Sunday, August 16, 2015

Throwing out the baby with the bath water

Leviticus 16:6-10
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
John 6:56-69

“It's too easy to criticize someone who is out of favor and forced to shoulder the blame for everybody else's mistakes.”   Leo Tolstoy

“Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater is an expression and a concept used to suggest an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad, or in other words, rejecting the essential along with what is not essential.”

“A slightly different explanation suggests that this flexible catchphrase has to do with discarding the essential while retaining the superfluous [unimportant] because of excessive zeal.  In other words, the idiom is applicable not only when throwing out the baby with the bathwater, but also when someone might throw out the baby and keep the bathwater.”

An old boss expressed it like this: “Stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime.”

Some things are important to “me” that are not so important to “you”, and vice versa.  It doesn’t make any particular list of priorities more or less important than any other by human standards, but what is important to us does reveal what is going on inside our heads and our hearts as much as Jesus teaches that “from the mouth comes the abundance of the heart” (Luke 6:45).

Yet when trying to get a sense of what is truly important by Kingdom standards when considering the Law regarding the Day of Atonement, Jesus’ teaching about His flesh and blood, and St. Paul’s perspective on unity within the Body of Christ, we may get a sense that what is important to us as individuals depends perhaps on what is at the top of our list on any given day.  One day it is about expelling sin from our lives, another day it is strictly about the depth of our affiliation with Jesus, and yet on another day it is about the depth of our relationships with one another.

Even though these three items may seem to be at odds with the theology of “grace” and a “personal relationship with Jesus” as the sole means of salvation, there is an underlying principle that ties these readings, these components together.   There is a principle that brings everything together and necessarily broadens our biblical understanding of what is truly important in the Kingdom and strengthens the bonds of the Church. 

It has to be Reconciliation – restoring that which is broken.  In the modern-day Jewish practice of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), preparations begin a week prior to the actual Day itself.  In prayer and in fasting in preparation for presenting oneself to The Lord on Yom Kippur, it is necessary to consider all relationships.  To think about hard feelings and grudges held, the faithful are compelled to make every effort to right any wrongs they may have some part in or to simply clear up misunderstandings before they dare approach The Lord.

Jesus actually teaches this very Jewish principle according to Matthew’s Gospel (5:23-24) in which it is written: When you are offering your gift at the altar (‘you shall not appear before The Lord empty-handed, Dt 16:16), if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”

The underlying message is that we cannot expect to be reconciled to The Lord unless and until we are first reconciled to one another – broken or damaged relationships restored - much in the same way Jesus teaches that “if you forgive others … your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you” (Matthew 6:14-15).  This is unambiguous, and Jesus offers no exceptions – perhaps especially no exceptions for the “justified” (or “saved”).  For it is also written, “To whom much has been given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48).

A pastor friend once shared with me some horror stories of a church to which he had been appointed.  The congregation was grossly divided against itself and was in danger of imploding.  The church at one time had been hosting two worship services to accommodate the large crowds but had dwindled to almost nothing.  The reason for the decline was a particular “clique group” that believed itself to be holding all the cards having destroyed some people and pastors they alone had deemed unacceptable. 

The first thing my pastor friend chose to do was to hold only one worship service, a deliberate move to force what was left of the congregation to sit together and worship together.  One parishioner came to the pastor and made it clear that if this were to happen, he will go somewhere else because so-and-so was attending the other worship service.  Apparently so-and-so was this parishioner’s arch enemy, and he refused to be in the same building at the same time with so-and-so.  My pastor friend quoted the Scripture and told this parishioner: “That is your choice, of course, but it will also be your eternal condemnation if you refuse to be reconciled to so-and-so.  You’ll only take that hatred and resentment somewhere else, but you will never get rid of it.”

Sadly many more did leave the church (I don’t know if this particular parishioner or if so-and-so stayed).  Many others, however, for love of the Church and for the sake of mission chose to reconcile.  They chose to do the hard work of making things right and letting bygones be bygones.  They came to realize the ones being harmed by the many grudges were not only the grudge-holders themselves, but there was substantial “collateral damage” done in the community. 

But because enough of the faithful were resolved and committed to the necessary hard work before them, in two years worship attendance was getting to be standing-room-only, new guests were no longer afraid to attend (small town gossip made sure everyone knew what was going on, true or not), and the last I heard they were reconsidering an additional worship service.  All because of the faith and the commitment of only a few.  The pastor was only the facilitator.

There were many hard choices to be made and some very difficult matters to be faced, but at the heart of it all was Reconciliation – restoring that which was damaged or broken.  This pastor made sure everyone understood that their need to reconcile was not strictly so that the church would not disappear.  Immortal souls were on the line.  Playtime was over, individual demands were no longer the order of the day, haters were held to account, and the “private club” the church had become was no longer in business.

What is significant about such a recovery, however, was not strictly that folks had to get right with Jesus.  They did have to get right with The Lord, of course, but something else had to happen before that could be possible.  We like to express the concept of the “unconditional love” The Lord has for all Creation, and this “unconditional love” is expressed in Jesus’ willingness to go to the Cross for all of humanity.  But this notion of “unconditional love” has convinced too many of us that there are no spiritual consequences for our bitterness and hatred and resentment toward one another.  This is the greatest lie perpetuated by the Church – and probably helped along by the evil one himself because it certainly does not come from The Lord nor His Word.

New believers need to know the Truth of “unconditional love”, of course, but they will never come to even comprehend the depth of that Love if it is not evident in the Body of Christ which is the Church.  In the fullness of the Spirit of the Living God we are possessed by the depth of that Love in which we are constantly mindful that in spite of our unworthiness, our God and Holy Father nevertheless chose to redeem us, to make reconciliation with The Lord possible.

But I also want to throw this out for our consideration.  Is it possible we hold grudges, we harbor anger and resentment against one another because we do not know or comprehend the forgiveness of The Lord in our own lives?  Is it possible we receive the Eucharist of The Lord but do not fully understand what it means to “eat the flesh” and “drink the blood”?  Do we ultimately “walk away” as those disciples in Jesus’ day did because it is too difficult to understand that love and what forgiveness really means? 

We must understand that each time we choose anger and hatred and resentment and vindictiveness against one another, we ultimately “walk away” from Christ because the really hard work of discipleship is beyond our willingness to forgive.  And perhaps we lack such willingness because we do not feel as though we ourselves have been forgiven.  By The Lord or by our neighbors or our fellow disciples. 

Finding another congregation, another pastor, or withdrawing from the Church altogether – as has become the habit of many who don’t get their way - may make us feel better in the interim, but walking away only deals with a symptom; it does not deal directly with the illness – especially when the illness is within ourselves.  It is in “throwing out the baby with the bath water” by which we think we’re dealing with certain issues by throwing certain persons from our lives, but we’ve done nothing about the anger, the hurt feelings, the resentment that only builds, and the growing sense of vindictiveness that will not abate with time.  We have thrown out the baby, but have chosen to retain the toxic bathwater.

The reason for this is simple: we deliberately choose NOT to forgive.  And as my pastor friend and mentor has stated emphatically, we will carry that very heavy baggage all the way to hell – for Grace is as Grace does.  And if Grace will not do as it must, Grace cannot do as it should.

So let us deliberately and purposefully throw out the bathwater that has become so toxic with sin and guilt and mercilessness, but we must keep the baby – because the baby is us.  The Baby is the Church.  The Baby is the Body of Christ Himself who died for sin and was raised in Glory for us all – even the jerks.


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