Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Thought

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean.  Remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes.  Cease to do evil, learn to do good.  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”  (Isaiah 1:16-17).

“Isaiah was a realist. Though he was convinced of the truth of his message, he expected the people to be able to hear the message the first time, but not necessarily able to understand its importance and follow it readily. Old habits are not easily changed.”

“Much like the Israelites, we also find our ears are dulled to the message. That is why Isaiah comes to us. Isaiah intends to be our hearing aid. Isaiah wishes to help us perceive the silent sigh, to amplify the message that is an octave too high, and bring it down to a level to which we can not only hear it, but also pay attention to it in a way that will call us to action.”

“Isaiah's warning is not meant to be depressing, but inspirational. He notes that IF we can hear the message to act in a good and just manner, we can turn the course of our world around. By learning to do good, devoting ourselves to justice, and looking out for those who cannot look out for themselves, we can find our world transformed. Only when we transform our hearing into understanding and action, can the heavens and the  earth be glad and rejoice.”  Rabbi Matt Dreffin

So our United Methodist mantra to “make disciples for the transformation of the world” must first involve our own transformations.  We who claim to believe in the message of Christ have a bounden duty to reflect all which is taught to us by Messiah.  Claiming to believe goes far beyond a benign belief that Jesus of Nazareth once walked the earth; faith involves actions which reflect what it is we believe about The Lord, a reflection of the mercy once extended to us.

Make no mistake; our actions do not buy us favor with our Holy Father, for He cannot be bought nor can He be impressed by human action.  Rather we understand that the “transformation of the world” begins with the transformation of our own hearts, doing and being to our neighbors and to the world all The Lord has done and has been to His Church, His people.  Then will we begin to see changes.  Then will those outside of the Covenant begin to understand what the Holy Covenant is about.  We will never see it nor understand its importance, however, until we first begin to do it ourselves. 



Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Thought

“Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field”  (James 1:9-10).

So much for the so-called “prosperity gospel”, right?  That The Lord is just aching to give us material blessings in such abundance that we will not be able to keep up with it all?  Not so fast, according to James.  We should understand this passage in its appropriate context, however, before we are so quick to judge the “rich” for having more than we think they are entitled to.

There are many persons who are financially very well off and who are also not afraid to share their abundance; and they are not afraid because they have a deep and abiding faith in The Lord to see to their futures.  They recognize that The Lord has seen to their abundance so they have plenty to share, not so they can have more for themselves (“for the Lord does not show partiality”).  Even though there seem to be many passages that condemn the “rich” for simply being rich, everything must be taken in its appropriate context.

James is speaking in terms not of money but of faith; real faith, enduring faith, the kind of faith that transcends an empty and often uncertain belief that has yet to be proved.  We do not see this passage as promising material wealth to the “lowly”; we must therefore not read this same passage as a curse on those who have found success.  Rather we should understand this passage as the same Promise fulfilled in all; that the “lowly” will be raised up from the trappings of whatever has brought them low (it may not be strictly about being “poor”), and the “rich” will be released from the trappings that often come with wealth.  We must believe (because it is true) that money does not buy happiness.  It might be rented for awhile, but it doesn’t last.  And The Lord wants to redeem them as well.

I will grant that the entire passage seems to be condemnatory toward the “rich”, but we must understand we all have our own crosses to bear in whatever form is presented to us.  The Lord assures us that if we take up that cross faithfully and follow Him, He will show us the way out from under the world’s many traps.  The Promise is predicated, however, on our choice to deliberately engage in Messiah’s life and path; not to simply believe He is or that He walked the earth or that He was raised from the grave.  We must have the faith to know it! “For the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the winds; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-8).   

Don’t be so hard on the “rich” for being under condemnation, and don’t be so hard on the “poor” who seem to have let life’s opportunities pass by them.  We all have a cross to bear, according to our Lord, and each one is as heavy as the next.  So if we are to boast at all, let us boast in knowing we are being led out!



Monday, July 28, 2014

Making disciples: the attributes

Deuteronomy 4:1-8
2 Peter 2:1-9
Luke 16:10-17

Last week Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds questioned whether we could - or should - know a disciple or a potential disciple on sight.  In our determination to keep out those less-than-desirable cultural influences, it is likely we would do much more harm than good not only to disciples who are in early spiritual development but also to future disciples who might be interested to know more about our Holy Father and His mercy in Christ - until they discover Christians are not always disciples themselves.

The mission of the Church, however, is not to spot disciples!  As Christians baptized into the Church and the Eternal Covenant we cannot escape the "Great Commission" from Jesus; our mission to "make disciples".  But to "make disciples", as pointed out last time, is pretty broad and somewhat vague.  So if we have no real concept of what a disciple is, or what discipleship is supposed to look like, how can we know we have succeeded in "making disciples"? 

Is our success measured by receiving new members, restoring fallen-away members, celebrating professions of faith, or increasing our giving?  Yes, yes, yes ... and then some!  As much as these are good and necessary practices of discipleship, trying to quantify discipleship must be approached carefully because "quantity" suggests a goal which can be reached.  I don't think discipleship can be defined strictly by such quantitative terms because discipleship must never be measured in terms of how we can know we're "finished" - because we never will be.

The challenge, however, cannot be brushed aside.  A fellow pastor from another denomination was sharing some thoughts not long ago, general notions, nothing special or specific.  He was telling me about a Bible study he leads on a university campus in the town where he serves, and he mentioned this one particular young woman who never missed a study session.  She faithfully studied the lessons, she was enthusiastic, and she was always prepared for the study sessions with all kinds of questions - not to challenge but for clarity's sake.  Clearly she had a desire to learn more about The Lord and was willing to put in the time and effort.  However, the brother pastor pointed out she was not yet "saved".

I asked brother pastor how he could know something of such depth and spiritual intimacy about another person and what difference it might make.  Understand he comes from a tradition almost completely foreign to the tradition I grew up in, the tradition I pretty much ascribe to even now as a United Methodist.  I'm pretty sure I know what he meant, but I began wondering if it is possible to know what a "saved" person looks like as opposed to a disciple - or if there can even be a difference.  Jesus said, "If you hold to My teachings, you are my disciples" (John 8:31).  This seems to suggest to us that if we faithfully read and then put into practice The Lord's "teachings", we are disciples in the truest sense.

The distinguishing difference, I think, is in what a person says (the so-called 'sinner's prayer' or an appropriate Creed or an officially prescribed Confessional Prayer) and what a person does (study the Scriptures in community with other disciples, for instance). 

We assume too much in Christianity, and there is a certain level of arrogance that comes with these assumptions.  So when we assume anything, we take too much for granted.  We assume others know we are "Christians" because we are "good people" - at least by our own standards.  We forget there are scores of persons in our own neighborhoods who have heard of Christianity in a very general sense, but they know very little about the religion apart from the behavior and practices of known Christians.  We always hope they see only the good stuff - and there is much good stuff to see! - but we cannot ignore the reality that they see, and probably notice more, the less-than-holy stuff. 

The goodness they need to see, the goodness that offers hope to a hopeless world goes far beyond just being a "good ol' boy" or a fine, upstanding Christian woman, both of which are based strictly on subjective regional, cultural, or individual standards.  I have met and have known some decent, moral atheists, agnostics, and Muslims who are clearly not "disciples" of Jesus. 

Based on their culturally subjective moral standards and charitable hearts (that which I could clearly see) of these non-Christians, however, I have a hard time believing these good and decent folks have flat-out rejected Messiah Jesus or His moral teachings.  In fact I think sometimes these folks on the "outside" can see what is "inside" more clearly than we who have been inside most of our lives.  So what they see, perhaps, is what they are rejecting. 

Jesus did indeed tell the Pharisees in Luke's Gospel that "God knows your hearts" (Luke 16:15) even though they were clearly putting on outward airs, but Jesus also warned His disciples about false prophets who will be "known by their fruits" (Mt 7:16); that is, whether they bless or curse by their actions.  The Lord does indeed know what is within one's heart but since the "abundance of the heart comes from the mouth" (Luke 6:45), it is more difficult than we imagine to pull the wool over another person's eyes.

Moses spoke to Israel: "You must observe [The Lord's statutes and ordinances] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples who ... will say, 'Surely this great [people of The Lord] is a wise and discerning people!"  (Deut 4:6)   

Peter made a clear distinction between Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah as a matter of which human practices are "godly" and which are not (2 Peter 2:7-8).  Jesus also points out that human choices can and will be a determining factor in what will be entrusted to us later, that we can make a choice of what or Whom we will love and devote ourselves to - as a matter of our own choices - in keeping with the Moral Law or in violation of that Divine Law (Luke 16:10-17).

Even though Scripture study is a very good start for a disciple (in fact, maybe it is the only real start - otherwise, how would they know whom they are following?), discipleship is much more than simply reading the Bible just as justification before The Lord must mean more to us than memorization of a few select Bible verses, a particular prayer, or a creed - or just being a "good person".  All these practices have their places in spiritual development but if they never become innate to our being as the people of The Lord, we cannot claim them as "attributes"; characteristics of whom we are or choose to be.

Practices, good or bad, are habits; they are things we do.  These can be good practices, as the many means of grace are good and necessary toward growing in faith and in love; but unless or until these practices bear fruit worthy of the Kingdom, they remain mere practices with no discernable value. 

An attribute, on the other hand, is a characteristic of our being determined by the choices we make.  Discipleship, then, is in deliberately choosing intentional development of these attributes for the purpose of learning to emulate Jesus, to become more and more Christ-like with every thought and with every choice, and taking nothing for granted - ESPECIALLY The Lord's mercy! 

When we learn to take Divine Mercy for granted, we take the Church, the Lord, our neighbors, our spouses, and yes, even those we perceive as enemies for granted.  We assume too much as "given" when in reality, we have spiritual choices to make every single day; choices between what pleases us against what pleases the Lord.  These choices are not always synonymous; "for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15).

In order to "make disciples", then, we must first understand discipleship on terms well established by Jesus.  The enduring mercy of The Lord can and will justify us before The Lord, but only we can choose discipleship - not to earn Divine Favor but to make this Mercy known.  All this comes from a heart flowing with gratitude, a grateful heart that assumes nothing and therefore takes nothing for granted.  It is as I have shared about prayer and being in mission: we cannot know how important mercy really is until we practice mercy ourselves.

It is often said we do not really appreciate something until that something is no longer available to us.  Well, it is a little hard to think our Lord would withdraw His favor from His people - yet even conventional (human) wisdom can acknowledge how easily we take all that is good and right for granted.  For it is truly as Job had observed: "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away" (1:21).

Before we can begin to make disciples (and we must), we must first become disciples ourselves.  Unlike American Express, church membership has no "privilege" except that of serving our Lord by serving our neighbors.  We can find it within ourselves to do this with glad hearts, however, only when we remember our Lord having served us ("I came not to be served, but to serve", Matthew 20:28).  And He has - by His own attributes of mercy.  So must we - by embracing His attributes as our own.  Amen.  

A Thought

“If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe – it is yourself.”  St. Augustine

I doubt there are many among us who take everything written in the Scriptures as “gospel” (good news) – especially those portions that seem to strike at the heart of what is most important to us.  Even the prophets are hard to read because we hear a very angry God speak to a people who had chosen their own course above The Lord’s direction for them.

Yet for all that is written, there is an overall context in which everything comes together.  The New Testament has its context entirely in the First Testament.  The “bad” stuff has its context entirely in the good.  It is, however, as Augustine observed in himself; it is the “bad” that makes the good truly good because even in the “bad”, we find a Holy Father who is much more eager to forgive and restore than He is to “smite”.  That reality is expressed in Messiah, for The Lord did not have to do this remarkable thing – He chose to.  It is in the abundance of His mercy that He continues to reach out to an unbelieving world through His Church.

This is the reality of who we are.  Being who we are, then, requires the necessary expression of all we claim to believe about The Lord. 

So what is it we believe?  That is what we are called to express.  Not with hatefulness, not with spite, and certainly not with an agenda of our own.  The Gospel is The Lord, and The Lord is the Gospel.  All of it – because in the end, we find The Lord still waiting patiently.

Let us not flee from hell.  Rather let us run to Love.  Then hell no longer has a legitimate claim over us.



Monday, July 21, 2014

A Thought

“Be still and know I am The Lord.  I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.”  Psalm 46:10

Commonly taught as the imperative to “sit down and shut up” so we may listen to what The Lord has to say, the principle is consistent with St. Paul’s understanding of the perfection of Divine Strength in mortal weakness; “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

We don’t often think of being “still” as being “weak”, but maybe this is because we do not understand what weakness means – especially when we choose that imperfect state for the perfection of Divine presence in our prayers.  It is not necessarily that The Lord is most merciful and revealed to those who are weak; rather it may better be understood in terms of complete submission – a willingness to put aside self in favor of something greater even if only for a moment.

We are a little too busy and too “in charge” of our lives for our own good.  We confuse Divine Will with personal desire because we already know what we want – and we like to pretend The Lord always agrees with us.  I am convinced this is only because we do not fully give The Lord the time He requires of us in order to make Himself and His will known.  We must first not only “be still” but we must also choose to “be still”.  It is the principle of complete Sabbath, and it is no less so in the midst of our haste.  And really, when we are in such a hurry, such a state of impatience, are we not just seeking an earlier grave?

Slow down today.  Make time to acknowledge the reality of The Lord, and learn to set aside time strictly for The Lord.  Private time.  Unencumbered time.  It is what we probably need above all things, for surely from such an intimate moment do all good things come.



Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Thought

“ … Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world’” (Matthew 13:34-35).

Because we have been conditioned over generations toward Jesus’ many parables each with its own distinct meaning, we are often inclined to overlook certain parables and take them for granted as having been figured out.  While we might agree there may be only one meaning for any particular parable, we cheat ourselves when we strike one off the “list” of things completed – especially when it comes to the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven which the parables speak to and teach about.  So when we believe we have “finished” any portion of the Scriptures, we stop reaching; and when we stop reaching, we stop growing spiritually.  It is the reason there are so many “mature” Christians who have become stunted in their growth; it’s all “figured out”, the ‘secrets’ have been revealed. 

Nothing could be further from the truth!  There are treasures within each parable Jesus teaches that demand a closer look, and it is the reason why our Wesleyan Methodist heritage has an official “discipline”, a discipline which transcends denominational “rules” and promotes and encourages the many “means of grace”.  The study of the Scriptures is a lifelong journey in search of “joy unspeakable” which can only be revealed as we draw nearer.  We must never forget that discipleship can never be considered a “hobby” nor is it a way of living.  It is Life itself which comes only from The Word.



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A Thought

“Now all the people gathered together as one in the open square that was in front of the water gate, and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Moses.  So Ezra brought the Law before the assembly of men and women … then he read from it in the open square … and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law”  (Nehemiah 8:1-3).

As with yesterday’s thought about “law”, this reading must also be understood more carefully than to think Ezra simply read off a list of “rules”.  In this context the people of the Lord had returned to reclaim the land the Lord had given them after a long exile.  They were determined to reorient themselves toward what they were brought out of Egypt to be: a “priestly nation”.  They were more determined to learn from their mistakes of the past and truly be The Lord’s People.  The “Torah” (which English translations may have carelessly reduced to ‘law’) is “the written and cherished normative memory of the community” (Brueggemann).

Yes, there are some “rules” to live by as well as some restrictions and prohibitions.  The fullness of a people’s identity, however, goes far beyond what they are prohibited from doing; it is much more about what they are to do in the fullness of life – to be everything The Lord has created them to be.

This reality has not been diminished in the New Testament or Christian theology.  Jesus was clear in that He did not come to “do away with the Law (Torah?) … but to fulfill it”.  So must we as lean into and live in the fullness of The Word which is Christ.



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Thought

“Do not let sin reign in your mortal body … but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.  For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”  Romans 6:12-14

“You are not under law but under grace”.  Is it possible to quote a Bible verse word-for-word and still get it wrong?  I think so because this particular verse is often quoted when Christians are called to task and challenged for what others deem to be misconduct; that is, being less than ‘holy’.  The question, however, is not whether the verse is being misquoted but misappropriated.  The question centers on whether “law” captures the fullness of Torah (Torah as the first five books of the Bible, generally referred to by Christians as ‘law’).  We may even wonder if Paul, when speaking of ‘law’, is actually referring to Torah or to some other man-made religious law based loosely on components of Torah but rendered unduly restrictive as little more than a set of “rules”.

The scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, says “our English rendering of Torah as ‘law’ is mischievous and problematic.  The word ‘law’ scarcely catches the point of the reading.  Torah means the entire written and cherished normative memory of the community, all the lore and narrative and poetry and song and old liturgy that had formed and shaped and authorized the imagination of the community” (Biblical perspectives on Evangelism, pg 74).  So it hardly seems likely St. Paul, a devout Jew himself, is suggesting Torah no longer has meaning for the people of The Lord.  Rather he is suggesting, I think, another created ‘law’ that has so bound a redeemed people that they can no longer function as the truly liberated people The Lord intended them to be.  Or perhaps he is trying to take ‘law’ out of Torah’s context.

There is indeed grace (call it Divine Mercy) that serves Divine Purpose, and Torah records this development within a spirit of grace not as restrictive but as defining; for, indeed, Torah is much more than just ‘Ten Commandments’ thought of primarily as “thou shalt not”.  At no time, however, is grace ever imparted to The Lord’s people as ‘excuses’ for which our own purposes are served.

Torah, then, can be understood as defining a people (specifically Israel) not strictly based on what one cannot do but, rather, based on what one is called to be.  We must not receive any portion of the Word of The Lord as restrictive or condemning lest we come to believe in a petty, arbitrary, and vindictive God who just cannot wait for a  chance to clobber someone.  We are reading the story of a God who could not wait for a chance to redeem and lift up a people to be all they are created and called to be.  This is our Holy Father’s story, thus it is our story; a story we must never forget.



Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Home-made Crisis

How can it be that the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces and chief executive officer of the United States government - the one who holds primary responsibility for the security of the nation's borders at home and the national security interests of the United States worldwide and is also constitutionally charged with enforcing (not adjusting) the nation's existing laws - would turn to the Republicans in Congress and blame them for the fiasco currently taking place on our southern border?

The president has requested an additional $3.7 billion in funding to address the "humanitarian crisis" he believes we are faced with, but how will these additional funds be spent?  And how is it that border security is not already adequately funded?  Immigrants have been crossing into the United States via the southern border for more years than the current president has been in office, so how can it be that now it has become a "humanitarian crisis"?  Prior to this, in my humble opinion, it has been a continuing national security crisis.  Indeed how can we pretend to have federal agencies charged with national security and not realize that such porous borders constitute a genuine national security threat?

I believe rank-and-file Americans are not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of so many who "yearn to breathe free" and will risk everything for a chance to come into the United States.  I also believe the vast majority of those crossing our borders illegally only want a chance for a better life for themselves and their families in peace and relative safety. 

However, if there are truly an estimated 12-14 million "undocumented" immigrants in the US (how can one count "undocumented" persons, by the way?), this means there are 12-14 million persons we know nothing about unless or until they run afoul of the law.  This is a national security problem of the highest order because if we only catch them after they have violated laws, it is already too late.  By then we can only hope it is a minor infraction.

The people of the United States respond to and deal with humanitarian crises almost daily, and they do so generously and expeditiously.  This is the heart of the American ideal and the soul of the American people.  We get it.  We get it that this is part of the responsibility of a freed people.  We understand that the well being of our neighbor is our own well being. 

What we do not get is a crisis borne of an irresponsible and unresponsive government that demands more money to deal with a long existing problem.  We do not get a president who will visit a storm-damaged area to remind those people that the nation stands with them but will not go directly to the US border in crisis mode to remind those people (citizens and overwhelmed agents alike) that the nation stands with them as well, choosing instead to drink beer and shoot pool in relative air-conditioned comfort far and away from the point of crisis while claiming to be "intimately" involved.

The one thing we voting Americans must be aware of (yes, if you do not or did not vote, you have no say) is that we are the American people which makes us the American government.  An election is coming up with many "experienced" legislators standing for reelection.  This crisis, whether humanitarian or national security, belongs to them; each and every one who is up for RE-election.  If we RE-elect any one of them, we are asking for more of the same; and our nation will remain in crisis mode for at least the foreseeable future.

It is not necessary or even desirable to "overthrow" this system of government, but it has become necessary to cast out those who have helped our government reach its current state.  We have a lot of service men and women and federal agents who are doing their level best to deal with what is at hand, but they must have our full support which goes far beyond a flag on the porch and cheesy bumper stickers.  As it stands now, it appears our fellow citizens in government service are useful to this current government only for their value as tools to be RE-elected.  And that is not enough.

The government can do nothing apart from the consent of the governed (that's you and me). This is all the power we need to do what must be done, and it begins with the Congress in November.

A Thought

“This battle is not for you to fight; take your position, stand still, and see the victory of the Lord on your behalf.”  2 Chronicles 20:17 (NRSV)

Judah and King Jehoshaphat were facing overwhelming odds against the encroaching Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites; so the king lifted up his nation in prayer.  In his prayer the king appealed to The Lord within the context of the Exodus when Israel was led around, rather than through, these nations enroute to the Promised Land: “[these nations] reward us by coming to drive us out of Your possession that You have given us to inherit” (2 Chronicles 20:11).

Though it is clear the king was gravely concerned about what may come to be, it nevertheless fell to him to lead his nation in prayer.  Rather than to react hastily to a dangerous situation, the people of The Lord first turned to The Lord.  In their faithfulness and, yes, in their fear, the prayer was answered.  Though they were not released from the necessity of doing battle (“Tomorrow go out against them”, vs 17c), The Lord had assured His people that He would act “on your behalf” first.

We face dangerous situations today as a nation, as a state, as a community, and as The Church.  It is our inclination, however, to respond almost immediately to any given situation according to what we believe to be the best course of action (and very often, overreact) rather than to stop, pray, and wait until such time as The Lord may direct our actions.

And this, dear friends, is the difference between those of The Covenant and those outside of The Covenant.  The Covenant of The Lord assures us that as His people, He will protect us; this is His part of His own Covenant to which He is bound!  The assurance of The Covenant, however, applies only to those within that Covenant who will live in accordance with the terms of that Covenant.  And this, I think, is where we face perhaps even greater challenges than the fear often invoked when we are overwhelmed.

We cannot know what the outcomes might look like nor can we really know exactly how The Lord will respond, but the Written Word assures us He will.  This is what we cling to, for it is our hope.  Perhaps the problems in the modern-day Church come from the reality that we simply will not “stand still” and fully trust that The Lord will do His own thing through and with His own people – we would rather our own thing be done!

“Be still, and know that I am The Lord.  I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10).  By His decree, by His assurance, this is enough for His people.



Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The Mission (sermon for 6 July 2014)

1 Chronicles 16:23-31
Romans 10:11-15
Matthew 9:27-38

The Book of Discipline astutely observes, "Whenever United Methodism has had a clear sense of mission, [The Lord] has used [His] Church to save persons, heal relationships, transform social structures, and spread scriptural holiness, thereby changing the world."  United Methodist Book of Discipline, ¶121, pg 92

It should probably be emphasized: "Whenever there has been a clear sense of mission ..."

This is the trick for us, is it not?  Having a clear sense of mission?  Especially in watching the ebb and flow and highs and lows at so many churches for the last fifty to sixty years when things seemed to be clicking along just fine, the Church largely failed to realize or fully appreciate that nothing of human effort stays the same.  Ever.  Even though the face of the Church has been through so many cultural and demographic changes over the years, the nature of The Church, which is "mission", has never changed.  Ever.  Whether any church was or was not actively engaged in its missional nature, the Divine Appointment of the Church universal has not changed.

Our challenge is to change the way we think of attending worship and moving beyond the notion that "being here" is what support of the Church and discipleship are about.  Being present is only scratching the surface; there must be a willingness to drill deeper.  Maybe worship attendance would more appropriately be thought of as a "pre-mission briefing" before we go into the larger world and do our work in the name of The Lord.

Since the very beginning there has been a Divine mission.  Though it may seem Adam and Eve were simply placed in the Garden only to tend it and care for it, there was a mission to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it ... (Genesis 1:28)"; maybe even then to "fill the earth" with people who will know and worship and continue the work for The Lord.  The text goes on to reveal that The Lord had given them everything they would need to fulfill The Lord's mission.  Then seeing all The Lord had put forth on the earth, He declared it all "very good".  Until, of course, The Lord's people took a bad turn inward when their very existence became more about themselves than about The Lord; and the mission - such as it was - was stifled.

We fast forward to the time of King David, a somewhat unified nation, and a renewed interest in and focus on the Ark of the Covenant.  We remember the Ark as fully representative of The Lord's presence among His people (this is why it was not to be touched by human hands!).  Once the Ark was back into its appropriate and central place in the life and the very heart of Israel, King David the "shepherd" led a procession of thanksgiving and praise: "Declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous works among all the peoples" (1 Chronicles 16:24).

"Declare ... His marvelous works among all the peoples."  It was understood from the time of Moses (or should have been understood as faithfully taught) that Israel "shall be for [The Lord] a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6); "priestly" as an intermediary between Heaven and earth, "chosen" as the people who would be charged with this awesome task and remarkable privilege of "declaring His glory among the nations"

Since the time of Moses, however, there were many distractions that challenged Israel's status and tested her faithfulness.  Though it might have seemed as though the very existence of Israel was in jeopardy during the time of the Exile, the faithfulness of The Lord to His everlasting covenant meant the only thing ever in jeopardy was Israel's "preferred status" not strictly as a favored people but as chosen; called to and equipped for the Mission: to tell other nations, "all the peoples" about The Lord, His marvelous works, and His liberating and redeeming actions not only to bless Israel but clearly to bless "all the peoples" of "other nations" through Israel, the "priestly kingdom". 

Holding on to that sense of mission - that thing which never changes in the life of The Covenant - even among the many changes we endure as we grow older, our children move out of the house, grandchildren come along, retirement plans start coming together, etc., is no less an edict from The Lord today than it was during the time of King David. 

Even when so many "members" declare themselves removed from such mandates for whatever reason, the Church must nevertheless remain focused on the ONE REASON - the ONLY REASON - the Church exists at all: "to declare His glory among the nations".  That's it.  It is not so you have a place to go on Sunday, and it is not so I have a place to preach on Sunday.  The Church is not "on" a mission of its own choosing; the Church IS the mission just as Christ IS the Word which became flesh and dwelt among us - and dwells among us today as the Church.

Our Lord declared to a less-than-faithful nation in exile, a nation which had failed miserably in its "priestly" honor and privilege: "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11)".

So the Lord declared to His people, His chosen in exile, that He would get done what He intends to be done - period.  The only question was (and still is) whether His people whom He had liberated from bondage, His people whom He had declared a "priestly kingdom and holy nation", were on board with that. 

Should these "chosen" decline, The Lord declared also through Isaiah that the "foreigner" and the "eunuchs" (those who do not completely "fit in" with Israel) who keep the Sabbath and "choose the things that please Me and hold fast to My covenant ... I will give them a monument and a name ... these I will bring to My holy mountain and make them joyful in My house of prayer" (Isaiah 56:3-7).

One way or another, our Lord declares, His thing will be done ... with us - or without us. 

So because the religious authorities had for too long neglected YHWH's "thing" for which He had purposed and chose instead to pursue their own "thing", "Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness ... with compassion [because] they were harassed and helpless [neglected], like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:35-36).

So we look around and we lament the closings of so many churches, our childhood churches.  Now sometimes these churches have closed simply because folks moved.  It is a hard fact, but it is no less a demographic fact.  It still must be said, however, that whenever there is a serious falling away of members who decide for themselves what is or is not their "thing" and refuse to serve where serving needs to be done for the sake of The Mission, that church is on its way to oblivion - or at the very least, exile. 

It will not matter how much money is given for others to work with.  If all the "others" decide it is not their "thing", or they've been doing the "thing" for so long with little help that they just get tired and burnt out, the "thing" will not be done.  Soon The Lord will decide this church or that church has its own "thing" apart from His "thing" and will not long stand.  It is a hard truth but no less a theological truth.

It is a harsh reality the people of The Lord are compelled to examine carefully, fully, and honestly because St. Paul does not ask a rhetorical question when he asks: "How are they to call on One in whom they have not believed?  How are they to believe in One of whom they have never heard?  How are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him?  And how are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15a)

We are "sent", and this calling came to be in that moment of clarity which our friends of other traditions call "getting saved" and which we call "being justified".  It is the "thing" our Lord has purposed long before the foundation was laid for this church, and it is the "thing" The Lord will accomplish ... with us - or without us. 

Like the "trick" of the necessity of prayer I shared last, we will not be fully convinced of the importance of Mission until we are actually engaged in Mission in one capacity or another.  And when we witness for ourselves lives changed and relationships healed, we will surely come to understand the necessity of The Church, Christ in the world today - and our part in it! 

It is often said, everyone has a need to be needed.  The Scriptures make it very clear we are each needed, each with our own unique spiritual gifts as individual "members" of the Whole Body.  As our Bishop Mueller recently stated, now it is time for believers to "step up to the plate".  The Lord has already declared us worthy to serve; now it is time to serve.  Amen.                                                                                                                                                              

A Thought

“The Pharisees, who were lovers of money … ridiculed Jesus.  So Jesus said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts, for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:14-15).

Jesus had been teaching about dishonest gain and had pointed out to the crowd that if one “has not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (vs 12).  Most of us would not even think of taking something that clearly belongs to someone else, but Jesus’ lesson was not strictly about stealing.  The preceding parable goes much deeper and asks more difficult questions than to simply ask whether we would take something we know belongs to someone else.  Rather the lesson hinged on what lengths humans may go to in order to acquire wealth.  It is a question of honesty and moral integrity.  It is also a question of what we value.

Well meaning persons would convince themselves that if they had wealth, they would give honor to The Lord by first offering their tithe and then offering charity (maybe after all old debts are paid off).  As so many lottery winners have shown, however, and in keeping with what Jesus clearly points out, if we are not faithful with what little we have it is very unlikely we will be faithful with a lot. 

Jesus is very direct and offers no exceptions by which we can justify such choices of accumulation of wealth, “for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God”.  Even if we convince ourselves that The Lord intended for us to have good things only for ourselves and those we love, we cannot get around this passage.  We are compelled to evaluate everything in our lives honestly and faithfully, everything we would go to the ends of the earth to justify and defend, and determine for ourselves whether or not our choices bring honor to The Lord – or to ourselves.

Wealth in and of itself is not the curse.  It is the “love of” wealth that brings curses rather than blessings because we are pursuing the things which by their very nature cannot last.  Let us evaluate our priorities and remember what a true legacy really is.  Our children can make their own way.  The “name and monument” given for eternity (Isaiah 56:5) rests exclusively with The Lord.



Monday, July 07, 2014

A Thought

"You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all your settlements that the Eternal your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just." (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

Real justice can be very difficult to administer especially when it comes to the death penalty in the United States.  It has been shown through DNA, for instance, that some who had been condemned to die were actually innocent of the crimes for which they had been convicted.  There have been arguments that jail inmates who are awaiting arraignment to answer for crimes they have only been accused of should not be brought before a judge in jail clothing and/or cuffs and shackles because the very appearance of jail-related clothing can sway a judge unfairly.  The image is of one who is not merely “accused” but actually fits the profile of one who would commit such a crime.

We are easily swayed by appearances and are too often overcome by our own emotions especially pertaining to crimes against children.  Some crimes are so heinous that we demand someone be held accountable to the point that the first person arrested must be the guilty party; but in our rush and desperation for justice, we can often be too hasty and lose the necessary “partiality” The Lord requires.

Not only within our legal system but also in daily living, we render judgments almost constantly.  We discern information and evaluate appearances, and we typically render judgment according to how a particular situation fits our own circumstances.  More often than not, the “good ol’ boy” who is liked by everyone will be given much more latitude than a scruffy, sloppy, unkempt person with a mean look.  And the “stranger”?  That poor soul hardly stands a chance.

Let us remember that even though we may not be appointed officially as judges, we must be on guard against our own prejudices lest those who are mistreated by society as a whole do not get the justice our system – and our God – require.  Justice may be subjective to a large extent, but this does not mean The Lord will not hold us accountable for our unfair and unjust determinations.



Thursday, July 03, 2014

A Thought

Rabbi Israel Meir Kagen wrote in the late 19th century, "It is no great feat to die a proper death.  The real feat is to live a proper life.” 

In this particular writing, the rabbi was not discounting the many who have died in the service of the Lord, choosing certain death rather than renouncing their faith.  In this these martyrs came to terms with the reality of death – as well as the reality of their circumstances.  Some have suggested these many faithful somehow came to fall in love with death itself.  I think they came to the realization no one lives forever, but how long can we live with ourselves in knowing we have betrayed our Lord by choosing to go along with a world that is hostile to righteousness (James 4:2-4)?

This is the trick of daily living, of leading a “proper life” according to our Lord’s standards, which is much more challenging.  Though we do not live in a country in which we may literally be put to death because of our faith, we nevertheless often choose to die a very slow and painful death when we choose a subtle renunciation of our faith rather than to be singled out as a “Jesus freak”.  The conscience may haunt us for a little while, but too much of such self-involved decisions will soon find us completely alienated from The Lord and His Church because we have been taught – or have taught ourselves – how to follow the crowd so we will have lots of friends, a wide social circle, and rewards for our labors.

The rabbi is pointing out the obvious.  Living according to the ordinances of the Lord is difficult, made even more so when we find ourselves in conflict between what we desire for our pleasure and what we need for spiritual growth; saying “no” to the worldly culture when “yes” would seem to bring much more reward and satisfaction.  The reality of death, however, should give us pause.  No matter the assigned value and quality of the “good life” or the so-called “American dream”, it will come to an end.  And when we are about to draw our final breath, we will realize that “all was vanity and grasping for the wind.  There was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:11c).

Therefore “do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecies.  Test all things; hold fast what is good.  Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).  Amen.