring people who are just deluded enough to believe they will somehow be able to intimidate an armed police officer who has stopped them for some traffic violation. Me, I've been stopped enough times to know that humility, submission, and sometimes a little begging are much more than biblical disciplines for disciples; they are also excellent and effective tools that can help to avoid an otherwise well-deserved ticket. Not always, of course, but the last thing I will ever think of doing is to try and challenge the authority of the officer on his or her turf! That's just asking for it. If you're going to go that route, you might as well go for the gold and "moon" the officer while you're at it and then put your hands behind your head for the handcuffs that will surely be coming your way.

It really does not matter whether or not the officer was justified in making the stop, not on the street anyway. They are charged with making snap decisions based on what they see. They are charged - by their communities - with maintaining order, and sometimes their charge requires force - especially when they are challenged aggressively. It's not a "contest" on any level in which they are expected to fight "fair". We arm them because they are expected to come out on top ... every time. If they are wrong, then let it be settled in court or through their chain of command; but never confront the officer in a threatening manner. You will lose ... because you and I endowed that officer with sufficient authority to do the job.

Authority, and the power that goes with it, is a heady responsibility and one of the most potent "drugs" out there. It has as much potential to destroy as it does to build up. Witness the many political scandals that continue to rock our government and always will. We endow our representatives - on all levels of government - with such authority as is necessary to speak and to act in our behalf. Many have handled such enormous power and authority with grace and dignity and discretion, but many others have been professionally and personally destroyed by that same power; often taking their families and other innocent bystanders down with them. I do feel sorry for these poor folks because it should be easy to see that they become so overwhelmed with their endowed authority that they failed to remember that the authority had to come from someone else; it was never theirs to claim for their own use.

Jesus embraces His authority, but He also acknowledges that the authority He does have was "given" to Him, entrusted to Him for a much greater purpose. He does not claim it as His own. When Pontius Pilate tried to intimidate and exercise authority over Jesus, Jesus told him he had "no authority" unless it has been endowed. More specifically, the power required for Pilate to have authority over Jesus' very life would have to come "from above" (John 19:11). Pilate, like every other human being in any position of authority, has no power except what is granted or endowed. None. We think we have authority and power, but then we are as deluded as those poor saps who think they can do as they please and suffer no consequences.

The psalmist also acknowledges the divine authority imparted to humanity when he states, "You have given them dominion over the works of Your hand" but then ends by offering this "dominion" authority back to the Lord, "our Sovereign". The psalmist accepts the enormous responsibility that comes with such awesome endowment, but he keeps himself - and all the faithful! - grounded in the reality that "sovereignty" does not come with authority or dominion. The proper and appropriate exercise of any level of authority must always be within the restrictions of knowing that authority is bestowed, given, entrusted for a much greater purpose than for oneself. It is to serve the higher purpose of the "sovereign" power which bestows that authority - without exception.

Jesus said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me", yet He refused to use His endowed power even to save His own life. It could easily have been argued that He could have stayed longer, reached more people, healed more infirmities, and blessed even more souls. Being divine, He could have chosen to stay and restore the Kingdom even to this very day! Lots of good would have come from Jesus using His authority to save His life and do even more right here on this earth. Hitler would never have come into power if Jesus had just stayed. We would not, even today, continue to read stories of children around the world who die of heart failure due to malnutrition and starvation - if Jesus had just spared His own life first.

Consider this, however. The very Kingdom of Heaven is bigger even than Jesus the Christ! Though He is the fulfillment and the perfection of all that is, there was still something much bigger that had to be dealt with. There was an even greater ill than injustice, starvation, and persecution. You see, Rome was not the true enemy of the people of YHWH. Rome did not stand in the way of righteousness. Rome did not prevent the people of YHWH from seeking the Lord's face, though Rome was probably used as an excuse to justify hatred.

Rome was not the problem, though Rome was perhaps a good analogy of the principalities and worldly forces we are confronted with to this day; forces that only appear to have power and authority and dominion over us, forces we "blame" for all kinds of ills. Arguably they do have such power - BUT - they do not have absolute "sovereignty". That is, they are not a "power" unto themselves, and their "authority" does not dismiss them from their duties and accountability to the Sovereign. Nor does our "dominion" over the created order dismiss us from accountability to one another, to the Church, and to the Sovereign Lord who is alone the Absolute Power.

In the so-called "Great Commission" Jesus does not seem to relegate the authority that has been given to Him, but He does endow the Church with adequate power to continue His mission. The ultimate authority, however, seems to be retained by Him. The Church is entrusted with the power to "make disciples", to "baptize", and to "teach" by and through the authority of the Christ. We even have the power to forgive sins and only by this authority, to be forgiven ourselves.

There is a lot of power involved in taking risks, and we are called to take great risks for the sake of the Gospel which is the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven for all of humanity. The Lord did well with the authority given to Him. I wonder if we can say the same. AMEN.

Monday, June 13, 2011

I Wonder ...

“I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.” Anne Frank

Anne Frank was a young Jewish girl who was discovered by the Nazis as she was being hidden. She died in a concentration camp at the age of 16. Her diary had been discovered by her father shortly after Germany fell in WWII, and he had it published in 1947. You probably know the work as The Diary of Anne Frank.

I came across this quote and shared with the congregation last night my thoughts concerning Anne’s ideals and the United Methodist ideal expressed in “Imagine Ministry”. Anne looked forward to the day, through her optimism in spite of her living in constant fear of being discovered, when her ideals would be fully expressed, high ideals that believed at the core that humans were basically decent. She seemed to look forward to the day when she could enhance that notion of goodness and prove there are decent humans in the world. Sadly, she never got to see her ideals come to fruition, yet The Diary is widely read around the world today. Her ideals are expressed in every new reader who takes to heart her perspective, her courage, her optimism that there will always be better moments.

“Imagine Ministry” will challenge United Methodist Christians to take the ideals we have upheld for so long – and they are good! - and recognize the time has come to “carry them out” but make no mistake; this cannot strictly be about the United Methodist Church – it is entirely about the Body of Christ! In our lifetimes we may not get to see the fruits of our efforts, but I wonder if someone will “discover” our diaries after we are departed from this earth and find them worth reading. I wonder if they will see the strength of our convictions and the courage of our faith in all we had written. I wonder if future generations will be able to see what we truly believed. I wonder if we will be worth talking about 60 years from now.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Common Language

Acts 2:1-8; 12-21 John 7:37-39

Each year on this special Sunday of Pentecost we commemorate the birth of the Holy Church - not as an institution, however, but as a movement. Yet it is also a day which no longer seems to hold any real significance for Christians because the significance of that very special day has been diminished over time - not because we no longer believe it (even if we don't fully understand it), but because it has been reduced to a single event in the past that will never be repeated. In spiritual fact, however, it is an event that should be repeated daily.

The Pentecost is actually the Jewish Festival of Weeks - or Shavu'ot - which is not a fixed date on a calendar but is a lunar countdown from Passover as commanded in Leviticus 21. It is an agricultural festival during which the "first fruits" (Hag ha-Bikkurim) are harvested and brought to the Temple as an offering to the Lord. Its significance following the Passover also commemorates the "giving" of Torah - the Law; that is, the Lord "revealing" Himself to His people, which should not be confused with His people "receiving" Him through His revelation through prayer and Scripture study both of which should also be daily practices. Passover freed the people of YHWH from physical bondage; Shavu'ot in the "giving" of the Torah redeemed the people of YHWH from spiritual bondage to idolatry and immorality. The Festival marks and commemorates the definitive point at which the people of YHWH were "defined" as a people, a culture with its own practices and language; set apart from the dominant culture.

One of the points made at (Arkansas) Annual Conference regarding the Imagine Ministry proposals (all of which were adopted, by the way) was that the Church has lost its ability to speak to the contemporary generation, not exclusively referring to youth. It was suggested that this is not typically perceived as a problem among believers, those already inside the Church, because we pretty much understand each other. And because we don't really perceive or appreciate a problem within, we don't typically see a problem at all. From within, all is well. We find ourselves perfectly content with the way things are. We as individuals are satisfied with the status quo as it pertains to us individually, so we see no problem. Why, then, try to "fix" what does not seem to be broken?

It's a valid question, of course, because if something seems to be running smoothly, messing with it can really foul things up. This applies to nearly anything we could think of ... except the Church. Because of the dynamic nature of the Church as the Body of Christ (and not a social institution), the measurement of wellness cannot be of the same standard as anything else in the world. A church - any church - that does not see a regular influx of new visitors on a regular basis is, in fact, "broken". If all had been well some 2000 years ago - and the Pharisees and Sadducees were pretty content with the way things were - there would have been no need for a Messiah. If all had been well with the death of Jesus - and the chief priests and scribes were pretty OK with that - there would have been no need for a Resurrection. And if the Church - such as it was among the apostles - was ok with the way things were, there would have been no need for such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

A "closed culture" is one that may tolerate an "outsider" coming in as long as that "outsider" knows his or her place, but such inwardly focused cultures are typically perceived as not only "private" but sometimes even downright "hostile" to outsiders. This is not always a fair characterization, of course, because churches are often judged by outsiders who never bother to come inside, much in the way we judge them without actually engaging them. Then again, why would they come in if they are not actively engaged by those on the inside and made to feel welcome and invited? Why can't they see from the outside what we clearly see on the inside? Good people, active worship, good study groups, great potlucks and fellowship. What could possibly be wrong with any of this?

There is nothing wrong with any church with a hearty fellowship. In fact it is highly desirable and consistent with the Holy Church's dynamic and history. Membership Care should be very high on any church's list of priorities. Part of what is so compelling about church membership is in understanding that we will look after one another, pray for one another, enjoy one another, and protect one another (rather than seek to destroy one another ) ... as well as hold one another accountable for the necessary spiritual journey. However, as was also pointed out at Annual Conference, it's not strictly about "us". Membership care is "follow-up" care. It is not the primary dynamic of the Body of Christ.

What happened on Pentecost was not about the apostles or their divine appointment and empowerment. It was - and still is - entirely about what the Church was - and still is - being empowered for: reaching outsiders. The Church was - and will be until the Trumpet sounds - about those who cannot seem to find their place within the Body of Christ. It was - and will be until the Day of the Lord - entirely about the "last, least, and lost"; those who thirst and are invited to "drink ... from the rivers of living water ... which flows [freely] from a believer's heart", as Jesus points out (John 7:38).

Outsiders will not come to "drink", however, if the environment where the "living water" is seems strange, exclusive, foreign, or even hostile. And no one, including any one of us, will drink "stagnant" water if there is a better choice. As seems to be told in Acts, however, there is one common element that made all the foreigners notice that "Holy Spirit language" is not gibberish, nonsensical noise exclusively reserved for "insiders". The Holy Father means to be heard AND understood. This must be why Jesus came to us in the form of humanity, so that the Holy God could be seen and heard and understood. It stands to reason, then, that the Holy Spirit is the continuing element of that ministry which began even before that glorious night in a stable so long ago.

It was - and still is - about the "outsiders", the Gentiles, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel: "I will also give you as a light to the Gentiles, that you should be My salvation to the ends of the earth" (49:6), and as was pointed out to St. Peter in Acts 10 when he was given a vision with the sheet from heaven with all the unclean animals. That vision was not about food for Peter OR the people on the "inside". That vision was not about enhancing their food choices! It was - and still is - about the "outsiders", those who had previously been declared "unclean", or "common"; the "uncircumcised", those outside the covenant of Abraham. It was Peter's - and thus the Church's - call to reach out to those who had previously been perceived as "undesirable". And this vision was put forth in Peter's call to follow those "uncircumcised" men to the home of an "uncircumcised" man to preach the Good News and baptize these "outsiders" into the New Covenant. Peter was not told to sit and wait for Cornelius to come to him.

The Church - that's you and me - must be able AND willing to communicate with a world seriously gone mad because it is overwhelmingly obvious that as they are out there chasing their own tails in pursuit of something, they are clearly "searching". YOU as the Body of Christ are the answer to their quest for something more, for something with meaning, for something more enduring than anything the world can offer. YOU are the common language not of "sanctification" or "justification" or any other $20 "church word", but of "love", "grace", and "peace". YOU are the Body of Christ, and YOU have been appointed and empowered from above not only for your own spiritual well-being but to also be "a light to the [outsiders] ... [the Lord's] salvation to the ends of the earth."

It was - and still is - all about YOU ... but for something much greater, as it has been said, "The Lord does not comfort us to make us comfortable; He comforts us to make us 'comforters'". WE are the Lord's "salvation to the ends of the earth"! In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.