Monday, June 16, 2014

1st Sunday after Pentecost: The Road Less Traveled

Isaiah 56:1-7
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20

"Things do not happen.  Things are made to happen."  JFK

The late President Kennedy was speaking in general terms of the environmental and social responsibility of American citizenship, the collective responsibility we share in this republic not strictly for our time but also for the future of our grandchildren's grandchildren.  In this observation, then, the president was simply pointing out the obvious: if we do not "do" according to what needs to be done, it will simply not get done.  If a church's Trustee committee has no willing participation from the church's "citizens", the buildings will simply rot until there is nothing left. 

So if the Church as the Body of Christ ignores its God-given duty and Christ-ordained responsibility - the last Commandment our Lord spoke before He ascended into Heaven - then those who "hunger and thirst for righteousness" will not be filled.  Those who do not know of mercy and the raw strength of a community with a shared sense of purpose will never come to know of mercy and the raw strength of a community with a shared sense of purpose; at least, not in this lifetime.

Ideological purity has become the Church's mantra to the exclusion of the "Great Commission"; and it has become so very nearly to the exclusion and isolation of all who might come inside to learn more about the community of faith and to hear more about our Lord but are kept at a safe distance because they do not dress appropriately or believe properly.  We are inclined to treat "strangers" as the "strangers" they are, and then ironically threaten them with hell fire and eternal condemnation if they don't believe in Jesus the way we think they should.

We believe we are doing the right and honorable thing because we remember St. Paul's words: "A little leaven will leaven the entire loaf" (Galatians 5:9), but we think of this in a more negative way - as in a duty to keep out those who do not belong (according to our own self-imposed standards) lest the congregation be poisoned with their strange or non-existent beliefs and even stranger attire or lifestyle. 

It is the purity of our religion which seems to require that we keep at a safe distance those who would mislead our children with their false doctrines.  Yet in our quest to be as faithful to The Lord as we can possibly be, we might do better to remember Jesus' take on "leaven": "Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matthew 16:6). 

Jesus and Paul were both speaking in terms of something growing out of control.  St. Paul was talking about the "Judiazers" (likely Pharisees or of that "school of thought") who were insisting on circumcision for new believers according to the Law's requirement.  And Jesus is warning His disciples of the danger of putting too fine a point on rigid rules that do more to suppress and inhibit rather than to liberate the soul.

I am a believer in rules and well-defined boundaries, so I am probably more aligned with a pharisaic understanding of righteousness.  The Law exists to distinguish the people of YHWH, so it is disingenuous to suggest the Sinai Covenant has no more use for the Church.  Without rules, without discipline, without some sense of distinction, direction, and purpose, and without adequate and reasonable enforcement there is nothing but chaos.  And if no one is in charge, everyone thinks they are in charge.  Anarchy is the result, nothing useful can be accomplished, and the weakest among us are the ones who will pay the price.  They will be the ones who get hurt.  Almost without exception.

A pastor acquaintance (Morgan Guyton) I've come to know via the Internet wrote this thought recently: "People are liberated from their sin in environments where they feel safe being wrong."  This may sound a little foul on the surface, but a closer look suggests those who feel free to express themselves, share (but not attempt to impose) their thoughts and ideas, ask honest questions, and even make a full confession are much more open to receiving a more mature Christian perspective - but only if they feel safe

This applies to probably each of us much in the same way there are some neighborhoods we would not feel safe in, so we would not even go there - for safety's sake alone!  So we think about this in terms of the Church, the community of saints and sinners who have found a place where they feel safe; where they (hopefully) feel free to express what more traditional Christians might consider to be completely off-the-wall - and feel safe to do so.  If they are afraid, they won't.  Neither would you nor would I.

So it becomes a battle between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice).  To be sure, Jesus did tell His Church to "teach all nations to obey everything I have commanded you".  Teaching is very much a part of the mission of the Church (perhaps primary) but if Jesus was suggesting a "list" of things for the Church to do and that list is ordered according to what is most important, or at least what must come first, then the very first thing on our "list of things to do" is to "make disciples". 

Arkansas' own Bishop Mueller has raised the bar even on this in challenging the people of the Arkansas United Methodist Church to "make disciples who make disciples".  That is, introducing our neighbors into a relationship with The Lord through His Church and then leading them from their moment of justification into the spirit and life of sanctification - "going on to perfection".

The Church was never intended as a place to "get comfortable" anymore than the Promised Land was a place for Israel to "get comfortable"; yet both are intended as places where comfort may be found for those who feel safe nowhere else.  As the Lord spoke to Israel through the prophet Isaiah in reminding them of YHWH's intent in calling Israel out of Egypt, so Jesus speaks to the Church through what is commonly referred to as the "Great Commission" and calls us out of "self-service" mode.

There is a lot of chatter about the future of the United Methodist Church, and each "side" of the perpetual debate claims to have the right answer.  Sad to say, there has been a lot of posturing and positioning by those who claim to have a corner on what the Lord intends for the Church today.  Yet for all the ideas we think we have and how right those ideas may seem, we have yet to concede this foundational understanding: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My way ... My ways [are] higher than your ways, and My thoughts are higher than your thoughts" (Isaiah 55:8-9). 

We are going to be much more inclined to think more highly of the Lord and His word as soon as we stop thinking so highly of our own words and ideas.  And I believe it was C.S. Lewis who once said: "If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next [world].  It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one." 

Becoming complacent in faith and faith development has become the busy highway of secular life within the Church because it is the one most often trod upon.  It is the one that demands most of our attention, but this demand has been met and agreed upon by us.  It is the life the Church has become entirely too comfortable with because it is the road most familiar to us. 

"The Road Less Traveled" is the one with no human compass, no mortal map, and no paved and safe shoulders.  Yet all that has been given for us to go and has compelled us to go is the assurance of our Lord that "I am with you always".  It is Trust in this assurance, our collective sense of purpose as the Body of Christ, and the knowledge that nothing to this end will not get done until the people of The Lord do so that compels and commands us to stretch our legs and step out on the ledge. 

We have come to mistakenly believe a profession of faith is only a one-and-done prayer; but there can be no more profound profession of faith in our Lord than our willingness to trust Him - and Him alone - with the future of His Church and to travel the road only He can know, the road He trod Himself.  Amen.

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