Monday, October 21, 2013

Justice, Faith, and the Law

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

"When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?"

This is a compelling and somewhat awkward question given that the parable of the judge and the widow seems to have more to do with persistence than with faith.  Yet it is a colossal mistake to read into this parable any notion that we will always get what we want if only we are persistent in our prayers - because the key word in this parable is "justice", and it is the ideal upon which the entire parable hinges; "justice", not "personal desire".  In other words, the Lord's Way and not our own.

The widow was persistent as she "kept coming" to demand "justice against my opponent", but it must also be assumed the widow had a legitimate beef in the first place; that in the fullest sense of the word, real "justice" had been denied her.  It would not do for our Lord to use an entitlement-minded chronic complainer who simply did not get her own way as a positive example of our "need to pray always and not lose heart"; that in the face of persecution, in whatever form that absence of justice may take, true justice will one day be restored.  We just don't know when that day will come nor can we demand that day on our own terms or in our own time strictly by persistent prayer. 

It must also be noted the judge did not simply give in to the widow's personal demands.  Rather, as it is written, "I will grant her justice."  And yes, as it pertains to the parable itself, there is a profound difference because depending on the actual case before the judge (we are not told what the complaint was in the first place), the truly "just" ruling may not have favored her.  So it seems inferred the widow had a "just" claim.

We often think the world would be a much better place if everyone would just go along and get along, but there is a crucial component missing in such a foolish notion that would pretend such a concept would ever work, let alone become a human reality according to human standards.  Looking at the hot mess that is the United States Congress, we can clearly see that 535 "alpha" minds between the House and the Senate representing 535 different constituencies and agendas will never fully agree on anything. 

The crucial component missing in that human dynamic, the crucial component often missing in the Church itself, the crucial component that is inferred in the parable is - DIVINE WILL.  Of course there are many who have convinced themselves they are doing the Lord's work (because their personal desire for whatever they seek for themselves is so intense), but Jesus teaches that "not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven ... I will declare 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness'" (Matthew 7:21-23).  Righteousness and justice transcend the false idea that we need only know Jesus' name or call Him "Lord" in an empty prayer. 

Thus it is written in 1 John 3:4: "Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness."  The absence of justice.  St. Paul writes to the Galatians that "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law" (5:18) even though he follows this statement with a list of behaviors which are specifically prohibited by The Law.  Yet St. Paul also writes to the Romans: "Do we overthrow the Law by faith?  By no means!  On the contrary, we uphold the Law" (3:31).

Righteousness and justice are clearly defined by the Law according to One Divine Standard rather than many human standards, so it is a rather disingenuous argument to suggest faith and The Law become somehow disconnected and incompatible in the New Covenant - for this reason: Jesus IS the Law (Matthew 5:17).  So faith in Jesus as Messiah, the anointed One of the Lord our God, is faith in The Word, the same and very Word that was "with God in the beginning".  One Eternal God.  One Eternal Word.  Not an Old (or "obsolete") Testament Word opposed to a New (or improved) Testament Word. 

Anything less than this One Standard is "polytheism" - that is, belief in multiple gods, more than one deity often with conflicting standards.  When we try to pretend that "faith, justice, and the Law" are incompatible according to different covenantal standards or that they have no meaning apart from "being saved", we pit the Holy Father against Jesus of Nazareth as if Jesus Himself can or did rewrite or throw out altogether The Law. And yet, just as we are shown through Jesus' very life, it is not only possible but required that The Law be upheld by and with "great grace".  Not shallow "excuses" as "God understands me" but rather allowances and patience for time to come to one's spiritual senses.

If this parable is read carefully enough, we should see the promise of vindication for the faithful not for the sake of any individual plea but for the sake of justice itself, the true restoration of the Holy Kingdom.  We would also see a tension that pits the coming "true justice" against the current emptiness by which justice can never be truly measured or upheld by fickle human standards: the absence of faith - unqualified trust - in our Lord.  That we claim to believe the Lord is coming and will restore His Just Kingdom is not the question as it pertains to persistence in our faith and "not losing heart".  Rather the question is - will our faith be part of His Solution, or is our lack of faith part of the existing problem?  Only a fool would suggest there is no problem.  An even greater fool who claims Christ as Lord would suggest "it is not MY problem".

The psalmist writes, "Oh, how I love Your Law!  It is my meditation all day long" (119:97).  That is, every waking moment is devoted to The Word not only in its written form but also in daily living.  And our Lord Jesus says, "Will not God grant justice to His chosen ones who cry to Him day and night?"  If there is no reading and meditation of the Word, there can be no appropriation or appreciation of the Word; for the Word does much more than simply call out Jesus' name, and it is much more than simply being "religious" or "spiritual".  It is about BEING Christ in the world today which is the Holy Church. 

This is "justice, faith, and the Law".  They each require response, and they each demand complete devotion "all day long" - for they each represent the Word; the Word which existed before the birth of Messiah and yet the Word "which became flesh and dwelt among us".  The Word of God for and in the people of God - and yes, even for the people who do not yet know our Holy Father! 

The witness of the Truth, the witness of "justice, faith, and the Law" moves far beyond simply inviting people to "know" Jesus' name.  They need to know what Jesus represents.  They need to "see" Jesus in us.  They need to "see" the Word manifest in our daily living.  They need to see that we believe it enough to actually "do" it, to embrace it, to revel in it, to rejoice in it, to live it each and every day of our lives inside and outside the Church. 

WE need it, too!  When life beats up on us, when the world tries to convince us we have no intrinsic value, when we feel we have nowhere to turn, when we feel we are standing alone against the tide of secularism and popular culture inside AND outside the Church, we need to know we can depend on one another - or the Church crumbles.  It does not do well for anyone to discover we are only butting heads with someone who, like the judge in the parable, "neither fears God nor has respect for people" - especially if that someone is inside the Church.  

The promise of the parable is that the Lord will one day come and make right the many wrongs which should have never have been allowed or ignored by the people of God in the first place.  And in that Day our Lord's question will be answered: whether there is "faith on earth".

In the Revelation it is written: "I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the Throne, and books were opened.  Also another book was opened, the Book of Life.  And the dead were judged according to their works as recorded in the books ... and all were judged according to what they had done ... and anyone whose name was not found written in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:12-15).

We must not allow ourselves to be deceived by cheap grace and expressionless theology that professes empty prayers and hollow promises of Something from Him for nothing from us.  Faith is much more than an acknowledgement of a concept.  Faith defines the character of the whole person.  Faith is a life devoted to Christ in Word AND in works!  Let our Lord find this upon His return, so that we may find Life Eternal in Him.  Amen.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

If your heart is as my heart ...

Lamentations 1:1-6
Romans 3:21-31
Luke 17:1-10

"Thought we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?  May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?"  John Wesley

Among the many challenges we face in our Sunday evening study of the First Testament is that of the diverse opinions we have, opinions we have come by honestly from our own diverse traditions; and some, admittedly, rather carelessly.  That is, we have traditional understandings we have probably not tested carefully enough.  Sort of like how so many atheists and Protestants are misunderstanding Pope Francis because of what someone else told them he said (or meant); for instance, that the pope said homosexuality is ok.  No, he did not.  He affirmed that "the Church's teachings are clear".  Or that the pope said being an atheist is ok.  No, he did not.  Opinions can be good, but often they can do more harm than good if these opinions are not based on some real, first-hand knowledge and experience and tested through tradition and Scriptures.

The Church universal has historically faced and continues to face a profound threat when we allow uninformed personal and political opinions based on second-hand information or "the hairs on the back of the neck" to trump the essential nature of the Holy Church, the nature of which is to serve just as our Lord came "not to be served but to serve".  When we lose sight of this - and I think we did a long time ago - it is the children who get stuck between what we grown ups think and what we should know

What we are left with is an age of confusion that feeds on itself from generation to generation - and our children are in perpetual danger of losing sight of and forgetting altogether the essential sacrificial love that is perfected in Christ and should be personified in His Body the Holy Church; the sacrificial love that can bind us together ... if we are willing to put aside "our own" for the sake of the Lord's own.  This concept of service for the sake of something greater than self is, thankfully, exemplified and embodied in Scouting; making these young men and their leaders worthy of our support, prayers, and encouragement!  Keep them free from politics and personal opinions, and just let them serve!

We will not always agree on what are essentially disagreeable opinions.  Not about denominational doctrine, not about what constitutes proper worship, not about the Sacraments of the Church or theology in general, and certainly not about politics.  For the sake of the Holy Church we of the faithful, however, must necessarily agree with our Lord who more or less puts us in our place in Luke's gospel by reminding us that His "slaves ... have done only what we ought to have done".  Not what we think should have been done, not what we felt like doing when we felt like doing it, and certainly not doing in anticipation of some reward or individual recognition of achievement.  No, our Lord is clear there are things we "ought" to do simply because they need to be done.  Period.  No reward.  No thank you.  No recognition.  Just integrity within the true nature and character of His Church.

Before we even get to this point, however, Jesus still has much to say.  Even if this whole text seems somewhat disjointed, there is a connection, a common element that ties everything together.  Strangely enough, however, even this connecting point is not something many disciples are willing to agree on.  Jesus is very clear that we have duties.  We have duties which go beyond a personal profession of faith.  We have duties to our Master, and we have equal duty to our fellow disciples.  Together as the Church - the Body of Christ - we have a duty to the communities we are called to serve. 

It is especially important to allow the preceding story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) to lead us into this discourse because the duty imparted to the rich man, to his brothers, and to all of Israel is what was revealed to them by "Moses and the prophets"; what they would have known as the "Holy Scriptures".  The clear duty which comes from the Lord on High, the duty to have been embraced by the faithful, would have assured that Lazarus would never have been allowed to fester in his misery and die an excruciating death - alone. 

So we come into chapter 17 and find Jesus expounding on the idea of what a community of faith is supposed to look like, what our Holy Father surely envisioned when the Law was revealed to Moses.  As our Jewish friend from last week had plainly stated, it's not about how to get to heaven (that is, worrying only about saving your own cheese); it is about how to live with and for one another for the well-being of the entire community.  Chief among these duties is the protection of the "little ones", the next generation, be they biological children or new believers.  They need to be taught - by Word and deed.  It will not simply occur to them one day somehow by magic.  And Divine revelation and epiphany without context will be meaningless.

Notice also that Jesus is referring to our relations with those of our community of faith when "another disciple sins" (vs 3).  We have as much a duty to call our fellow disciple on his or her sin as we do to forgive that fellow disciple who seeks forgiveness.  It seems to me there cannot be one without the other which is another way of saying the disciple may not realize the depth of his or her offense as "sin" if we are not willing to make it known, if we do not care about them enough to teach them - not to merely criticize them.  Then we are to be as patient with them as we all must surely hope our Lord is patient with us!

The disciples' response is rather surprising, though I would suppose faith to be the thing to ask for.  After all, Jesus is telling His disciples to forgive without condition.  Our Lord does not recommend it nor suggest it; He says, "You must forgive."  For most of us, this is a pretty tall order!  What will an "increase in faith" do for the disciples, though?  How will having more faith make forgiving an offense easier?  Or maybe it won't become easier to do more than it might be a little easier to swallow our pride when after the seventh offense, the offender comes to us yet again seeking forgiveness - no matter how we may have been personally harmed! 

But I don't think Jesus is letting us off the hook so easily because Jesus clearly states that faith the "size of a mustard seed" can do remarkable things.  So it is not necessarily more faith we need, for even a little faith can "move mountains".  Think of this request in the whole context, and what we may discover is that Jesus is telling them they already have sufficient faith. 

How much faith they actually have, however, is as immeasurable as yours or mine - although I would suggest we each may have a cut-off point at which time fear may overwhelm our faith.  Then more "faith" would come in quite handy, but Jesus is not going there.  He is talking about something much more enveloping, much more all-encompassing, much more communal. 

Especially moving into that "slave thing" which would obviously rub many of us the wrong way - after all, we are Americans! - Jesus may be suggesting we are going to need a little more than faith imparted.  Remember the Bible teaches us that faith, true faith, is given from Above.  To understand how this faith matters beyond self, however, is going to require something from us: first the will to respond.  And secondly the gumption to respond.  So in faith the Lord is going to do His part to give us what we need to respond.  In fact Jesus seems to suggest this much has already been done.  So then comes our response.

We respond not for bragging rights.  We respond not for individual achievement or recognition. We respond because our "neighbor" needs us to respond.  We respond because our community needs us to respond.  We respond because our nation needs us to respond!  We respond because Divine Love compels us to respond, and we respond because in the faith that is imparted to us we are assured that others will respond for us as well.  We respond not to "earn" anything for ourselves, for we already have the assurance of the Resurrection of our Lord. 

You and I may not agree on the finer points of doctrine and we may not agree on political philosophy - and we will NEVER agree on rooting for LSU or UofA! - but I think we can agree that the essential nature of the Church, the essential nature of the Body of Christ, is to "do" for our Lord by "doing" for His loved ones just as surely as He did for His beloved Israel, just as surely as He did for His beloved Church - long before we had a chance to love Him, our Lord clearly loves us first!

Let us agree on this, and we will find much less to disagree about.  After all, we do not want to be mistaken as members of the Congress, do we?  To the Glory of His Holy Name, let the people of the Lord say, Amen!    

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

The lack of rudder

As much as President Obama is being blamed for the stalemate that is Washington DC, has no one really noticed that the spitting match actually comes down to John Boehner and Harry Reid?  This president is merely a sidebar in this drawn out sand-box drama.  The House passes a bill (allowed by Boehner) and sends it to the Senate; Harry Reid makes a decision on behalf of the entire Senate. The Senate offers something back to the House, but Boehner decides what the House will consider.  And the President of the United States stands off to the side and says, "Nasty Republicans!"

I have some advice for these many members of the Congress who claim to be frustrated by all that is going on: remove the current House speaker and the Senate majority leader from their posts, and stop the nonsensical talk of impeachment.  It will not be the president who will cost you your jobs, for he is entirely too insignificant.  Impeaching this president will be as meaningless as he already is, it will be futile, and it would be a colossal waste of precious time because the Democrats simply will never vote to convict anyway. 

No, the problem is not the White House in this one.  In fact I dare suggest the White House is the very definition of impotence in this matter.  This president will not deal face-to-face with the Republicans (it has been reported he has made a few phone calls, but he also called the newly elected president of Iran.  Take these calls for what they are worth.); this president will only go to an open microphone and insult the Republicans, somehow believing he can shame them into submission. 

This president overlooks or chooses to ignore one very important item, however: this Affordable Care Act which is at the heart of this shut-down was passed in the shadows by the Democrat-controlled Congress and received not one Republican vote and in fact lost several Democratic votes.  Therefore the congressional Republicans who were in the Congress when it passed and the newly seated Republicans who came to Congress as a result of voter backlash in 2012 are simply not free to go along with ObamaCare.  Their constituents prohibit it!  These are the very constituencies that did not carry this president in 2012.

The House is firmly in Republican hands, and the Senate is under Democratic control.  What should a president be doing?  Dealing with reality, not fantasy.  This president can only wish that somehow Republicans will come around to his way of thinking.  This president can only wish he could offer such a compelling argument through his public insults that the Republicans would finally see the light. 

This is not going to happen by his calling names and casting blame.  If anything, this president's public lambasting of the Republicans will only steel their resolve as it well should.  This president is seriously missing the boat on this one by making clear his refusal to sit face-to-face like a grown man with these duly elected Republican members of Congress and negotiate an end to this nonsense.

This president does not have to negotiate, however, and he obviously does not want to.  He is in his final term.  He has no other elections to worry about, no other political decisions to be concerned with.  And since this president has made himself very clear by his past loftiness, he does not even want this job because this job would require him to get serious about working toward a reasonable solution to a legitimate problem rather than hoping a solution will fall into his lap.  As many have said in the past and as is becoming more and more evident, this president is clearly not up to the job.  What is at hand requires a leader, and this president is not that leader. 

So we are stuck with Harry Reid who runs the Senate like his own personal fiefdom (actually setting in concrete the idea of this president's impotence); we have John Boehner who is doing virtually the same thing in the House, and both refusing to blink.  This president does not (by his own clear choice, mind you) even factor in.  So we have this massive ship without a single rudder.  Of course there is stalemate in Washington DC!  What else could possibly come as a result?

Neither Republican majority nor Democratic majority will break the log jam or serve the nation well.  A nation as ours requires an engaged leader, not an elected figurehead.  It is little wonder nothing constructive will happen anytime soon.  Not until Democrats stand up to Harry Reid and not until Republicans stand up to John Boehner will anything useful come from this Congress.  If we really want to talk about "term limits", let us consider limiting the terms a single person can hog-tie an entire chamber of Congress.  This president is not the problem; one must actually be in the game before one can be blamed for costing the game.  Reckon?