Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Thought for Thursday 30 October 2014

“A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.”  Socrates

Defining truly moral behavior requires an objective viewpoint which drills down until there is a reasonable foundation independent of our opinions.  That is, what is right cannot be based strictly on what we may be feeling at a particular time.  Lust is a prime example.  Because there may be something (or someone!) we desire with extreme intensity, we can convince ourselves we are somehow entitled to it; and because we want it so badly, it just feels right irrespective of what the Bible may have to say about that particular thing.  Even if we can read an unambiguous biblical statement prohibiting such behavior, we are inclined to continue with that behavior with the conscious-salving statement: “God loves me anyway.”

This misses the entire point of Divine Love and our necessary response to that Love.  It is not about how much we can get from that Love.  Think about it.  Do we not warn our children to protect themselves from being “used” by friends?  So if we work so diligently to protect our children and then teach them to protect themselves from being exploited by others, should this standard not also apply to the One who has given us life?  Should we not be diligent in making sure we are not exploiting Divine Grace as an excuse to continue living and doing as we choose, according to our emotions and emotional responses?  Responses that are based not on reason but strictly on feelings?

The Lord set the standard long ago “in stone”, and it is a standard which has served the faithful for generations.  It is even written for us to know of what happens to a society that chooses to turn its back on that Standard so we may know how fragile society truly is when it functions strictly according to its collective “lust” – because in the end, our emotions (being entirely self-serving) will not only ignore the Divine Standard but will ultimately require that others be exploited to serve our emotional needs.  They will receive nothing in return nor do we care whether they do.

“Hold fast to what is good”, as it is written in the Scriptures for us to know.  But first we must know what is truly good.  Even Jesus denied His own “goodness” and pointed instead to the “One who is good”; our Father who is in heaven.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Thought for Wednesday 29 October 2014

“Our Father in heaven, hollowed be Your name.  Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.  And do not lead us into temptation, but delivery us from the evil one.  For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.”  Matthew 6:8b-13

The model prayer.  The ideal way, according to Jesus, by which we approach the Throne of Grace.  We know the prayer and can easily recite it (in Elizabethan English, of course), but do we really understand it? 

Before Jesus introduces the prayer itself, He is encouraging us to look more deeply within maybe to determine our real motives for the things we do.  He begins by speaking of acts of charity (6:1-4) and the need to keep it low key.  There is no need to get our picture in the paper doing some remarkable charitable thing lest we become more interested in the glory we receive (even if we try to mention The Lord in our acts!) rather than just doing it because it needs to be done and doing it without any fanfare.

Then Jesus moves into the prayer itself, and the guiding principle is pretty much the same.  There is no need to put on a big show with big and grand words in order to gain the attention and admiration of those around us.  Rather Jesus encourages us to “go into your room … and shut the door”.  In other words, shut out the busyness of life and living and give the Father your undivided attention.  Then with the assurance of the God who knows what we need before we ask, Jesus says to pray.

Prayer is perhaps the single, most intimate form of worship there can be because if we follow Jesus’ advice, there will be no one else involved in that moment.  Of course we must pray together and we offer prayers in worship and in other gatherings, but this is that moment Jesus is teaching that we can have with the Father, the Almighty, the Creator of all that is!  We can even be bogged down with the many “types” of prayers and when and where these are important, but Jesus seems to throw those categories out the window.  There is no need for a list, and there must be no fear or concern that we may forget someone or some thing.    

The ultimate act in prayer is worship.  The Lord is the center of our attention.  And in that private moment when the door is closed and the world is shut out, Jesus is also assuring us that our Father is listening.  When we give ourselves completely to The Lord, we can be assured that The Lord is giving Himself completely to us.

There is much more in this lesson than proper prayer format.  It is the whole of theology in that if we really want The Lord’s undivided attention, we must give The Lord our undivided attention.  Only then can we fully know of the Father’s will for our lives, our families, and our churches.

“Your Father already knows what you need”.  Would we dare to ask what the Father needs from us?



Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A Thought for Tuesday 28 October 2014

“Nehemiah … and Ezra … and the Levites who taught the people [the Book of the Law] said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep’.  For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.  Then they were told, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of The Lord is your strength’.”  Nehemiah 8:9-10 NRSV

The priest Ezra was encouraged to bring forth the Book of the Law of Moses and read to the people, after which time would be a period of teaching and interpretation.  This was a period of reconstruction; Israel had endured a long period of exile because they had forgotten or outright ignored Torah and had dismissed the Covenant of The Lord.  They had convinced themselves they could do life better for themselves.  During this period, however, families were destroyed, the poor were marginalized in society or exploited for the gain of others, and widows and orphans had all but been forgotten.  In short, they lived as if there were no law, no God, no Covenant.  As it is written often in the book of Judges, “each did what was right in his own eyes”.

Having suffered the terrible consequences of their actions and having lost everything (including their identity as the people of The Lord), they were back home, rebuilding the Temple, and rebuilding their collective life as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).  There was one thing still lacking: the Word of The Lord, the words of the Covenant that defined Israel as “a special treasure to [The Lord]” (Exodus 19:5).

Upon hearing these words of life, the people were cut to the heart!  They not only heard within these words their own indictments and judgments, they also heard within those same words the Promise only The Lord can make: “If you will return to Me … then you shall not be moved” (Jeremiah 4:1).  In this moment of repentance, the entire nation had once again discovered its identity and had rediscovered for themselves the faithfulness of The Lord.  They heard, once again, the “gospel” (the Good News) of The Lord!

In many ways the Church has failed the people of The Lord in trying to be all things to all people, attempting to sell a marketable product that is “new and improved” and more “user friendly”, and trying to convince everyone that all is well only because we call ourselves “Christians”.  It can be well with us, of course, and it can be well with the nation if the Church will rediscover herself in the light of the Whole Word, not just the carefully selected words that seem to promise us everything but asks and expects nothing of us.  Because of this epic failure, we have become a nation of exiles who have forgotten or outright ignored the Word and have watched families be destroyed, the poor being exploited for economic or political gain, and widows and orphans completely pushed aside.  The Church (that is, the congregation of the people of The Lord) has lived as if there were no law, no God, no Covenant; and for too many years we have done “what was right in our own eyes”.

We can do better.  Indeed we must because no one else is going to tell our “neighbors” there is a more excellent way.  We are baptized into this Covenant for a reason: to serve The Lord as a “kingdom of priests” ministering to a world overtaken by darkness.  It is long past time to get past the lie that we are “good people” and strive to become excellent ministers of the Gospel.  It is who we are called to be.  It is entirely up to us to determine whether this is who we will choose to be.



Monday, October 27, 2014

A Thought for Monday 27 October 2014

“You are my portion, O Lord; I have said I would keep Your words.  I entreated Your favor with my whole heart; be merciful to me according to Your word.  I thought about my ways, and turned my feet to Your testimonies.  I made haste and did not delay to keep Your commandments.  The cords of the wicked have bound me, but I have not forgotten Your law.  At midnight I will rise to give thanks to You because of Your righteous judgments.  I am a companion of all who fear You, and of those you keep Your precepts.  The earth, O Lord, is full of Your mercy; teach me Your statutes.”  Psalm 119:57-64 NKJV

This portion of the psalm reminds me of a story I read recently that speculated about the spiritual foundation that compelled Abram to answer The Lord so readily when he was called to pack up and move to a new land.  It is difficult to believe Abram had no clue prior to that moment when he left the only world he likely knew.  There had to be something he was already well aware of, something he had discovered beyond himself.

It could not have been Torah, of course, because Abram was before that Covenant.  Could it then maybe have been Abram who “thought about my ways” and rationally considered there had to be more?  Jesus encourages us to “seek” in order to “find”; and it seems very unlikely we will find anything we are not seeking.  Abram likely lived in the midst of many “gods” people had created for themselves, “gods” that demanded human sacrifice or other practices that did not seem to be so uplifting, so life-enhancing.  So if we are witnessing “gods” that seem to do more harm than good, would we not seek something else?

If we dare to look more closely, we might see that Abram’s time was not much different from our own.  Though the “gods” of our time are not necessarily made of stone or wood, there is state-sanctioned human sacrifice.  There are also many other things – and persons – we will eagerly put ahead of The Lord.  Yet in doing so we rarely consider that these “gods” are designed by us to serve us – they’re not real!  We can claim to be “saved” and we can readily recite the “first and great commandment”, but this does not necessarily mean we have “thought about our ways” – not seriously.  It is much easier to proclaim John 3:16 and then go about our business. 

The psalmist, however, is trying to point out the rationality of Torah, The Lord’s instruction, Israel’s story; and the many failures Israel encountered when they tried to go it alone in demanding their independence.  Even in the many stories within The Story, there are those encounters with The Eternal One which reveals His presence.  And the favor found in the sight of the Almighty is that favor which reveals our complete trust in Him – by embracing His words and seeking greater meaning rather than seeking New Testament excuses to distance ourselves from those words.

We will not always know where The Lord will take us when we give ourselves completely to Him, but this is pretty much the point of faith; trusting The Lord completely so as to obey Him completely – even if we do not fully understand – and trusting that the greater purpose beyond ourselves will be served. 



Sunday, October 26, 2014

Everybody's fine ... sort of

Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Revelation 3:1-6
Matthew 23:31-39

"I'm a good person, so I don't need the Church."  So says the "fool" (Psalm 14:1).

This will have been the fourth revision or downright re-write of a sermon I have been struggling to prepare.  I often think I have my own good ideas about a sermon topic, and there is so much going on in the world that it would be impossible not to have some kind of idea about how The Lord speaks to us today.  Whether it is a strong message of hope for the future through the delighted laughter of children who have found some new thing or a message of judgment through the anguished cries of other children confronted once again with an empty plate, The Lord speaks to us - the Church.  The Bible is not written for those who do not care about its content.

The challenges we face today seem overwhelming ... that is, of course, if we are fully engaged with the world we live in.  If we isolate ourselves from that world and try to pretend our own little corner of the world is doing just fine, then everything will seem just fine.  Our lives, however (that is, the people of the Church), are not defined strictly by what we merely acknowledge - as in a Creed.  Our lives are defined by what we choose to engage in - and HOW we will engage. 

If we choose to engage only in what is pleasing to self ... well, that pretty much says it all.  It is this lie which convinces us "everybody's fine".  "I'm fine, you're fine, and therefore everyone else must be fine.  And if they are not fine, they have only themselves to blame.  Not my fault; not my problem."  It is the greatest lie perpetuated by the people of the Church that makes American Christianity so "easy" - and laughable - because our faith has been reduced to little more than personal comfort, personal security, personal happiness, personal salvation.  And if we can take one extra step, we can convince ourselves of the greatest lie of all: "Well, I'm a good person."

How "good" can we be if we know there is hunger right in our own community, and we do not lift a finger to help?

Like the Holy Spirit, however, it is not enough to simply acknowledge this reality of Divine Presence.  We must engage.  So I must admit that in the past few weeks I have been running on my own fumes in trying to put things together and have not fully engaged in meaningful prayer time; the kind of prayer time that will give me real fuel to "move", much more than mere fumes that allow me to putter in idle.

Would it make a difference?  I spend plenty of time in study of the Scriptures, though it can easily be said there is always a need for more time in the Word.  Yet if more time is given to the study of The Word and nothing comes from that time but more knowledge or the satisfaction of having spent some time with friends or having covered yet another chapter, what has been accomplished if we do not "move"; if we do not take the Word to heart?  If we look up a passage just to prove a point or if we avoid passages that make us uncomfortable, what is it we truly seek?

It has occurred to me this past week that high school and college literature teachers spend substantial time in the study of what they will offer to their classes, but they do not need the help of the Holy Spirit to find deeper meaning in Shakespeare.  Yet at the end of each class session, good teachers wonder if all the work and time they put into preparing for the class made one bit of difference to their students.  More often than not, they will come to the same conclusion many preachers do; that only the students who care will get anything out of the effort.  If they are not "seeking" anything, they will not "find" anything (Matthew 7:7). 

Neither will we. 

Everything we do and everything we are is predicated on what Jesus calls "the first and great commandment".  Evidence of our embrace of and belief in the "first" is fulfilled in the "second commandment which is like the first".  We are to love The Lord and our neighbor as ourselves.  But if this love is expressed only in mere words as nothing more than a memorized Bible passage, then we are the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-6): "You have a name of being alive, but you are dead."  A church which does not embrace the reality of Divine commandments and the fruit produced by our faithfulness cannot even claim the status of the "lukewarm" church in Laodicea!   We cannot be spat out of the mouth of The Lord because we are already dead.

"Wake up", The Lord says, "and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of My God.  Remember what you have received and heard; obey it and repent." 

"I have not found your works perfect in the sight of My God."  "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven."  "Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect."

There can be no more stinging indictment than the reality of Messiah's direct words NOT to unbelievers who won't act right - but to believers who claim to act right!  To believers who claim to have been saved but give nothing back to The Lord (love the Lord your God) or to neighbor (love your neighbor as yourself)!  "You are already dead", says The Lord.

Even though the indictment has been served, the sentence has yet to be carried out.  It is a little too shallow to say the sentence was finally and completely carried out at the Cross because this is the Resurrected Christ speaking through the Revelation!  This is the POST- Resurrection Church that is being addressed. 

The Eternal Light is pulling out all the stops to break through the darkness which has overwhelmed us; actually the darkness we have embraced!  "Obey Me".  "Repent".  Or perhaps the most grief-stricken statement I think our Lord has ever made: "How often I have desired to gather [you] together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and YOU WERE NOT WILLING!"  Because we have convinced ourselves we are "good people", "saved people", and that "everybody's fine".

Someone once said if compromise could be portrayed by color, the color would be gray.  Dear friends, in The Lord there is no compromise.  If we try to convince ourselves we are "good people" strictly by our own or by our culture's constantly shifting standards, we are only trying to keep The Lord at a safe distance and yet within easy reach "just in case" things go badly.  The only one who is convinced we are "good" is ourselves.  Maybe some other fool can be fooled by our empty words, but The Lord is no one's fool.

Rather than simply give up on us and hand us over to the judgment we seem to be begging for, He continually reaches out through the written Word and the Church through the few "who have not soiled their clothes, who are walking with The Lord"!  He has not closed the door just yet, but we cannot ignore His ominous warning that if we do not awaken from our spiritual slumber, we will not see Him coming.

We must not run to the altar only to save ourselves.  Rather we must run to the altar to offer ourselves so we may "be about our Father's business" as the boy Jesus was when His parents found Him in the Temple.  That business is mercy, justice, and love.  "Everybody is NOT fine", so it is time for us to get "about our Father's business". 

"If you conquer, you will be clothed ... in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the Book of Life; I will confess your name before My Father and His angels.  If anyone has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Church!"

All honor and glory to the Most High God.  Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

A Thought for Thursday 23 October 2014

“If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true.  There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know the witness which he witnesses of Me is true.  You have sent to John, and he has borne witness to the truth.  Yet I do not receive testimony from man, but I say these things that you may be saved.”  John 5:31-34 NKJV

I think I am about to cause a lot of ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ with what I am about to share, but I think it has become necessary in order to appreciate the fullness of The Eternal One without trying to break The Lord into manageable pieces. 

There is nothing wrong with proclaiming Messiah, of course.  John [the Baptizer] did, and people came from all around to prepare themselves.  There is nothing wrong with embracing Messiah; Jesus Himself lamented that people ran away from Him to their own “desolation” rather than to come under the cover of His mercy (Matthew 23:37-38). 

The problem we seem to have today is similar to a problem which existed in the early Church prior to the 4th century Council of Nicaea whose sole purpose was to finally and completely define the nature of Messiah.  Whole movements had sprung after the apostolic period from varying and conflicting beliefs in an “Old Testament God” and a “New Testament God”, the merciful NT God being the One who could be defined by Messiah.  Yet there were still substantial efforts made to completely separate Jesus from the Almighty, the Father being “without form”.

Jesus, more than once, makes a clear distinction between Himself and The Father, and His efforts seem directed toward His sole mission to point people to the Father rather than to Himself.  Over time we have all but made Jesus a “god” in His own right, failing to defining Him within the doctrine of the Trinity, the fullness of The Lord in the Father AND the Son AND the Holy Spirit.  If we listen carefully today, Jesus has been made into a magician who can be “hired” or “summoned at will” – OR – He is our reason not to hope but to excuse ourselves from Torah, the statutes and ordinances of The Lord.  These are the things Jesus came to “fulfill” (that is, to perfect), not to do away with (Matthew 5:17-18).  Yet by His authority we remove ourselves from the challenges of discipleship, we distance ourselves from the fellowship of the Church, and we absolutely reject the authority of the Church – all in the name of Jesus!  “There is nothing new under the sun”, says the teacher (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11) We’ve been here before.

There can be no real discussion about Jesus if there is no full connection to The Father, and there can be no abiding appreciation for The Father if we cannot acknowledge His Presence in His Spirit.  Above all else, we must take great care that this popular notion that “the Christian God is named ‘Jesus’” be put away finally and completely because the theological truth is Jesus has no meaning apart from Torah.  He teaches from the Scriptures, the Holy Scriptures which testify to The Father alone.  He is “the Word which became flesh”.

There is nothing wrong with holding on to Jesus as long as we recognize He is not baby-sitting us; He is leading us. He is not our “co-pilot”; He is the Pilot who is taking us somewhere.  Maybe if we could dispense with the “bumper sticker theology” and rubber wrist bands, we might actually get somewhere!

We must not look for theological “sound bites”.  We must get the whole story, for only then will we know the whole story.  Then we will realize The Story is all about The Father – and all roads lead home.



Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Thought for Wednesday 22 October 2014

“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”  Matthew 11:28-30 NKJV

The first thought to cross my mind as I was reviewing this reading was what has been written by others: If you are finding Christianity to be ‘easy’, you’re not doing it right.  This is to say, Christianity is counter-cultural; it does not fit with how we have generally been conditioned and oriented toward the so-called “American Dream”.  Christianity does not fit into our social circles because, more often than not, our social circles do not involve discussions about religion and faith (we just don’t talk about Jesus, but we will likely talk about others who are not present!), AND our social circles are not generally open to persons we do not know – or like.  We go to church on Sunday, though, and if we have a little extra to give, we might toss a token into the collection plate.  Yet we do not deliberately make room for guests; and if an unknown guest does come, we might toss them a tepid smile but little else.  We do not practice tithing or sacrificial giving of time and talents because, frankly, there are other things much more important to us than the Church.

So, sure, in this we find Christianity very easy because it does not seem to ask or require anything of us.  While this may be true that the Church has stopped asking (don’t want to lose any members, you know, the church being ‘theirs’ and all), Christ has left us with His teachings; and if we dare to be honest with ourselves and remain true to what is actually written in the Scriptures instead of embracing fond sayings that have no real scriptural basis, we will discover faith and discipleship to be the most difficult things there can be because Jesus Himself does not let us off the hook – not if we want to claim His Name.  Oh, we can fool others into believing we are Christians, but Christ Himself is not so easily fooled.

Jesus, on the other hand, is painfully aware of how difficult it is to walk by faith rather than by sight; He knows better than any.  This is why He offers this respite in the midst of the struggles we face in our daily living – AND – in our spiritual journey (assuming we are ‘doing it right’).  He knows.  He has watched us chase the “American Dream” which has pretty much remained a nightmare for so many, and He has seen us ‘chase our tails’ and never quite reach it.  It’s cute when we watch puppies do this, but we would probably not think ourselves so cute if we could actually see how we struggle to make material prosperity and faith align.

Still, there is a catch to this passage.  Jesus is not offering to magically make the broken pieces of our lives come together.  He is not offering a winning lottery ticket, and He will not smite Publisher’s Clearinghouse if they don’t show up at our door.  He is also not offering to leave us to wallow in the so-called “life” we’ve carved out for ourselves.  “Come to Me”, the Savior says.  This means we finally realize how we’ve struggled against the wind, how we’ve finally realized that without living for something greater than self, the only thing we have to look forward to is our own funeral.  OR if we have been ‘doing Christianity right’, how the world has cursed us and mocked us and laughed at us and called us ‘fools’.  What Jesus is offering is to teach us; that is, prove to us that nothing done in His Name is ever done in vain.  Yet claiming His Name but offering Him nothing in return is indeed using His Name for vain purposes.

“Come to Me”, the Shepherd says … on My terms, in My way, and according to My truth.  Then – and only then – will we find true “rest for your souls”.



Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Thought for Tuesday 21 October 2014

“[The rich young ruler] came and said to Jesus, ‘Good teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?’  Jesus replied, ‘Why do you call Me good?  No one is good but One; that is, God.  But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments … [and] if you want to be perfect, go and sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow Me.”  Matthew 19:16-17, 21-22 NKJV

‘If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments …”  Wait, what??  But St. Paul said …

And here we go.  Too often Christians look for any biblical excuse to be found to just be “saved” or “justified”; that is, forgiven without regard to any other.  Divine mercy is a mystery no one will ever be able to put into human words, but Jesus is not speaking exclusively about that one thing, that one event, nor is He offering an easy way out of social responsibility.  And notice this: Jesus is rejecting the notion that “family comes first” in the most definitive terms because if we get rid of all we have, there is nothing left for us or for our families!

Rather than focus strictly on what Jesus may be rejecting (or trying to use St. Paul as a way out!), we should look more closely at what Jesus is offering – yes – in the ‘law’; that dreaded, cursed ‘law’ St. Paul declares we are no longer under.  “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”  But, the young man asks, “Which ones?”  Which commandments?  Jesus lists some of the “Ten”, but then He wraps it up with “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The fullness of the love of God is expressed in our obedience to Him even if we do not fully understand why.  We cannot use St. Paul as an excuse not to be diligent about The Lord’s statutes and ordinances (especially because Paul does not offer excuses!).  Our failure is not strictly defined by a rejection of The Lord’s instruction itself; rather our failure is defined by our refusal to understand that “entering into life” is not about “me” – it is about our “neighbor”, and that defined by Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.  What we often fail to understand is that the ‘law’ (our word) is not about how well “me” can obey; it is entirely about how deeply we can love The Lord – and this is expressed by how faithfully we attend to one another, including the “stranger”, the “foreigner”.

One final thought.  Jesus told the man, “if you want to be perfect …”   In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus commands that “you shall be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  So we are to look more carefully and closely at what perfection means, what it really looks like, to be in love with The Lord.  We cannot claim to love Jesus if we treat our ‘neighbor’ with disdain lest we be exposed as “liars” (1 John 2:4).

Jesus is clear: don’t worry about “getting saved”.  Worry more about your ‘neighbor’, and see to their comfort.  Give them all you have to give, “and you will have treasure in Heaven.”



Monday, October 20, 2014

A Thought for Monday 20 October 2014

“Jesus said [to Joseph and Mary], ‘Why did you seek Me?  Did you not know I must be about My Father’s business?’  But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.”  Luke 2:49-50

Recall that the Holy Family had gone to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover.  On this particular occasion it is believed Jesus was about 12 years old.  We can only imagine the panic which surely gripped Mary and Joseph when they finally realized Jesus was not with them as they were headed back to Nazareth.  When they found Him in the Temple, He was interacting with the religion teachers and “astounding” them with His questions and answers.

It is the answer Jesus gave to His parents, however, that is at the heart of the story and speaks to us today in the midst of our busy-ness and subsequent spiritual thirst.  We cry out to The Lord and expect Him to come running as we seek His comfort and care in the midst of our self-pity.  Hardly ever do we consider what His answer would be when we finally found Him: “Did you not know I must be about My Father’s business?”

It is so easy and comforting to take a few bits and pieces of the Gospel stories to justify our reasonable expectation that Jesus will come when He is summoned, but it is much more difficult to comprehend the certain reality that searching for Jesus is going to take us to places we might rather not be as Jesus goes “about My Father’s business”!
Where will we find Him?  Exactly where He expects to be found: in the pain and suffering of those who mourn, in the growling of young bellies in perpetual hunger, in the hearts of young parents with a cancer-stricken child, in the loneliness of the shut-in.  We will not often find Jesus in the comfortable and “cool” places on Sunday morning (though this is where we will find one another AND the Holy Spirit).  Rather we will find Him going “about the Father’s business”, showing us where He expects us to be found, where He wants us to find Him: in the midst of pain and suffering and loneliness and hunger and doubt and fear.  He wants us to find Him there because He wants us to be there with Him, with His beloved who need Him – and who need us. 

The religion of our Christian faith hinges on this perpetual search; finding The Lord in what we would consider the most unlikely places – AND – understanding there is a reason why He wants to be found among the “least”, the “last”, and the “lost” … because this is where He needs US to be found, “going about the Father’s business”.



Sunday, October 19, 2014

What's left for us?

Romans 13:1-7
Matthew 22:15-22

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." 

Moses commended this "great" commandment to Israel before they were to cross into the Promised Land.  As much as they were about to be given, it would come at great risk.  They could (and did!) get too full of themselves and forget Who made their entry into "the land of milk and honey" possible.  They would be taking possession of "large and beautiful cities you did not build, houses full of all good things you did not fill, wells you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees you did not plant - when you have eaten and are full - then beware, lest you forget The Lord who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, from the house of bondage" (Deuteronomy 6:10-12).

Jesus affirmed this commandment as the "first and great" commandment (Mt 22:38), the commandment upon which all else in the Covenant is established - "You shall have no other gods before Me".  This commandment, however, is meaningless without a full understanding of and deep appreciation for the depth and breadth of the love which is called for in this commandment.  We may also do well to think more deeply about what constitutes "gods" in our lives, what or whom we really pay homage to.

Thinking through Jesus' admonition to render appropriately what belongs to "Caesar" and to The Lord, it is hard not to think specifically about money - especially since Jesus is referring to a coin with the emperor's image.  On the surface, money is the issue because it is what we use to pay taxes.  However, we are compelled to think more broadly than simply paying taxes to the "empire".

By the text itself, we may be led to believe all currency with any image belongs strictly to that image - meaning that even though we earn it, someone or something else can legitimately claim it.  Actually, it seems strictly by Jesus' words, the currency is never really ours since it bears an image ("You shall not make a carved image") - and government has the authority to tax per its need to provide for the "common defense" and good order.

Human words can be deceiving, however.  There is a much broader context - AND - the reality of the "Word made flesh" offering something that cannot be found in a literal reading of the words on the page.  In fact, there is no interpretation and no depth in reading literally.  The words are the words, and there is no more to see than what is on the surface.

"My ways ... and My thoughts", The Lord says, demand that we move beyond the human interpretation that is the English translation from the original Greek text that was rewritten in Latin and then back to Greek and then finally to English (in its many forms!).  The Holy Scriptures require that we get over our own "awesomeness" in claiming "common sense" (which is actually human tradition from generations past) when it comes to understanding the depth of Jesus' many lessons and the greater context from which these lessons come.

Money in our economy and culture is our primary currency.  We trade the money we earn for the goods and services we need, and to pay our taxes.  Money is also the tithe we offer in our worship of The Lord, the gift we bring in thanksgiving.  The "empire" cannot have it all.

Yet Jesus commends to us an abiding respect for the "empire" and its authority.  St. Paul (and St. Peter) both write of respect for the legitimate authority of the "empire", the state.  St. Paul goes so far as to give credit to The Lord as having "ordained" and "appointed" this authority.  In our system of representative government, however, we appoint our own authorities and make our own laws through our chosen representatives.  So if something is wrong, we have no one to blame but ourselves.  We cannot call out "tyranny" without exposing ourselves as the "tyrants".  Sometimes, however, we question the usefulness and meaning of what is written when we remember Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, and so many others who abused their authority and utterly failed in their "divinely appointed" mission.

But the question of what rightly belongs to the "empire" commands our attention since Jesus gives legitimacy to this claim.  The bigger question, however, is what belongs to The Lord.  This is a big question, too, because the "empire" - as per Jesus and Paul and Peter - can take as much as it claims to need!  The implication by Jesus that the whole of the currency belongs to "Caesar" - because of the image it bears - suggests there is something much more substantial and enduring which belongs to The Lord.

Going back to Moses' "great" commandment, remember Moses was speaking to a whole new generation, the old generation which lived Torah, created "The Story", having died in the wilderness.  The old generation suffered the trials and tribulations of making the difficult transition from "slave" of the "empire" to "servants" of The Lord - AND - one another!  What they were about to enter into and take possession of was never "theirs".  They didn't earn it.  They didn't build the cities, and they did not plant the vineyards.  Yet they were about to pick the fruit with The Lord's blessing and permission.

We are to discern between what is "given" by Divine decree and what is "acquired" by human means.  In this discernment as well, we still have that tension between what belongs to "Caesar" and what belongs to The Lord - and THEN try to decide what is left for us!  Where, when, and how do we get ours??

That's the rub, though, isn't it?  In the 21st century, we are very aware of what is "mine".  While many are generous with what they have, there is still an undeniable cut-off point at which we draw the line.  We will not jeopardize our financial well-being for anyone.  We will not give beyond our capacity - and willingness - to give.  And while we may loathe the proliferation of the misleading so-called "prosperity gospel" in our modern culture, we cannot deny a remnant of that false teaching in our own lives.

When Jesus encounters the "rich, young ruler" (Matthew 19:16-22), we are often shocked at what Jesus requires of those who express a desire to follow Him.  To sell "all" we have and give it to the poor makes no sense to us because our culture - which is undeniably dominant in our lives - calls this "foolish".  The "prosperity gospel" suggests it is also unnecessary.  It is also undeniable that we are exposed by the "ruler" who, when told by Jesus that he must "keep the commandments" in order to enter into eternal life, still tries to negotiate with The Lord; "Which [commandments must I keep]?"

Thus we miss the point of what it means to "love" The Lord with all we have and with all we are.  The "empire" can and will take what it thinks it needs, but we must remember that which can be taken from us was never ours in the first place.  This includes our very lives ("Fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell", Mt 10:28b). 

Once we are finally and completely freed from the tyranny of stuff and money, we will be able to realize and appreciate that what we thought were "blessings" were only chains and shackles keeping us from "perfection", from true holiness.  This is what is left for us; and it is more than we will ever need in this life or in the Life to come.  Amen.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Thought for Monday 13 October 2014

“The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan, across from Jericho, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, When you have crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, destroy all their engraved stones, destroy all their molded images, and demolish all their high places … but if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then it shall be that those whom you let remain shall be irritants in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land where you dwell.  Moreover it shall be that I will do to you as I thought to do to them’.”  Numbers 33:50-52, 55-56 NKJV

Often even the most devoted Christian can have difficulties with certain stories in Torah, particularly those stories in which Israel is commanded to destroy everything – and everyone.  We cannot begin to imagine the blood baths that may have actually taken place and how each warrior may have felt in faithfully executing his duties.  It is even more problematic when each account is taken literally, when we are then prevented from getting anything useful from such passages as applicable to ourselves and our lives now.  I get that some Christian traditions dismiss the First Testament altogether as irrelevant (even as they are often quick to quote “eye for an eye”), but our United Methodist tradition does not allow us to walk away so easily – especially from such difficult passages.

These passages are made even more difficult when we consider that what is unfolding in the Middle East by the hands of the Islamic State comes eerily close to matching what we read; like locusts, they are devouring everything and everyone in their path.  It does not matter whether they are right or wrong in what they do; it is the reality the world currently faces and must contend with.  Consider this, however; the Koran also contains some equally problematic passages often cited by outsiders who try to disprove the idea that Islam is a “peaceful religion”.  The brutality of the Islamic State – and the hatefulness of Westboro Baptist Church – are what happens when we read the words in the Scriptures but fail to engage the Spirit in reading.

Israel had been enslaved 400 years and they had only come together as a nation, as an army, as a people, during the latter part of their 40-year journey to the Promised Land.  It would not do for them to be confronted with Canaanite cultural and religious practices lest they be tempted away from the God of Israel and His Torah.  So every speck of their religion and their practices had to be put away and destroyed.  Otherwise there would always be that “irritant”, that remnant of what must be driven out.  Failing to destroy everything and drive out everyone would be the risk of subjecting Israel to even the slightest temptation we know all too well: that which is once tolerated will soon be embraced.

There are some things – and persons – we cannot literally destroy or drive out, but there are many things – and persons - we must consider to be legitimate threats to our faith and the well-being of our families and our churches, our communities of faith.  Some may seem harmless; but the point of putting these things away from our presence and our thoughts is not about how strong we may be.  We must always consider what may be a “stumbling block” for others.  If we do not protect them from these temptations, who will? 

So it is not entirely about literally destroying everything we deem offensive; it may be more about what we must do to protect the “little ones” of the faith so they are not drawn away from the One True God.  This takes prayer, fasting, and serious consideration of everything we encounter and then measuring it according to what is written in the Scriptures.  Once we determine for ourselves it is not so bad, however, we leave that door open to others who may not share the strength of our convictions, our devotion to prayer and fasting, and our spiritual capacity to walk away.

We must not act impulsively according to our social sensibilities, however.  Jesus warns that there are some things so powerful that can only be confronted with prayer and fasting.  These must therefore become our own spiritual practices before we consider any sort of social “crusade” in the name of The Lord.  In our faithfulness and by His Word, we will be given what we need.  So we take heart that while we are defenders of the Gospel itself by our baptism, much more is expected of us than to simply curse or attempt to destroy those things and persons we do not like.  It is not our impulse or instinct being called forth; it is our faithfulness in obedience and our care for others.  This is who we really are in Christ.



Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Witness of Self

Exodus 32:1-14
Matthew 22:1-14
"Letter from the Birmingham Jail"

"Those who see beyond the shadows and lies of their culture will never be understood, let alone believed, by the masses."  Plato

In other words, if one refuses to go along with the crowd and the dominant culture, one is considered a "weirdo" and will not be taken seriously.  They are "non-conformists".  But as MLK observed, "But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body [of Christ] through ... fear of being non-conformists."

One of the most significant works of Martin Luther King was his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail".   The letter was written in response to concerns publicly expressed by eight white Alabama religious leaders, Gentile and Jewish, who had referred to the protests in Birmingham as "unwise and untimely", concerned as they were for social stability. 

They probably meant well in expressing a concern that while Dr. King's efforts were well intended, it was perhaps not quite the right time or the right method.  At the very least, the concern was that such a drastic change in local culture would be better attended to gradually and through the legal system rather than immediately and so radically by public protest.  Yet it was noted by Dr. King in this 1963 letter that the "change" through the legal system had come in 1954 by the USSC in Brown v Board of Education which outlawed segregation.

Dr. King began by writing, "I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms ... since you have been influenced by the argument of 'outsiders coming in'."

These "criticisms" seemed to center around the fact that Dr. King was from Atlanta, so his coming to Birmingham to meddle in local affairs was inappropriate because it was none of his business.  In Dr. King's absence, they seemed to believe, all would be well.  The irony of the complaint, however, was that even though these eight clergy seemed to acknowledge a legitimate problem, they did not seem to appreciate that they were being forced to see things as they really were rather than as they perhaps wished they were.

It is like walking through the same door at the same place time and again.  At first something out of place is noticed but eventually put out of mind through repetition and lack of concern.  Soon that which is out of place (chipped and/or faded paint, carpet stains, rust, broken things, etc) is hardly noticed.  We get used to what it is; we "conform" to the present reality. 

"Status quo" does not mesh with the very essence of life because life itself is not static.  Life is dynamic and vibrant and should always be thriving and progressing.  But when we begin to notice - or are forced to acknowledge - that life is not so dynamic or vibrant for some, that something is wrong, we are compelled by Christ Himself to confront rather than conform to the ugly reality that while our own individual lives may be perfectly fine, things are not so fine for others.  It is easy to delegate individual responsibility, but it is much harder to look at the world through the lenses imposed on us by "outsiders" who force us to see things - and people - in a whole different light.  The Bible does precisely this.

Dr. King posed a question I find unsettling because it speaks all too clearly to our current social climate: "Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?"  "If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century."

Welcome to the 21st-century church and the reality of Dr. King's greatest fear: the very Body of Christ being "dismissed [by the masses] as an irrelevant social club with no meaning", a body which has "lost its authenticity and has forfeited the loyalty of [quite literally] millions".  There is harsh truth to all Dr. King wrote in this "Letter"; philosophical, social, and biblical Truth that was summarily dismissed in his time as not only having been written by a black man but by an "outside agitator".

I thought about this "Letter" as I was reading the Exodus account of the 'golden calf' which, more than anything, challenges us to come closer to understanding how lost the "millions" may be - not strictly because they made bad choices but because the contemporary Church is lost itself.  We have become comfortable with "fitting in" to the popular culture rather than challenging it, quite likely because we have allowed ourselves over time to be so oriented. 

We like to believe we are independent thinkers, free men and women who are masters of our own universe, captains of our own charted courses, doing and believing because we think we have drawn our own conclusions independent of "outside" influence.  However, the text of the 'golden calf' reveals much more than an impatient and faithless people so easily enticed by shiny baubles.  We get a glimpse into the reality of the human psyche that is much more "conditioned" than it is "informed".  

By this I mean this was a people who had endured 400 years of slavery.  They had been overpowered and tricked into slavery ("Let us deal shrewdly with them", Exodus 1:10), they were fed and cared for as slaves.  Soon they were treated as slaves until they began to breed as slaves.  The culture which had held them captive for generations worshipped lifeless idols of all sorts, including cast animal images; so for 400 years this was the life which had become normal to them.  It was what they knew even if they did not participate.  It was what they had witnessed for so long that they could not know anything else.  They had been sufficiently "conditioned" to the point that nothing less than a Divine Miracle and an "outside agitator" would lead them to freedom.

For a time they were willing and surely excited to follow Moses out of their familiarity, but any interruption in the new routine would confuse them.  We must be mindful that in their 400 years of "social conditioning", they had severely limited social capacity.  So when Moses disappeared for so long, the people reverted back to what they had long been used to, the only "way" they really knew; and Aaron had no problem with it because he had long been one of them.  For all they knew, the "outside agitator" was dead.

In their state of confusion and anxiety they returned to the safety of familiarity, the misleading premise and false promise of "the good ol' days". 

What they could not know at the time was that turning back (even metaphorically) was a return to "status quo" and, ultimately, death.  Their former lives in Egypt held no promise but death.  Yet they were afraid of "change" and lacked the capacity to see beyond "the shadow and lies of their [known and familiar] culture".  It was not that they did not want a new life; it was that they were unable to envision anything else.

When Jesus shares His "parable of the wedding feast", we must realize we are the ones who are so enmeshed in the culture we've become accustomed to, the Americanized way of life we are familiar with, than even such a Divine Invitation that calls us OUT of that culture and into something glorious may not be as welcome as it will be a serious disruption and threat to the only life we really know. 

As it is now, we can very comfortably compartmentalize our "church" life apart from our "real" life and find no difficulty in doing so because we can tune in and tune out as the situation may warrant; our "real" life demands our fullest attention because that's where the money is - the bills and paychecks and pensions.  And the "SELF" which has been called out by Christ from the "bondage of myths and half-truths" has been lost to the "unbiblical distinction between ... the secular and the sacred" - as Dr. King had observed. 

Some have suggested religion is little more than a social "brain washing" designed to control the masses.  What we must see, however, is that the TRUE SELF was created in the Divine Image, distorted through social and cultural conformity, and reoriented to the TRUE SELF with the Advent of Messiah and the radical nature of the Gospel.  It is the INVITATION extended to us when we are challenged to self and social evaluation - and - critical analysis not to determine if we are "popular" with our neighbors but whether we are faithful to our Redeemer.

We must not ignore the reality of what Messiah is teaching: that "many are called, but few are chosen" (Mt 22:14).  This is not a human abstract; it is the mind and foreknowledge of The Lord.  It will be the "faithful" who are "chosen", but the "popular" (the "many") will not even recognize the Call.

We are not called to social "conformity"; we are called to Divine Glory.  It is long past time to awaken and answer that Call.  Amen.  

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Go Anyway

[Jesus said], "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem; the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!  How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!  See!  Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, 'Blessed is He who comes in the name of The Lord!'" (Matthew 23:37-39).

There is a saying that going to church will no more make you a Christian than standing in a garage will make you a car.  Go anyway.  Go because there is much more at stake than merely fulfilling a religious or even social obligation.  Go because there is Someone much greater calling us into fellowship with others so we may become greater than self.  Go because as much as one may (or may not) get out of the worship service itself, it is not about "you".  Go because as much as you have convinced yourself The Lord understands what you and what you believe to be such a unique situation, the Redeemer laments when any refuse to gather into His Body.  Go because you also do not like being "stood up" or shunned or rejected.

Some don't like the preacher or priest or rabbi.  Some don't like the music.  Some don't like the liturgy, the order of worship.  Some don't like "so-and-so" who is a gossip, a cheat, a hypocrite, a jerk.  Go anyway because there is another saying: "There is always room for one more "gossip" or "cheat" or "hypocrite" or "jerk".  Go because the church is where sinners should gather - not because they need their sinfulness affirmed but because we all need to be reminded from time to time that the worst among us still needs to know that we are not accepted or left "just as I am".  Rather we are called to become just as He is, much greater than self.  And this takes time and effort and support and prayer because it is the single, most difficult thing we will ever undertake. 

Go because that "gossip" needs to be affirmed in his sacred worth.  Go because that "cheat" has not yet learned to be content.  Go because that "hypocrite" has yet to find stability.  Go because that "jerk" needs to be held accountable for her actions.  Go because all these and many more apply to each of us in some measure - without exception. 

Go because it is where we are spiritually fed and nurtured especially when we hear something that does not quite fit into our own mold of self-righteousness.  Go because there is someone in that fellowship who loves you enough to walk with you in your pain and sorrow and brokenness.  Go because someone in that fellowship needs the special gifts you have been uniquely endowed with. 

There are a thousand reasons (excuses, actually) for not attending worship; and when each layer of each lie is peeled away, at the core we will find there is only one reason to attend worship.  We are not being entertained nor are we called to entertain.  We are not worshipping ourselves or our pot lucks or our facilities.  We worship and praise the One who calls us to gather because it is not about "you", and it is not about the one sitting next to you.  It is about only One.  It is about THE One.  And as much as it is not about "making" us become Christians, it is entirely about showing us the fullness of the Life we are invited into - and rejoicing that this Invitation is still being extended.

Go anyway because when the "house is finally left desolate", the fellowship of the Body of Christ Himself will be all that is left standing.

Monday, October 06, 2014

A Thought for Monday 10/6/14

“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land I will show you.  I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse those who curse you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’.”  Genesis 12:1-3 NKJV

Of course we know what happened next.  Seemingly without question and without hesitation, “Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him” (vs 4).  Abram had no insight or foreknowledge of what would come of this journey.  He functioned strictly under the assurance given that he would be “shown” a land (unknown), that he would become a “great nation” (whatever that might come to mean), that he would be completely under Divine Protection, and that those he would surely come into contact with in the course of this journey would be “blessed” or “cursed”.  Everything would depend on The Lord.

Walking by faith rather than by sight is the single, most challenging effort we can undertake.  There is not likely a day that goes by in which we are not equally challenged to trust in The Lord’s providence to some degree, but it is also likely that we miss out on those opportunities because we are too caught up in our own individual agendas.  We are overwhelmed by the challenges of daily life, we are confronted with those who seem determined to do us harm, and we now are faced with the possibility of Ebola getting out of hand in the United States.  And still the Church continues to dwindle.

At a time when the people should be running to The Lord, it seems rather they are determined to find for themselves the answers they seek … and they always come up short – as do we when we depend on our own cunning, our own ideas, and our own opinions about what is needed.

I find it hard to believe Abram is the only one who is ever called away from his safety and security and familiar surroundings.  Given the “Great Commission” issued by the Lord Jesus before His Ascension, it seems likely the Church is being called away from its comfort, away from its security, away from its familiarity, and into a Journey from which we will find real identity; but it takes the whole Church, not pieces.  And while we will not know beforehand how the Journey will unfold, we can embrace the same assurance that we will be “shown” what we need to see and that we will be protected along the way. 

It will not be easy and it will likely not be personally rewarding for a few individuals, but it will be exactly what The Lord has in mind for those who do not yet know His Name or His Word.  It will be what The Lord desires it to be, and that will be good enough.



Sunday, October 05, 2014

Semper Fidelis

Exodus 20:1-20
Psalm 19
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16
Matthew 21:33-46

“By faithfulness we are collected and wound up into unity within ourselves [as one Body], whereas before we had been scattered abroad in multiplicity.”  St. Augustine

St. Augustine's observation fits very nicely into the greater "saved by grace through faith" (Eph 2:8) which makes a bold statement about Divine Mercy but says nothing about how we should respond.  The Reformation added the word "alone" to this salvation formula even though the only "alone" relative to this Divine Mercy and discipleship is connected to St. James who clearly stipulated "NOT by faith alone ..." (James 2:14-17). 

There is that constant biblical debate and theological tension between faith and works which has become so convoluted over the centuries (or worse, summarized to the point of fitting on a bumper sticker) that the statement St. Paul made to the Ephesians (2:8) has been rendered meaningless.  That is, there is no substance.  It has become dessert before we've even bothered with the Meal.

I cannot help but to wonder if it got so complicated because it is by its nature complicated (in Divine terms: 'mysterious') - OR - if we have over-complicated the matter not by over-thinking it but by under-doing it, as if works become the curse rather than the blessing, seeking out for ourselves "minimum requirements" of faithfulness without interfering with our jobs, our lives, our current "idols" which we uphold in conjunction with The One True God.  In other words, how can we be faithful to The Lord AND to self without actually sacrificing our time or treasures?

"Semper Fidelis" is the motto of the US Marine Corps.  In its meaning ("always faithful") is expressed the ideal of service to God, country, and Corps.  Its fullest and most complete manifestation (as it comes to fruition) is expressed as "Semper Fi; do or die".  That is, real life and real purpose are found only in full engagement rather than half-hearted measures; full engagement with the unit, full engagement with the mission or training, and full engagement with the enemy until no one is left standing (ideally, the enemy).

In the movie, "Full Metal Jacket", set during the Vietnam era, the senior drill instructor is giving his speech to the new platoon of recruits; and he introduces the recruits to the reality of recruit training: "If you survive recruit training, you will become weapons, ministers of death praying for war.  Until that time you are the lowest form of life ... you are not even human beings.  You are unorganized ... pieces of amphibian [refuse]" (I cleaned up the language, but a lot is lost in the translation!).  In short, each recruit showed up as an individual but will not survive or complete recruit training until that individual learns to become an integral part of the whole - learning to work and actually thrive within the dynamics of a team.

Very idealistic, of course.  Being strictly a peace-time Marine I never got a chance to find out how this idealism is expressed on the battlefield, but it was not hard to see how things can easily fall apart in the training field if each individual is not willing to put "self" aside and work within the whole unit for the greater purpose.  The unit becomes weak, the mission becomes fragmented, and widows and orphans are made through flag-draped coffins because some individual was much more concerned with personal safety and comfort than with the success of the mission and the well-being of his fellow Marines.

Sometimes the individualism got worse as rank was achieved.  The higher the rank, the higher the sense of personal privilege rather than the sense of duty and greater responsibility in leading by example.  The lower ranks were demoralized and soon found it much easier to disengage from the whole.  It was easy to go through the motions, of course, but something was seriously lost when the higher rank was evidently more concerned with personal comfort than with the Marines in his charge.  And the mission always suffered.

The Church is no different.  Though we claim we take none of the written Word lightly, the truth is we are not interested in much beyond self-satisfaction - and we begin doing this by taking the task of scriptural interpretation strictly upon ourselves.  In so doing without the accountability, support, and perspective of the Church and of small group discussions and study, we become the fulfillment of the prophecy of 2 Timothy 4:3: "The time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear."

The statement assumes we would even bother with teachers if we become self-declared and self-defined biblical authorities unto ourselves.  We must also consider that this statement was written as a reflection of the future Church and what will certainly go wrong if the "whole" is broken into "pieces".  Brothers and sisters, we are that "future Church" the author was referring to.

We are beholden to no one or nothing beyond what we are willing to give without actually giving up anything; and in the name of "grace" itself, we seem perfectly content within this reality and cannot (or will not) entertain an alternate reality.  So within the context of Jesus' parable of the 'wicked vinedressers' (Mt 21:33-46), we are (or should be) convicted of the nature of what we call "blessings" or a "cup that runneth over" to understand that none is intended strictly for "me". 

The reality of the parable is that we are given nothing but are entrusted with everything for purposes much greater than "self".  What is even worse than using The Lord's name to justify our own choices and satisfy our own demands, however, is that we miss out on so much more when we refuse to consider the bigger picture, the larger mission. 

We reject the "servants" who are sent by the "Land Owner" (Jesus was referring to the prophets who tried to warn Israel before their downfall) to reclaim what rightfully belongs to the "Land Owner".  In spite of this utter rejection, the "Land Owner" then decides to send His Son whom He seems sure the tenants will respect.  Of course we know how that story ends.

The stink of this whole thing is that this parable did not end with the Resurrection of Messiah because Messiah will one day return.  The "prophets" of our time are those committed to the Living Word rather than a "pliable" word that fits us by our own subjective measures.  These "prophets" are not only priests, rabbis, or preachers; these are also Sunday school and Bible study leaders and other laity who take their baptismal and confirmation vows seriously, as well as those unafraid to hold fellow disciples accountable - able and willing, as they are, to see the much bigger picture, understanding that no church is set for personal comfort or individual satisfaction.

We make the mistake of convincing ourselves that life as a Christian is exclusively defined by whether or not we attend worship once in awhile or convince ourselves we are going to Heaven without evaluating the lives we choose to lead.  We claim a full knowledge of the "Ten Commandments", but we are much more interested in demanding that others adhere to that strict standard from which "saved" Christians claim to be spared. 

It is the single, most ironic statement that expresses too often the image in which the modern Church is perceived.  It is the reason we are laughed at, mocked, and ultimately rejected.  We are not being "persecuted" for our faith; we are being "prosecuted" by the court of public opinion.  And the evidence against us, such as it is, is compelling.  "Therefore ... the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the Kingdom" (Mt 21:43).

Just because reality and the current condition are what we see, however, is no indication that it must remain so.  This is entirely the point of Divine Grace!  Grace does not grant to us the excuses we need to justify ourselves; rather Grace gives us the necessary latitude to correct our errors and gives us room to grow as disciples.  Grace does not mean "God loves me no matter what"!  It means The Lord loves US enough to lift us up when we fall rather than to leave us to wallow in our own filth.

We find this in the parable.  In spite of the wicked vinedressers, the God who is "always faithful" nevertheless sent His beloved Son even after His servants the prophets had been so cruelly rejected.  And even though the Son was rejected with equal cruelty, The Lord raised Him from the grave to show US ALL that Divine Love from the Heart of God is faithful until the very end.  The depth of that Love demands a response. What will ours be?  Amen.