Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Thought

“As many as have sinned without law will also perish without law, and as many as have sinned in the law will be judged by the law.”  Romans 2:12

We’ve heard the saying, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know”.  Well, it seems St. Paul is turning it around on the Romans: “It’s not who you know; it is what you know by which you will be judged”.  This may be an oversimplified statement, but it makes the point of righteousness (justice) that the Lord requires even from those who know nothing of Him.  It is more often referred to as “natural law” which defines certain inherent attributes of humanity.  It is always right to treat others well, it is always right to feed someone who is hungry, and it is always right to hold others accountable for their actions; just as we might reasonably expect all these things as well!

Knowledge of the Lord and being “doers of the word” (James 1:22; Romans 2:13) is not centrally focused on whether or not we are “saved” (that word has been so overused to the point of being as vague as the word “love”!) but whether or not we are willing to live each day in accordance with the Lord’s requirements.  It is as much about taking care of others as it is about being cared for.  Imagine such a world!

Know this, however.  Divine mercy has its place in this, also, because how we live and work and worship together helps to define the relationship we have with our Lord.  That is, if we forgive those who have hurt us, we will be forgiven by the One whom we have harmed … over and over again.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Thought

“Since the creation of the world the Lord’s invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that [the unrighteous] are without excuse – because although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts; and their foolish hearts were darkened.”  Romans 1:20-21

It is a simple proclamation of being “saved” but doing nothing for the Lord, and I think far too many of us – if we were to dare be honest with ourselves – are so involved with our own self-righteousness that we do not realize we are not living for Him, with Him, or through Him; but are, instead, living only for ourselves.

The Journey that is Lent challenges the Christian, just as Yom Kippur challenges the Jewish people, to get seriously involved in self-examination; as St. Paul also challenged the Corinthians: “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor 13:5).  This is not something any among us can afford to take for granted because if Jesus is the “Way”, then He cannot be reduced to a mere “event”.

The Lord has already shown – time and again – that He is fully committed to us.  It is in the Journey of Lent that we determine whether we are fully committed to Him.


Monday, February 27, 2012

A Thought

“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes; for the Jew first and also for the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’.”  Romans 1:16-17

To proclaim Christ as “Savior” and “Lord” is a much broader statement than to merely acknowledge the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.  Just as baptism is no magic rite and Holy Communion no magic potion, proclaiming Christ as Lord says something much bigger because it the beginning of the Journey that marks a substantial difference between simply “believing” and absolutely “trusting”.  To only “trust” the Lord for our salvation when the Day of the Lord appears?  Surely we are not so prideful as to suggest we will not need the Lord before then?!

Therefore the proclamation of Christ as Lord means embracing everything He taught – the Gospel, the Good News which includes the Law! – and continues to teach through the Holy Spirit.  It means walking the Lord’s path everyday and never moving away.  It means not being so busy with life’s “busyness” that we forget the Lord regulates every facet of our lives.  It means we will be challenged along the way by external forces and tempted to try another route by internal desires.  Our proclamation is made each time we encounter these obstacles in how we respond.

Stand fast in the Lord this day and each day as He stood fast for His beloved “even unto death”, remembering that faith is a journey; not an event.


Sunday, February 26, 2012

This Way or that

James 1:12-18                                                                                                                              Matthew 4:1-11

"Disasters are the common lot of the saints, who must suffer them.  It is by enduring them and overcoming them that the virtue of the righteous has always been noticeable.  With invincible strength they have defied all trials - the heavier the sufferings they endured, the more courageous were their victories."  Sulpicius Severus (4th century priest & monk), "Letter to Eusebius"

There can be no more righteous battle than to stand toe-to-toe with the evil one and not blink, and there is no more courageous victory than to watch as the evil one turns on his heels and walks away after having suffered such a loss.  While we may never have the same experience Jesus endured in the wilderness, the temptations we face on a daily basis are no less challenging - quite simply because we are much easier marks.

We must never be led to believe - nor lead others to believe - that every thought which crosses our minds is heaven-sent whose only criteria is whether or not we like it.  It is this fabled notion of grace that has led many believers so far down the path of darkness that they could not - perhaps would not - find their way back.

While Jesus was successful in His face-to-face encounter with the devil incarnate in the wilderness, James was quick to point out to the faithful that the temptations we face will not always be so clear; that the temptations we face will be far more subtle, much more deceptive, and incredibly more enticing because we will often not be able to tell the difference between that temptation which may be external in the form of divine "testing" as in "persecution" - and the more internal temptation borne of our own base desires and impulses. 

One is obviously imposed on us against our will even by external forces that are not necessarily "minions" of the evil one but are equally opposed to godly standards of living and absolutely reject the notion of "sacrifice".  Because we often refuse to believe the Lord would "allow" bad things to happen to His people, then, we reject this notion of a "trial" that must be endured; we only want to be happy and personally fulfilled.  We might be more inclined to believe "Satan is out to get me", but we will generally reject the idea that we are being "tested" toward perfection so that we may be better prepared and strengthened to endure even greater challenges; challenges which are sure to come *IF* we are deliberately and publicly working for our Lord. 

The apostles endured such persecutions and many were put to death - and still are even today in other parts of the world - but all of them - including James - "consider it nothing but joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance ..." (James 1:2, 3).  In other words, good things come from the endurance of these trials; namely, a stronger and more enduring faith that transcends a mere acknowledgement of a spiritual concept. 

Literally staring death in the face by way of external forces beyond our own control without having endured such previous trials in which our faith is tested would cause even the most well-meaning disciple to rethink his or her faith, as in the case of the Christian pastor who has been condemned to death in Iran.  In this pastor's case, he was given opportunities to renounce his Christian faith and reconcile with Islam, but he has apparently refused these opportunities and has remained steadfast in his faith - and it may cost him his life.  This kind of faith DOES NOT come ready-made out of a box!  This kind of faith which may have never been tested before may actually fail many of us because we have not actively engaged in that faith.  It is the difference between being willing to believe something and being willing to trust Someone.

The other is more internal, and more closely resembles those temptations that were laid before Jesus in the wilderness.  These things were not "imposed" on Him, but they were presented to Him in that "subtle" way by which most temptation comes - inner desires.  There are few of us who would not be tempted by an offer to eat whenever we are hungry - such as rejecting fasting as a spiritual discipline, be free from danger and harm, or to have the world at our disposal for our use and our pleasure.  We would be inclined to reason that we could use that power and wealth toward the "greater good" without realizing how easily corrupted the human race can be; even, perhaps especially, Christians who have not seriously been put to the test.

There is a haunting story from Texas in the late 90's, the very sad tale of a devoted Christian, husband, and father who had finally reached the end of his financial rope after a series of job losses (lay-offs).  He finally hit the TX lottery that was worth $31 million.  At first believing the lottery win to have been a godsend (a reflection of James' reality), he gave generously to all who asked - including his church.  He also spent lavishly on homes, cars; the "good life", the so-called "American Dream" that in reality became this family's "ultimate nightmare".

By his own actions, by his own inner desires, by the deception in which he had convinced himself of Divine Blessing and "personal" favor, this poor man took this fortune and created for himself more problems than he could ever have imagined.  Before the end of the 2nd year after winning the lottery, he had told his financial advisor that winning the lottery "was the worst thing that ever happened to me".  With nowhere else to turn - I wonder where his church and "friends" were when his world came crashing in around him?? - and after having sold his lottery annuity to one of those companies that offers to buy the annuity out for cash, he was so far in debt that he could see no way out.  Less than 2 years after receiving this "divine blessing", he took his own life.

You and I can look at this story and many others just like it, shake our heads in disbelief, and refuse to believe such a thing could happen to us - the arrogance of PRIDE will do that to the human mind.  We can see the foolishness in this man's spending decisions.  I can see the foolishness in his pastor's willingness to accept the gifts given by the man - thereby setting in stone this man's perception that the Lord bestowed this favor upon him ("something for nothing").  And what is worst of all: he had spent so much after having sold the annuity that after his death, his family was left to struggle with paying estate and personal property taxes on what turned out to be an "illusion".  The taxes, of course, were very real.  The wealth?  Not so much.

This is not to suggest that all persons are so easily corruptible.  It is, instead, a taste of reality mixed in with James' admonishment and warning that what may appear on the surface to be a blessing, a "godsend" only according to our inmost personal desires and covetousness, could in reality deceive us as easily as any marginal Christian who does not study Scripture can be deceived by the evil one's "selective" Scripture quotes.  Of course the evil one may not have been aware he was try to use The Word against THE WORD Himself at first, but he clearly knew what would have worked with an ordinary human being with ordinary emotions and extraordinary desires.

The "good" and "perfect" gifts which come from Above must be discerned according to what is "good" and "perfect" according to our Holy Father's standards.  These gifts are those attributes - rather than money that comes from nowhere - within us that help us to move closer to sanctification, to spiritual perfection and grow in the faith.  These gifts enable us to draw a distinction between that which will build us up - and that which will ultimately destroy us ... and those we love.

Whether or not we receive and use these gifts to the glory of our Lord is determined by the choices we make - and which way we choose to go.  Today - and every other day - you and I must choose because Jesus never proclaimed Himself a "spot on the road".  He is THE PATH, the "WAY" of the Journey.  Will we embrace only that which indulges our personal desires, insisting that the Lord has "personally" blessed us for our "personal" use - OR - will we push aside self-indulgence and realize the True Blessings which come from Above?  It is either "this way or that" ... there is no third alternative.  AMEN.   

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Thought

“We don't say that every decision a person makes is necessarily a product of one's Free Will capacity. Like modern psychology, Judaism agrees with the fact that people's actions can be rooted in Nature or Nurture—i.e., genetics or conditioning. However, unlike modern psychology, Judaism rejects the assertion that all of people's actions are rooted in Nature or Nurture. Rather, every human being has at least a point of Free Will choice—i.e., a scenario in which he or she can go in either direction, either toward Good or toward Evil.”  Rabbi Eliyahu Yaakov, “Kabbalah Korner”

The United Methodist Christian perspective on this concept of Free Will is stated as a “corruption of the nature of every man … naturally engendered of the offspring of Adam … far gone from original righteousness” (Book of Discipline, Article VII – of Original or Birth Sin).  In other words, we may be more inclined toward evil than toward good.  This is a hard concept to embrace because we don’t generally consider ourselves – or even our unbelieving neighbor – to be inherently “evil”.  This ideal, however, has to be considered in a) what “evil” really means, and b) what “good” really means.  And both, to the world in which we live, are relative; “relative” to our nature (genetics) or “relative” to our nurture (cultural conditioning, how we were raised).

In the World which is to come, however, both “good” and “evil” are relative to an entirely different standard, the Divine Standard that dismisses what we have been enculturated to accept as “normal” and challenges us to reach higher.  This is consistent with the 4th-century Church father St. Augustine who suggested that anything which does not actively and intentionally pursue godliness and righteousness is in itself “evil”, including even that which is “benign” – doing neither good nor evil.

Let us choose the Higher Plain.  Let us reach for and embrace the Divine Standard that challenges us to break free of the bondage that is our “nature” and our “nurture”; and reach beyond ourselves to that which offers to us Everlasting Life – the New Covenant which is Christ our Lord.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Thought

“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.”                        - Matthew 4:1-2

As we begin the journey of Lent, let us be mindful that forty days of communing exclusively with the Lord was necessary for Jesus and for Moses to begin their own ministries.  Maybe you and I are not called to so great a quest as these, but we are no less called forward and we will no less experience the temptations Jesus was confronted with – or the let-down that Moses faced when he came down from Sinai.  It is necessary preparation, however, because what the Lord requires of us demands preparation.

It really does not matter whether your tradition embraces Lent, for the journey belongs to Christ.  Do not take the journey for granted; to do so is to take the Lord for granted because this journey requires that we “follow” Him.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday 2012

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

Lenten practices are foreign concepts for many of our Protestant Christian friends who do not share our traditions but do, in fact, share our biblical heritage.  It is unfortunate that even within the traditions that used to employ these practices on a grand and disciplined scale, Lenten practices such as fasting and other acts of abstinence as well as disciplined and structured time for prayer and reflection seem to have gone the way of the horseless carriage and for many of the same reasons we've granted ourselves; outdated, out of touch, unrealistic, impractical ... perhaps even useless.  Or worse; these practices such as "giving something up for Lent" as means to an end - become the "end" themselves. 

Some have even suggested that "grace" negates the necessity of such practices and has actually rendered these acts to be meaningless and futile acts of "religion".  Nothing could be further from the truth for if this were true, there would no longer be a need for Scripture study, prayer, worship, Holy Communion, or even baptism or the Church herself!  If anything, 'grace' should be THE compelling reason not only to do these things - but to do them with enthusiasm as a response to divine grace

This is the very reason why our Wesleyan heritage refers to such practices as "means of grace"; 'grace' is a small taste of a very large thing.  These "means of grace" draw us closer and closer still so that the closer we do get, the more of this wondrous thing we receive - and - the more we come to depend on it and want more of it!  Instead of looking for reasons and excuses not to participate, we should be eagerly anticipating the opportunities and the "rewards" that will surely come "from our Father who sees in secret" (Matthew 6:4) ... provided, of course, that Jesus actually knows what He is talking about!  

It is clear by Matthew's account that Jesus not only recognizes these "means" as legitimate spiritual practices, He actually commends them to us.  "Whenever (not "if") you give alms", "Whenever (not "if") you pray", and "Whenever (not "if") you fast" indicates Jesus is not suggesting we may or may not do these things.  Instead it seems a given that the Lord's people are already so engaged in practices that date back to the time of Moses - practices that are NOT "lawful curses" but "acts of righteousness"; acts even Jesus Himself took part in.  Jesus never says we don't "have" to give alms or pray or fast.  Rather it seems He assumes we already are doing these things as part of that common heritage we all share!

More than a religious practice as just something we do for its own sake, however, is the genuine need we have to reconnect with our Holy Father in a humble yet powerful way, remembering as we must the "Fall" from "grace" when humanity was ejected from Eden, evicted from "paradise" for willful disobedience, for making a "popular" choice rather than the "righteous" one. 

 Adam was so reminded, "Because you have heeded the voice of your wife [instead of remembering what I told you!] and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you saying, 'you shall not eat of it' ... cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life ... by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:17, 19).

That is the CURSE of falling away from the Lord.  That is the choice we make each time we willfully disregard His Word of "righteousness" in favor of "cultural popularity", and it is this choice which ensures that once we become "dust" we remain "dust", perhaps the very "dust" the serpent himself is cursed to "eat all the days of [his] life" (Genesis 3:14); the "dust" from whence we shall never again see the light of life.

Yet GRACE calls us forward to remember.  GRACE calls us forward to repentance, to acts of repentance, and to "bear fruit worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8) with the confidence of the Eternal Promise that forgiveness is one sorrowful yet sweet prayer away.  GRACE is the "Lord's compassion for those who fear Him" (Psalm 103:13), as the psalmist writes: 

*Read Psalm 103:10-18
If our connection is lost as it was lost to Adam, if there are things or practices that we put more emphasis on than on the time needed to spend with the Lord, nothing of lasting value can or will come from us and we will eventually be "consumed" by the natural forces of this world (Psalm 103:16) or be cast aside as useless (Matthew 25:30).  Our Holy Father, however, has refused to surrender His beloved to such a fate without a fight and came to us in Christ, as the Eucharistic prayer goes, "to share in our humanity so that we may one day share in His divinity."  This GRACE requires more than a simple acknowledgment; this Divine Grace demands a response.

Ash Wednesday seems a rather dark day, but it is in fact and in spirit a day in which we are reminded that we have not been utterly forsaken, but we are equally reminded that perhaps we - by our chosen practices and spiritual neglect - have forsaken Him.  We are reminded that our Lord claims the better part of us even on that imminent day when we are returned to the dust from whence we came.  Let these ashes remind us - as we remind one another - that our human self will indeed perish and there is nothing we can do to stop our mortal return to the ground, but our spiritual, immortal self that was created  - and re-created in Christ - in the Divine Image, "to [those who] keep His covenant and to those who remember His commandments to do them" (Psalm 130:18) will be raised into everlasting life in the "Last Day".

Praise to our Lord, God and Father of Heaven and Earth; to Him be glory and honor forever and ever as we pray:

Almighty God and Father, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.  You are our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.  Grant us Your blessing in this hour we share and help us to put our trust in You, that our spirits may be calmed in this world of chaos and our hearts may be comforted in this time of distress.  Lift our eyes beyond the shadows of the earth, and help us to see the light of eternity so we may find grace and strength for this and every time of need.  We ask this through Christ our Lord, Your beloved Son, Your holy and eternal Covenant.  Amen. (UM Book of Worship, #159)

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

Faith and works; two sides of the same coin.  As the writer encourages us, let us not get so caught up in “private” worship and “private” devotions that we forget that the fruit which is pleasing to our Lord is borne of the seeds we plant in others by our faith. 

Remember that someone – we never know who or when – is waiting for a good word, perhaps the Good Word of life!  Let it come from one of His own!


Monday, February 20, 2012

A Thought

“As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger …”  2 Corinthians 6:4-5

Every time I read such passages as these in which the apostles, in this case St Paul, endured so much just to bring Good News to the Gentiles and to the Jews; I am left to wonder how many of us would be willing to face such challenges and dangers to do the same thing.  Facing all kinds of obstacles imposed not only by the pagan states but the people who maybe worshipped multiple gods and the Jews who were waiting on a Messiah but not Jesus, these apostles were charged not with a burden but with an honor and a joy!  It seems nowadays the only “news” we are so eager to share is gossip.  THAT we will go out of our way to share! 

Maybe the news of Christ is no longer “news” but is, instead, just something that “is”.  Maybe it is that we are so self-involved with a “personal relationship” that we forget the Lord did not give of Himself so abundantly that we would run and bury it, thus keeping it to ourselves like the third servant in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25).  Or maybe it is that we are just not that excited about it anymore … if we ever were. 

Hopefully we can remember that the Lord did not give up on His beloved which is why Christ came when He did, refusing to take us for granted and certainly not willing to lose sight of His own Covenant.  Maybe we should be compelled to ask ourselves: if it is not good enough to tell, maybe it’s just not that good.  Is it?


Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Voice from the past; an eye on the future

Jeremiah 29:4-14
James 1:2-8

That the Church in America has foundered in the past 50+ years is no secret.  That the Church is spiritually compelled to address this problem is also no secret.  The secret, then, seems to be in exactly how we need to address this spiritual drain - AND - why we even need to bother.  There is a lot of hand-wringing within the Church over the notion that we are somehow in "uncharted" territory, that this new "unknown" requires new programs for a new generation, that we face "new" problems of irrelevance and social insignificance, that no one (including, perhaps, many  members) takes the Church seriously anymore, that there is a "war on religion", or that perhaps we are indeed running headlong into the "end times" as foreseen in The Revelation and that there is simply nothing more we can do. 

Maybe none of these things, maybe all these things; but we are kidding ourselves if we think the problems the American Church face are anything new; or that the problems we face are purely "external" rather than primarily, perhaps exclusively, "internal".  The "holy" and "priestly" nation of Israel has already been down this dark path, and the prophets sent by YHWH to call them out of their spiritual slumber spoke directly to the problems and told the people of Israel exactly why they were headed to destruction if they did not repent.  The prophets were not sent to the "godless hordes" by whom Israel was surrounded; the prophets were sent to the people of YHWH! 

What the prophets shared with the people of Israel was nothing new to them; they just didn't want to hear it, didn't believe they needed to.             Because they were so arrogant in their faith, their religion, their heritage, or a combination of the three, they refused to listen.  Or maybe like the contemporary secular culture seems to demand of the Church, the Lord just needs to "catch up" with the times; but the Church fails to remember that the Lord did indeed "catch up" - and Israel was brought down not because foreign armies overtook them but because the glory and presence of the Lord had departed from them as shown to the prophet (Ezekiel 10), allowing the foreign armies to invade and destroy.

Several studies and well-intentioned efforts have tried to reach back to the book of Acts in order to rediscover and recapture the Church’s genuine “root” and reconnect to the movement that changed the world.  This is in fact our Wesleyan Methodist heritage.  It was John Wesley's effort and vision to revitalize the Anglican Church in England in the 18th century.  While we must not dismiss the usefulness of Acts in this endeavor (or any other book in the Bible, for that matter!), it occurs to me that we are not dealing with a Church that has yet to be called forth anymore than the prophets were dealing with a nation that had yet to be freed.  Rather I think we need to more seriously consider that we are dealing with a Church that is 2000 years old; a "faith" that is older even than this!  We should not be seeking to create a “new” thing like Abraham and Sarah tried to create with Hagar; the Lord Himself already did the New Thing (Isaiah 43:19).  We should be seeking to reconnect with and embrace that New Thing we have perhaps turned our backs on.

The Epistle of James, then, may be a resource better suited for our needs today because the apostle was addressing a body of believers who conceivably should have already known better than what they were actually doing - or not doing.  The epistle seems more an admonishment of the established Church than a letter of encouragement to a church under the fire of persecution. 

Where James veers from Paul's writings is that James was speaking purely from a Jewish Christian perspective to a perhaps a purely Jewish Christian audience.  Paul and James are both talking about how the church is to treat newcomers, the poor, and the otherwise marginalized without sacrificing some fundamentals or their spiritual and doctrinal integrity.  And both very pointedly require that the Church answer not to the newcomers nor to the dominant culture; but to the Lord Himself.  Always.  So the problem the Church today faces, such as it is, is INTERNAL; not external.

James is probably best known for his statement that "faith without works is dead" (2:17).  In this, then, and dating back to the Reformation period, James is unfairly (and often blindly) dismissed because his emphasis seems to be on "works" rather than on faith.  This is an unfair characterization, however, because James' audience is presumably more mature in the faith.  It is also reasonably to see that James is doing battle with a perceived heresy - like St. Paul's battle with the "Judiazers" in Galatians who tried to force circumcision on the Gentiles, a uniquely Jewish religious practice the apostles had agreed previously (in Acts) was not among the "fundamentals" - but James' battle is with spiritual complacency.  We often forget, as James' audience apparently had, that our Lord must - be - served!  And this service requires - REQUIRES - "works" of faith. 

Over the years, however, it seems to be that Christians have taken a sound Protestant doctrine that "no works can save" and turned it completely upside down in that "no works are to be performed".  This is, of course, a betrayal of traditional Christianity in which Jesus requires that His faithful "take up his cross and follow Him".  It should also be our understanding of what is required of us on the path toward "sanctification", that spiritual journey by which we go on and strive toward "perfection, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles" (Hebrews 6:1).  Call it "Advanced Christianity" because it's time to grow up and move to the next level. 

It is a good message to someone who does not know the Lord at all to be reminded that our Lord wants THEIR hearts; that they cannot - and need not - "earn" their way in!  Yet it is a remarkably careless word to the Body of Believers who know (or should know) that our "works" are not only those means of grace by which we are strengthened in the faith - but - are also those means of grace by which we share the Gospel (as we are called to do), help and hold one another to mutual accountability in the faith (as we are challenged to do); and serve the needy, protect the oppressed, and minister to the poor (as we are required to do).  The Body of Christ as an expression of Christ Himself can do no less than to "work" for and toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus' life and ministry were filled with "works" of mercy and "works" of piety!  How can we think we can carry on His work if we do no "work" at all? 

So James is a much more prophetic - and relevant - critique of the contemporary Church even as it was written 2000 year ago, and he uses his Jewish Christian points to show a practical approach to "hospitality" - a required component of the Church that reaches far beyond a simple handshake - which itself requires "works".  In this single element, then, I think it may be that the Church as a whole underthinks "hospitality" and overthinks "works".  We do not give enough attention to the communal purpose for which the Church was called into being - AND - we use the curse of "works of the Law" as a means by which to excuse ourselves from the need for the "works" to be performed; insisting perhaps that the burden falls to "someone else".  There is no one - NO ONE - among the faithful who is immune to this confusion and arrogance as evidenced by the modern Church flailing about, "doubting ... like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind" (James 1:6); "being double-minded"; trying to keep up with the secular Joneses, vainly attempting to play on both sides of the spiritual street.    

This challenge is not easy.  Repentance is not easy.  Both, however, are necessary.  Both require that we take the steps necessary to draw closer to the Lord - intentionally and purposefully.  Both require that we examine not only the Word of the Lord as revealed in Scripture - but - also examine the reality of the culture and how it relates to the Lord's revelation in Scripture.  And both require this certain knowledge: that sanctification is not possible without "works" of faith. 

If we choose to live like Israel did - and for which they were driven from the good land the Lord had given to them - we should not be surprised when the Lord turns His back on us.  And where is the Lord?  Where is the Lord while our children are numbing themselves to reality with drugs and alcohol?  Where is the Lord as men and women decide to abandon hearth and home to find new lovers or seek self-fulfillment?  Where is the Lord while our children are killing each other in the streets for money and drugs and “turf”?  Where is the Lord when our women sell themselves on the street for drugs or money?  Where is the Lord when widespread corruption has come to be acknowledged as “just the way it is” in politics?

Yet in the midst of this chaos the promise is certain: "You will seek Me and find Me - when - you search for Me with all your heart; I will be found by you" (Jeremiah 29:13,14).  Jesus did not take away our need to repent - He showed, instead, why we should!  To receive life.  To participate in the "New Thing".  To strengthen us for the journey.  To grow His Beloved Church by His means - and not our own.  To lead us Home.  Until that time, then, let us begin to "bear fruit worthy of repentance".  Let us give Glory where Glory is due - because we have seen the New Thing ... and it is good!  AMEN.  

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Get a Grip

  • ·         Half-mast flags in NJ for Whitney Houston?  Gov. Christie defends his decision by holding up Ms. Houston as a "daughter of New Jersey".  Fine, but that reasoning would suggest the flags stay at half-mast perpetually because it is certain there are daily funerals in New Jersey for a "daughter" of the state.  Whitney Houston was an amazing singer who got caught up in some bad stuff.  It's not ok, but it happens to the best of us in varying circumstances.  Still, I would suggest there is a NJ church-goer who gives more than the best of herself on behalf of the Lord to children in their neighborhoods, but these many persons go unnoticed because they are not "noteworthy".  Wanna talk about "values"?  Maybe we should get some first.
  • ·         Kid in CO quitting choir over a piece that mentions "Allah"?  Yes, "Allah" is an Arabic word for "God" that has become something of a battle cry for terrorists who align themselves with Islam.  "Yeshua" is Hebrew for Jesus, and the word "God" itself is an English transliteration that does not actually name the Almighty.  As for truth (the gist of the kid's objection), well, I guess it depends on one's own perspective.  I wonder, however, if this kid has a genuine religious objection - or - is he more concerned about the social implications?  I certainly don't know, but it is an important reminder to Christians who insist upon injecting Jesus into the public realm: fair is fair as our Constitution goes.
  • ·         US Gov mandating religious disobedience?  DHHS, under the authority of "ObamaCare", recently mandated that all insurance plans cover contraception and sterilization with no deductible or co-pay; including insurance plans funded by religious institutions.  This struck the Roman Catholic Church hardest because it is the only religious institution that consistently and officially teaches against artificial birth control and voluntary sterilization (incidentally, this argument by DHHS and the president has been for women's health care "rights".  Does this rule apply equally to vasectomies?).  I'm with the Church on this one because I fail to see a "right" that someone possesses at my expense.  This is the proverbial "slippery slope" that was discussed in 1968 (I grew up in the Catholic Church and remember some sermons well) when Pope Paul VI issued his "Humane Vitae" that argued against birth control and actually foresaw what we see coming to fruition today - and - in 1973 when abortion became legal with restrictions that no longer exist, even to the point of that despicable practice more commonly referred to as "partial birth abortion".  It is only a matter of time before government edicts begin to mandate such things - and you and I will pay for it with our taxes whether we like it or not.  Tread very carefully, and pay strict attention to those who are asking you to trust them at the government helm! 
  • ·         $$$$  spent in elections convincing us that American "messiah" might be a Democrat ... or is he/she/it a Republican - but - children still go to bed hungry in this country of unbridled wealth?  Watching the TV news this morning, an advertisement for one Republican candidate tried to use humor to poke fun at another Republican candidate.  And this we are to take seriously as earnest political discourse?  My concern is that $$$$$$$$ = billions spent trying to convince this nation that finding and cultivating a genuine leader is where we should focus our resources, that it is more important to elect this person or that than to see to it that children do not go to bed hungry or wake up uncertain as to whether they will eat.  I am not so naive as to believe we can choose either/or.  Sadly, political contests are little more than political struggles for the right to power (see above) in favor of one party over the other.  Political decisions are made not according to what is right but according to what is politically expedient and according to how it will pay off come re-election time.  As far as I can tell, for all the money devoted to and spent on these contests, the American public is getting a royal screwing.  Worse still, we are actually "presenting" ourselves for it.
  • ·         Another DHHS overreach?  In Hoke County, NC an elementary student, whose mother packs her lunch rather than have her eat the cafeteria food, apparently had her bagged lunch "inspected" by a DHHS official who was at the school inspecting the lunch program.  This child was one of six whose bagged lunches were inspected and found to be deficient according to DHHS nutritional standards.  These standards require: one serving of meat, one serving of milk, one serving of grain, and two servings of fruit or vegetable.  These items are required whether packed by mom or served by the school.  The child's bagged lunch contained a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, potato chips, and apple juice. Now, of course, there is claimed to have been a "misunderstanding", but I cannot help but to wonder what was going through this child's mind as she was singled out by a stranger to have her lunch "inspected" and then was sent through the cafeteria line because mom's lunch was insufficient.

Make no mistake.  This is not "Obama's fault".  These things have been building for years, and we voters have no one to blame except ourselves because we are entirely too busy either looking for a "free lunch" or demanding government supplements (think Social Security and MediCare) when our own resources are not enough.  We have to decide how much we are willing to tolerate, but we cannot believe this will be settled only with this 2012 presidential election.  These laws come from Congress - essentially us because we put that Congress in place every two years. 

We need to get a grip on ourselves.  Otherwise, we can expect the government to eventually do our gripping for us.  And to us.  

A Thought

“Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by [the king] for the punishment of evil-doers and for the praise of those who do good.  For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men – as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God.”  1 Peter 2:13-16

I get that the context in which Peter writes, there are kings; and “governors” appointed by kings.  Peter’s words seem clear enough: no rebellion, no “civil disobedience”.  Good order and humble submission are required of us.  I wonder, however, if this dynamic changes when the “kings” and “governors” are elected by the people themselves?  How are we to respond to secular government that is actually a reflection of us?  When do “civil disobedience” and protest serve the divine good?  When there are enough of us to make a crowd?  When we think we’re in the right?  I can hardly think that “divine” good is determined by human desire.

Even with the best of intentions, it is important for the faithful to remember that human standards SHOULD be a reflection of divine understanding, but to suggest even for a moment that our standards can ever be equal to the Lord’s is pretty arrogant.  And spiritually risky.

Our “protest” is at the ballot box.  We choose our own representatives, senators, governors, etc.  And like the judgment Israel faced before the Exile, we lie in the bed we make for ourselves.  That is, we pay the price for our desires.  Looking at Israel’s downfall and America’s current state of affairs, I would respectfully suggest the price to be paid is too great for us to bear.

Be careful in politics.  We all have a stake in public policy but if we will always remember there is only one Savior who is neither Democrat nor Republican, maybe we won’t fall for every line we’re fed during election season.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Thought

“The Lord said, ‘You (Jonah) have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left?’”  Jonah 4:10,11

Jonah was forced by the Lord to deliver a message of repentance and hope to the people of Nineveh, Israel’s enemy, and now he was resting under a shade tree that had been deliberately planted by the Lord “to deliver him from his misery” (vs 6).  So now Jonah sits angrily and licking his wounds because he had done this thing for the Lord and had watched the people of Nineveh repent and thus be spared judgment by the Lord.  Oh, the travesty!  Oh, the injustice of it all!  Jonah wanted them to fry!  And if it had been Jonah’s call, they would have.

Yet it is not the Lord’s will that any would perish, and the Lord takes no pleasure in anyone’s death (Ezekiel 18:30-32).  The Lord’s people, however, often feel very differently about those who oppose us and try to harm us.  Jesus reminds us that these very people should be the focus of our prayers and our blessings!  Oh, the shame to bless someone who does us harm!!  What will the neighbors think of us??  That we are cowards for not taking justice into our own hands, that we are weak-minded fools for allowing the Lord alone to be the Judge?  Imagine how many of us would still be standing if our neighbors were allowed to stand in judgment against us??



Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Thought

“These six things the Lord hates; yes, seven are an abomination to Him: a proud look, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that are swift in running to evil, a false witness who speaks lies, and one who sows discord among brethren.”  Proverb 6:16-19

Those who are justified before the Lord by faith are not immune to these things, for these things are the way of the world in which we live.  Our justification before the Lord through faith gives us every reason to avoid – indeed, hate – these very things for the damage we know they cause; but the will to resist these things still rests within us.  Our intentional and purposeful efforts to avoid these things means we choose daily which path we will follow because there are many forks in the road!  The contrast between these two paths is as clear as the contrast between night and day; between life and death.  We will walk in light – or – live in darkness.

The Lord tells us through His Word which path He despises, but we must choose every single day.  Choose well.


Monday, February 13, 2012

A Thought

The world needs good men and women who cannot be bought;
Whose word is their bond;
Who put character above wealth;
Who possess opinions and a will;
Who are larger than their vocations;
Who do not hesitate to take chances;
Who will not lose their individuality in a crowd;
Who will be as honest in small things as in great things;
Who will make no compromise with wrong;
Whose ambitions are not confined to their own selfish desires;
Who will not say they do it ‘because everyone else does’;
Who are true to their friends through good report and bad;
In adversity as well as in prosperity;
Who do not believe that shrewdness, cunning, and hardheadedness are the best qualities for winning success;
Who are not ashamed or afraid to stand for the truth when it is unpopular;
Who say ‘no’ with emphasis, although the rest of the world says ‘yes’.

-          Ted Engstrom, The Making of a Christian Leader

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Did I Really Hear That??

Driving home from church today, I was listening to the radio and some preacher was blasting away at sin (I think).  Maybe he was talking about the glory and power of the Lord through Christ to redeem humanity, but these are the words I actually heard: “You cannot sin your way to hell because your Defense Attorney (Jesus) is standing there with the bloody contract.”

No, really.  This I heard word for word.  As I was pulling my chin from the floorboard of my truck, my first thought was, “Oh no, he didn’t!”  My second thought was, “That sermon needs a whole lot of context to make that statement stand on scriptural integrity.”

I get that our Calvinist brethren speak of the fidelity and integrity of the Lord who redeems humanity when they uphold and defend the so-called “once saved, always saved” doctrine.  I get that the Lord cannot – will not – go back on His eternal Word … if that Word is indeed eternal.  What I don’t get is why we would reasonably think we can go straight from a profession of faith directly to the Pearly Gates and surrender to the realities and temptations of sin along the way. 

Why would we think we can live like the devil AFTER having been justified by faith before the Lord?  What sort of statement does this “faith” make besides “hypocrite” to our social and doubting neighbors, as in having our cake and eating it as well?  How can we reasonably come to think Jesus has become our ‘alibi’ rather than our Lord who can and does dictate, “fulfill”, and perfect “policy” (the Law)?  Where in Scripture is it written that after we profess Christ as Lord and Savior that we are no longer subject to His commandments all of which prohibit, rather than merely discourage, sin?  “By this we may be sure that we know Him, if we obey His commandments.  Whoever says, ‘I have come to know Him’, but does not obey His commandments is a liar” (1 John 2:3-4). 

Jesus says, “You will be hated by all because of My name; but the one who endures to the end will be saved (Matthew 10:22).  Salvation, it would seem, comes at the END of the long and tiresome journey after we have faithfully endured that journey to which we are called; justification comes at the beginning when we are made worthy to follow Him.  It is when we are made spiritually able to follow Him and given every reason to declare our allegiance to Him.  From that moment it becomes our choice in whether we will continue on the journey; the journey John Wesley believed to be the “process” of sanctification, “going on” intentionally and purposefully “toward perfection” (Hebrews 6:1-2). 

In Matthew’s context, Jesus is speaking to His disciples who have been given “authority over unclean spirits … and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Mt 10:1).  Prior to the declaration in verse 22, Jesus warns them (us) of all they (we) will encounter along the way; the persecutions, the mistreatment – and all along this way the disciples are told in no uncertain terms that they (we) are to “flee” (vs 23) rather than stand and fight.  And under no circumstances are they (we) to rely on their (our) own devices but rest instead in the hospitality of those who will receive them – AND – trust in the wisdom and benevolence of the Holy Spirit who will tell them (us) what to say when and only when it is time to say anything at all.  Remember that in Jesus’ last hours before Pilate, He finally stopped speaking, perhaps realizing in those final moments of the futility of speaking grace and truth in the face of lies.  In other words, Jesus commands His disciples to act and react not according to the “flesh” but according to the Spirit.  Sin is our act according to the “flesh”; righteousness is our act according to the Spirit when we “take up our cross and follow Him”.  Obeying Him.  And He commands – REQUIRES! – that we obey Him! 

St. Paul says, “Do we overthrow the law by this faith?  By no means!  On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31).  Prior to this, and within the same context, St. Paul also asks, “Why not say, ‘Let us do evil so that good may come?’  Their condemnation is deserved (Rm 3:8)!

That radio preacher misspoke on a grand scale!  There is no good in sin except that we “are tempted by [our] own desires”, not by the Lord (James 1:13, 14), and seek to fulfill these desires according to the “flesh”; that is, what is pleasing to us.  If we sin, we sin by the deliberate choices we make according to our preferences, but we are offered no excuses or free passes.  There is no biblical reason we are given to justify continuing “in the flesh” because whether “saved” or not, sin is an offense against the Lord – perhaps more so from those who have “tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5).  Continuing in sin in spite of what we claim to know of Jesus’ sacrifice suggests Christ died in vain. 

Language is everything in our vocations as Christians – being “called” and “set apart”, in my opinion, rather than “saved” for all time before the journey has even begun – so we must be careful about the words we use in order to make a point about the, yes, “saving” power of the Lord God through Christ.  Before we can reach that point of spiritual perfection, however, we must come to realize and embrace the discipline that will be required of us if we are to endure the journey in the midst of persecution and social isolation from the “world” that is not interested in the Gospel but is instead in full pursuit of the fruits of the “flesh” which are, by their very nature, contrary to the Spirit.

Sin is still sin and always will be.  Grace is always grace … and neither the two shall meet or ever be compatible.     

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A Thought

“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.”  Galatians 5:6

Circumcision is the mark of the covenant of Abraham; its tradition and practice go back to his time when the Lord required that all males for whom Abraham was responsible should be circumcised immediately.  Any males born after this edict into the household of Abraham were required to be circumcised on the eighth day.  Those who were not circumcised did not belong.

St. Paul’s teachings about circumcision seem clear to some (don’t bother) but not so clear to others but reading his words makes me think in terms of baptism, the mark of the covenant of Christ; the Christian initiation into the Church.  Even now there are the practitioners of infant baptism and the others who insist that a verbal profession of faith must precede the baptism.  Then there are those practitioners of sprinkling, pouring, and immersion who insist “their” way is the only way.  In addition to these doctrinal conflicts, there are baptisms from one tradition or the other that are not accepted as legitimate by others; so we see multiple baptisms!  We’ve taken this “outward sign of an inward grace” and turned it upside down to be little more than a human or even superstitious practice that, like circumcision, “avails” nothing because we have removed from the practice “faith working through love”.

There are without question remarkable spiritual events in our lives, but we must never come to believe there is any event that does not include or require “discipleship”; a lifelong commitment to “take up our cross and follow Christ Jesus”.  For circumcision and baptism (and weddings, for that matter!) avail nothing if there is no commitment beyond self.  They’re just ceremonies that make US feel good – nothing more.


Wednesday, February 08, 2012

A Thought

“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me.”  Matthew 16:24

When confession is made that Christ is Lord and Savior, there is much more at stake that simply acknowledging the existence of Jesus.  It is not some magic spell that makes the stain and burden of sin go away.  It is the start of an amazing journey – but – a journey that must be endured.  It is a journey that requires we “follow” Jesus … in His “way”, His “truth”, and His “life”.  We are denying that natural impulse of self that realizes we need something more to make us complete, whole, “holy”.  And this all takes place when we are, by His grace, justified before the Lord God through Christ.  This is the sacramental nature of the Lord, to answer when we call upon Him and express our genuine need for Him in our lives.  We are forgiven the sins of our past (if we truly repent!).  Thus we are by His mercy alone made worthy to follow Him.

Beyond this, however, must be a willingness on our part to move beyond ourselves, to “deny” ourselves and our own desires, and continue the journey.  This is when we act intentionally and move purposefully to continue to follow Him, learn from Him, and emulate Him (“sanctification”).  It is a recognition that only the Lord can lead us where we need to go, a discerning of the difference between personal desire (what we want for ourselves) and divine need to reconnect to that Image in which we were created.  It is in a word, “discipleship”; taking up our own “cross”, denying our own pursuits, and following Him until the journey’s end.


Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A Thought

“If you will return, O Israel”, says the Lord, “return to Me; and if you will put away your abominations out of My sight, then you shall not be moved.  And you shall swear, ‘The Lord lives’.  In truth, in judgment, and in righteousness, the nations shall bless themselves in the Lord, and in the Lord they shall glory.”  Jeremiah 4:1-2

Like every other chapter and verse written in Scripture, this passage requires earnest engagement and not simply reading the words on the page.  The Lord’s love is steadfast, but His blessing is conditional upon His people to “put away your abominations”.  Though there is no list of specific “abominations” in the immediate context, they are all contained in the Law of Moses and summarized in one word: adultery.  It is Israel betraying the True God who delivered them from slavery in Egypt and gave to them the Promised Land as a witness to all the nations.  Rather than make the most of all they had been given to use toward Divine purpose, they took the Lord’s favor and blessing for granted, and used what they had only for themselves.  Rather than using all they had as means to give the Lord His due glory, all they had became ends themselves – and Israel fell into Exile.

We are compelled to consider all the Lord has entrusted to our care and decide how we use all we have been given.  Do we believe they are given to us personally – OR – do we believe these things have been entrusted to our care for a much greater purpose?  It is not always an easy question to answer, but answer it we must … truthfully.  For the Lord already knows the answer.


Monday, February 06, 2012

A Thought

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God … for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day.  Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”  Exodus 20:8-10, 11

There are some key words in this Commandment that should be noted by the faithful.  First is the word “remember” which implies that the hallowed Day already existed before Sinai.  Second is “the” Sabbath day as opposed to “a” Sabbath.  Finally is the “seventh” day which is marked as the end of a week; a specific day of the week regarded by the Lord as sanctified and holy.

Over the years we have allowed a designation between the “Jewish” Sabbath and the “Christian” Sabbath for many reasons, not least of which is the Day of the Resurrection of the Christ; yet we refer to the same God and Father.  We uphold the other Commandments as perpetually valid, but this one Commandment we play rather fast and loose with.  We have changed “the” Sabbath to “a” Sabbath, meaning we will observe this Commandment when it suits us.  We will observe when it fits into our already hectic schedules – which misses the whole point of the Gift entirely!

We should not confuse a rigid point of law with what is clearly a divine Gift, and we must also remember that keeping and observing Sabbath as a community of faith goes far beyond simply attending worship although this is very much a part of the whole (and the holy!).  In the Sabbath we are forbidden to do any kind of labor, which is not unlike a parent who “insists” a toddler take her nap.  Wisdom dictates that our bodies need rest, but theology dictates that we need to reconnect to our Holy Father.  Our spirits can become as easily fatigued as our physical bodies!  We must also realize how easily we can get caught up in the so-called “rat race” and become disconnected from who we really are: children of the Most High God.

Above all else we must embrace this notion: we did not “earn” this Sabbath.  It is more evidence of the abundant grace that is imparted to us from the One who cares more for us than anyone on this earth can or will care.  The Sabbath is a Gift, not a test; yet observing the Sabbath (or not) is a clear indication to the rest of our community how we graciously receive grace – not to our own ends or our own good, but to His glory and His honor which is attested to in His good gifts.


Sunday, February 05, 2012

Building Blocks

1 Corinthians 9:16-23                                                                                                                           Mark 1:29-39

Reading "miracle stories" of Jesus' mighty works are both easy - AND - challenging to navigate.  They are easy because these works are the hallmark of Jesus' ministry.  They are what we expect because He is, after all, the Messiah.  These works define Him; they demonstrate the power of the Holy God and legitimize Jesus’ claim as Messiah.  They are what make Him the manifestation of the “kingdom come near”.  And because these are written and contained "in the Bible", Christians generally accept them “as is”. 

There is nothing wrong with this except that these stories are also somewhat challenging because there are few among us who have actually witnessed healings and miracles on such a broad scale.  With the exception of certain TV faith healers, for instance, I have never witnessed anyone go from zero to 60 in under 8 seconds with only a prayer and a palm on the forehead; which may explain why I see such "performances" on TV and think not very highly of them.  These people are given the ability to walk but are, ironically, sent straight to the floor and have to be helped back up on their feet!!  In fact I view these demonstrations with more than a little cynicism because, quite frankly, the acting on the part of those presenting themselves to be healed is, well, lousy.

This is not to say I do not believe the stories of miraculous healings; not at all.  Reading and hearing these stories, however, requires something more from us than blind and unquestioned acceptance.  It is not unlike what was shared previously about trusting one who claims prophetic authority to speak in the Lord's behalf; no one should be accepted or rejected based only on how we may "feel" about the situation, the message, or the person in question.  It is about "active engagement" and discerning the words spoken within the biblical context, the context in which they are spoken, and who is ultimately being lifted up; “testing the spirit” of what is being shared.  In other words, who - or what – finally becomes the center of attention?

I have heard stories from some people whom I have known personally who truly believe in these television faith healers even if they have never personally experienced them, and I find their comments disturbing because of the emphasis that is placed on the faith healer with the Lord relegated to secondary, if subservient status; as if the Lord CANNOT act until or unless compelled to do so by these men and women who claim to be faith healers.  I wonder, then, if perhaps this very thing is the reason why Jesus seemed always to ask that those who were healed by His hand - and especially the demons who were cast out - to remain silent; to avoid undue attention on Jesus Himself that would ultimately relegate the Holy Father to secondary, or subservient status.  Well, this depends on what we think is happening in these moments.

"I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some" (vs 22).  I find St. Paul's words to the Corinthian church disturbing on the one hand because I have long maintained, and still maintain, that the Church as the Body of Christ can only be one thing and answer only to one Authority - regardless of what society or the culture expect or demand.  To be "all things to all people" is, to me, to be acting inconsistently and without any real sense of integrity.  Indeed would any among us trust someone who would say one thing and do another depending on compelling circumstances? 

On the other hand, we must acknowledge a fundamental principle expressed by the apostle: the willingness to "bear the burdens of another" by placing himself alongside those he intends to offer the Gospel to; in other words, entering into their worlds in order to lead them out and give them a reason to aspire to a higher realm.  This is an important perspective that must not be overlooked or underplayed because it speaks of the necessity and willingness of the Church to go to great lengths to make the Gospel of our Lord known as widely as possible. 

In both instances, however, it is important to keep a broad perspective in our own lives by recognizing that neither Jesus nor Paul is doing anyone any "personal favors" even as each individual instance is intensely personal to those who are being healed or otherwise ministered to.  We must recognize that something much greater has begun, and I think it is this element in these miracle stories that is overlooked especially in today's contemporary Christian "pop" culture that seems intent on discrediting or dismantling "organized religion" in favor of each individual's own chosen path (and sometimes trying to gain followers!) rather than seeking the one, singular "narrow gate" Jesus teaches about in His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:13-14). 

We often forget that throughout the entire Bible - including the many so-called "lost books" - it is never about the individual; it is entirely about the Lord, the Holy God, the Creator, the Almighty … the Covenant Keeper.  It is entirely about His purposes and His Kingdom - and not our own.  It is entirely about faith in the Lord - and not in ourselves. It is about learning to feel good about and having confidence in the Lord - not about feeling good about or having confidence in ourselves.  And this bothers the many who seem determined to seek their own paths and find their own way because it is the much easier path, the wider gate that deceptively promises "personal" attention, "personal" choices, “personal” satisfaction, “personal” favors, and ultimately "personal salvation".  By this I mean to say that when we choose that broad path and wide gate, we are pretty much on our own because this is not where the Great Shepherd is leading us.  He didn’t take the “easy road”; why would we think we can do better than He?

So when Jesus stretches out His healing hand, He is doing much more than simply making a “boo-boo” go away so that we can lead happier and more satisfying lives.  Each life, each soul is one more “building block” laid against the Cornerstone that is Christ. 

Before Simon’s mother-in-law was made well by Jesus’ touch, she was probably already a “good” person – how many times have we heard this line from the many who do not want to connect to, or be held accountable by, a community of faith? – but whether she was a “good” person is beside the point because she could only be good by her own merits.  She was certainly good enough for her daughter, good enough for Simon, good enough for her culture; but before she could be good enough to serve the Lord, she had to be made “worthy” and good enough to serve the Lord for the Lord’s purposes of Kingdom-Building.  The theological perspective requires that we look closer so that we may fully understand Jesus’ much greater purpose in making Simon’s mother-in-law well.

The rich man in Matthew 19 was probably a “good” person by cultural standards, but he walked away when told by Jesus what is really required of discipleship.  The rich man was “personally” satisfied with all he had and with all he had done, but following Jesus in such a drastic and dramatic way was simply not his choice.  He rejected his place in the Lord’s greater purpose of building a community of faith and chose his own path instead.  He walked away because he was more comfortable to live according to his own terms.  Make no mistake; this passage is not an indictment against the so-called 1%.  This is a clear indictment against ANY who have anything of this world they are unwilling to part with for the sake of the kingdom of heaven!!

There were ten lepers who came to Jesus to be healed (Luke 17) and even though they were all equally healed by Jesus, only one among these ten returned to offer himself to the Lord.  The rest took their blessing and ran off on their own path to live their own lives and do their own “thang”.  They "took", but they were unwilling to "give" even an ounce. 

The third servant in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25) had been entrusted by the master with something of immeasurable value, but he failed to do anything with it for the master.  Because of his complacency, neglect, and self-concern he was cast “into outer darkness” and separated from his master’s household; useless in the Lord's intent to "build" the kingdom.

Each story, each instance, each individual; though personally touched, was intended for something much greater than self-satisfaction or self-determination.  The Kingdom of Heaven was – and still is - being gathered one “building block” at a time, but it is still about the glory of the Holy Father, His kingdom, and His terms – not our own.  We are given much when the Lord stretches out His Mighty Hand but, like the third servant in the parable of the talents, we are expected to do something for the Kingdom with what has been entrusted to our care - not bury it. 

We are given much so that we may give much.  We are blessed so that we may bless more still.  And this all comes by the Lord’s own good grace for His own good purpose: to lead His beloved Church home where we belong. 

In the name of the Holy Father, the Holy Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.