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.

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