Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Thought

“Jesus opened [the disciples’] minds to understand the scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in His name to all nations.”  Luke 24:45-47

Jesus made many other proclamations to this effect, teaching His Church that when the time of judgment is upon the world, He will take care of that Himself.  We need not concern ourselves with who will be saved and who will be condemned.  Until that time, however, The Church has a mission and each of us signs up for that mission when we take our vows of membership in the Church.  It is unfortunate that this point is not more purposefully set forth when new members step forward, but we tend to let it slide because we are so grateful that new friends have decided to make their spiritual home with us.  Then, of course, when the time comes for the work of the Church to be done to reach out to the community and make this Divine Mercy known, well …

Ministry to the community should bring us joy and satisfaction in knowing we are actively serving our Lord when we serve His creation and make His mercy known, but new ideas are rare – and the ideas put forth for some kind of “program” usually come with the expectation that “someone” needs to see to it.  I think maybe the reason “someone” never seems to show up is because we have made ministry a little too complicated and grace a little too cheap.  We forget that very simple mission Jesus assigned to His Body the Church to proclaim mercy to those who seek mercy.  Too often, however, nothing ever gets said because we are … embarrassed?  Ashamed?  Don’t want to be known as a “Jesus freak”?  Don’t have time? 

I am constantly amazed at the large number of professed Christians who insist the Lord has expressly excused them from doing anything for or with the Church, usually leaning on such ideas as worshipping the Lord on the beach or on the lake, that the Lord “understands”.  Would we be so understanding if we had put our lives on the line for those we love only to be left alone?

So it comes down to this.  What has the Lord done for us that He should ask for and expect our allegiance?  How has knowing the Lord made a difference in our lives and in how we treat one another, especially the stranger we don’t know or the jerk we don’t like?  What does being a Christian really mean to us?  Or is it irrelevant for daily living until we are on our deathbeds?  Is it really a “one-and-done” deal that we can “get saved” by the Lord and then live for the devil (“You have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme”, 2 Samuel 12:14)? 

There has to be more to it.  I wonder what it is.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

6th Sunday of Easter: The Unknown God

Acts 17:22-31
John 14:15-21

In Acts, St. Paul refers to two Athenian poets but quotes only one directly.  The first "poet" St. Paul refers to is believed to be Epimenides, a 6th-century BC Cretan who was a "semi-mythical" philosopher and poet.  "Semi-mythical" in that he was a real person, but deeds of mythical proportion were attributed to him.  For instance, it was believed Epimenides turned aside a plague that was threatening Athens by appealing to a "god" whom the people (and perhaps he himself) had not known.  It is thought this altar may be dedicated to this "god" known only to them as the "unknown god" - yet known perhaps because this "god" was the first to answer their prayer. 
St. Paul had found an opening familiar to the Athenians that would appeal to the reality of cultural and religious life in Athens.  Rather than insults or belittling comments about their naiveté or spiritual ignorance or religious gullibility, St. Paul instead appeals to them according to what is apparently important to the "extremely religious" people, quoting yet another of their own poets, Aratus, who wrote, "for we, too, are His offspring". 
This is important to us because reading the Scriptures, especially the Acts of the Apostles, does much more than fill in the blanks of church history.  First trying to understand the passage in its cultural and historical context, we are being given an idea of how we can learn to appeal to our own "pagan" audiences, whoever they may be, without insulting the customs, myths, and legends which have become important to them - perhaps over a span of several generations.  We won't get very far with anyone by insulting their heritage - however inappropriate we may believe them to be.
Also note in Paul's exchange with the Athenians, there is no overtly "Christian" tone - at least not in the beginning.  He has taken time to get to know them, so Paul does not begin his testimony with what he knows and what he thinks they should know; he begins first with what they believe and then shows them how and where YHWH is already present with them and within their own stories.  It is all familiar to them because the terms and phrases and poets Paul used to speak of YHWH connect with their own philosophical, cultural, and religious traditions. 
We can look to such exchanges as these to understand the truly "universal" nature of YHWH and His appeal to all ... often, at least in the beginning, on their own terms, according to their own world views, and in their own language, time, and culture.  This, we Methodists understand as "prevenient grace"; the Lord acting in our lives before we are consciously aware. 
We must not, however, take Paul's statement to be one of a God whose patience has worn thin particularly toward those who previously had not known of Him, and offering only a choice between heaven and hell.  To the contrary, Paul is speaking of a God who, in His infinite mercy and desire to be known even to the Gentiles, has sent him - this same God who sends His Church even today! 
To a people for whom the word "repentance" may have been strange (as in turning away from sin they had not previously known as "sin"), Paul is not threatening them with condemnation.  He is helping them to reorient their "extremely religious" thinking!  "From one ancestor [YHWH] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and He allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so they would search for [YHWH] and perhaps [reach out] for Him and find Him" (Acts 17:26-27).
So Paul holds that we are created in such a way that we can be consciously aware of when we are disconnected from our very source of life and living, when we know something is amiss.  Paul builds into this understanding by quoting the poet in acknowledging humanity as "offspring" of a Divine Source (though, again, the poet referred to "Zeus") - meaning, in their own terms, that since we are His "offspring", this Creator God cannot be made of "gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals" (17:29).  This God is THE source unto Himself; therefore this God cannot be "created" by those who are themselves "created"!
We live in a world in which so many seem willing to go to great lengths to try and deny the reality of such a God, and it is distressing to witness such a world crumbling under the weight of such a crushing burden of believing their grief and pain and bitterness and loneliness and doubt can be assuaged by drugs, alcohol, gambling, consumerism, inappropriate relationships and inadequate expressions of "love", or alternatives outside of Christ our Lord.  But two things have occurred to me in this past week as I was reflecting on what I can offer.
One, TV evangelists are getting rich while neighborhood churches are slowly fading.  There are a number of reasons why this is so, but I think the primary reason these TV preachers do so well is because the many lonely souls who sit at home and send their hard-earned money to these guys are "searching" and "groping" for meaning in their lives - they know something is amiss - but are unable to find such meaning because too many neighborhood churches have become much more concerned about "maintenance" rather than "mission"; self-satisfaction rather than self-sacrifice. 
There is a lot of truth to this because consider how disconnected we truly have become in an age in which conversation has been reduced to text messages and Facebook posts, and evangelism has been redefined as posting something in cyber-land that might be inspiring but misses something altogether because of the lack of intimacy personal  relationships require.  Well, it's the same with TV.  We can "watch" religious programming, but we must also remember that as Jesus finished His Sermon on the Mount, He then set out to change lives by touching lives - with His hands!  Electronic media will never be able to replicate that - though we do seem determined to replace that.
Two, I was searching the web for an idea about perhaps putting a new, more colorful facade on our outdoor sign, perhaps one with a marquee on which to post coming events, etc.  Of course you have seen the clever sayings many churches have posted such as "If you think it's hot now ..." referring to summer's heat but implying hell for those who won't come inside.  Some of these messages make me cringe, but some are good enough to provoke serious thought. 
However, the one saying I had not given much thought to came about in an article I read by a pastor who took exception to one particular quip.  It reads, "Sign broken; come inside for the message".  It is, no doubt, a clever attempt to invite the public to attend worship and hear the Gospel of the Lord, but this particular writer wondered if the sign does not send perhaps the wrong message in suggesting "we will not bring the Gospel to you.  If you want it, you have to come get it."  Then also too much emphasis on the preacher as if the sermon alone defines the life of the Church.
I doubt many of you had given such thought to these clever signs, but this author put a lot of thought into that one.  There is something to be said about a church whose primary mission seems to be "advertising" and then "hoping" they will come.  They won't.  That kind of "ministry" has led to many shuttered churches, and the neighborhoods once served by those churches are the poorer for it.  Even if those churches represented for them "an unknown god", they nevertheless testified to the reality of this God by faithfully attending to worship and Church life.
There is no need to be panicked about the situation at hand, but we must not get lost in our "navel gazing", either.  There is plenty of need for the Church today to speak boldly not about religious philosophy, church dogma, or political issues that only divide us - and certainly not about "hot" futures for those who do not believe as we think they should.  Our God and Father is here and present today, right now, in this place AND in the homes across the streets. 
But if the Gospel is not taken to these souls and they are never shown this reality of YHWH's presence here and now and in their current reality, they may never come to know that the worst kinds of struggles we all face are means to contentedness and peace of mind and soul - IF we "search" and "grope" and soon "find" that our God has been here the whole time (remember "prevenient grace").  This reality requires a daily response.  It is then for the people of the Body of Christ to respond AND THEN make the introduction.

The only "unknown god" which existed then and still exists even today is that "god" or "gods" to which WE give life by our devotion, our covetousness, our religion of consumerism, and our efforts to rewrite or redefine the Scriptures to justify our own choices.  The KNOWN God who revealed Himself in Christ Jesus is the blessed One who gives life - in this world and in the world to come.  This is our mission, for this is our "commission" given us by our God's Messiah, our Lord Jesus.  Let it become for us our true passion.  Amen.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Thought

“Baptism ... now saves you; not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to Him” (1 Peter 3:21-22).

Baptism is much more than a simple rite of passage each Christian and each Christian’s child must go through.  It is, as St. Peter points out, an “appeal”.  In the United Methodist tradition, it is the sign of the Covenant the Lord has made with Jew and Gentile alike through Christ Jesus.  It is not the end of the spiritual journey, however; it is the very beginning of a life only the Lord can know and reveal.

More than this is the promise each sponsor and each parent – and the Church - makes to the Lord our God; that this child will be brought up in a righteous household and will be taught about the Lord through worship and Christian education.  The Church makes a vow to support the parents, and the parents make a vow to the Lord that this child will not be withheld from the teachings of the Church (“Let the children come to Me and do not prevent them, for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these”) Matthew 19:14.  It is a great and wondrous thing but it is also a mystery that through a bit of water (don’t get lost in method and means!) and a solemn prayer, this child will be received into the Covenant by this profound act of faith.

The psalmist writes, “I will pay You my vows, those my lips have uttered” (66:13, 14).  These are the vows we make to the Lord; and because the Lord cherishes each child as much as He cherishes anyone (perhaps even more!), these vows we make must not be made in haste.  That is, the baptism of a child or a new believer must not be done with no more thought than as just a “thing we do”.  Indeed it is written in the Scriptures: “It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it” (Ecclesiastes 5:5).

The Sacraments of the Church (those points at which we believe Heaven intersects with earth) must never be taken for granted as just “things we do”.  They mean everything – or they mean nothing at all.



Sunday, May 18, 2014

5th Sunday of Easter: Something worth believing

Acts 7:55-60
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

"I do not seek to understand in order to believe; I believe in order to understand.  For I believe this: unless I believe, I will not understand."  Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm, an 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury (spiritual head of the Church of England), likely coined the phrase, "Faith seeking understanding (wisdom)".  It was, in fact, his personal and spiritual mantra in believing it is faith which ultimately leads to true wisdom, as opposed to knowledge which can be gleaned from reading a book.  Former atheist and prolific Christian writer C.S. Lewis shared this sentiment in stating, "I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun rises; not only because I see it, but because by [the sun's light] I see everything else."  We also must not dismiss what is written in the Scriptures: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Proverb 1:7a).

I would suggest St. Peter was alluding to this very thing when he admonished his audience to "long for the pure, spiritual milk so that by it you may grow into salvation - if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good" (1 Peter 2:2-3). 

That "taste", we Methodists believe, is "justifying grace", the indelible mark the Lord makes on our souls to assure us we have been forgiven of our past and have been given a new future once we discover our need of a Savior and earnestly repent - that is, change the direction of our lives toward a more meaningful and purposeful life.  So Peter says once we "taste", then we should be hungry for even more - "IF we have tasted at all" - so we may "grow" in the faith and "into salvation".

Something must always come first to begin the journey.  True wisdom recognizes humans are born with certain natural impulses and instincts which are innate to our being, but we are not born with knowledge - and certainly not with wisdom.  These are acquired over a period of time as we learn and as we experience life.  We learn primarily from our parents and then from the classroom, of course, but we learn our harshest lessons in our experiences and mistakes from which wisdom comes.  If we spend more money than we earn, we become unnecessarily encumbered and risk at the very least peace of mind; at the worst, homelessness or hunger.  If we drive too fast under certain conditions, we will either come out with better driving skills or we will be towed to the nearest body shop (assuming we survive the crash).

Sometimes life is unnecessarily cruel - and very often life is just not fair (or does not seem to be) when we don't get our own way.  The young girls who were kidnapped in Nigeria by the terror group "Boko Haram" did nothing to deserve what they are now enduring, not to mention the hundreds if not thousands of young women who are kidnapped, sold, and traded around the world like commodities.  And it is absolutely unjust that any child goes hungry.   

Faith (as abiding "trust") enables us to move through (not around) these temporal moments not with disdain, hatred, or thoughts of vengeance (which trap us in those moments) - but with dignity and a stronger sense of purpose and self (which moves us through and beyond these moments).  Michelle Knight was one of the women who had been kidnapped and held captive for over ten years in Cleveland OH; she has since forgiven her captor just as she would ask to be forgiven if she had harmed someone (Ariel Castro, the kidnapper, committed suicide in prison). 

This is the vision allowed by faith; the same faith by which St. Stephen was enabled to see through and beyond the very cruel and very unjust moment when he was violently and painfully robbed of his life for testifying to what he knew to be true.  It was this faith which enabled Stephen, while he was being stoned to death, to offer a prayer of mercy for the merciless (Acts 7:55-60).

To think, however, that Stephen simply popped into this moment without any kind of preparation is being incredibly naive and offers no depth to faith (trust) which must be developed and nourished and nurtured and perfected which takes time and a LOT of effort - exactly like the married relationship - exactly why the Lord led Israel by the long route through the wilderness for 40 years. 

I would like to believe any one of us could endure Stephen's moment and still be able to offer mercy to those who show no mercy, but the truth is few of us have been adequately prepared for such moments as these - not because such means of grace are not available but because too many have convinced themselves these means of grace are not necessary.  One either believes, or one does not.

Life comes as it does whether we believe or not, but getting through these challenges and understanding the barriers and obstacles and trials as means of attaining wisdom requires trust which keeps us moving forward - and teaches us the uselessness of looking back at ways to "get even".  It makes me think of an analogy someone once shared about a piano's keyboard.  The white keys represent happiness and the black keys represent the sorrows in our lives; yet all the keys are required together to make music rather than noise - because each complements the next.  This is the reality of life in this world and in all generations by faith as we strive toward something more ... something beautiful ... something meaningful ... "something worth believing" and pursuing "hungrily" - almost with a sense of greed.

What the disciples of Jesus' time had witnessed for themselves are the very same things we often pray for; a clear vision of The Lord in our lives beyond the "wish-granting genie" or "personal-favor-granter" many mistake Him for.  Yet we cannot ignore the fact that in spite of all they had seen and all they had experienced for themselves as first-hand witnesses, they would still ask Jesus, "How can we know the way?" (John 14:5). 

Such statements as these only mean they had been hanging out with Jesus, but they had not yet seriously considered what His words and His works had meant.  They heard the words Jesus spoke (much like we often read the words on a page) and they saw the works (but no clearer than you or I when reading about them) but they never tried to put the two together.  Without actually engaging in what Jesus was doing but merely watching from the sidelines with ambivalence, there is no way to fully "understand" what Jesus' life and ministry was all about.

Hence Philip's statement; "Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied" (John 14:8).  Really, Philip??  "Have I been with you all this time, and you still do not know Me?" 

The Church has been around now for some 2000 years, but whether the Body of Christ has been actively engaged in the lives of those who do not yet believe is the question for us to answer today.  Remember I shared with you a couple of weeks ago that the Church was never exclusively intended for believers as a "club" to hang out in. 

The Church was (and still is), as the Body of Christ in the world today, always intended as a vehicle, a means of grace by which "pre-Christians" may come to know about what has endured for so long, what has given real meaning to so many through the ages, and what can still offer more than they had previously known or even thought possible. Something worth believing in and worth living - AND - dying for; like the Sudanese woman who was recently sentenced to death for converting to Christianity.

"The one who believes in Me will also do the works I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these" (John 14:12).  Not "may do" but "will do" - contingent upon these two simple things: whether Jesus is worth believing in and what believing in Him really means. 

There must be a reason why we are all here, and there are surely reasons why so many are not here - "reasons" as in understanding it is never just one thing.  It surely must be something more than a mere habit (or a paycheck!) that we show up on Sundays and other Holy Days. 

What is it?  To discover?  To learn?  To grow?  Yes.  Yes.  And Yes!  BUT - to discover what?  To learn about what?  To grow into what?  These questions require answers because just as surely as our entire lives must have meaning and purpose, so much more should there be a reason why we gather toward this meaning and purpose - and more importantly, why others should gather with us.

There is surely something worth believing - Someone worth trusting.  He believes in us enough that He went to the Cross for the Holy Father and for us.  We were worth dying for.  Surely He is worth living for.

Monday, May 12, 2014

My Confession: what we don't know

"My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.  For we all stumble in many things.  If anyone does not stumble in word, he is a perfect man able also to bridle the whole body.  Indeed we put bits in horses' mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body.  Look also at ships; although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires.  [In the same way], the tongue is a little member and boasts great things" (James 3:1-5 NKJV).

Do you ever have those moments when so many thoughts are rolling through your mind, and you have a difficult time pinning down a coherent thought about a particular thing?  Welcome to my world.

Many have asked why I preach with a fully written manuscript when those few times when I have preached from an outline or nothing at all seemed to flow much more easily.  There are two reasons, not least of which is that I have a tendency to ramble.  To write down a manuscript helps keep me on track toward (hopefully) making a point within a limited time frame.  The second reason is that I have so many thoughts running through my mind that I have to write them down, however scattered they may be in the beginning, so I can sort through them - again - to make a point.  I'm pretty sure I don't always make the point I intended, but I do try.

So now I hope you will bear with me as I try to make heads or tails out of the recent Pulaski County (AR) circuit court decision to strike down Arkansas' gay marriage ban.  I write this after having had somewhat of an epiphany a couple of weeks ago.

I am no fan of political correctness.  I find such efforts to be needlessly cumbersome and unnecessarily awkward.  As a middle-aged white heterosexual Christian male, however, I am rarely the target of cruel jokes (though I have been the subject of cruel and malicious gossip).  I do have a self-image problem that is probably shared by more than I can imagine.  I have struggled with my weight nearly all of my life and my complexion is rather rough after a horrific battle with acne during my teenage years, so I can be rather sensitive to such references.  In the end, however, I married a beautiful woman who bore me three beautiful, healthy, well-adjusted children and who has given me a life that might otherwise be little more than a smoking heap of disaster. 

Political correctness, however, has more to do with being sensitive to those persons (and groups) who are so easily offended not because they are too sensitive for their own good but because of the harm that may (and often does) come as a result of our careless words.  For the Christian and the Jew, political correctness is a good exercise in choosing carefully what we say and how we say it.  The "teacher" of Ecclesiastes says as much: "A dream comes through much activity, and a fool's voice is known by his many words (5:3a, NKJV)." 

When my own children were growing up, I tried to remind the older kids that how they treat their younger siblings, especially in the presence of friends, is often how other kids will come to treat the little ones.  By our actions and words we tacitly give approval of mistreatment toward those whom we actively mistreat even if we believe it to be in fun.  So I was rather forceful in trying to teach my kids that how they express themselves toward their siblings is how others will treat these same younger ones.  In other words; if you love them, act like you love them!

So now I am left to wonder if (or how) by my religious objections to gay marriage I am tacitly giving approval to others to ultimately mistreat those with whom I disagree.  I am a traditionalist, an unapologetic conservative Christian who takes great comfort in the ancient traditions and teachings of the Church and Judaism.  I am more much inclined to quote St. Augustine or Maimonides than I am to quote Max Lucado or Adam Hamilton (though I have quoted each, again, in an effort to make valid point).   

The United Methodist position on the value of human life is one of sound biblical teaching; that all humans are of "sacred worth", and all are worthy of respect and reverence.  Of course there are some humans who make respect and reverence a pretty tall order (and I have no doubt I have been the cause of challenge for more than a few), but our Lord declares this to be so.  If I am to respect the Lord, then, I am required - REQUIRED - to respect all of His creation.  This is assuming, of course, that I really do believe in the almighty Creator who is also the God and Father of Messiah Jesus.

I have made, and have laughed at, inappropriate jokes.  Sometimes some jokes and comments do still tickle my funny bone (depending on my mood and state of mind at the time), but this only means I have a lot of work to do yet toward my own sanctification as I "work out my salvation with fear and trembling" - because I earnestly believe how we treat one another will be a very serious consideration of The Judgment.  Yet there is even more to it than this.  I personally know (and have profound respect for) some who are gay, and I know of at least three gay couples for whom I would drop everything if any of these needed help I could offer. 

Here's the thing, though.  I only suspect they may be gay.  I have not witnessed inappropriate behavior, there has been no (and no need for) confession, and each of these individuals has earned my respect as just and decent human beings.  For all purposes, this is enough.  Isn't it?  They all have jobs and families whom they care for deeply, and each of these would give the shirts off their backs to someone in need.  Knowing each of them personally, I would have trusted my own children with any one of these persons.

They are not deviants, and they are not child molesters.  They are responsible human beings with a healthy respect for life, love, family, and neighbor.  If they are, in fact, homosexual, then I might suggest they have a strange (to me) way of expressing physical love.  I cannot say, however, that heterosexuals in general have done much better at conveying to the world what biblical married love really means. 

I still have a lot to work out within and for myself, but the need to work it out quickly and fairly is of the utmost importance because I am a preacher, a minister of the Gospel (the Good News) of the Lord.  The Lord has given me this incredible opportunity (and enormous responsibility) to speak in His behalf, and I dare not waste it by making His pulpit my personal forum or trying to pretend my political inclinations are shared by Him.  And I do not - DO NOT - want to be placed in the same category as those poor souls of Westboro!  To borrow a stanza from the hymn "A Charge to keep I have": "To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill; O may it all my powers engage to do my Master's will".

I know I am taking a huge risk in posting this essay publicly because some of my conservative friends will think I have lost my mind and sense of right and wrong.  There is also the possibility that my thoughts will be misunderstood as an indication that I have changed my mind or softened my position and beliefs.  If you will do anything, I ask for your earnest prayers.  In the meantime I will leave you with the best piece of wisdom that has ever been offered: if you cannot say something nice and uplifting, please say nothing at all.  To me or to those with whom you disagree.  It is enough to know for now that we are all capable of being hurt and doing harm.  Let us choose a more excellent way until we figure out how our speech and actions will glorify our God and edify our neighbors - or blaspheme The Holy Name and harm our friends.

A Thought for Monday 5/12/14

“How can we live in harmony?  First we need to know we are all madly in love with the same God.”  St. Thomas Aquinas

The “greatest commandment”, as affirmed by Jesus Himself, is “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5).  We know this, of course, and we have no problem with it … until we are forced to define what it means to “love the Lord our God”.  Like so many other words that have been reduced to cheap “church speak”, throwing such a word about so casually and carelessly often renders the word meaningless.  That we “love” Mexican food or that we “love” the new car we just bought does not do such a profound word justice.  And it actually is that using the word so carelessly is not unlike casually tossing “God” about in public.  We often do not stop to consider what we are conveying – and that some words require the utmost in reverence and respect and must not be used so thoughtlessly.

It is written in Ecclesiastes 5:2, “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.  For God is in heaven and you on earth; therefore let your words be few.”  We are taught by this, of course, that careless use of words and careless speech will often do more harm than good.  “Telling it like it is” more often means “telling it like we see it” – and then we are not known for “loving” the Lord; we are better known as jerks.

Let us begin this day with the foundation of our being and the greatest of all commandments; being so “madly in love” with the Lord that we give of all we have and of all we are.  I think, then, we will begin to see others in a whole new light – IF we are willing to “love” the Lord first.



4th Sunday of Easter: Keeping it real

Acts 2:42-47
John 10:1-10

“Appearance is something absolute, but reality is not that way.  Everything is interdependent, not absolute.”  Dalai Lama

This is to say, I stand here at the pulpit as the preacher, the pastor of the church.  This appearance alone is "absolute"; I am appointed as the pastor.  Yet I cannot - I must not - forget I did not get here alone.  The reality of my presence is "interdependent" on many others who made this "appearance" possible.

And so to make the Good News of the Lord real to those who do not believe in or care for the mission and ministry of the Church is the greatest internal challenge we face.  We who are present will likely be present in the Church until our time ends on this earth.  Whether the Church is present in us as we go into the world, however, is the question we must answer for ourselves before we try to speak to the reality of our Lord's presence in and among the Church.

"You need to get saved."  "You need to be baptized."  "Your children need to be in church and Sunday school."  "You must partake of the Lord's Supper."  "You must go to confession."  "You must cite (and believe) the Apostles' Creed."  All these practices and so many more are visible components of the life of the Church, and each of these things challenge us to look more deeply within.  Yet it often is that as much as we partake of these things, we sometimes come to worship these things as the ends themselves rather than use them faithfully as means to the End which is, of course, the Lord Himself. 

The Church is not quite as fashionable as it once was and there are many reasons why this is so; there is no single thing or person who can shoulder all the blame for the Church falling out of favor with the communities we are called to reach out to and serve - falling out of favor to the point of irrelevance. 

Some turn to the TV to find religious broadcasting suitable to them, but even one of the most prolific TV preachers has said, "You can be committed to Church but not to Christ, but you cannot be committed to Christ without the Church."  One might suspect such a quote from a pope or one of the Church fathers, but this quote is actually attributed to Joel Osteen!

Though there are many who would insist this is not correct, the sentiment that Christ and the Church cannot be separated one from the other, has undeniable merit if we understand who the Church is and what the Church is called forth to be and commissioned to do.  This is not to suggest we cannot have an encounter with the Lord outside of the Church (in fact, these are the encounters that drive us toward worship attendance); but we must understand that if the Church is not talking about the Lord and proclaiming the Gospel as we are commissioned to, it is highly unlikely anyone else will be - unless there is money to be made.     

I think, however, even the Church has in some measure lost its sense of the Gospel.  The Church has busied itself with the task of "social police" in telling people what is wrong and what things must not be done.  This is all well and good to an extent because we do have moral obligations, but simply criticizing something or finding fault with anything without offering a viable alternative is offering actually nothing at all. 

As is so often said, any fool can criticize or find fault; but it takes a devoted disciple (not a "devout" Methodist or Baptist or Catholic) to see that the solution to our social ills is The Word of the Lord.  And this Word is much more than a profession of faith or claiming Jesus as "personal Lord and Savior".  The Word is our lifeblood.  The Word is our livelihood.  The Word itself IS our Confession AND our way of life.  And The Word is still as much the same Word on Tuesday as it is on Sunday.

So when Jesus claims to be the "Gate" through which all must enter, we have to get closer in order to understand exactly what He means beyond "no one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6) - while remembering that even those disciples who were with Jesus when He taught this lesson "did not understand what He was saying to them" (John 10:6). 

Strangely enough, however, those who were written of in Acts 2 seemed to get it; those who "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers ... those who were together and had all things in common ... who sold their possessions and distributed to all, as any had need ... who spent much time together in the temple AND broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts".

It was real to them, not incidental.  Faith to the early Church was as innate as breathing.  Christ Himself was as real to them as the neighbor sitting next to them!  Not to downplay the role of the Holy Spirit during this critical time in the life of the newly born Church, but we must understand that it was as much the witness of those who were convicted that made the whole experience for new converts and those who were seeking as real as the sandals on their feet.  Faith was not a mere concept, and theology as an applied science was not yet thought of.  The Word became very real through all these things these new disciples were experiencing for themselves and sharing.  "And day by day the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved."

It is fair to say not many got "saved" but then went about their personal business as if nothing had happened.  They - like we - were saved from something as much as they were called into something ... that is, the Body of Christ, the Church, the community of believers who cared for one another!  Everything changed.  Nothing remained as it once was because this new experience was very real to them - real in a very tangible way. 

Think of this.  When you last sat for a meal and said your prayer of thanksgiving, were you doing so with "glad and generous hearts"?  Or were you simply going through the motions?  I freely admit I have a standard prayer (as many do) that I often don't give much thought to.  Reciting the Lord's Prayer as we do each Sunday has in many cases become a little too mechanical.  Oh, we pray it because Jesus taught us to; but when was the last time we earnestly reflected on its meaning?

When faith becomes routine - and for far too many it has - the "Gate" through which we must enter can simply be operated by remote control.  We have come to believe we can mindlessly press a button and expect the Gate will open - at our command; remotely ... that is, from a distance, alone, and substantially disconnected from others, from the Church.  It is this point at which our witness becomes a lie - and our faith becomes self-serving, completely antithetical to the Church. 

Then the real struggle begins.

The one thing we must remember is that thing Jesus is pointing out.  The "thieves and bandits" who came before Him either made discipleship to look exceedingly easy and self-serving (as the condemnation of the shepherds in Ezekiel 34; "You eat the fat and clothe yourselves with the wool; you slaughter the fatlings, but you do not feed the flock ... they were scattered ... and no one was seeking or searching for them") or they made discipleship excessively burdensome (like the Pharisees) with easy-to-follow but hard-to-understand rules.

Jesus came to break through all these lies, but in His purpose He deliberately uses the term "sheep" - meaning "flock", a "people".  And the name by which He called them: the Church, HIS Body.  If you want to believe by names He meant "Cindy" or "Jimmy", so be it; but we must not forget Jesus was no lone ranger nor was He calling for a bunch of individuals.  He was (and still is) calling and leading The Church, His "flock", His people, His very Body! 

But the Church our Lord gave life to is not an "institution" or a building on a street corner.  As surely as our Lord was resurrected and we sing "He Lives", so must the Church also rise from its complacent grave and truly live!  And when people see life among and in the Church ... they will come.  And they will come with "glad and generous hearts" - when they experience "glad and generous hearts"!

Let's keep it real.  Our Lord commands it, and our neighbors desperately need it!  And so do we.  Amen.   

Thursday, May 08, 2014

A Thought

“Blessed are you when [your enemies] revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven; for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  Matthew 5:11-12

No one, and no thing, can be a threat to us unless we allow that person or thing an active role in our lives.  We often feel pressured to respond a certain way and sometimes it feels necessary to fight back but the reality is that when we give the devil his due, he stakes a legitimate claim on that portion of our being that responds in a less-than-Christ-like way. 

It is not always necessary to answer the many elements of a secular society that try to provoke or challenge us and what we believe.  Sometimes it is best to just let it die – because the fundamental truth is that a LIE will always DIE a very slow and painful death, taking its advocates down with it.  But a lie that is given attention even when we believe we are opposing it sometimes gains more traction than it has a right to.  This is especially true when we try to respond with a select Bible verse here and there but a verse often taken out of its appropriate context.  It is as someone once said, “A text taken out of its context is a pretext to a false text.”  Bottom line is we are, more often than not, shooting “blanks”.

As “children of God”, we are compelled to take on the active role of “peacemakers” (Mt 5:9) rather than as warriors.  For us this means that when we are confronted with a lie, we simply respond with the Truth who is Christ – that is, the Word of the Lord made flesh.

It will never be easy, but let us also remember that “meek” does not mean “weak”!  It takes much more strength and faith and sense of divine purpose to bite our tongues than to respond to evil with evil.

Stand tall and stand strong; for we do not stand alone!



Monday, May 05, 2014

3rd Sunday of Easter: A Closer Look

Luke 24:13-35

“Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.” N.T. Wright (retired Anglican bishop)

So what good does it do us to be "born again" if we do not earnestly turn away from our old lives?  Why are we not immediately whisked away to Heaven?  How much hope can there be for, say, a 10-year-old who is "saved" or confirmed in the faith but will most likely live to see the age of 80 never having been offered religious education and worship only sometimes?  There is a lot of temptation in those ensuing years, temptations that will challenge us, test us, and often overwhelm us to the point of surrender - and our lives are changed ... but not for the better. 

If we think this is somehow not true, we need only to think back to the last time we cursed or helped spread gossip about a neighbor, an enemy, a preacher, a fellow church member, or even someone in our immediate family.  Or when we had an opportunity (and, undeniably, we always do) to help a stranger but chose not to.  Or we could take a second look at the first few verses of Luke's gospel reading.  These two guys were on the road to Emmaus when a "stranger" suddenly joined them.  They seemed to be having a private conversation when this "stranger" walked in uninvited. 

How would we respond to a total stranger who came to us as we were on an afternoon walk with a friend and having a conversation, and this stranger got near enough to dare ask what we were talking about??  How likely would we be to share the details of our conversation rather than to say something like, "This is private if you don't mind." 

And if this "stranger" persistently tagged along after he had also told us how "foolish" we were for not seeing what perhaps should have been obvious (vs 25), would we welcome this "stranger" to join us - or would we change directions?  Or just stop talking?  Or might we feel threatened?  It is a safe bet that, at the very least, we would not be asking this stranger to stay with us in our homes!  And we think we are "saved" from sin and death?  Who's going to save us from ourselves??

We have been conditioned over time to be leery of strangers, and we have certainly taught our children not to talk to strangers.  We have every reason to be cautious when dealing with people we do not know, but how do strangers become acquaintances who become friends?  It happens the same way "enemies" become friends (we talked about this last time) - when we not only allow them in but actively engage them in a hospitable and Christ-like way as if they are of truly "sacred worth" - just as we are; created in the same Divine Image as we are. 

We are being shown something in Luke's passage we often overlook because we become focused on the presence of the Resurrected Messiah.  Jesus has a clear role, of course, but we forget we have a role in this story as well.  Often in this particular passage and its wording we have become a little too fixated on verse 16; "their eyes were kept from recognizing Him" (NRSV). 

There has been a lot of thought and discussion on why our Lord would have deliberately "kept" them from seeing Him (and it is strange how this is so written), but becoming too focused on something so insignificant has caused us to look past what really matters.  We may be a little too concerned about why Jesus cast a "spell" on these two men without realizing these men could easily be us today under similar circumstances - only we would not likely be quite so hospitable.

Being witnesses to the resurrected Messiah who is very much alive is huge, of course, but I also wonder how this matters to us.  The grave is no longer a threat to the faithful but is still not quite the point of what it all means.  That we have the hope of "going to heaven" is compelling, but it is still not quite what is being revealed in the Scriptures. 

Notice the singular focus on those two simple observations (the grave, and going to heaven)?  No matter how we slice it, it is still a conversation about ... death!  Even if we say there is Life beyond the grave - and this is indeed our hope! - we are still being forced to first think in terms of death.  It is as if Messiah has no real meaning for us ... until we die; because this is largely how we live.

For all we think we know or believe about Messiah and Heaven, we cannot escape the current reality; and contrary to secular opinion, the Bible does not compel us to think about Messiah and His Resurrection strictly in terms of death - as if a life worth living and leading in faith and hopeful obedience does not matter until we are dead - if it matters at all as in our arguments about faith vs. works.  Why this is important to the Church is often overlooked or downright ignored: while the Bible is written for particular audiences or communities, the Church is established primarily for non-believers who are not yet a part of a faith community!  "Pre-Christians", some say. 

And this is how we must change the way we think and the way we work - IF Christ matters.  We may consider this to be "our" church that is established and funded primarily by us and for ourselves and our own purposes; but the Truth which is Christ (John 14:6) must necessarily insist that we look closer - for the Truth is often illusive especially when we are not looking for it!  And for all the talk that was going on while traveling on the road to Emmaus, the Truth virtually bit them on the nose and they did not see it - until well after the fact!

In The Wisdom of Solomon (10:6) it is written, "Wisdom rescued a righteous man when the ungodly were perishing; he escaped the fire that descended on the Five Cities".  The author went through a whole discourse throughout the Redemption Story, beginning with Adam, in illustrating how YHWH was actively engaged in the life of His people - NOT so they could "get to heaven" but so they could move with purpose and with dignity from Tuesday to Wednesday - and SEE the Lord so engaged! 

I think the reason a lot of "pre-Christians" do not "get" Christianity is because we Christians do not quite "get" what a life of discipleship is about.  We get a little too fixated on wrong things, distractions that do not quite measure up in terms of what is truly important in the here-and-how. 

It is good that these two men on the road to Emmaus finally had their eyes opened, even if what they were seeing had already been removed from their presence; but their conversation was focused almost strictly on death and not on the Promise.  It is not unlike what we witnessed in this latest round of tragic storms when surely the God of Life was being called upon to spare those in the storm's path.  It is not unlike the constant yammering about the issue of human sexuality when we are being challenged and tested - and all we can see is the "devil" in the details.

 I think maybe we take too much for granted and assume too much as "given" - because Christ is not primary in our day-to-day lives.  This is perhaps a greater challenge to those who work and those who still have small children, for instance, when we consider the mad morning dash to get ready for work and get the kids ready for school.  How busy we truly have become!  So busy to the point of distraction that all we see and all we hear - and consequently all we are focused on - revolves around death and destruction  ... and the devil!  This is when our attention is solely focused on the Lord.

No wonder the Church today is running on empty!

It is time to fill up our spiritual tanks.  Some say running a car's fuel tank so close to empty for too long can wreak havoc on a car's engine; imagine the potential damage to the soul running on empty for too long!  So just as the car's fuel tank cannot be filled unless we get right next to the fuel pump (gasoline is not going to jump in the fuel tank only when we need it!), so much more so that we get up close to our Lord through Prayer and Worship and Fellowship and the study of the Written Word and through our neighbors.  It is only when we dare look closer will we find the Truth starring us right in the face! 

And we will find He was there all along.  

A Thought

“The tyrant dies, and his rule ends; the martyr dies, and his rule begins.”  Soren Kierkegaard

In the book, “Church for the Unchurched”, the author relates the story of a young woman who was active in her church’s ministry of care for the homebound.  One lady whom the woman was to care for was in her last days and needed a great deal of help.  The young woman called on this lady daily, prayed with her, sat with her, and did everything she could for her.  Soon the lady breathed her last, and the young woman was stunned since she had grown to love this lady.

After much prayer and reflection in her mourning, she drew a conclusion she had to share with her church’s pastor in a letter.  In part the caregiver had discovered that as much as she had given to the dying lady, it was not merely the deceased she had grown to love (though she had).  Rather it was the life she found as she had given herself so completely to the care and ministry of this lady whose needs were so great.  She remembered in her thoughts and reflections Jesus’ own words: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lost it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33 NKJV).

As much as we may try to hold and preserve for ourselves, we will lose at least that much and perhaps more.  Yet as Jesus teaches (and the young woman of the story discovered), she had not really been living until she was giving herself completely to one who was once a virtual stranger.  She would miss the lady, of course, but even as she mourned a part of her own life that was over, she had found the fullness of life in her selflessly giving of herself.

May we trust that Jesus really does know what He’s talking about!



Thursday, May 01, 2014

A Thought

“There are two ways; one of life and one of death!  And there is a great difference between the two ways.  The way of life is this: first, you shall love God who made you.  And second, love your neighbor as yourself.  Do not do to another what you would not want done to you.  The meaning of these sayings is this: bless those who curse you, pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.  For what reward is there for loving those who love you?  Do not the heathens do the same?  But you should love those who hate you, and then you shall have no enemies.” Didache 1:1-3

The significance of this document called “Didache” is that it not only summarizes what the writers believed to be important as what was taught by the apostles (Acts 2:42), but the whole of this document (much like the Bible itself) was written perhaps for a specific community as instruction on how they should live with one another – including those they don’t get along with!  The early Church understood itself in a communal context in that while certainly redeemed from the bondage of sin, they were especially brought into a community of faith.  It is believed a particular community “owned” this document much like the Dead Sea Scrolls are believed to have belonged to the community of the Essenes.  It was the community’s understanding of its moral and social obligations to one another for the good of the community in addition to having specific instructions on the Lord’s Supper.

This was at the heart of the early Methodist movement which embraced the value of the faith community and the mutual support that comes with being so connected.  While there were surely personal spiritual experiences, these experiences were understood in a much broader context in which nothing – and no one – was taken for granted. 

The Church today must recapture the essence of the early Church which understood its relationship to the Lord within its active and ongoing relationship with one another; Jesus taught as much Himself as did St. John when he wrote: “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another …” (1 John 1:7).  Loving the Lord AND our neighbor are intimately connected.  It is highly unlikely anyone was so “personally saved” that they felt free to disconnect themselves from the community of faith, understanding the need for such community support especially when things got tough – and things got very tough!

Let us find that Way in which we can learn to reengage in such an uplifting way that we find our social circle of real friends to be much bigger than we previously thought.  Then we will find the way in which to invite others in who feel disconnected and alienated – just as our Lord did.