Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Prayer for Holy Thursday 2013

“Holy God, by the example of Your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, You taught us the greatness of true humility, and call us to watch with Him in His Passion.  Give us grace to serve one another in all lowliness, and to enter into the fellowship of His suffering; in His name and for His sake.  Amen.”  UM Book of Worship #349

The Scriptures also remind us that on this night before His betrayal and arrest, Jesus issued this “new commandment”: “that you love one another as I have loved you.”  Needless to say, this is a very tall order even for Christians because it means that whether we “like” someone, perhaps a fellow member of our church, we are nevertheless required (the Latin translation of commandment is “mandatum”, as in “mandate”) to love them.  This does not necessarily change the way we may feel about any individual without grace in our own hearts, of course, but it does change what we are “allowed”.  Those who insist they will not “do” for someone they do not even “like” are in direct violation of Christ’s commandment!  And it must be noted that “grace” does not excuse or allow a willful violation of Jesus’ direct words.  Where is it written that we are ever “saved” from obeying our Lord??

Together as the Church, the Body of Christ, let us rise above our human tendencies and strive to be more and more like Messiah Himself as we continue in these final days of our Lord’s journey, the journey that will take Him to His death; a death He prayed to be relieved from (“Father, take this cup from Me”), but a death He nevertheless chose to endure (“Yet, not My will but Yours”).

Doing the right thing is not always easy, but doing the righteous thing almost always goes against the culture we know so well.  Jesus never said it would be easy, but He promised it will be worth it in the end when others come to know of our love for one another, and through that love, come to know our Lord.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Prayer for Tuesday of Holy Week 2013

“Holy and compassionate God, your dear Son went not up to joy before He suffered pain, and entered not into glory before He was crucified.  Mercifully grant that we, walking the way of the Cross, may find it the way of life and peace; through Christ Jesus your Son, our Savior.  Amen.”  UM Book of Worship, #347

The way of the Cross is always difficult for us to envision because often we cannot comprehend the level of cruelty human beings are capable of.  Yet if we were to look around us we would easily find unspeakable cruelty; in the way we gossip about others in attempts to destroy their character and turn others against them, in the way we withhold our tithes to the Lord and our charity to those who are forced to do without, in the way we turn our backs on the least among us because there is “nothing in it for us”.  Cruelty is not always defined by physical maltreatment of those we do not like or care for.

Jesus deliberately aligned Himself with the “least” among those of society because this is what He sought to teach us about the Kingdom of the Most High God.  “Those who are exalted will be humbled; and those who are humbled will be exalted.”  Jesus took on the pain of the Cross to spare us.  Should we not at least take upon ourselves the care of those who cannot care for themselves just as Jesus bore what you and I cannot bear ourselves?


Monday, March 25, 2013

A Prayer for Monday of Holy Week 2013

“God of strength and mercy, by the suffering and death of Your Son, free us from slavery to sin and death and protect us in all our weakness; through Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.”  UM Book Of Worship #346

Let us not get so caught up in the busy-ness of the work week that we fail to journey with Jesus and try to envision His last days on earth.  He certainly knew where the week would take Him – and we do now only in hindsight – but we may more fully appreciate His last days if we dare to journey with Him and experience even a little of what He actually endured. 

Recommended readings for Monday of Holy Week:  Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 36:5-11; Hebrews 9:11-15; John 12:1-11


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Palm Sunday 2013: Come in ... now get out!

Luke 19:29-40

Approaching the end of the Lenten season should always be a challenge (rather than a relief) for those disciples who have engaged and embraced the Lenten Journey for what it is intended to accomplish - discovery.  We might discover for ourselves what Jesus really endured in His last days on this earth - if we actually shared His journey - and learn exactly why He was betrayed, arrested, and executed.  We might actually discover (if we look closely) that His Crucifixion may not have been as clean as being strictly "God's will" as we watch the "world" which would welcome Him this day into Jerusalem with high hopes and great expectations; and only days later not only turn their collective back on Him but demand His death.

Would we find it different today?  I doubt it.  And I doubt it not because I think the world is inherently evil; I doubt it because the "world" is inherently stubborn and entitled (a stiff-necked people!); by its actions clearly indicating a preference for darkness even as the "world" tries to fool itself into believing there is "light", as those who consider themselves so "intellectually enlightened".  I doubt it would be different because even some "Christians" disavow the journey of discipleship, the Church, its fellowship, and its disciple (by this I mean structured order, worship, Bible study, and other means of grace - NOT punishment!).  I doubt it would be different because we have convinced ourselves that "darkness" is the real comfort in our lives; for it is in "darkness" where we can really let our hair down, so to speak, and not be discovered for what we really are rather than what we claim to be.

I have watched the life of the newly appointed pope Francis unfold; and I have read the many articles written by abortionists, gay marriage proponents, and homosexual advocates hoping for a "new era" in the life of the Roman Church.  There is indeed a "new era" unfolding; but it is not going to be what so many seem to be hoping for.  For instance, rather than observe a clean ritual service in St. Peter's Basilica with all the pomp and glitter, the world is about to watch a pope celebrate Holy Thursday in a prison outside of Rome where he will wash and kiss the feet of convicted criminals.  Oh, the outcry!  Oh, the outrage!  Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth!  Already there are those demanding to know if the pope intends to do likewise for the victims of these criminals.  Before the event has even taken place, the "world" has already missed the point.

Darkness.  It is what keeps us safe from exposure.  It is what conceals our truest identity.  It is what protects us from being discovered for what and who we truly are even as we feign a sense of "false righteousness" in denying what we see in the light.  How dare this priest show humility to criminals?!?  How dare this "prince of the Church" show any level of grace to these "enemies of society"?  How dare this pope not get on the social bandwagon and pay attention to the things which really matter - like birth control, "reproductive justice" (whatever that means), homosexual marriage, and female priests?  Why worry about the "last, least, and lost" when there are so many much greater problems that require our attention?

Darkness.  It is the frame of mind in which we would invite someone like Jesus into our homes with the understanding that He will give to us all our little hearts' desire, and then curse Him for a fool for failing to give us what we demanded in the first place!  Darkness is that frame of mind and spirit that offers a false sense of entitlement by which any sense of "justice" is turned completely upside down and redefined as "JUST ME". 

Can you just imagine, judging by what we observe today, what we would have sounded like on that grand day in Jerusalem?  Here comes Jesus and His reputation ("all the deeds of power they had seen") riding into town on a colt - not quite like a "conquering hero" on a noble steed, but then this guy Jesus had not been known for doing things in customary ways. 

"Blessed is the KING who comes in the name of the Lord!", shouts the crowd and which also begs the question: who - or what - were they really greeting and welcoming - with extreme enthusiasm, I might add?  A King?  A Savior?  In what sense did they understand "king"?  In what sense might they have received a "savior"?  What expectations did they really have? 

What expectations might you or I have?  To be saved from SIN?  What sin?  Sin is not the problem because sin is relative, right?  The problem is the Romans!  The problem is the Congress!  The problem is the Muslims!  The problem is the atheists!  The problem is the liberals!  The problem is the conservatives!  The problem is the bishops!  The problem is the president.  

The problem is never "us" - it's always "them".  And if Jesus does not make "them" go away, what possible use could we have for Him??

The greatest thing missing in this grand entrance among those greeting Jesus with such enthusiasm is ... FAITH.  They have "seen all the deeds of power" with their eyes.  There are references scattered throughout the Gospel accounts of people who were "amazed" at the authority with which Jesus spoke, but it is what they have SEEN that has them so worked up.  When they could no longer "see" what they wanted to see, the enthusiasm diminished.  When they began to discover that their own, private "wish lists" would not be fulfilled, they discovered no real need for this prophet.  And now feeling quite foolish for their earlier enthusiasm, there is little left but to make the "problem" go away.  In a matter of days, Jesus Himself became the "problem".

Jesus does give much credit to the crowds when He is confronted by the Pharisees, but I doubt Jesus does not know how soon they will go away; how soon they will turn; how soon the "Rock" of St. Peter will deny having ever even known Him.  But this moment is not about human behavior or human nature.  This moment in Jesus' life is much bigger than the parade.  This single moment in human history is about our Holy Father.

When we get caught up in the reality of human behavior and can see with our 20/20 hindsight what is going on, we overlook a crucial element of this story.  It is actually the primary component of the story, but we fail to see it ... or we just don't want to.  In John 14:9, Jesus tells Philip: "Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.  How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?"

In Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, we are seeing our Holy Father in all His glory - AND - in all His humility.  He is making Himself available to us, but He is NOT going to force Himself upon us or our "enemies".  THAT is how much He truly and deeply loves, and it is how we get what we truly need even when we cannot see it.  The Holy Week will unfold and we will observe the gradual degradation of our enthusiasm when we grow tired of fasting and reading and praying especially when we see no tangible, personally pleasing results of our efforts.  We may even deny His Presence simply because our lives are not going the way we want or demand.

Whether we deny our own part in this unfolding drama or not will not diminish the reality of the Divine Presence and His desire to make Himself known and available to us.  We may receive Him based on His Promise, but it seems more likely we will reject Him based on our reality

We cannot deny human nature - but we must never deny the nature of our Holy Father who sent Messiah to us to announce the reign of the Kingdom of Heaven!  Let history teach us lessons so that we do not make the same mistake twice.  Let Him in!  

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Thought for Thursday 3/21/13

“Giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love.  For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.  Therefore, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  2 Peter 1:5-11

Peter is speaking of “the Way”; that is, what Messiah Himself claimed and acknowledged when Thomas did not understand Jesus’ proclamation (John 14:5-7).  Being a disciple of our Lord is not an “event” in which we claim salvation and then go about our business as if nothing had changed.  Peter reminds us there was a profound change in that “the Way” has been revealed to us!  Discipleship, a life devoted to Messiah, is that “Way” – and it leads us to the “entrance … into the everlasting kingdom”.  These things, however, will not “abound” if we do not devote ourselves to them.

Make no mistake; it is no “magic spell”.  The “Way” requires that we have the will and desire to devote ourselves to the pursuit of excellence in spiritual growth, “going on to perfection” and moving beyond the “basic principles” of the Christian faith (Hebrews 6:1-3); not ignoring these “basic principles” but rather growing from that solid foundation provided for us. 

It is the “Way”.  It is Messiah.  It is life with certainty rather than doubt in this world, and it is Eternal Life in the World which is to come.


Monday, March 18, 2013

A Thought for Monday 3/18/13

“And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thundering saying, ‘Alleluia!  For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns!  Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready’.  And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”  Revelation 19:6-8

Jesus tells stories of the Bride (the Church) and the Bridegroom (Himself) and the wedding banquets and who will be invited.  By the words of the Revelation, the Bride will soon be married to the “Lamb” (the Bridegroom, the Messiah) on the Last Day.  The Church, the Bride, will be “arrayed in fine linen … for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints”.  The Church (that is, true disciples) will be arrayed in its own works.  The “fine linen” represents acts of righteousness.

Reading such passages as these reminds us that simply acknowledging Messiah as Savior of the World or even “personal Savior” is not in itself the “works” if acts worthy of repentance are not part of the declaration, the “righteous acts”.  The Church must be the active, living, breathing Bride of the Most High.  We must not simply acknowledge the Gospel of the Lord and live like the devil but should be The Living Example of all the Gospel represents; for “to whom much is given, much more will be required”.  And regardless of the sufferings we may endure in this life, we are promised that our perseverance will be more than adequately rewarded.

We must stay true to the Gospel of the Lord, for the Lord grants Life Eternal through this Good News!  It is for all who embrace the whole life of the Church, the community of the faithful; for it is as it is written: “He has shown you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).  That is who we are; it is what we are called not merely to read and recite – but to “do” … all in His most glorious and holy Name!


Monday, March 11, 2013

4th Sunday of Lent: Lost and Found

Psalm 32
Luke 15:11-32

"I received from God wonderful riches … I received the knowledge of God and in Him the knowledge of everything else and the power to be a son of God. And all this I have lost, all this I am losing all the time, not only in particular sins and transgressions, but in the sin of all sins: the deviation of my love from God, preferring the “far country” to the beautiful home of the Father.”  Fr. Alexander Schmemann

The major themes of Lent - reflection, prayer, confession, repentance - are why I not only appreciate the traditions that observe Lent; but these themes are also part of the reason why I dread the season; because like all seasons, it will come to an end.  The fasting observances will cease, and life will pretty much return to what we would probably call "normal". 

The disciplines of Lent are important in themselves especially as we approach that dreadful day when our Lord was put to death, but these disciplines are put away after the season like an old winter coat no longer needed.  Our Lord is eternally risen, so there is no reason we can see to continue what seems to be a constant state of mourning.

For many the constant call to repentance is redundant because the question of when we no longer have to repent or even need to repent cannot be fully answered.  And as I stated previously, if our lives are just fine by any reasonable standard, if we are comfortable in where we are and what we have become, what more needs to be done?  In light of the assurance of salvation, what more can reasonably be done? 

If we have fallen under the notion by which we preach Jesus as the "only way" but actually embrace for ourselves a concept of universal salvation that requires nothing of us, that gives us permission to NOT study Scriptures, to NOT attend worship, to NOT attend to the sacraments of the Church, to NOT offer our tithes and gifts; then repentance is just an empty word that teaches nothing and offers even less.  It is a vain practice of saying "I'm sorry" when we really are NOT sorry or feel as though there is nothing to be sorry about.

We are NOT sorry for cursing those whom we do not like; they had it coming.  We are NOT sorry for our slander, our gossip; we're just passing along information.  We are NOT sorry for our idolatry; all things are gifts from God.  We are NOT sorry for our adultery; we do not believe it is possible to "cheat" on our Lord.  We are NOT sorry for withholding ourselves and our tithes from Messiah's Holy Church; our Lord understands our financial predicaments and time constraints. 

In fact we have convinced ourselves - NOT by Holy Scripture but by man-made traditions - that we are perfectly justified in our vengeance, our slander, our idolatry, our adultery, our robbery.  We disdain a preacher or a teacher or priest who dares to stand firm in what is written in the Scriptures, and we defile ourselves when we choose our own way independent of what is actually written in the Scriptures; finding personal pleasure in the "far away land" as the prodigal son did.

Part of the lesson of the prodigal son is not simply in his return to the father's good graces by his confession (that part, incidentally, is also very often overlooked or outright ignored); but is in the very fact that what the prodigal son HAD in his possession by all rights still belonged to his father!  His share of the inheritance had been given over to him, but that inheritance could not possibly belong to the son independent of the father.  He had no inherent "right" to squander his father's good gifts!  In fact I wonder if a word-play on the root of "inheritance" is not attached to the word "inherent" which means, "existing in someone or something as a permanent and inseparable element, quality, or attribute".

What we understand from the need to repent, then, is to move beyond empty words and understand that everything which makes our lives tolerable does not belong to us but have rather been entrusted to our care.  Fasting, in conjunction with repentance, is to separate those good things from Above from the other things of the world which actually serve to separate us from our Heavenly Father, embracing those "idols" that hold more sway over our lives than the very Word of the Lord! 

These "idols" are many and come in various deceptive forms and practices; but if we never seriously contemplate everything that is in our lives, if we never do a "spiritual inventory" of what belongs to the Father, if we take pride in all we have as a measure of individual achievement, then what need is there to repent at all?  Why should we fast from things that make us happy; for what we worked so hard to attain?  Are they not all good gifts from Above?

The psalmist puts things in proper order for us.  The sin is forgiven once the psalmist moves beyond his own "silence" when he finally confesses, BUT THEN the word comes from Above when the Lord speaks through the Law: "I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go".  But notice also that the psalmist does not speak of the Father's forgiveness and promise of instruction as coming independently of confession - or that these divine gifts will take our will from us; rather, the Father's invitation is for our will to become aligned with His will.  We will not be "controlled by bit and bridle" as livestock, as mindless, instinctive animals that must be controlled and tamed; we will be given "understanding" - for without that understanding, all that comes from the Father "will not stay near you", as the psalmist writes, because what we receive from Above was never "ours" to begin with.

All we have, however much or little, is given from Above; and we can use these things to lift up His Holy Name - OR - we can bring about our own condemnation just as we are reminded in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25).  We are promised much, and given even more once we come to realize our needless - yet self-imposed - separation from our "real" selves, our "real" life whenever we try in vain to create an alternate reality independent of our Holy Father and our True Home. 

We are redeemed by the Almighty; that much can be universally and biblically stated because Jesus did not simply die for "you" or "me".  He died so that "we" - that is, all of the human race, the entire world - may hope to live eternally in our "real" home.  It is the "prodigal", the one who finally comes to his spiritual senses and casts aside this world and seeks to recover all that has been lost by his own hand, who will be welcomed in the end and restored to our Father's Kingdom.

It is our hope; it is truly His Glory.  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

A Thought for Monday 3/11/13

“Know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.”  Deuteronomy 7:9

Moses was reminding the people of Israel that they have a special place in the Lord’s heart for the sake of His covenant to Abraham; the covenant carried on through Isaac and Jacob in which the Lord promised to deliver His people to a special place – the Promised Land.  And even through the New Covenant in Messiah, the same essential component of this covenant is still in place: we keep His commandments as “the Way” of Messiah, and He will see us all the way home.

We must not allow loosely (and carelessly) translated New Testament ideals convince us that keeping and obeying our Lord’s Law is being “legalistic”.  Rather we must understand that from the beginning when the Lord spoke to humanity in the Garden of Eden, His word is eternal and absolute.  Jesus reminds us that we prove our love for Him when we “obey” His commandments.  And if Jesus is God incarnate, the same “commandments” are still in place from the Almighty who “does not change”.  The Law of the Lord is how we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world, and the Law is how we come to understand what it means and what it takes to live in community with one another – AND our unbelieving neighbors.  Living as though we truly believe the Word of the Lord is the only way others will be able to see the joy and experience the hope we know is present in our Lord and His covenant.

It is why Israel was called forth from Egypt, and it is why the Holy Spirit of the Living God calls us forth in Messiah; to tell the Story and invite others into our Lord’s community.


Wednesday, March 06, 2013

A Thought for Wednesday 3/6/13

“When the Lord your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land, take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?  I will do likewise.’  You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods, for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.”  Deuteronomy 12:29-32

Before Israel enters into the Promised Land, Moses has a stark warning for God’s people: “Do not try to be like everyone else.  Do not try to ‘fit in’.”  Human sacrifice, among other abominable practices, was the order of the day and was a central part of their worship; the Canaanite god Molech demanded blood and the people were so desperate for the “blessings” of this blood-thirsty god, they were even willing to sacrifice their own children for good crops and a better life!  And while there are many instances in the Bible that should not be read so literally, this is one area that is clear! 

You and I are called to something much greater, and this greater can only be attained if and when our lives are completely devoted to our God, our Holy Father, the God and Father of Messiah Jesus.  He has shown us a better way, but we must be willing to trust only Him if we ever hope to see and appreciate this better way.  Faithful disciples will never “fit in” this secular culture, and many will bear ill will against us because we refuse their ways.  “Tolerance” is only an acknowledgement that there are those who choose to follow false gods (a reality we cannot deny), but we cannot – must not – try to go along with them just to try and “get along” or learn to appreciate their culture.  Their culture is one of death!

We are called to stand firm in the faith, and in that call are promised the riches of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is hard to stay focused on that righteous “Way” when there are so many attractive and compelling distractions, but we are given the means of grace which enable us to stay so focused: prayer, Scripture study, worship, fasting, and attending to the sacraments of the Church.  These are the good and abundant gifts that offer us a glimpse of the World which is to come, the World that is our true Home, and it is promised to the faithful who endure the Journey to the very end.


Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A Thought for Tuesday 3/5/13

“As for the head of those who surround me, let the evil of their lips cover them; let burning coals fall upon them; let them be cast into the fire, into deep pits, that they rise not up again.  Let not a slanderer be established in the earth; let evil hunt the violent person to overthrow them.”  Psalm 140:9-11

Reading such passages, it is important to remember that the psalmist is expressing his own disdain for those who continually seek to persecute the nation of Israel, God’s own chosen people.  It is not unlike the contempt David expressed as Goliath dared to challenge the Lord’s people and the Lord’s own anointed (King Saul at that time).  Yet Jesus reminds us that praying and wishing for the judgment of these who commit evil acts against us is not our place.  Rather we are called to “pray for those who persecute” us, and we are challenged to “bless those” who wish us harm.  And St. Paul reminds us that our acts of kindness in the face of maltreatment and persecution will “heap burning coal upon their heads”.

“Vengeance is mine”, says our Lord, and it is important that we not get involved in “repaying evil for evil”.  This is NOT the way of Christ, and it must never be the way of Christ’s people.  Our Lord’s own judgment will cover the sins of ALL who violate His decrees; and our evil acts will be bring judgment upon us.  We are called to rise above the hate, the slander, the spite, and to judge ourselves; because we are called to something much greater.  We are not, nor have we ever been, called to be like everyone else; we are commanded to be better than that.

Perfection comes by the grace of our Lord himself; this is something we cannot attain on our own.  Striving to be better tomorrow than we are today, however, is completely within our power and within the realm of “bearing fruit worthy of repentance”; fruit that testifies to our faith. 


Monday, March 04, 2013

A Thought for Monday 3/4/13

“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.  In it you shall do no work; you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your mail servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gate.  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 20:8-11 NKJV

A truly praying people must first be a people of the Sabbath and a people of the Book.  When we find ourselves so busy that we cannot even conceive of a full 24 hours of rest, it is virtually impossible to even find quality time to spend in the Word and in prayer.  Even the Almighty recognized six full days in which work would have to be done; remember this was a culture that would depend entirely on the land for its sustenance.  There is hardly time in working from sun-up to sun-down to make time for rest as we well know even today, let alone make time for prayer.  Yet even then the Lord recognized the busy-ness of daily living and what would be required; so He sanctified the Sabbath and commanded that it be observed.

If we truly want this land to be healed, we must become a people of the Sabbath devoted to worship, prayer, and study of Scripture.  We must use the time “sanctified” for this very purpose so that we may fully connect – or reconnect – to our Creator and that perfect Image in which we are all made.  Then we can know what is the true will of the Most High.  I think we might all be pleasantly surprised for what our Lord has in store for us if we would simply take that time given to us.  It is a Gift, perhaps among the greatest of all Gifts from Above.


Sunday, March 03, 2013

Repentance: THE profession of faith

Isaiah 55:1-9
Luke 13:1-9

"Your fountain, O Lord, is hidden from those who do not thirst for you."  St. Ephrem the Syrian

There is a fine line, a "hidden boundary" between the patience and the wrath of the Holy One.  When we are young we are taught - or should have been taught - the difference between right and wrong, and as we grow these lessons take shape as we learn WHY something is wrong and WHY something is right.  Yet as we get older and become a little more worldly and think ourselves to be wiser, the rules seem to change - sometimes we even change the rules ourselves according to our own lives and our own needs and desires. 

"Why" something is wrong becomes harder to define especially if that something works well for us and does not seem to hurt others, or it becomes conditional according to the kind of man or woman we grow to be; tempered not only by how we were raised but also by the many choices we've made along the way - and in whose name these choices were made.

Once we become conditioned over a period of time to a certain way of thinking, it becomes very difficult to imagine an alternative.  Words that once stung in church - sin, wrath, repentance, judgment - no longer carry the same weight they once did because another word - grace - has pervaded church thinking.  And it's hard not to think in terms of grace because when life seems impossible, grace is really all we have! 

Yet even grace no longer commands the respect it once did because some elements of the Church have become very careless with that word and the concept it conveys.  Rather than representing a moment when we become aware of our sin and choose to turn away from that sin because we know it displeases our Lord, grace has become more of an excuse we claim for ourselves "just as I am" to continue in sin while still claiming salvation.  "Whatever", "oh well", and "don't judge me" have become the norm, and "sin" has become a foreign word; a strange concept we cannot fully grasp because we've made sin "relative".

It is the strangest twist of irony that our own governor signed a pro-gun bill that crossed his desk as a matter of constitutional priority, but he vetoed an anti-abortion bill that would have protected an unborn child from a gruesome and painful death after 20 weeks.  It's all about money, you see, because that bill would have almost certainly invited lawsuits.  Rather than stand up for what is morally right and take measures to protect ALL people, however, the governor chose the "path of least resistance" to protect the Constitution.  (The Arkansas Legislature overrode the veto)

I don't care about your political affiliation or social beliefs about certain issues, and it is certainly not the point.  It is about that cursed "path of least resistance" that gets most of us - perhaps all of us - in serious spiritual trouble because that path seems so ... normal.  Yet a poet wrote these words as it comes to a "normal" life in the Almighty: "How far can one go on in sin?  How long will mercy spare?  Where does grace end and where begin the confines of despair?"  Where, indeed.

Jesus' whole point and purpose in this passage from Luke is entirely about the necessity (not "option") of repentance - and the Lord's promise to His people through the prophet Isaiah is also a call to "turn around" from that "path of least resistance".  According to Mark, Jesus' very ministry after His baptism and time of testing in the wilderness began with these words: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel" (1:15)

The most haunting part of that poetic passage is the question, "How far can one go in sin?" because if we are so comfortable with our chosen "path of least resistance" that we cannot tell the difference between "sin" and "righteousness", or if we ignore sin altogether in the name of "grace", how can we even know we are in a state of sin if our lives seem so right?  How can we know what constitutes sin in the first place, since the dominant secular culture has so overwhelmed even the Church under the blanket terms of "tolerance" and "diversity"?  If we do not know or even acknowledge sin, we cannot know what repentance even means, let alone how important it truly is.  That word, "repent", is an intentional focus of Jesus' lesson AND announcement.

So we should rather consider repentance itself - rather than magic prayers and empty creeds - as the genuine act of contrition; it is the only bona fide "profession of faith" because it is the only evidence that "faith" itself even exists!  It is the only act that goes beyond merely saying, "I'm sorry"; repentance makes the intentional and purposeful correction - AND - it is the "profession of faith" everyone can truly SEE rather than simply HEAR.  Repentance compels us to act BEFORE we get caught! 

Repentance is an intentional reordering of our whole life.  Repentance may cost us friends, repentance may cost us money, repentance may even cost us our jobs if we truly come clean and reorder our lives because we cannot simply tell the Lord "I'm sorry" but leave others in the wake of harm we've caused directly or indirectly - and sin always does this!  ALWAYS!  This is the overarching theme of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.  This Day is not simply an "event" that happens; it is actually prepared for in advance with fasting, prayer, serious contemplation of one's life, and making right the wrongs caused in the lives of others by our sin. 

Clearly we cannot undo the past.  As the saying goes, we cannot "unring a bell".  Yet there is nothing that prevents us from making peace with those we've harmed, and there is nothing scriptural or doctrinal that prevents us from making amends where we can.  Some elements of Protestant theology would suggest these acts have a "works" flavor to them; that we would by these acts of contrition try to "earn" favor with our Lord.  Yet we cannot dismiss Jesus' very words to His disciples as recorded in Matthew's gospel: "If you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go your way.  First be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift" (5:23-24).

It is, I think, a colossal mistake (and yet a common one) to believe that Jesus' Death on the Cross once and for all time removed our need to reflect and repent constantly.  Think of it this way.  Jesus teaches in both examples in Luke: "unless you repent, you will all perish like they did".  Notice our Lord did NOT continue to say, 'but after I've been killed and resurrected, never mind'.  No, our Lord taught us just as Isaiah tried to teach the people of Israel that the time to come clean and come near is short.  It is implied by the Holy Father's words through Isaiah that the time to repent and draw near is not infinite: "Seek the Lord WHILE He may be found; call upon Him WHILE He is near".  The overwhelming implication is that there will come a time when our Lord cannot be found by us; a time when we will not be able to call upon Him.

Jesus' words are no less foreboding, and He is offering no excuses or alibis; He's not even offering to "save us" from ourselves.  The parable even seems to be "time-stamped"; i.e., "Sir, let the [non-fruiting-bearing tree] alone for one year more, until I dig around it and put manure on it.  If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down."

If our Lord will not even accept our "gifts" to Him while we are consciously aware of harm we've done, how can we reasonably suggest He will accept US?  It's not about "works".  It's not about "getting saved".  It is entirely about "doing right things" and "being righteous".  It is about the demands of discipleship.  It is the difference between a hollow prayer memorized from the mind and a hallowed life emanating from the heart.  Our Lord demands one - and rejects the other.  Which will be ours?  AMEN.