Sunday, September 25, 2011

Righteousness Delayed; Righteousness denied

Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Sometimes the meanings of Jesus' parables are so obscure that it is difficult to get any real, contemporary meaning from them. What often makes interpretation even more difficult is in discovering that the indictment that may be implicit is often directed at the reader ... IF the reader is genuinely open to hearing the Spirit. This is not to say we should all feel guilty or worry about being made to feel guilty each time we read a parable; not at all. It is, however, the height of arrogance to believe any parable cannot - or does not - speak to us but is instead directed at "someone else".

So goes the confusion in trying to assign each of the sons in Jesus' parable as representing one particular group or another. Each may have its own merit accordingly, and sound points can be made for each. However, trying to decide which person or group is "guiltier" than the other goes back to what was previously stated. We could change the meaning by reading a different Bible translation - OR - we can simply decide where we are less likely to be personally implicated.

We may do better for ourselves and Jesus' purpose for the Church in using this parable of the two sons if we were to first decide what the vineyard represents. Once this is accomplished, we can then more reasonably determine exactly what sort of vineyard "work" is being assigned - and put off or ultimately refused. If we can nail this down, we will have a better understanding of what each player represents for Jesus' purposes and where we fit into the story today.

First we must go back and bring the story into context. Jesus had entered into Jerusalem and was hailed as a conquering hero (Mt 21:1-9). He then moved into the Temple and sent the money changers packing (Mt 21:12-13). Inside the Temple Jesus healed the blind and the lame who came to Him. The chief priests and scribes were witnesses to these deeds of mercy and were only concerned with the delighted cries and praises of the children who were chanting what was chanted as Jesus entered into Jerusalem: "Hosanna to the Son of David!" After an overnight stay in Bethany, the scripture says Jesus was hungry but found nothing but leaves on a fig tree (presumably in fruit-bearing season). Because there was no fruit on what should have been a fruit-bearing tree even though it "looked like" what it was supposed to, Jesus condemned the tree and it "withered" away.

When the chief priests and elders confronted Jesus, He was back in the Temple teaching but we are not told exactly what the Lord was teaching. We can be pretty sure the people are eating it up as coming from One with substantial authority to teach because it is that authority which was being called into question. In AND outside the Church even today, the teachings of the Lord are called into question! By believers and non-believers alike! We pick and choose what makes the most sense to us or is most pleasing for our particular lifestyle or circumstance. And this, I think, is the key to what scripture can impart to us today if we are honest enough and open enough to believe the Spirit is speaking directly to us through scripture.

The vineyard itself can be as simple as representing an agricultural reality, a distinct cultural point of reference for the people to whom Jesus is speaking so they can understand His point. For our purposes, however, there is a much broader application since few of us manages a vineyard. For the purposes of the Gospel, then, the vineyard must represent the mission field. The work which must be done is that missional work for which the Church was called into being in the first place and for which the Church continues to be equipped, called forth, and set apart: the proclamation of the Gospel of the Lord. There can be no other reasonable task for the Church as the Body of Christ. None. Everything else is secondary to the primary.

We are called forward today as children of the Father, "heirs to the vineyard" with a legitimate stake in the care and well-being of that "vineyard", and we are assigned our role through the Church as "heirs" and sent into the mission field. So when we are confronted with Jesus' presentation to the authorities of His day, it does not fall upon us to determine exactly what Jesus meant 2000 years ago, which group was being implicated, or only within that particular context. To try to do so can have a useful role in interpretation, but it has a greater tendency to remove us from the story altogether. Yet the question for us is not which "son" we belong with. I think the more appropriate and profound question is: do we even fit with either one? Do we act in any way like "children of the Father" who would be trusted with the important work of the vineyard?

The chief priests may well have answered Jesus' question correctly. After all, even the delay and perhaps a second thought brought the first son around, and he went about his work in the vineyard. It should not escape our notice, however, that initially the first son - by his action - challenged and perhaps questioned his father's authority to assign the work in the first place. That he eventually got around to doing it does not account for the "in your face" attitude the father was likely confronted with in the beginning. We also cannot push aside the adage that "righteousness (or justice) delayed is righteousness (or justice) denied." Clearly some task in the vineyard was important enough that the father assigned the work to his "own" children. To deny the work and then come back later may run parallel to the concept of 'repentance', but we must then understand whose "will" was actually being done with a delayed response and reaction. Here's a clue: it was not the father's will that was being done.

The second son lied to his father outright. He gave the father the "correct" answer but he failed to follow through, and there is no indication he ever intended to do his father's will; he only needed to get beyond that moment. It would be a safe bet, however, to believe that son would expect his own share of the harvest! So it was easier, then, to tell his father what he likely wanted to hear. In refusing to do the work, however, the same result came into play: the direct challenge to the father's authority and the outright "denial of righteousness". It might be easy to suggest, then, that neither son was the "correct" answer although we can see a parallel between those who claim kinship but do not act within that relationship - and - those who deny the necessity and need for that relationship in the beginning but do finally come around - but on their own terms.

Even if the chief priests and elders answered the question correctly, however, it does not mean they escaped indictment which we can obviously see. We must also consider what we hear in Church and what we read in Holy Scripture and how we respond - if we respond at all ... or if it all goes in one ear and out the other. All the while, we stand firm and secure - as the chief priests and elders did - in our own sense of self-declared righteousness according to our own self-established standards while we stand in judgment of others - and ultimately question Jesus' authority over our own lives when we delay entering into the vineyard as we have been asked ... or if we refuse altogether. The indictment, I think, stands the same. Righteousness delayed is indeed righteousness denied.

It is not always easy to discern the Spirit. We can clearly see folks even within the Holy Church claiming to be led by the Spirit but clearly acting outside of what is written in scripture. They seem more like those of the time of the Judges, "doing what seems best in his or her own eyes", making up their own rules in spite of what seems clearly spelled out in scripture because they - perhaps we - claim a "kinship" but do not act within the context of that kinship. Neither of the two "sons" acted within the appropriate context of the relationship they enjoyed with the "father"; instead they each chose their own paths. One delayed the will of the father, and the other denied the will of the father outright.

We must be careful of the paths we choose for ourselves. Jesus' lesson in the parable seems clear enough. The Father owns the vineyard outright, and He means for the vineyard to be cared for, cultivated, and nurtured so that even more fruit will come forth. Because the work of the vineyard is so important, then, He will only trust His very own children to do the work because His own children have the Father's best interests at heart. It is the pursuit of holiness, of sanctification, of "wholeness" that bears fruit for the Father's vineyard. Those inside will be found working at the "harvest", the great Day of the Lord when Christ returns. Those outside the vineyard - by delay or outright refusal - will just be ... outside.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Thought

“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” Hebrews 12:14

Peace and holiness are attributes that require willful decisions on our part. The writer of Hebrews makes plain that peace is to be “pursued”, not simply wished for. The pursuit of holiness; that is, “completeness”, also involves willful decisions not only to resist evil impulses but to actively engage in the pursuit of those virtues and deeds of mercy in the name of Christ that make our Holy Father look good to non-believers. It is a tall order, I’ll grant you, but the promises of Scripture make plain the rewards.

Do not be deceived by the worldly suggestion that our faith is a private, personal matter. Our faith is to be lived openly and in plain sight for all to see, and it is in the active pursuit of “peace” and “holiness” by which our faith is made manifest to those who lack both – not to “force” them to make a decision or live according to standards our faith demands of us, but to give them a compelling reason to want to know more.

You know the Truth. So must we order our lives accordingly.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Thought

“You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” James 4:3

Though I should not be, I continue to be astounded at the number of persons who turn away from the Church and the Lord because they are convinced their prayers were ignored. In their minds because their personal petitions had not been granted, it was proved to them there is no God – or – He is not a God worth following. They have discovered for themselves yet another “contradiction” in the Bible (“If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” John 14:14).

There is nothing in Scripture I am aware of that indicates on any level that the Lord does, or will do, “personal favors” nor does personal enrichment do much to glorify the Kingdom of Heaven. James and John both reveal what we should ask and what we should seek. It is to the glory of His Church for the sake of the Gospel. When we can show the Lord we mean to work the Gospel to His glory and not our own, we will ask and will receive all we need (but not necessarily our every heart’s desire) to that end.

It is entirely about the Gospel of the Lord. The Lord means for others who do not know to come to know, and the Lord means for His Church to be about making sure others know. Let us learn to ask and to work to that end. Then, and only then, will we find riches and prosperity beyond our imaginations … when we prove to the Lord we can be so trusted.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cruel Irony

The Circle of Life, ironically, involves death. There. I said it. Let me put it another way. We are all - without exception - going to die sooner or later. There is no way around it. It is not cruel; it is just reality. The only time we consider an untimely death to have been tragic is if the death involved someone we personally loved though I do also think we collectively weep and mourn (as we should) when a child suffers and dies, particularly at the hands of cruel humans. Strange that with technology (such as it is), we do not consider abortion to be particularly cruel or inhumane but we believe capital punishment to be "cruel and unusual".

At a recent Republican debate, CNN's Wolf Blitzer apparently tried to corner Rep. Ron Paul, R-TX, with a hypothetical question involving a comatose patient who lacked health insurance and whether Mr. Paul would have just let him die. An audience member shouted, "Yes!" to the hypothetical and was later attributed to the Tea Party (whether that audience member was a Tea Partier or not, I have no idea and frankly do not care). In the first place, hypothetical questions are almost always unfair because too much is assumed but not enough is allowed. There are always going to be mitigating factors involved in life-and-death issues as well as medical decisions and choices which must be made. There was too much left on the table, but I would have expected no less from a moderator who actively engages debate participants in a sort of side-bar mini-debate. Mr. Paul was asked that question specifically because he is a licensed physician.

Does it matter? Does a physician have more or less insight into the reality of death than, say, the hypothetical uninsured comatose patient's family? Does society have a collective interest in how or whether the hypothetical comatose patient is treated? Some say yes simply because that hypothetical patient could one day be us or someone we love. What we offer to allow is what we are suggesting we would embrace for ourselves - hypothetically, of course. It is the philosophical Social Contract which simply states that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. We would impose no more or fewer restrictions on "someone" than we would reasonably expect for ourselves. Hypothetically, of course. All bets are off, however, when the hypothetical becomes real and is manifest in our own lives. It is reasonable to allow a stranger to mercifully pass from this life, but it somehow becomes an act of cruelty when it involves someone we love.

I do not propose a hard-and-fast solution to each hypothetical situation, and I cannot suggest there is an appropriate age limit by which to gauge and measure a life worth saving. What I can suggest is that we must first get past our unreasonable, irrational fear of death. We do not have to fall in love with death, but we also cannot ignore its harsh reality. People die every day, and there is no medical procedure or adequate amount of health insurance that will change the certainty of death. We can delay it, of course, but we can never "solve" it because it is not a problem to be solved. There will never be a day in which all persons will live to a ripe old age and die peacefully in their sleep. I think the health care debate will never be real until we first get next to this certain, ironic reality of life.

A Thought

“By [Christ] let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God; that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” Hebrews 13:15-16

As the saying goes, ‘all we have is a gift from God. What we do with what we have is our gift to God.’

Praise and worship – and – giving of ourselves is the holistic approach to doing honor and glory to the Lord. So many love to say that being in church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than being in a garage makes you a car. True enough, but we cannot ignore or neglect any part of what it means to be the Body of Christ. There can be no segment of our total living experience that is immune from Christ Himself, nothing that is uniquely “ours” over which the Lord has no legitimate claim. So what we do with what we have has everything to do with the measure of our commitment to the cause of Christ; which is the Gospel for which He died … and the eternal hope for which He was raised from the dead.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Passing the Test

Exodus 16:2-15
Matthew 6:25-34

Because I was a marginal student and world-class underachiever in high school, there was one phrase that caused me more anxiety than anything else I can remember: "there will be a test". I tried to convince my teachers and my mom I was just not a good "test taker" and part of me probably wanted to believe that, but it was not the problem. It rarely is. The truth is before I finally came around to appreciating the importance and value of education, I was never really prepared for the tests because I didn't do the work; I just crammed the night before. Because I was never prepared, then, my doom was right before me each time a teacher said, "Take out a clean sheet of paper, and put your books under your desk." Life as I knew it was about to come to an end. I didn't fail the tests, mind you, or I would probably still be in high school! I simply had to work harder at the tests because I didn't do the necessary prep work.

A simple definition of "test" goes much deeper than just trying to discover whether a student has prepared or what the student knows. The textbook definition goes like this: A procedure for critical evaluation; a means of determining the presence, quality, or truth of something (Yahoo dictionary). It must be noted, then, that tests serve other purposes than to simply find out whether or not one adequately prepared, and in the case of medical tests we do not simply want to know "what's there". Each test is a means not of evaluating the past but preparing for the future, "evaluating" the next step, where we go from that point, and whether or not we are even ready to move forward.

The Exodus story is generally understood to be the "manna" story that speaks to the benevolence of the Holy God in His provisions for the people of Israel. They are in the middle of nowhere and going "only Lord knows where", and they have no means to provide for themselves. They are at the mercy of the elements, the wilderness, and one another; and as the story is written, they seem to be ready and willing to be back and at the mercy of their Egyptian taskmasters. At least there they didn't have to worry about where their next meal would come from or where they would lay their heads for sleep.

Notice, however, that the Lord seems to want more from this than to simply make Israel aware of His presence. "I will test them", the Lord says, "whether they will follow My instruction or not" (Exodus 16:4b). Then we are treated with the Lord's intent to provide twice as much manna "on the sixth day" so Israel will be provided for during the seventh day, the Sabbath, so they can avoid gathering and preparing, working, thus not profaning the sacred day of Sabbath.

So is the Lord simply testing Israel's will to obey, or is there something more? Considering where we are in the Exodus story - prior to the revelation of the Law which does not come until chapter 20 - it might be easier to believe there has to be more than just a test of willful obedience. They cannot be tested for what they know about the Law - IF - the Exodus is written chronologically. It would hardly be fair to test them on the Law concerning the Sabbath if they have not yet been made aware of - AND - properly instructed in that Law. There can be no "critical evaluation" of ignorance since there is theoretically nothing to evaluate, but there can be testing as a means of "evaluation" to determine whether or not Israel is ready to move into the next phase of the journey. In fact there must be.

The test as a means of preparation and evaluation can be no less so for the Christian. Though I cannot say this occurred to me before, it will now be pretty hard to imagine Jesus did not have the Exodus in mind as He was teaching this lesson about dependence and focus and trust. It is hard now to consider that we are not also tested along our own "wilderness journey" just as Israel was being so tested. It is hard now to think that wherever we are at any given stage in our own lives, that the Lord is not also preparing us for something greater and trying to determine whether we are adequately prepared for the next step - or if we must stay where we are a little longer.

The "prayer of Jabez" (1 Chronicles 4:10) has been a popular "prosperity Gospel" scripture passage by which otherwise unsuspecting - and unprepared - "sheeple" are shown as "proof" that the Lord grants riches and wealth ('enlarged territory') if we just ask. I've actually heard TV preachers suggest the reason people live in poverty is because a) they've never really asked, b) they didn't ask "correctly" (like they didn't send money to the TV preacher as a sign of faith), or c) implied they were somehow not as 'favored' as, say, a TV preacher who wears custom-tailored suits and drives luxury cars. Obviously those who live in poverty, according to these criteria, are simply not "believing", "practicing" Christians ... not really. They are only "cultural" Christians ... in name only.

That may be an unfair statement, but it strikes at the heart of what the spiritual journey is about. The Lord needs to know whether we can be trusted to move to the next stage, and whether we can be trusted with "enlarged" territory - or additional responsibility - and it has everything to do with whether or not we have been adequately prepared. I find nothing in Scripture to suggest there is anything "magical" about such a transformation.

The Lord's will be done, of course, but we must be equally willful to engage in the learning process and transformation. If we are not adequately prepared or if we see the Gospel only in terms of how we are personally affected or enriched, chances are we are not going to be entrusted with much more until we are prepared to move forward. Moving us too quickly to the deep end of the pool would mean our utter destruction rather than our edification. It is not unlike college entrance exams that determine whether a prospective student has been adequately prepared for college-level work, or if remedial instruction might be more beneficial. We might wish to graduate sooner and remedial work will only delay the goal we have established for ourselves, but throwing a student into a class for which he or she has not been adequately prepared is a recipe for failure. How well we are prepared, then, will determine our next steps, and I will dare say that if the Lord withholds from us our personal wishes or desires because He knows we are not ready - and the Lord would know better than we! - there can be no greater love than denial ... for our own good until we are ready ... because only the Lord knows what is ahead.

"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." This is an important concept in the "critical evaluation" of where we are and where we will go from this point. It speaks well of the Wesleyan concept of "justification" - when we become aware of the Lord's grace in our lives - as the next step toward "sanctification" - the "path" toward spiritual perfection ... rather than the "spot" or a magical, mystical "event". It is a process that requires active engagement and participation ... just like any other relationship we may enjoy; and "faith" is the key, the ability and the willingness to trust.

Those who spend their days "worrying" about food and clothing and shelter or jobs and money or just about anything else under the sun are being completely "human". Worrying is what we do best ... in the absence of faith, and we should not overlook Jesus' indictment: "You of little faith" (vs 30). But we must also not confuse "worry" with "planning". Planning requires knowledge of what is; worry involves what might (or might not) be. There is a profound difference between knowledge and faith. Jesus says if we "worry", we are attempting to go it alone ... we lack sufficient faith because we are worrying about the outcome (tomorrow) while in the midst of the test itself.

May the Lord grant us sufficient faith to endure the day that is upon us. May we endure the day with sufficient gratitude to know that even as we may feel we are being "tested" beyond our capacity to endure, we are actually being PREPARED for tomorrow. By His Grace. By His Mercy. For the sake of the Kingdom which is to come.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Prostitution and Ministry: the awkward balance between what the church is and Who the Church is called to be

Some evangelical, fundamentalist, Calvinist Christians have traditionally tried to attach the Roman Catholic Church to the "whore of Babylon" and portray the pope as the "antichrist" in their feeble attempts to a) interpret and explain difficult scripture passages they cannot comprehend in an appropriate context, b) scare weak-minded people into their churches, or c) dismiss and slander what they clearly do not want to understand. They are not unlike the many Christians today who have completely lost their grasp of the GOSPEL (aka, the "Good News") by turning only toward finding fault with, say, Islam or anyone for that matter who does not share their peculiar ideology. It goes with the pop adage that suggests the general public knows more about Christianity not according to what Christians believe but rather according to what Christians don't like; what Christians are against rather than what Christians are for; what Christians do rather than what they say.

It is a fair criticism especially in our contemporary society as churches become increasingly more politically active and consumer driven, and serve more as lobbyists and market analysts than as ministers and missionaries. It is an unfair characterization, however, when we fail to realize that social justice, public policy, and knowledge of demographics has everything to do with the Gospel of the Lord and the Church's mission. Our society is filled to overflowing with weak, oppressed, and marginalized human beings who - for any number of reasons - cannot stand and speak for themselves. If the Church does not stand for these "least among us", who will? If the Church does not seek them out, who will?

It boils down to expectations and how the Church universal understands and interprets these expectations. Digging deeper still, who has even a right to expect or demand anything from the Church apart from the Lord who literally bled for His Bride? Yet the Protestant church has busied itself in the past few years trying to remake itself into a more "inclusive" public image pleasing to the marketing masses, desperately trying to be relevant by trying to be all things to all people. In this, then, the many churches who so engage in such a PR campaign actually soft-pedal the Holy Scripture, tone down or dismiss altogether those passages of Scripture that are unapologetically "exclusive", deny that repentance is perhaps "the" key term to the spiritual journey, and thus cheat the unsuspecting into a "relationship" that has little meaning beyond what the world would expect or demand from, say, the Optimist Club; that is, according to social or clubhouse - rather than doctrinal - standards.

Since becoming a church pastor, it has become more and more clear that trying to be all things to all people - even those people who claim to be members - just does not work and only opens the church to all kinds of abuse by allowing the standard to be established and maintained only according to whoever screams the loudest and/or has the most money. Those quiet souls who are willing to support the Body as a whole rather than merely defend their own territory or comfort zone generally get pushed aside - OR - pulled in several different directions at the same time by competing forces within the church who each believe they are "right" and have "rights" and will in effect see the church burned to the ground or closed before they will concede this certain spiritual reality: the Church is the Body of Christ, the bride to the Bridegroom; not a "whore" to be used only toward a particular, if exclusive or personal, end.

The Church by its very nature is incredibly "inclusive" because Christ Himself is open to all who seek Him, but the Church is also "exclusive" in that there is a condition to membership: submission to the will of the Lord. Period. If there are those - and there are - who insist the Church must submit to them and their particular, if peculiar, needs; the Church is reduced to a church building, and the building is rented to the highest bidder, and "whore" comes to mind - and in the strictest biblical sense (read the book of Hosea; it is remarkably relevant to contemporary Christianity).

The Church is not a clubhouse, the pastor is not the emcee or a game show host nor even a chair of the board who answers to a board of directors; and the Lord is not for sale or rent. The Lord "does not change" for anyone (it is we who are called to be transformed), and Holy Scripture cannot be rewritten or modified ("do not turn to the left or to the right"). Yet it is the Holy Lord Himself who proclaims: "Come to Me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." How does humanity or society or even a culture come to believe it can somehow improve upon this reality? By trying to make the Church into something it is not: a whore that is willing to be "used" to serve a specific purpose at a specific time for the highest bid and bidder.

With all respect due to female clergy, pastors as shepherds and defenders of the flock are going to have to "grow a pair" and start standing firm. Be fair, as many say, but be firm. Be prepared to lose many in order to gain the faithful few. Let the Lord be the Church's "one foundation", and let the Holy Scripture be the steps that lead us to that Foundation. Stop trying to please everyone, and stop allowing the "wolves" into the sheep's pasture. Stop trying to entertain the masses, and start enlightening the faithful. Stop insisting upon your own authority, and realize you have none apart from what is divinely imparted. Stop demanding, but stand your ground. Stop trying to redefine "love" according to cultural demands, and start explaining what "charity" and "sacrifice" and "loving the Lord God with all you have and all you are" really means - and insist upon it. Be open-minded to certain cultural realities, but be resolute to stand firm in the face of illegitimate challenges. And for the sake of Heaven itself, stop trying to make the Body of Christ into a "one-size-fits-all" moo-moo that requires no effort to get into. Stop trying to repackage "sanctification" into a fad diet that only needs our interim attention until we reach our personal goals.

The Bridegroom will return one day, and He will come to claim His true Bride the Holy Church. He will not be looking for a Saturday night one-night-stand that will run to the next "john" for the next dollar. He will be looking for His Bride who waited patiently for Him ... and was loyal to Him in His absence. The many will indeed be called, but only the faithful will be chosen. Let the Church - the True Church - be found waiting ... and faithful ... and not for sale.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


Exodus 14:19-31 Matthew 18:21-35

"If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don't like, you do not believe in the Gospel - you believe in yourself." St. Augustine

Events leading up to the 10-year anniversary of this dreadful day include such questions as, "Where were you when you heard the news that the United States was under attack?" I think most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing, but my most vivid recollection of that dreadful day involved my then-12-year-old daughter. She called me at work as soon as she got home from school and was very distressed because she had heard these terrorists wanted to kill American children. It was all I could do, while sitting at my desk and listening to my child's quivering voice on the phone, to keep my composure when all I really wanted to do was to rush home, gather my children, and assure them that everything will be ok. It was in that moment when I began to realize that the innocence of youth in America had been violated, perhaps irreparably so - and the depth of my anger could not be measured.

Americans were profoundly angry, and yet America was as deeply distressed and confused as my 12-year-old child was. Innocence had been shattered, safety and security became a wistful dream, and Americans flocked to churches across the nation. What these many were searching for is anyone's guess, especially those who up to that point had fallen away from the Church or had perhaps never set foot in a church. They - perhaps "we" - were like the indicted Israel whose "faithfulness", according to the prophet Hosea, "is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away" (Hosea 6:4). Divine judgment, according to some TV preachers, was upon us but as soon as the smoke from the attacks cleared, so did the pews.

We approach the altar of the Lord neither with hatred and resentment nor in fear of judgment and condemnation but rather in hope; for it is fear that confines us and binds us against our will. Yet we often forget it is the will of our Holy Father that we live as freed men and women; free to love, free to live, free to come - or - free to go. And the only way we can be free - truly free - to live and to approach the altar of the Lord our God is to free ourselves from the bondage of the past. The shackles that bind us, the chains that hold us hostage against our will are locked with keys held by those we refuse to forgive. They are the ones who control our destiny, and they are the ones who determine whether we will go here or there, we choosing to avoid these persons and situations like a plague out of pure, irrational fear or resentment of the past.

When we allow fear and resentment to overwhelm and control us, there is a transformation which takes place. It is a transformation by which faith is subjected only to what we can see with our eyes, our humanity is diminished, and we are reduced to little more than mindless, instinctive, animalistic behavior. We react and respond aggressively to anything we perceive as a threat to our personal happiness and sense of well-being, and in that mindless wandering we become more like what we despise. As writer and theologian Brian McLaren recently stated: "When we engage opponents in conflict, we can unwittingly catch [the spiritually transmitted disease] they have." We become what we loathe.

Jesus paints a rather vivid portrait of what life is like for those who would take from Grace only what they can use for themselves and then forget what Grace really means as soon as they step away. I think of the "bumper sticker mantra" of so many Christians who proclaim: "We are not perfect - only forgiven" and yet continue in a life that is completely void of forgiveness. They have hate, anger, and resentment against those who have harmed them in some way; and yet they walk about with their chests puffed out under the mistaken notion they have been "forgiven" - even as they refuse to "forgive". They are not living in a dream world; they are facing a spiritual nightmare, a nightmare from which they will not awaken.

- and Jesus makes this very clear.

The slave owed a debt to his master, and the time of reckoning was upon him. Because he was unable to pay - or perhaps unwilling (remember he would have lost his family and his possessions in exchange, but presumably the debt would have been settled) - he pleaded with his master for "patience" and more time to pay the debt that was owed. The benevolent master, rather than giving the slave more time, simply "forgave" the debt. It no longer existed due only to the master's sense of generosity. The debt was presumably a legal, legitimate debt that should have been paid; but "grace" required that the debt simply be absolved, the slate wiped clean. So the slave walked away. An enormous burden had been lifted from him and he had been set free, completely relieved of what he owed. No more fear.

This should have been a time of rejoicing for the slave. You and I can appreciate what he must have been experiencing at the time because you and I have experienced such relief at one time or another. A friend overlooked our transgression. The last payment on a car or house or other loan has been made. We walked away from the altar of the Lord, having experienced that moment of "justification" when we became fully aware that the Lord had wiped our slates clean and had forgiven us of our sins. What freedom! What joy! No longer under a burden of debt, owing no one for nothing, being completely FREE!

As Jesus tells the story, however, no sooner had the slave walked out of his master house - "as he went out", Jesus says - he stepped right back into the same hole his master had just pulled him from. WILLINGLY! FREELY! If mindlessly, "instinctively". More than this, however, the slave's role had just changed. He had been put in the position of the master. He now possessed - by Grace; that unmerited, unearned favor - the same power that only moments earlier had been wielded over him and yet had released him from the legitimate debt he owed. POWER! POWER TO FORGIVE! And he refused to exercise that power. Instead, he chose to abuse that power by using it only to his personal advantage.

Notice the similarity in dynamic. The slave was also owed a legitimate debt by his "fellow slave". The very same stage the first slave stepped from free and clear had been set again before him, and he was now the "director" of the play rather than a player under direction. He had within his power the opportunity to offer the same forgiveness he had only moments before experienced for himself ... and he blew it. He did what was instinctive; he was, after all, owed money. It was his rightful claim ... as was the master's previous claim.

To remember is to learn something from the past, including that dreadful day in 2001, but we are called to remember in a way that goes completely against what our culture seems to be demanding from us. We remember so that we may remain vigilant. The master forgave the debt, but he still remembered the incident. To "forgive AND forget" is neither reasonable nor realistic because we can forgive a transgression, but it is not likely we can forget what happened. To be perfectly honest, I am not even sure we should. HOWEVER, we must remember the incident in a positive, forward-thinking way only as a lesson learned. There is always something we can take forward with us. Indeed it is part and parcel of the faith journey itself. This is what the study of history - and Holy Scripture - is all about. It is not simply about "knowing" what happened or even why. It is entirely about how we will apply these lessons learned in the future.

The slave took the "good news" for the moment but had completely forgotten almost as soon as he had walked out the door. And if we make the same mistake the slave made, we will also be "handed over to be tortured', as Jesus says so clearly, "until [we] pay the entire debt". We, too, will be placed back into the very bondage from which we had previously been delivered, and we, too, will become once again enslaved to persons and events that had previously held us hostage against our will. We, too, will again become what we had once despised.

We are better than this because we are not mindless, instinctive animals because we are created in the Divine Image. We must be better than those who seek to harm us IF we are to be called "children of the Most High God" - for it is only in forgiveness by which we are set free.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

I'm just sayin' ...

•The US Congress is consistently rated below 20% in overall approval in several different polls and there was a substantial shift in power in the US House this past election, yet it seems incumbency still enjoys better than a 90% advantage for career politicians. What does this say about US voters in general?

•Speaking of the Congress and its general inability to get things done, I wonder what would happen if we randomly selected even just 100 (the number of US senators) registered voters, two from each state, to come together and discuss the nation's problems. How many votes of confidence do you think this body could garner? I do not pretend to fully understand the dynamics of the Congress, especially when one party controls the Senate and the opposing party controls the House, but it seems pretty clear that no one - and I mean NO ONE - looks forward to that first day in Congress and eagerly anticipates the historic opportunity to "work with" other Americans to address our problems. My guess is these 100 randomly selected Americans would each show up with their own agendas just as each member of Congress comes with theirs.

•The president is going to give another speech, this time about jobs. He's been in office nearly three years now. I cannot help but to wonder ... why now?

•Stimulus is almost certain to be a part of his overall package (that is if he actually has specific, concrete proposals at all), and Congress will likely consider further stimulus to be just what the doctor ordered. Stimulus has not worked in the past (under any president) and has only been a drain on the US budget to no real end. Reckon they think it will work if they put some "stank" on it?

•The people have generally lost confidence in the US government, and church attendance continues to spiral downward which can only mean people believe only in themselves. The government has let them down, the Church has let them down. Could this be a substantial step toward anarchy?

•Mitt Romney, a Republican candidate for president, claims he will issue a jobs package proposal in a couple of days, two days before the president will deliver his jobs speech to a joint session of the Congress. Is it me, or is this the first time a presidential candidate will have actually stepped forward with more than platitudes and bumper-sticker slogans? Of course, Mr. Romney's proposals remain to be seen. I'm just sayin', I wonder if his proposals will fit on a bumper sticker?

•President Obama faces continual criticism for his job performance and is constantly being beaten up for not having had any real, practical experience that would have helped him in what must be the toughest job in the world. Is this not more than a little redundant? My guess is, if this man is of above-average intelligence (and I think he is) he has surely had his own doubts about whether he was (is) ready for the job. In fact, I would question the mental capacity of any person who steps into the Oval Office and just knows what to do.

•The Congress and the President have been at odds for a very long time. Wonder what might happen if they did not intentionally antagonize one another?

•The 10th anniversary of the dreadful attacks of 9/11 is a week away. One cannot board an airplane without being already under suspicion and treated as a potential terror threat. Can we really say we've learned anything?

•Polls ask whether Americans think the country is still in recession. If the majority says no, does this mean there is no recession?

•America is all aquiver over whether or not Sarah Palin will declare her candidacy for the US presidency. Do we really believe she is better prepared for the job than President Obama was?

•Speaking of which, what makes anyone think Michelle Bachmann is any better prepared to take on the monumental task of being the president?

•Does Rick Perry's belief in creationism really matter?

Close Enough

Exodus 12:1-14
Matthew 18:15-20

It is often said that "close enough" only counts with hand grenades and horseshoes. A hand grenade does not have to hit its target directly in order to be effective since the shrapnel from the explosion can range as far as 50 feet. Close enough. Although the object of the game in horseshoes is to get the "ringer", it is only necessary to get "close enough" just to win the game; that is, getting closer to the ringer than the opponent. In either case "close enough" will do the job without actually touching the object itself.

When it comes to relationships, however, "close enough" without actually touching the object is inadequate. It's a little like the Facebook "friend" whom we may know through mutual acquaintances but do not actually have an engaging relationship. My friendship count, for instance, is over 400. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure I can actually name even 400 persons I know well enough to call "friend"! Acquaintances? Of course. Colleagues in ministry? Yes. Brothers and sisters in Christ? Absolutely. But friend? Questionable; at least in terms of how Jesus defines His own "friends" by an expressed willingness to surrender one's life (John 15:13-14).

Technology is a wonderful tool to have and to use that can actually enhance whatever task is before us, but it is only a tool ... a means to an end. Since there is no actual, literal, or physical connection, it cannot be the end especially when it comes to human relationships. Take, for instance, Jesus' lesson to us when it comes to dealing with a problem with a church brother or sister (Matthew 18:15). Though we know e-mail did not exist then, the command that comes from Jesus is as valid and for the same reason today: there must be personal, face-to-face interaction in order to convey precisely what must be conveyed. An e-mail to spell out hurt feelings or concerns just will not do it for a number of reasons, not least of which is that written words cannot carry the same thought as a word spoken and expressed. It is one of the many interesting characteristics of American Sign Language in that a hand sign only has its fullest meaning according to one's facial expression and posture. Jesus is very clear: one must get up close and personal.

The Passover is no exception which, of course, carries forward to us today in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion. To "commune" with Christ and with one another is exactly as it suggests: up close and intensely personal - yet very communal ... and necessarily so. We are actually joined together in Christ as we partake of the elements of the Eucharist in the bread and the Cup. It is in this moment when the Church is at its fullest and truest nature. It does not get much closer than to actually ingest these things and thus connect ourselves to our Lord and to one another. There can hardly be anything more intimate and connective than this.

"The blood shall be a sign for you ... when I see the blood, I will pass over you and no plague shall destroy you" (Exodus 12:13).

Clearly we will not be letting any blood anytime soon at the altar of the Lord. There is no more perfect Sacrifice we can make or offer that was not already done perfectly. When Jesus defines His friends - and His own love for His friends - by a willingness to surrender one's life, He is not talking about human sacrifice. In His own case, of course, He is painfully aware of what must come to be but when He is speaking to His disciples - then AND now - He is offering something not literal but even more profound, and it goes much further and deeper than what we drop into the collection plate ... though what we offer in this regard is pretty revealing as well.

The single, most precious resource we have is time. I say this because it has been my experience since long before I became a preacher that people, even faithful Christians, are often much more willing to write a check than they are to give too freely of their time. Too often we have been reduced to an either/or theology by which we have come to believe we can write that check - OR - help do the work. And because we have found ourselves so busy with work, social obligations, and downright selfishness when it comes to our time; clearly it is revealed that of all the resources we have at our disposal, we are far and away much more jealously protective of our time than anything else.

We fail to realize that, as aggressively as we might defend the concept of a "personal" Lord and "personal" salvation, the depth of that salvation and how it is made manifest is in how "up close and personal" we are willing to be with one another, the "least" among us - AND - the Church. The expected behavior and intimate connection of the faithful disciple within the Church is revealed in Matthew's Gospel reading. If we think we have been wronged, we should not go about and slander the one who has wronged us with anyone who will listen.

Gossip and slander are not even "close enough", but Lord how it seems to be the weapon of choice and preferred strategy! And when we spend more time trying to "make our case" to folks who are not even involved in the situation and drum up support AGAINST the offender, what is happening? The relationship that perhaps once existed - the relationship that could perhaps be made even stronger - is ultimately destroyed because of the profound and intentional disconnection. Before the offender has had a chance to explain himself or herself, he or she is already "put out" as a "Gentile or a tax collector" - all by means not of fact but of innuendo. It is not unlike the "collateral damage" wrought by a hand grenade or a bomb. You will likely hit what you meant to hit, but there will be others harmed as well - whether they deserved it or not.

Notice what Jesus is moving toward. His strategy is not so that we can decide for ourselves who is in "the club" or out. The whole move is geared and directed toward intentional restoration of the relationship. It is entirely what our new Membership Care Committee is all about, especially in pursuing those who have fallen away from a relationship with the Church. It is to remind them that the whole idea of Jesus the Christ Himself is RESTORATION, not JUDGMENT ... and certainly not DESTRUCTION!! And we are to go to great lengths until the "offender" is restored and peace has been made - OR - the offender has made it very clear that he or she is not interested in restoring the relationship.

A card or letter (electronic or USPS) is a very nice touch, a means to a noble end; but such means cannot be the end. We must never come to believe a mere attempt is "close enough" because when it comes to the doctrines and theology of the Holy Church and relationships with one another IN Christ - not one another OR Christ - "close enough" without actually touching the object is not close enough. Not by a long shot.

As I have shared in the past the wafer and the juice (or wine) of the Holy Eucharist are not "magic pills". They represent the willingness of Jesus to step forward in our behalf. They represent all Jesus did in our stead. They mean Jesus did what He needed to do. These elements stand for something so mysterious, so deep as to render us in our humility "unworthy" to come forward and yet so profoundly grateful in understanding what had to happen in order to make this Sacrament and our redemption possible. To get "close enough" in the Sacrament of Communion is to be "close enough" to see the Cross and Jesus' most anguished face, "close enough" to hear His painful groans, "close enough" to feel and perhaps even experience His pain, "close enough" to touch His blood-soaked feet. Indeed "close enough" to even care.