Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Thought

“Those who gladly received [Peter’s] word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.  And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.”  Acts 2:41-42

This past Sunday I made reference to an ancient document from the late first / early second century called “Didache” which means “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”.  Scholars do not agree on dating the document because there are no references by which to date.  I am pretty sure, however, there is a general consensus that the document was not written by the apostles themselves.

The reading from Acts, however, is a good indicator that something was begun that helped the Church to sustain colossal growth; something someone thought worthy of recording for future generations as the Church’s influence spread – the “apostles’ doctrine”.  Note that the “apostles’ doctrine” was only one of the components of the early Church.  In the Spirit which was clearly present, the other components included “fellowship”, sharing meals, and being in prayer with and for one another.  These things combined to create and sustain what is defines the “apostolic” Church.  Nothing in matters of the soul was taken for granted, and nothing was assumed as a given.  The new Church grew from inward desire to experience the Lord in His fullness – which necessarily includes celebration (worship) AND “pot lucks” AND prayer AND study of the apostles’ teachings.

There is much more to the Christian faith than just being baptized and calling oneself a “Christian”.  It is long past time for the Church to recover this fullness so the many who have convinced themselves they can live without the Church can discover for themselves what there is to be so excited about.  We are excited about it, aren’t we??  In the early days of the Methodist movement John Wesley did not allow that “newly awakened” souls could be left to their own devices because “the devil himself desires nothing more than this, that the people of any place should be half-awakened and then left to themselves to fall asleep again”.

Let us awaken from our slumber.  We’ve slept long enough.



Beyond Doing what is right - 2nd Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14a, 23-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

"Let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven."  Matthew 5:16

In a class discussion a few years ago, we were weighing the implications of "legalism" in religion and faith.  The instructor's question was simple: "Do you think Christianity is governed by a set of rules?"  The scriptural text that provoked this question was John 13:35 in which Jesus says, "By this all will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another." 

I will grant there is a fine line between "legal obedience" and "submissive love", but I submit to you there are "rules" that not only teach us how to grow in faith and love and regulate how we are to treat one another, perhaps especially the "least of these" - but these "rules" also testify to what we know to be true.  "You shall not steal" is a rule which begs the question; are we being "legalistic" when we refrain from taking what clearly does not belong to us even if we subscribe to the adage "finder's keepers"?  Are we being "legalistic" in our fidelity to our spouses?  Are we being "legalistic" when we zip our lips instead of jumping into some good gossip - especially gossip about someone we don't really like???

There are "rules" the people of YHWH are obliged to observe, and our willingness to honor these "rules" is an expression not of fear of the coming Judgment but are rather expressions of the love we are to have for one another - IF "all" are to know we are disciples of Messiah.  These are those same "rules" which in large measure apply to the secular community; and these rules are obeyed out of a certain fear - at the very least, out of respect for the order of law.  We may not always agree with these particular rules, but we observe them because we don't want to pay fines or risk being sent to jail.

It has been my experience that those who screech the most about "legalism" in religion and faith are often those who are looking for loopholes as a way out of doing something that needs to be done.  Fasting is a time-honored practice many do not subscribe to, some taking a "legalistic" stand as unnecessary for salvation.  Maybe, maybe not; but such a narrow vision of the usefulness of fasting and other means of grace misses the point of discipleship altogether which is all-encompassing - IF - Christ truly is our very life. 

In a nutshell, we have convinced ourselves discipleship is entirely about just "getting saved" and then going about our lives as if nothing happened.  Rarely do we seriously consider that the "light which must shine" are those works to be done to testify to our Holy God and Father and give others a reason to look closer at the Lord's revelation in Christ - and the means by which those works become bigger than any given moment.

Consider a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln ("Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?"), which expresses an ideal that goes beyond praying for those we consider to be our enemies.  And by strange coincidence, what Lincoln expresses is written in The Didache: the Teachings of the Twelve Apostles

I've shared with you before about this document which is believed to have been composed in the mid to late 1st century, though other scholars have suggested maybe early 2nd century.  Though there is no consensus on authorship, Didache is considered to have been a "handbook" for early Christians.  So in this "handbook" it is written: "You should love those who hate you, and then you shall have no enemies" (1:3).

But to "love" these enemies - just as to "love" fellow disciples, to "love" our neighbors as ourselves, and to "love the Lord our God" - reaches beyond subjective and arbitrary emotions.  To "love", as "love" is expressed in the Scriptures, has little to do with how we may be feeling at a particular time; it has everything to do with what we are willing to do all of the time - even when things are not going our way. 

To "love" with our hands and our feet rather than strictly with our hearts is a reflection of what Thomas was shown by Jesus after Thomas had initially expressed doubts about the resurrected Messiah; "unless I see ... I will not believe".  Thomas was shown by the marks that Jesus did not merely "feel" love or compassion; our Lord DID love and compassion ... all the way to Calvary.

When we take decisive action towards an enemy not in retaliation but in the reconciliation "commanded" by our Lord (Matthew 5:23-24; "If you bring a gift to the altar and there remember your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift at the altar ... and be reconciled ... THEN come and offer your gift"), we no longer consider this person an "enemy" but a friend for whom we are willing to risk ourselves - even our pride.  

This commandment is so compelling that Jesus teaches our gift offerings to the Lord will not be accepted by the Lord until this reconciliation is made!  His disciples are called to take the initiative!  This was in the spirit of the Lord's judgment against Israel in Isaiah's first chapter, condemning His people for bringing such offerings but making no move to reconcile with one another.  These offerings became empty because hateful hearts thought it much easier to try and buy the Lord's favor.

This is not an easy thing for any of us, but discipleship (which is active engagement in our relationship with the Lord through one another) rather than merely "believing" compels us to reach beyond simply declaring Jesus as Lord of the Church.  It requires living and acting and interacting as though Jesus really is Lord of the Church and of our lives.

It's pretty awesome when we consider how much has truly been granted to us to do in His behalf until His return, and it is not something to be taken lightly.  And contrary to popular opinion, the attributes of YHWH expressed through the Church are not exclusively limited to a particular office - such as that of pastor or priest.  These are legitimate offices of the Church, to be sure, but these alone do not strictly define the Church. 

The whole of the Church is defined by its attributes embodied in the faithful and is made manifest in the lives of others - ESPECIALLY our "enemies" whom we will, by our faithful devotion to Christ, make our friends.  Lest we forget, however, the measure of this friendship is not about how the "enemy" may or may not respond; rather the measure is in the actions of the faithful - those who claim to believe.

A dead Church makes no effort to reach outside of its walls and will consequently not be missed by the community when (not "if") it falters, but a Church alive in the Spirit cannot be contained by walls and will be loved and respected by the community it loves and serves!  A church can have all the latest technology and the most upbeat, happenin' music, the finest entertainment money can buy, and the best of all dynamic, charismatic preachers - and still be truly "dead".  By the same token a church can have mediocre music, a mediocre preacher, and be technologically and financially challenged but can still offer real life to those of whom we are called to serve - if we are alive in the Spirit and "doing" love and compassion in Jesus' name.  THIS people will believe - when they SEE it!

Our Lord's "rules" require that we go beyond merely existing in case someone wants to show up on Sunday, and the invitation of the Church cannot be delegated strictly to an advertising budget (which statistics suggest is money poorly spent anyway!).  Churches grow and thrive when lives are changed, when seekers become disciples who make disciples who transform the world one life at a time.  Is this not what happened when our Lord walked the earth?  Why would it be any less so now?

We deal daily with a world which declares, "Unless I see ... I will not believe".  We who believe to have been justified before the Lord in having our sins absolved are the ones who claim to have "seen".  Then discipleship and sanctifying grace move us beyond that moment so others may see by the light which shines in our love and through our compassion. 

Let it shine.  Let it Shine!  Glory to God in Heaven above, let His Light Shine!    Amen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Thought

“Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.”  Psalm 16:4

While the psalmist may be referring to certain Canaanite religions in which a god is named, a god that perhaps demands human sacrifice or requires the use of temple prostitutes, we may consider the many gods in our world and in our lives that take too much of our attention and tempt us away from the One True God.  We often easily pronounce judgment on these persons, but the psalmist seems to lament the lives which are thrust upon these who worship such false gods.  Think about it; a god that demands the blood of your first-born?  Or a religion that uses temple prostitutes to lure your spouse from you?  This was as real as it could get for them, and it is no less real for us today.

Remember that St. John challenges his readers to “test the spirits, whether they are of God” (1 John 4:1).  This does not mean we seek peace in our own decisions according to our own desires, but rather submit all we have and all we are to what is written in the Scriptures “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 John 3:15).  Those of the Canaanite religions were easily swayed because of the culture in which they lived; no less so than we are today because of how we are informed by our secular culture.

Hold fast to what is true and right; He is Christ the Lord.  He will show us the Way, but we must be willing to follow Him.  Then will we find the fullness of life now and in the world to come.

Blessings to the Easter people!


Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Sunday 2014: Not Yet

Acts 10:34-43
Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-18

"IF ... you have been raised with Christ ..." (Colossians 3:1a), what does it mean to us?  That Jesus was resurrected?  Indeed, but before this moment so was Lazarus called forth from his four-day-old grave by Jesus.  The prophet Elijah brought a dead child back to life as well.  All of this is to remind us that in our Lord, "who has become our salvation" (Psalm 118:21), death simply has no authority; that even as we pass from this life, we enter very much alive but a realm over which we have no control. 

Even then it seems debatable whether we retain our own free will which we are certainly not afraid to exercise in this life.  After all, did the archangel Lucifer not exercise his own free will before he was cast out of Heaven?  This one is very hard to get hold of because, as so many Christians have come to believe, how can one not be happy in Heaven?? 

It is the Place of perfection prepared by Messiah Himself, the Place of Eternal Rest.  It is where the Almighty resides, the Holy One who will "wipe away all tears".  It is the Place where there is no more sorrow, no more death.  And yet for all we are told in Scriptures, there was at least one who was not happy where he was.  He expected and demanded more than he was entitled to - and for his rebellion, he was cast out.

Theologians speculate that "the sin" which led to Lucifer's rebellion was that of pride.  Like many of us - too many, actually - Lucifer had convinced himself (and perhaps his own minions) they did not need YHWH, that they could manage quite well on their own.  Now let this sink it for a moment: Lucifer "believed" in YHWH.  So how is it the Bible leads us to believe the devil will never again see the Kingdom of Heaven?

I ran across a story about a great organist who performed a masterpiece on a pump organ.  After the well-received performance, the man who pumped the air for the organ commented to the organist, "We sure did a fine job, didn't we?"  The organist looked at the man with utter contempt and replied, "We??  You may have operated the machinery, but it was I who made the music!" 

At their next performance, in the middle of the finale, the helper came out and sat in the front row.  As the organ ran out of steam, the organist shouted to the helper, "What are you doing out there??  Get back in there and pump!"  The helper calmly replied, "I just wanted to see how you were doing out here all by yourself."

Theologians speculate Lucifer just got a little too full of himself and forgot (or freely chose not to remember!) that as a creature himself, he was then and would be forevermore completely dependent on The Creator whether he realized it or not.  We might do well to heed the lesson for ourselves because simply "believing" the Lord exists - as Lucifer surely went beyond mere "belief"; he KNEW! - may be what is stated in a few short verses and declared by St. Peter ("Everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name", Acts 10:43) at Cornelius' house, but there is a whole lot more to it.  There is more than a verse to memorize or a profession of faith to declare; there is a whole life to be lived - and lived well!

Make no mistake, however.  The life we are called to live, "the life which is hidden with Christ in God" (Col 3:3), is not an easy life; for this very life we have died to (as Paul states) is no longer our own.  For the apostles who had been cowering in fear for their own lives, the Resurrection of Jesus changed everything when they knew without doubt their lives were no longer their own! 

Peter was among those who ran when things got tough and even went so far as to actually deny he even knew Jesus, and yet Peter was standing without fear proclaiming Messiah resurrected!  A very dangerous proposition in his time!  But even then the Resurrection did not "settle" anything; but the Resurrection did indeed change everything.

We must also consider that "The Empty Tomb" also settles nothing because when Mary saw the empty tomb for the first time, she immediately thought the Body had simply been moved.  It was not until the Resurrected Christ revealed Himself to her that she knew - she KNEW - nothing would ever be the same again!

There is no compulsion about this transformation of reality.  Our Lord is not going to force anyone to work or to act contrary to what is within us to do or to be.  So we must understand the difference between the disciples who ran and hid out of fear after Jesus' death - and the apostles who lifted themselves up because of what took place!  Death had been overcome!  Beyond any reasonable doubt, it was clear to them now that our burial is NOT our end and is nothing to fear!

But Jesus also said to Mary, "Do not hold on to Me because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But GO ..."  Go.  Do.  Tell.  In other words, don't just sit there as if nothing happened.  And don't just stand there as if nothing has changed.  Something happened!  And everything has changed!  GO!  DO!  TELL! 

"And when Christ who is your Life is revealed [when He comes again], then you also will be revealed with Him in glory" (Colossians 3:4).  "Will be" means something even more wondrous than this is just beyond the horizon - and Christ our Lord has shown us the Way.  In Him.  With Him.  and Through Him.  NOT without Him - IF He is now our very life.  That is, we do as He did.  We teach as He taught.  We share as He shared.  And we love as He loved.  No longer as those in darkness will not do, but as those in the Light of Christ will do.

So we take this Path which has been laid out before us.  We take this Path because these are the footsteps of the One who came before us, the "first born" of all Creation - when He was risen from the grave; that grave which no longer holds us, that grave which no longer contains us, that grave we once thought is where we "end up". And we take this Path not because we are compelled against our own desires - but are called to, invited to, and to which we joyfully answer because it is the Only Way - and now in this new Life we can have if we want it,  we will want to!

This Path, however, will not make us rich.  This Path which is laid before us will not keep us safe.  This Path which has been trod by Jesus Himself will not make us comfortable.  As the Apostles discovered, this Path was - and still is - the "chalice" even Jesus asked to be taken from Him as He grieved His final hours.  This Path is the "cup from which we must all drink" - if we are to follow Him on His Terms.  It is the Path the world cannot comprehend and will not navigate - because they do not know or care where it leads.  They would much rather their lives be their very own lives.  On their own terms.  And according to their own personal desires.  This does not make "them" bad people; but they are alone and convinced they can go it alone.

You and I have been given a certain knowledge which can come only from the Holy Spirit.  If we believe in the Resurrection of Messiah - that is, believe enough to follow Him and emulate Him - we will be transformed.  Those we once hated we will learn to love.  Those we once ignored will become our friends.  Those we once held in contempt we will forgive - because the life we once believed was our own is no longer our own.

We must hold fast to what is good so we may reap the goodness which was sown.  Choose Life in God through Christ - and live like you've never lived before.  For He is Risen - and death is no more.  Amen.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

SON-rise Easter 2014

Psalm 118:17-24

So who does not know why we are here?  There are no secrets, though there is a Great Mystery.  Even people outside of the Church, outside of the Covenant are aware of what Easter is to Christians.  I submit to you, however, that there are many both outside AND inside this Covenant who do not fully comprehend what Easter means beyond a Moment 2000 years ago!

To one facing imminent death, this Great Mystery is about to unfold; but for the time we think we still have in this life, for all we think we know, for all we think we have figured out, nothing is quite so settled.  And this is because when we finish this celebration we will pretty much go about our business as if nothing happened.  Though I will grant that it takes a little more devotion and discipline to get out of bed earlier than we need to and requires a certain knowledge of something worth rising early for, we will pretty much walk away unchanged.

Those we love ... we will still love.  Those we hate ... we will still hate.  The things we must do ... we will do.  And the things we don't have to do but need to be done  ... we probably won't do.

Why is this so?  Of course we hope lives will be touched, we hope souls will be transformed, and we hope our society will clean itself up.  We hope new guests will come to church on Sunday.  We may be confident in the psalmist's declaration that "I shall not die", but whether we will "live AND recount the deeds of the Lord" remains to be seen.  I am afraid it is just another Easter Sunday.

St Paul wrote to the Romans: "How are they to call on One in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in One of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him?  And who are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent?  As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring Good News!'  But not all have obeyed the Good News; for Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?'  So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the Word of Christ." 

So indeed, who is to be believed?  Perhaps more importantly, what is to be believed?  A message never heard?   A message never proclaimed except safely in church on Sunday? Yes, and more: a message we are ashamed to proclaim!!  It is scandalous!  It is radical!  It is pure insanity! 

As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "The message of the Crucifixion is insanity to the lost!  But to those of us who have life it is the power of God!"  But even we who have life don't want to be perceived as one of those Holier-than-thou Bible-beaters who talk constantly about Jesus and being saved!  We are Christians; respectable, wholesome, socially responsible Christians. 

It is easy to tell people what we think they should do (or not do) and what they should or should not believe, but it is easier still to just keep our mouths shut, mind our business, and just go to church ... most Sundays.  And we mean well when we do (or don't do) these things, but there is a significant component present in our best intentions: fear.  We are afraid.  We are afraid of what people will think of us.  We are afraid of alienating friends.  We are afraid of being challenged on something we cannot prove.  We are afraid of being labeled as anything other than simply "Christian".  Actually we would probably just prefer to be known as "good" people. 

But where does fear actually come from?  Are we not afraid most often when we lack confidence?  I used to believe I was just a bad test-taker in high school when I didn't take my studies seriously, so I was always afraid when test time came around.  But my fear, while in that moment well-founded and well justified, was the result of my own neglect.  My fear was the result of my own failure to engage in my education in a meaningful and life-transforming way!

Now I had hoped that just by being in class and listening to the teacher would be enough; that I would retain the knowledge imparted in that single moment without having to do any more than to simply listen that one time.  Clearly it does not work that way, and our Wesleyan heritage affirms this. 

We must understand Methodism did not come strictly from John Wesley's opinions and good ideas about what Christians should or should not be doing.  Methodism arose from the confidence gained by disciples who intentionally engaged in the many means of grace including the fellowship of the Church and mutual accountability; becoming and being purposeful students of the Good Teacher.  Confidence came from willfully and purposefully engaging in the WHOLE life of Christ Jesus and following faithfully - in spite of the obstacles and the derisions of the general public, even from those within the established and respectable Church.

So much has changed - and remains the same.  Yet this morning, on this grand and glorious morning, I submit to you this is indeed a New Day.  It is a day for rejoicing for it is the Day our Lord has made for just this moment.  It is the Day in which our confidence may be restored and our souls to be uplifted and even transformed - if we are willing.  It cannot be just another Easter Sunday.  For it is the Day our Lord has made for us to rejoice and be glad!  For there is Life beyond the one we think we live now - for Christ is Risen indeed!

Glory to Almighty God!  Amen.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday: A Road paved with Good Intentions

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

If you knew there was something which had to be done - that not doing it was not an option, that it was a matter of life and death for people you never knew and may never know, and those you do know will flee at the first sign of trouble and leave you standing alone - would you still do it?

This is essentially the challenge St. Paul posed to the Philippians when he wrote them to "let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5), even though he was not exactly posing to them such a philosophical abstract as "would you under certain circumstances" as much as he was declaring "you must under all circumstances".  

The imperative, however, is not so much about doing as a matter of law but rather allowing to be done as a matter of willfulness - and not strictly human will but in submitting to the reality that: "It is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil 2:13).

I think we always intend good things from what we seek to accomplish, but I also think the "mindfulness" with which we work is usually (and ironically) the very handicap that slows the work and mission of the Church because we each have minds and ideas of our own.  Yet St. Paul challenges us to get past that narrow mindfulness we call our own by submitting to the Divine Will that can work from within us if we willfully push beyond self; "standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind" (Phil 1:27); that is, the mind of Christ. 

Exactly what is this "mind", and how is it expressed?  It is not a matter of simply agreeing or compromising for the sake of peace which can only mean someone has to give in, someone has to "lose" - and not many of us are ok with this!  It is rather a matter of all willing to "give in" to the reality that we may be wrong in positions we currently hold.  It means taking a second look at our human willfulness and stubbornness for the sake of the Glory of our Lord.   Being "objective" rather than "subjective".

This ideal was expressed by Christ Jesus Himself, as St. Paul writes, when He "emptied Himself" (Phil 2:7,8).  It is the mindfulness that has Divine intentions rather than personal (albeit noble) motives toward the Gospel that is alive in all who are alive in Christ Jesus, the One who set His face toward Jerusalem KNOWING what was to become of Him in a matter of days and willfully "emptying Himself" of His own will, His own thoughts, His own opinions, and His own desires.  And knowing all He surely did know in the circumstances of betrayal and abandonment of current and future disciples, Jesus nevertheless went through with it - knowing without doubt He would very soon be standing alone.

Palm Sunday is always a challenge because the entry into Jerusalem is usually billed as a "triumph".  I suppose long-term when all the dust is settled and knowing how the Story ultimately ends, it would be easy to consider it a "triumph".  Doing this, however, ignores certain realities not least of which is this Journey was for Jesus the Journey we of the Church face even today - and will face until the Final Trumpet sounds.  It is that very Journey which compels us and beckons us.  There is no alternate route.  We may enter only through the "sheep gate".

Yet lacking the common "mindfulness" which can come only from the Holy Spirit, we each set our own course according to what seems good to us under our own circumstances. We always have the best of intentions, but then life gets in the way to the point of distraction.  We forget, even momentarily, that what we do on any given day is not intended for discipleship but for personal survival. 

Oh, we are mindful that Jesus saves.  We are mindful of that great mystery that the Blood of Christ has set us free from sin and death, but we are often mindful of this great mystery very nearly to the total exclusion of what took place prior to this. 

Like Christmas, we are mindful of something which took place some 2000 years ago - but we are not so mindful that to this day our Lord has a claim and a purpose for which He "emptied Himself", the same purpose for which the Church exists even today, the same holy purpose for which the people of the Living God - that is, the Church - must empty ourselves; that is, put our own agendas and opinions and desires aside to submit to the will of God ... without trying to manipulate Divine Will according to our own preconceived mold.

We can even embrace the Glory of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem knowing He was doing what He had to do, but we can do this without actually engaging in the reality of what was taking place then - and what must take place today - being counter-cultural, being "in the world but not of the world".  I have heard it said (and I think I have even said it myself) that Jesus did what He did so we would not have to.  While this is a true statement in the very narrow sense, the sentiment misses the mark when we put so much on Jesus that we are unwilling to put upon ourselves. 

The prophet Isaiah writes, "The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word" (Isaiah 50:4).  This is not what we generally think of when we think of the prophets who came to Israel and to Judah to warn them of impending judgment.  The prophets are hard to read because there is just a little too much gloom and doom for our tastes, too much judgment for Christians who believe themselves to have escaped the Judgment by the Blood of the Lamb - choosing to be defined by an event rather than by a willfully chosen life of holiness. 

When we reject the words of the prophets and reach instead for the Lamb's blood, we stop "paving the road" altogether because whatever it may have been that we intended in the beginning of our journey of discipleship has, we believe, been largely achieved once we were "saved".  We stop asking questions, we stop looking for answers and choose to look for "loopholes", and we settle for whatever it may be that gives us comfort strictly for ourselves, and expect it to be the same for everyone else - according to our own terms.  In this we have no mind of Christ.

As the adage goes, however, "a road paved with good intentions still leads to hell".  Like a road lined with cloaks and palm leaves, we may mean well in the beginning and we would certainly be eager to welcome the Son of David into our midst ... until the fur starts flying and the danger Messiah was willing to face for us soon becomes our own danger which we can walk clean away from with hardly a scratch.  This, I think, has largely become our idea of discipleship.

The Journey we face in the coming Holy Week - if we are to take the Scripture readings seriously - is not going to be pleasant.  We simply cannot leap from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday and pretend we are walking with Jesus.  If we are to really understand what Jesus endured for salvation's sake, we must - WE MUST - endure the Journey with Him, not watching safely from the sidelines.  Only then will we pave the road not with "good" intentions but with GODLY purpose.  This is Christ Jesus our Lord.  This is the mission of the Church.  Amen.

Monday, April 07, 2014

5th Sunday of Lent: Why did Jesus weep?

Romans 8:6-11
John 11:1-45

We are not told specifically what it was that drove Jesus to tears, but we can be reasonably sure Jesus was quite capable of empathizing with (that is, sharing and feeling) the emotions of those who so deeply grieved at Lazarus' death.  Jesus could feel human emotions because He was Himself as fully human as He is fully Divine.  He is no less capable of feeling our pain and grief now than He was when He walked the earth.

Reflecting on this, then, I got hung up on this one tiny verse among these forty-five verses of Lazarus' resurrection story: "Jesus began to weep."  We've read in other stories how Jesus was moved with compassion or pity or profound love, but this is the only verse I can think of that speaks directly of Jesus shedding tears of sorrow for others.  What makes Jesus shed tears for and with us?

You may be aware of World Vision, a credible Christian humanitarian organization through which we can sponsor children on just about every continent in the world.  You may also be aware of World Vision's controversial decision a few weeks ago to allow the hiring of same-gender couples who are legally married.  Yet only two days later World Vision did an about-face on this decision because of the outcry from the evangelical world.  They were compelled to backtrack because thousands of sponsors either withheld their financial support or threatened to do so.

Now we conservatives may believe some victory for Christian purity was achieved in this dispute, but it could only be a hollow victory at best.  Thousands of children from impoverished countries around the world who depend on this generosity were put at risk - if only for a day or two (shall we go two full days without food or clean water??). 

As I was reading about this dispute, I could envision a newly sponsored child getting her first decent meal in weeks - or maybe ever!  She is about to sit down and enjoy this meal when while she is saying a prayer for her new sponsor - BY NAME! - who made the meal possible, suddenly the tray is pulled away and she is sent home ... because her sponsor whose name she now knows stopped payment on the check which had paid for that meal.  Surely in such a moment "Jesus began to weep."

I am pretty sure it was not quite that dramatic or sudden, but it is necessary for us to insert ourselves into these real-life stories as representatives of Christ Himself in order get a glimpse of how such drama would play out, what our part in the story would be, and how we might react under similar circumstances. 

How might we feel if that child had been our own?  How might we react if we were the World Vision missionaries "on the ground" where the child is and, having told this child of her new American sponsor BY NAME, look her in the eye and say, "I'm sorry.  They changed their mind."  Surely in that moment, "Jesus began to weep".  And most likely, perhaps most importantly, a heart of flesh would turn to stone.

Our Lord would surely weep for a child whose hopes for nourishing food, preventive health care, clean drinking water, and the chance for an education were suddenly taken away; but I also think Jesus would weep even more for those who would use money - or a child - as a political pawn to get their own way.  After all, these are also the ones for whom Jesus gave up His life!  I have to believe the outcry and protest came from well-meaning people who probably believed they were doing the right thing by withholding their financial support in order to force World Vision into an ideal of their own vision. 

This happens in churches all across America, not one excluded.  Money is the one "weapon" many believe they have that will get someone's attention.  It is the one tangible thing we can do to make known our personal displeasure.  Frankly, I am not sure why World Vision would find it necessary to make such a public announcement knowing some would be antagonized.  Were they so naive?  Or were they so bold?  Even in that moment, World Vision took their eye off the ball and lost sight of their own mission.

Maybe they simply could not imagine earnest, generous, and devoted Christians who would do such a thing as to offer hope to a hungry child in Armenia, for instance, and then pull it away - for any reason, let alone a political reason that has nothing to do with charity, nothing to do with Divine Love.  It is rather an act that betrays the reality that every dollar we have may well be earned by our hands but is claimed by our Lord!  Like every other blessing, even money is not "ours" to withhold!

I think, however, the reason it was so easy for these thousands to threaten to withhold their support is because while they may be sympathetic to a hungry child as I believe we all are, it is virtually impossible to empathize with such a child because we are so far removed geographically and financially - perhaps even spiritually.  It is very difficult, if not impossible to empathize with anyone if we have not ourselves suffered similar challenges or watched our own children do without basic needs. 

Our theology of plenty does not allow a lot of wiggle room when it comes to fully understanding what people in other parts of the world have to deal with on a daily basis, and even folks in this country who struggle don't get a lot of sympathy because of our national doctrine of "rugged individualism" and equal opportunity.  We reason that our own success, however limited, can be as easily enjoyed by others if they are willing to do the work and put in the hours because we simply cannot imagine otherwise.  Hard work got us what we wanted; why can't it be so for others?

Even Bible stories are hard for us to understand because these events took place so long ago and in another culture completely alien to us.  I think maybe this is the reason we can so easily take a small snippet of Scripture away from its context and try to force it into our own setting - because we do not understand the cultural context it came from.  Historians and archaeologists can give us a pretty good idea of what other cultures looked like, but we can never fully empathize with something we have never experienced ourselves.

Jesus was sharing the emotions of those who were around Him.  He was WITH them, He was one of them, and so He was sharing the grief they suffered rather than merely observing.  It is part of the Christian doctrine which teaches that our Lord shared our humanity so we may hope to one day share in His divinity as co-heirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.  But what this doctrine also expresses is an understanding of our fully sharing in His ministry as the Body of Christ in the world today in "bearing one another's burdens" as Jesus was surely doing in this moment with Mary and her friends. 

We can pick our battles (or our own poison!) as we will, but we can never be selective when it comes to faith and evangelism; that is, sharing the Gospel in practical ways as St. Paul and St. James demanded of their audiences ('not only hearers, but DOERS of the Law').  We cannot be selective about who is worthy of the Gospel of our Lord, and we must never try to manipulate by any means an outcome that suits our personal preferences - especially at the expense of a hungry child or the mission of the Holy Church which is Christ in the world today. 

The choices are not always easy, of course, because we often let our emotions get in the way; but we must always remember that the fullness of Christ in the world today is weakened when we who call ourselves "disciples" or think ourselves "saved" would withdraw our support and participation by any means.  That is not Jesus, the One who sat and ate with what was considered the worst of humanity!  Even with what we believe to be the noblest of intentions, we can still grieve the Spirit if we do not stop to count the cost of our protest, consider more seriously any potential "collateral damage", and remember who will ultimately be harmed rather than helped; it will always be the weakest among us.  Always.  And Jesus will surely weep.

"If Christ is in you ... the Spirit is life because of righteousness."  We are the Body of Christ, and "the world is our parish", even (perhaps especially) the world we do not always agree with - for He died for them as well.  We can never allow needless suffering when it is within our power to alleviate such suffering.  And when we act in accordance with the righteousness of Christ our Lord, "many" who see us suffering WITH THEM - as they saw Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus - will believe in Him ... because we, too, truly and deeply believe.  Amen.