Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Futile Comparison of Spirituality and Religion

I have often wondered what people mean when they insist, sometimes rather haughtily, that they are "spiritual but not religious".  I already know what I think, but I wonder if those who insist on their primary, if superior, spirituality can articulate in a meaningful, communal way exactly what they are trying to express beyond, "I don't do church", because this seems to be all I can draw from such conversations.  Maybe I am looking too narrowly, too critically, but in the end the safe distance from "organized religion" seems to be at the forefront of their being.

I readily agree that merely going to church as opposed to attending worship services, more often than not, can be an empty practice in futility.  Such an expression that is typically associated with being strictly religious can come across as more of a habit than an intentional act seeking expression and purpose beyond oneself.  Indeed habits themselves can be and often are executed almost as mindlessly as much dogma associated with religion in general.  We do have our religious worship practices, we have our pre-printed bulletins with the order of worship (a program?), prayers and creeds, and we have a definitive start AND stop time (better stop before noon, preacher!) at which time all religious expression comes to a grinding halt in deafening silence.  Does this carelessness and mindlessness, however, indicate an inherent inferiority to spirituality which seeks nothing more than self-justification and feeling good?

If being religious is, as 20th-century Christian theologian and existentialist Paul Tillich expresses, "asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt", then what is so futile and dogmatic about being religious as an outward expression of a spirituality from within?  Where is the dividing line between religion and spirituality especially when so many morally superior spiritualists neither ask questions nor willingly care to receive "even hurtful answers" (spirituality seems to avoid these), answers that compel us to move beyond self and into community as Jesus commands His followers? 

If I sound bias, it is because I am.  I am a religionist.  My experience with spiritualists has often been as negative as religion seems to be to so many spiritualists.  From my vantage point, spiritualists seek not to be associated with the hypocrisy with which the religionists seem so easily associated (say one thing, yet do another).  Spiritualists are associated strictly with their own feelings, their own moods, and their own agendas, thereby avoiding hypocrisy by being true only to oneself.  Spiritualists in general are not interested in community except on their own terms, and Christian spiritualists seem concerned only with whether or not they have been assured a place at the Heavenly Banquet.  What happens between then and now seems inconsequential.

I freely admit that my religion can often be a hindrance to genuine and earnest spiritual expression especially when following an order.  My religion and its liturgy, however, lend form and substance and direction to whatever spirituality I may express within a centuries-old tradition and The Word.  My religion compels me to "do" in accordance with commandments which come from the Holy Scriptures themselves (incidentally, there are more than "ten" commandments), but to "do" is not based on any conceived "merit" system.  Rather, to "do" is to honor the One who gives life and offers life to those for whom we "do".  Based on my own experiences, a strict spirituality sans any religious expression becomes strictly about "me" and how I may be feeling at any given time.  My religion helps me to discern my sense of spirituality by challenging me to "test" whatever spirits may be reaching my consciousness (1 John 4:1-3).

What this must necessarily come down to, then, is that spirituality and religion are not at odds with one another except in how we choose to define one as superior to the other based on incomplete observations.  Spirituality without religious expression is as dead as any religion without a substantial spiritual component.  After all, would we religionists deny THE Spirit by denying the value of spirituality?  And would spiritualists deny the value of religion as uniquely defined by St. James: "Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this; to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27), containing a necessary communal component of religious expression?

The truth is religion AND spirituality can be hindrances to personal spiritual growth within a religious community of faith especially when we draw lines in the sand.  The Church's growth is stunted, and many innocents are misled into empty relationships that simply do not exist and cannot be fulfilled or fulfilling.  It is not fair judge either based strictly on opinions without understanding how each can benefit mutual relationships to the same God.  In fact each can aid the other to enhance these relationships and build a much stronger Church in a world gone mad.  Keeping each other honest in mutual accountability is as much a component of discipleship as bringing someone to Christ for the first time.  Let us find The Way - together. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Into the Unknown

Psalm 79:1-9

The human psalmist writes: "Pour out Your anger on the nations that do not know You, and on the kingdoms that do not call on Your name ... Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors ..."

The Divine and Eternal God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah: "My joy is gone; grief is upon Me, My heart is sick.  Hark, the cry of My poor people from far and wide in the land: 'Is the Lord not in Zion?'"

It can be suggested that both passages were written roughly in the same time period during the Exile and by the same people (though not necessarily the same person) - AND BOTH with completely different notions about the Lord.  The psalmist prays for judgment against the "nations ... who have defiled Your holy temple" - and yet the prophet conveys thoughts from our Heavenly Father whose holy heart is broken not by these uncircumcised invaders but by His own circumcised people of the Holy Covenant ("Why have they provoked Me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?")!

It is easy to connect these passages with so many others to provoke a sense of conviction and guilt against the faithful who should never have allowed themselves to reach such state of spiritual neglect, and the value of conviction and guilt cannot be overstated when it comes to the spiritual cleansing of earnest repentance.  Beating people over the head time and again, however, produces little more than "scar tissue", an ambivalent lack of sensation that is no longer even capable of, let alone concerned with, a healing response.  What do we do with this?

It is important to remember that the Psalms in general are prayers written by prophets and priests as well as some which can be indirectly attributed to King David or at least attributed to the period of his reign as king.  There are psalms of joy as well as psalms of lamentation, expressions of a people no more and certainly no less fickle than we are today. 

Psalm 79 is just such an example of a people who pray for judgment against invading nations - AND YET they pray out of the "other side of their mouth" not to be held responsible for the "iniquities of our ancestors".  It would appear this is a people who refuse to look too closely at themselves to determine that the problems they are experiencing are not coming from outside - but from within.  It is a lot like what we do today in blaming our government or foreign terrorists for invading our "bubble" without realizing there is no political or military solution for what truly ails us.

The prophets are another story altogether.  These men have been anointed and commissioned by the Holy God to speak in His behalf to His people, so these words carry a little more weight - especially when Jesus brings these words forward into a new generation to show essentially the same people that not much had changed from the time of the Exile to the Messianic period when our Lord quotes the prophet Isaiah: "This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.  In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mark 7:6-7).

There was recently an interesting speculation from an atheist writer who commented that these and so many other passages come dangerously close to suggesting that the people of God knew nothing about this God.  And then, of course, this atheist goes further to point out that the very same holds true for Christians who claim a Messiah but seem to know even less about Him even today!  This is the very same spiritual ignorance cited by the prophet Muhammad in the 8th-century which gave rise to Islam - an alternative religious expression that sought to reconnect the "people of the Book" (Jews and Christians alike) to the original faith of Abraham.  So what are we supposed to do with this?

It is one thing to be accused by an unbeliever.  It is another thing altogether to stand accused by the Eternal Judge: "My people are foolish; they do not know Me" (Jeremiah 4:22).  Or from St. John: "He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him"

In spite of this willful ignorance and rejection comes this eternal prayer from Messiah: "Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing."  In the face of the Ultimate Rejection, the Messiah - the very One sent directly to us by our Holy Father - nevertheless prays for our forgiveness, and it was in that moment when the entire human race was redeemed by the blood of the Sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; forgiven for willful neglect may be another story altogether, but this is a story which continues to be written!

Sin is defined as a "transgression against the moral or divine law", but sin is also defined as "estrangement"; that is, a broken-ness in fellowship and relationship.  This estrangement does certainly come when we willfully commit an act of transgression against the clearly stated will of the Most High God. 

This estrangement also comes when we willfully choose not to pursue a familiar relationship with the Holy God in Christ Jesus through His Divine revelation in Scriptures but rely instead strictly on "feelings", feelings borne of emotions which can often betray us - especially when our feelings are, more often than not, completely irrational because they are based strictly on what we THINK we know rather than what we ACTUALLY know.

After 2000 years of preaching the Gospel of our Lord through His Holy Church, one might think we would know more by now.  Do we?  Can you pick up your Bible and turn to any random page, read what is written and say, "Oh.  I didn't know that"?  If you can - and I suspect we all can - then we do not "know" enough.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Stranger in our midst

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Psalm 14:1-7
John 1:1-18
Luke 15:1-10

"I say there is no darkness but ignorance."  William Shakespeare

"Two-thirds of Americans cannot name a single Supreme Court justice.  Only about one-third can name the three branches of government. Less than one-fifth of high school seniors can explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.  Less than one-third of eighth-graders can identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and it's right there in the name."
"The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance.  That ignorance starts in the earliest years of a child's schooling, but often continues all the way through college and graduate school."  Former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, miamiherald.com, 9/6/13

Though often misunderstood, "ignorance" is not strictly an insult to one's intelligence.  Rather the term speaks to what is undeniably true: knowledge is lacking.  One can be completely ignorant of certain information without being "stupid".  I am ignorant about just about all things mechanical, but I am relatively well-versed in how our government works. 
Yet at the time of this writing, I could tick off only four of the nine Supreme Court justices right off the top of my head (five if you count the one I tried to name who died several years ago!).  Who they are, however, is not as great a concern to me as the decisions they hand down; so I don't make it my business to memorize each individual member of the Court.  Yet some decisions which have come from that Court are my business, especially those rulings having to do with religion in society.
The knowledge we pursue speaks directly to what we consider to be important to know.  The knowledge we expose our children to speaks directly to what we believe to be important to their well-being and their education.  Yet when it comes to religious studies, there is a huge gap we seem largely unconcerned about.  I suppose there can be many reasons for this deficit and why we don't seem so concerned about being or becoming more biblically literate, but the compelling factor cannot be denied that ultimately the Bible is just not that important to us - and if it is not important to us, it will likely never be important to our children. 
This is not a condemnation; it is an observation with merit that our children pay attention to what we pay attention to.  Oh, we complain that prayer is not allowed in public schools and we decry the absence of the Ten Commandments in the hallways of those same schools, but we fail to take full advantage of the religious opportunities there are outside of the public school systems.  It seems much easier to blame others for failing to do what WE should already be doing, what we've had opportunity to do since the advent of the printing press.
What is especially appalling about this reality is expressed in Jeremiah, in the Psalms, and in John.  In Jeremiah it is written about the impending judgment against Judah: "My people are foolish; they do not know Me."  In Psalm 14 it is written, "Have they no knowledge [who] do not call upon the Lord" (vs 4).  In John's gospel it appears things had not gotten much better between the advent of the Exile and the advent of Messiah: "He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him." 
Jesus was born, was brought into the Covenant community, and was raised pretty much like all other children.  Of course the Bible gives us only a glimpse of Jesus' childhood, but we can see even by that short piece of chapter two in Luke's gospel that Jesus was "known".
So when John proclaims that "world did not know Him" and that "His own did not receive Him", we are compelled to ask ourselves how this could be since Luke's gospel seems to go in another direction in terms of familiarity and acceptance.  It has been suggested by some that portions of the first chapter of John can be more accurately described as "post script"; that is, speaking of Jesus' crucifixion as the ultimate rejection.  Perhaps.  I think, however, there is much more we need to know especially in light of the often-quoted but rarely understood passage, "No one comes to the Father but by Me". 
The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks well of the priesthood of Messiah as "mediator", as a "priest in the order of Melchizedek" (Hebrews 5:6), and indeed He is.  No one would deny this component of Messiah as the "anointed one", yet this component of Messiah is relatively small in comparison to what we need to know about "logos", the Greek term in John's first chapter translated to our English "word".  The "logos" is the "Word of God - and more than this, the "Word made flesh".
So we can pretty easily say we know Jesus as priest and Jesus as Savior (that's the easy one!), but what can we say we know about Jesus as "The Word" which is necessarily the primary configuration as His place in the Holy Trinity?  Some may suggest it means different things to different people and to a degree this is a reasonable supposition, but it can only be a supposition.  It says nothing of what we know about "The Word", the "logos" because there is only ONE "Word", and it is the "Word of the Lord" - that which comes from the blessed Mouth of the Most High and Eternal God; the God who "does not change"; reasonably, "The Word" which does not change.  What we conceive of and understand, however, can change everything according to our opinions - what we think rather than what we know.
Consider a book by James Michener called The Source.  It is a fictional story of archeologists on a dig in Israel.  Cities in the ancient world were built on top of one another rather than moving down the road after destruction, so archeologists dig "layers"; and each "layer" tells a different story from a completely different time.  In the story, one layer which revealed a culture before the rise of the Hebrew faith revealed the story of a woman standing in her doorway with tears streaming down her face as her husband took their first-born son to the temple to be sacrificed as an act of worship to an ancient "god".  Though this is a fictional book, that practice actually happened.  Our Scriptures attest to this reality.  In fact it still happens today.
Later there is this same woman revealed in yet another "layer" this time watching as her husband goes off to the temple to "worship" with temple prostitutes, an accepted act of worship of this ancient religion (also revealed in our Scriptures, practices which our Holy Father firmly HATES!), a mode of worship believed to ensure fertility in the family and on the farm.  As the woman stands in the doorway with tears streaming down her face she says, "If my husband had a different god, he would be a different man" (Faith Sharing, Fox/Morris, pg 18).
For those families then and for our families now, the theological issue is not whether or not the family is engaged in faith formation.  The question is: what kind of formation is taking place ("Faith Sharing Congregation", Swanson/Clement, pg 68) especially in light of a colossal failure to give religious education its due?  That we call Jesus our "Savior" is central to our understanding of the Christian faith, but can we honestly say we know Jesus if we are ignorant of "The Word"?   Because it cannot be denied that what we think we know about Jesus has everything to do with what we think we know about the Holy Father.  Our behavior is conditioned by our understanding of the very nature of the Holy God revealed in Messiah.       
To believe Jesus of Nazareth existed does not require a lot of faith.  He was, after all, as much a rabbi and a prophet of the Most High God as He was fully Man.  To believe He was executed because He went against the religious establishment is also not much of a stretch of faith because we can easily see in our own culture, indeed in our own towns, that people (clergy and laity alike) who do not "go along" with pop culture are subject to social crucifixion - often by very cruel, unfeeling, and uncaring Christians who think they "know" Jesus.  It all has everything to do with what we know about our Holy Father because, you see, we "see" the Father when we "see" Jesus; and we "hear" the Father when we "hear" Jesus.  When we are in "darkness", however - that is, in ignorance of "The Word", "the Word which was in the beginning" - we "see" nothing and we "hear" little beyond our own thoughts and opinions.
The primary nature of our Holy Father, that divine nature revealed in Messiah, is one of Shepherd who leads the willing flock.  And when even one of the flock goes missing, the Shepherd drops everything to find that missing lamb and return that lamb to the fold, worrying more about the one who "needs repentance" than those who do not.  And we might think one dollar missing out of ten is not so bad, yet our Lord states very clearly that it is a very big deal to Him and He will stop at nothing until that "missing" one is found!  All for that one tiny, socially insignificant coin which is finally found, there is "joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
This is a God worth knowing.  It is not enough to "suspect" there may be a higher power.  It is not enough to believe a Man named Jesus existed.  It is not enough to form opinions in "darkness" (that is, in ignorance of what is actually written in the Scriptures), opinions borne in darkness and which remain in darkness that do not shed Light; for "the Light shines in darkness, and the darkness [still] did not comprehend it" because He came - but we could not "see".
It is not enough to know He came; it is a matter of Life and Death to know what He says as "The Eternal Word".  What He said in the beginning, what He says to the Church today, and what He will say when He returns.  "The Word" is that which speaks to us even in our moments of doubt, and it is "The Word" which speaks to us in our moments of glory.  It is "The Word" which not only seeks us out when we have gone astray; it is "The Word" which restores and transforms the Willing Soul.  There is no "magic trick" - there is only Love; the Love of the Holy Father in His Word made flesh.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

It ain't cheap ... or easy

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Revelation 12:10-12
Luke 14:25-33

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Christ Jesus.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

"Hate" is a strong word, too strong especially when it comes to the relations we have with our parents, our siblings, our spouses, and our children.  In fact the very idea of Jesus' seeming ultimatum commanding that in order to follow Him we must "hate" our families makes such passages not only hard to digest - but easy to ignore.  This, of course, is the real travesty because when we make the conscious decision to deliberately side-step those passages that make us uncomfortable, we redefine the relationship altogether.  We become our own "creator" and assign the Holy Father the subordinate role of "created"; a "creature" of our own making - in an image of our own choosing.  And when I choose an image and you and you and you choose an image, we have a God who is unrecognizable.

This can be overcome (in fact, must be overcome for the sake of the Church in the world today), but it will require real effort, real commitment, and a genuine desire to overcome.  It requires that we not get so bowed up that we say stupid things such as, "I don't care what it says ..."  or "The preacher is an idiot" ... Or worse: "That's not what it means" but then be completely detached from its meaning with no clue or concern about what it does mean and take no action to discover for ourselves what our Lord is really saying to the WHOLE Church.  

Reading the Bible, memorizing verses, reading what is written on a page with no concern for what is meant in our lives and our relationship to the Lord through the Church and with no intention to do much more than move from one moment to the next is wasted, purposeless motion akin to one of the seven deadly sins known as "sloth"; a complete and utter disengagement from the Word and the Church - spiritual laziness.  It is perhaps the slowest and most painful of deaths, ironically, because as it becomes easier to disengage and remain disengaged, the resulting spiritual vacuum becomes impossible to fill because by our own means we lack the capacity to fill that void which will, incidentally, only get bigger and more aggressive if neglected - actually very much like a life-threatening tumor.

Jesus was nothing if not radical, and this is the first thing we must understand in reading from the New Testament accounts of Jesus' ministry.  There was certainly not a complacent bone in Jesus' body, and He made it very clear He had no interest - NO INTEREST - in being popular, being "liked", or "going along to get along".  The ultimatum to "hate" was as shocking to a contemporary audience as a command to "eat [His] flesh and drink [His] blood", all three prohibited by what is written in the Scriptures. 

Yet these things are tagged by our Lord as necessary (not merely recommended) components of discipleship - AND - Eternal Life.  A refusal to accommodate this radical language and choose instead to simply walk away because it is too difficult - as many did in Jesus' day - means we walk away from discovery, we walk away from discipleship, we walk away from one another, we walk away from Him.  And as our Lord Himself states very clearly, a refusal to accommodate the Word, to engage the Word, to "ingest" the Word which is Christ Himself means "there is no life in you" (John 6:53).

As difficult as these passages can be, however, we are compelled to draw closer; to "count the cost" BEFORE we do anything.  The very reason Jesus used these peculiar words and phrases and taught primarily by parable is because what we need to know about discipleship and the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be reduced to "yes" and "no", it "is" or it "ain't", cheap and easy answers - for there are none. 

In boot camp our drill instructors used to tell us that in order to march in formation and respond appropriately to commands - for the sake of the WHOLE unit - requires complete engagement of body, mind, and soul to the command given - AND - willing submission to the authority from which that command comes.  The senior drill instructor used to say, "Drill (what Marines call marching) is a thinking man's game because you will never become a robot". 

So, too, is discipleship a total engagement of body, mind, and soul to the "commands" given - AND - a complete submission to the Authority from which these commands come for sake of the WHOLE Church; and if we do not completely understand the commands (i.e., "commandments"), we are compelled to listen more closely rather than walk away because a "left face" turn when the "right face" command is given will end in disaster on the parade deck, on the battle field, and in the mission field.  The chaos and complacency in the Church today is no less profound when we refuse to submit and respond for the sake of the WHOLE Church.

So Jesus says we "cannot" be His disciples if we do not "hate" those we typically love most, but there is the problem.  We cannot love our families "most"; that is, above and beyond the love our Lord requires of us because this is where a great deal of the Church's trouble begins - when we demand that our families come "first" and our "neighbors" as defined by Jesus come a very distant "second".  Strangely enough, we call these "Christian family values" when there is in fact and in Scripture nothing "Christian" about that upended priority - it does not come from Christ.  It is a value we have assigned for ourselves, our own pleasures, and our own priorities; it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Father. 

Jesus does not "command" us to hate our loved ones, and He certainly does not suggest we neglect those who depend on us.  The "hate" language is the attention-getter, to be sure, but the radical component and the great challenge to us is to consider our love of family within the context of Divine Love which also encompasses love of neighbor.  Like faith and works, it is not an "either/or" proposition; it is two sides of the same coin.  There cannot be one without the other, and yet we cannot displace this reality: only one such love is eternal and will exist beyond the grave; that is, without limits, without boundaries.  Apart from Divine Love, there can be nothing but limits and boundaries.

"Counting the cost" means this must all be taken into account BEFORE a child is presented for baptism, BEFORE vows are taken when joining the Church, BEFORE undertaking such vows for matrimony.  If love for the Holy Father does not take precedence over all these things, all these relationships, there will always be limits to our capacity to love.  There will always be boundaries to our willingness to love.  There will always be restrictions on what we will do for or offer to the Church when we would drop Christ "like a bad habit" if it means choosing between Him (who IS The Church) and our spouses, our parents, or our children.  That is what is so radical about what Jesus proposes - because it involves our "neighbors".

One 4th-century theologian put it this way: "He who pursues his own will, however slightly, will never be able to observe the law of Christ the Savior" (Symeon the New Theologian, Ancient Commentary).  So when Jesus says we "cannot" be His disciples, He is not talking about His willingness to "allow" us to follow Him, for He will always "allow" a willing disciple. 

Rather He is referring to our "capacity" to follow Him if we are not fully engaged, fully submitted, fully committed to the Lord - if He is only the God of Sunday (as long as there are no tournaments), the God of special favors (as long as OUR will be done), or the God of cheesy Facebook postings (by which we "witness" without actually engaging the mission field - that is, people).  The limited capacity we are burdened with comes by the choices we make for ourselves and what WE decide must come first - OUR will be done, which makes a mockery of the Lord's Prayer. 

Knowing all this, then, coupled with the radical language of "hate", we find it easy to walk away and ignore while convincing ourselves we are "saved" because that is "cheap" and "easy", but it isn't Christ.  As the Scriptures make abundantly clear, we cannot have Eternal Life until we surrender our Whole Life.  It is only in surrendering our lives to Him by which Eternal Life will be found - as Jesus teaches one cannot serve both God and "mammon" just as "none of you can become My disciple if you do not give up all your possessions".  Jesus suggests by this radical context that even our families can be a hindrance to a fuller and more complete relationship with the Church - that is, the Body of Christ in the world today.    

So we take upon ourselves these unnecessary burdens and add to the chaos that already is in the world and in our lives.  We make bad choices with the best of intentions, and in doing so we miss the greater meaning when we disengage from Messiah and choose our own paths.  Yes, Jesus asks a lot - but He offers much more.  And He settles the confusion when we hear and respond to His invitation: "Come to Me, all you who are tired and overburdened, and I will give you rest; for My yoke is easy and My burden is light." 

What will it take for us to believe Him?  What will it take for us to become convinced we may not be going in the right direction as the Church?  How can we learn to appreciate the reality that the life and well-being of the Church has everything to do with the life and well-being of our culture, our community?  How can we learn to appreciate that the philosophy of "every man for himself" has been the downfall of every civilization since the dawn of humankind? 

By coming to Christ, by drawing near to Christ, by committing our lives - our WHOLE lives - to Christ who is the Church, who is the Word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.    

No Higher Praise

Jeremiah 2:4-13
Hebrews 13:1-8
Luke 14:1-14

There is a dynamic and necessary tension at work between the physically present "Body of Christ" and the Law in Luke's gospel.  More accurately there is a tension between the "Law fulfilled" which is Christ Himself (Matthew 5:17) and the Law observed by human nature which is generally more shallow and much more narrow than what was obviously intended from the beginning, the intention which had been revealed by the prophets and which is now fully revealed in Messiah. 

We must not become confused with an overly simplistic doctrinal misunderstanding along the lines of "law bad, Jesus good" because the two are not mutually exclusive.  They are, as the Word of God, one and the same; present AND perfected.  It is rather our interpretations, understandings, and practical applications that need more than a little tweaking if we seek to live as faithful and true disciples. 

This tension is evident in verse 1 in which it is stated, "They were watching [Jesus] closely."  That they were "watching Jesus closely" is no indication they were "watching" with a hope and a willingness to learn something.  Rather their minds were already made up, they had their own preconceived agendas, they were already filled with their own opinions of what righteousness is about, and they were "watching" in probable hope that Jesus would somehow stumble and hang Himself in accordance with their narrow understanding of the Law. 

It is no gospel secret that Jesus was "watched" often by the religious leaders.  "Watching" to learn something as opposed to "watching" to expose something is the difference between self-righteousness (defined by what we think we can get away with) and genuine humility (defined by a willingness to know something new, a willingness to admit our limited perspectives).

These self-righteous religious leaders were exposed for their narrow understanding and spiritual blindness, however, when they refused to answer Jesus' direct question.  They certainly could not respond to Jesus' comparison to a human understanding of what WE would consider a "righteous" violation of the Law to protect our families and our property - and - what not often enough should be our moral concern: mercy toward the plight and suffering of others. 

The idea that any one of these religious leaders would drop everything to pull his own donkey from a pit on the Sabbath but refuse to assist a suffering neighbor by calling that act of mercy "work" - and feel perfectly justified in doing so! - is not only hypocrisy at its worst but is an affront to everything the people of the Most High God should properly understand about our Lord and our relationship to one another (like the Law and Jesus, these cannot be separated one from another), all defined by the same Law which ultimately defines The Church; that is, the people of the Covenant.  It is this very narrow human vision that will be exposed in Jesus' following parable especially toward those who considered themselves worthy of the "places of honor" - somehow above the Law and with no regard for others.

 Notice within this context Jesus' lesson in presuming to choose for oneself the "place of honor" as if there could be no other "more honorable" or "more worthy".  The text indicates this "leader of the Pharisees" was not the only religious authority present at the meal.  So just as they had been previously "watching Jesus closely", Jesus was also watching them as closely and probably observing a strangely humorous ritual in which all these men of "honor" were surely clambering for what they believed to be ... "theirs", what they were somehow "entitled" to. 

It might be said that within this particular setting, they may well have already known their places in the Temple hierarchy as surely as they also imagined a greater place for themselves one day when ol' so-and-so would finally kick the bucket.  For the self-righteous, it's all about "me" and "my place" - the concept of which is, in and of itself, a violation of the Law revealed - and - the Law fulfilled in Messiah as He declares Himself: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord', shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of My Father in Heaven" (Mt 7:21).

How can it be that for those who believe themselves to be so intimately familiar with the Holy Scriptures can be so far removed from the wisdom of the Scriptures?  Could it be that the written words lack the nuance of the spoken word, especially when these words are never embraced or practiced?  Think about reading the "rules" of algebra. If these "rules" are not studied and then practiced, the words will be completely lost.  They'll have no meaning.  So it is with the "rules" of the Law; if there is no practice, no real engagement in the will of the Lord toward one another, the words will soon be lost on us all.

A lot, as it is often said, can be lost in the translation as well.  More than this, however, can be lost by hardened and self-centered hearts.  "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.  Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.  But My people did not listen to My voice; [My people] would not submit to Me.  So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels" (Psalm 81:10-12).  Why worry about "righteousness" when one is already among the "chosen"?  By the same token, why worry about "obedience" or mercy toward others when one thinks oneself already "saved"?  That excuse did not work for the people of Israel; it will not work for the people of the Church.  Yet because of very narrow, self-interested interpretations of St. Paul, we think we have found a loophole by way of "grace"; that is, grace we demand but are unwilling to grant. 

It is not a matter of disbelieving the Lord who promised never to "forsake" His people; rather it is a judgment by the Lord that we are not open to His Presence, we are not open to His Word, we are not open to His influence, we are not open to His Wisdom, we are not open to "the least among us", we are not open to those whom we "can't stand" - we only want what we want for ourselves, our families, and our friends.  So after a period of time in which we prove beyond doubt that we are unwilling to be taught, that we are unwilling to admit there is more to learn, that we are unwilling to put aside our own agendas, the Lord will decree to simply give us what we have long been seeking (absolute freedom even from Him); and our conscience will no longer be a barrier to our pursuit of "personal" happiness at the expense of others. 

So we would violate the letter of the Sabbath Law to preserve and protect our own interests, but we would willingly turn a blind eye to the Lord's interests by a narrow and individualistic interpretation of the Scriptures.  We would worry more about a socially acceptable guest list to our lavish dinner banquet by fulfilling cultural responsibilities, inviting those whom we "owe" (because they had previously invited us to their parties), inviting those whom we "like", and inviting those whose favor we may be seeking, working diligently to become or remain "popular" - but - we would deny righteousness by allowing the "poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind" to go hungry because for us there is no tangible reward for doing otherwise.

This is the reality to which Jesus was speaking in Luke's gospel.  And if Jesus Christ is "the same yesterday, today, and forever", as it is written in the Letter to the Hebrews, it is the reality to which Jesus is speaking even today.  Yet in the midst of that admonishment is the clarion call to look beyond "what is" - and see, really see, "what could be".  Even as Jesus is admonishing this religious leader (AND US!) for such a narrow vision of the Law, our Lord is also leading this man (AND US) to an opening by which our failures can be corrected: to open our doors and, thus, open our hearts to those who cannot and will never repay our acts of kindness and mercy in this life.  And Jesus states it very clearly: "You will be blessed ... and repaid at the Resurrection". 

This is the Gospel never more alive than when we receive to ourselves the very "strangers" we all once were.  This is the Law.  This is our Lord - in us and through us - for others.  Amen.  

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

A Thought for Tuesday 9/3/13

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart – these, O God, You will not despise.”  Psalm 51:17

Within the context of this psalm, the writer is stating emphatically that the Holy One’s favor cannot be bought with burnt offerings and other sacrifices brought to the altar of the Lord.  Though sacrifice is an important element of the disciple’s life in ministering to the Church by ministering to one another, it must be remembered that our Lord continually offers His Hand in lifting us up, in making whole the broken pieces of our lives.  In short, we should approach the Lord with an acute need for Him – for it could be said the Lord cannot help those who do not feel a need for the Lord.

We give of ourselves because it is our pleasure and privilege to give of ourselves for the sake of the Church and the Church’s mission in this world, but we must never come to know of our Lord as One who can be bought as if the size or scope of our gifts is a measure of our piety.  Our piety before the altar of the Lord is measured by our need for Him in our lives, in understanding we can never be made whole without Him, to be all we are created and called to be within the community of faith, the Covenant.

It is perhaps the author’s own experience coupled with an understanding of what is written in the Scriptures by which he states that the Lord’s favor is continually toward those who offer themselves to the Lord with a contrite heart, a heart filled with sorrow for the sins we commit and have committed, for the temptations which are constantly before us that threaten to separate us from Him and from one another.  A heart that realizes this spiritual reality is a heart that realizes our Lord is the only One with the strength sufficient to overcome.

Hold on to the promise of the Covenant, the Covenant by which the community lives, the Covenant by which we are truly made whole.  We must not become or remain so cocksure of salvation that we forget or take for granted our “first love” (Revelation 2:4), for it is truly the only “forever” love we can know.