Monday, January 25, 2016

One Body - or no body at all

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10                                                                                                                   1 Corinthians 12:12-31a                                                                                                                         Luke 4:14-21

“It must be absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian Unity, is not just some sort of ‘appendix’ which is added to the Church’s traditional activity.  Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of the Church’s life and work.” Pope John Paul II

Until we as Christians learn to embrace the reality that Christ alone is our Teacher and that we are all capable of getting it wrong sometimes, the idea of unity within the whole Body of Christ will only be a theory to be studied in seminaries and talked about in seminars and workshops; and ecumenism will only be a $20 word no one really understands.

Yet Jesus proclaimed to His disciples that this unity is foundational; “By this all will know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).  Not “fondness”.  Love.  A willingness to do according to genuine need even when we may not be particularly fond of those who need.

Jesus was also made aware (Luke 9:49-50) there were others “casting out demons in Your name”, but John found a problem with it only because that “someone” who was casting out demons was not a part John’s own little crowd.  Jesus, however, had no problem with it; “for he who is not against us is on our side”. 

This leads me to wonder what Jesus had said in the synagogue at Nazareth that caused such an uproar with the congregation.  Isaiah’s prophecy proclaims Messiah’s coming, so it is likely that a strict interpretation would have been rendered as Jesus claiming He was that fulfillment in His person, in His very presence. 

This is not wrong, of course, but other than reading into Jesus’ personal claim, what else could we take from Jesus’ proclamation since He only said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing?  Could it be perhaps Jesus was not making a strictly “personal” declaration but was, instead, expressing a Divine Determination?

“The Spirit of The Lord is upon Me because He has anointed Me …” 

First we should understand that in Hebrew, ‘anointed one’ means “messiah”.  In that language, then, we have to know there were others before Jesus who were ‘anointed’.  King Saul was ‘anointed’, and he turned out to be a disaster.  King David was also ‘anointed’, but he was not without problems of his own. 

The word “messiah” is rendered in Greek as “Christ”.  It is a Divine title, to be sure, as one can only be ‘anointed’ by The Lord.  Jesus had been baptized by the Baptizer and had just endured His encounter with the evil one in the wilderness.  I think it is safe to say the devil found Jesus to be so ‘anointed’, but Jesus did not personally overwhelm the devil.  Remember His weakened physical state!  The Word of The Lord, quoted faithfully by Jesus’ determination AND faithfulness, ran the devil off! 

Beyond alluding to having been personally ‘anointed’, what else has been said that is so remarkable, so unbelievable?  What other direct claim did Jesus make that would have been so offensive to this congregation?  “He has anointed Me to (and remember Jesus was quoting the prophet, reading directly from scroll of Isaiah) …

  • ·         Preach the Gospel (Good News) to the poor
  • ·         To heal the brokenhearted
  • ·         To proclaim liberty to the captives
  • ·         Recovery of sight to the blind
  • ·         To set at liberty those who are oppressed
  • ·         To proclaim the acceptable year of The Lord

My question, then, is this: what has Jesus claimed for Himself exclusively that is not the task of all who know The Lord, going back to Moses’ teaching of Israel as a “priestly nation”, the medium between Heaven and earth?  More specifically in our Christian context under the Great Commission, what does Jesus claim exclusively for Himself that is not the task of the individual Christian in union with the whole congregation, the united “ekklesia” of the people of God?

So let us consider how the Church today has been accused of rendering Isaiah’s prophecy. 
  • Preach the Ten Commandments (while proclaiming oneself “not under the law”)
  • ·         Heal the brokenhearted (unless they are getting what was coming to them)
  • ·         Proclaim liberty to the captives (but only those whom I deem to be innocent)
  • ·         Recovery of sight to the blind (as long as they learn to see it my way)
  • ·         To set at liberty those who are oppressed (but only if I am also oppressed)
  • ·         To proclaim the acceptable year of The Lord (but only when the time is convenient and acceptable for me)

I would agree we are faced with a lot that is morally objectionable and downright reprehensible and is tearing at the fabric of the nation and the Church, and I would agree the Church must have a stronger voice in this world than we have.  Yet I would submit to you that perhaps part of the reason we have lost our prophetic voice is that we have lost our sense of the Gospel itself as “good news” to anyone other than ourselves and those we deem to be worthy. 

This is the say, maybe people are not responding as we would like because we are not giving them the Good News to respond to.  We’re attempting to impose rules for them to abide by, rules they do not quite understand.  To repent from sin is one thing, but having an alternative to turn toward is something else altogether!  That is, if they refrain from sin as we would demand but then have nothing to turn toward, that would leave a void.  There would be nothing to turn to, and consequently they would likely revert back to what they have known for so long.

Now we know by the wisdom of the Spirit and the historic teachings of the Church that these so-called “rules” (i.e., “commandments”) are intended for the good of the greater community.  In fact there can be no real sense of community without them as it cannot simply be “to each his own”, but it must also be understood that these “rules” first apply to we who claim to be a part of a community.  We are the ones who claim to know, and so it is incumbent upon us to first learn to respect those “rules” so we may teach them in an uplifting and inspiring way. 

Attempting to impose THE LAW is how the Gospel as “good news” loses its luster and deeper meaning.  There is nothing to respond to; there is only something to either adhere to in fear or rebel against in spite.  Then we are left with no other actionable item except to choose “sides”.  And this happens within as well as outside the Church; that single Body with only One Head – Christ.

The reading from Nehemiah is hard to comprehend because the Law of Moses, as we now understand it, is the first five books of the whole Bible.  That’s a whole lot of reading.  Trying to narrow down to a guess as to exactly what Ezra was reading is maybe how we have guessed he must have been reading the Ten Commandments, but I think what he was reading exactly misses the point.  It is enough to say Ezra was reading the Holy Scriptures. 

What we must take from this, however, is not a matter of individual interpretation.  It is rather a matter of what it takes to define a community devoted to The Lord.  For the people of Judah it was who they are; who they were before they lost all sense of themselves and were driven into exile, and what they are being called once again to embrace. 

Jesus is indeed the Head of The Church and His claim as being the fulfillment of all the prophet proclaimed is not out of line.  However, the fulfillment of the Good News did not die with Jesus on the cross.  It is to be fulfilled in us, His Body.  All of us – Catholic and Protestant alike.  Before we can be effective witnesses for all we claim to believe, we cannot have enemies – not outside the Church, and certainly not within the Body itself.

Jesus did make a remarkable claim, but He did not make this claim exclusively for Himself nor did He make this claim in a spiritual void.  He expressed our God’s determination that the Good News will be for all for whom the News is Good.  There are many who have not heard the Good News as Good News!  So let us be about the business of the Body of Christ.  Let us be so determined to “go” and to “do” and to “teach” – and to “teach” well. 

Let us be One Body in Christ – or we are nothing at all.  Amen.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Call to Arms

Jeremiah 1:4-10                                                                                                                                   2 Corinthians 10:1-6                                                                                                                               John 18:28-38

 “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

After German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps during WWII, he wrote these infamous words: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist.  Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out because I was not a Trade Unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.  And then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak for me.” 

It is said that Rev. Niemöller was a supporter of Adolph Hitler in the early years.  He was a German patriot as evidenced by his WWI service as a German naval officer and his opposition to what Hitler initially stood against (long history with no bearing on this sermon).  It has also been suggested Niemöller was no friend of the Jews, at least as of some of his sermons go.  Some historians have accused Niemöller of being nothing more than a political opportunist who only began to oppose the Nazis when he and all that was important to him came under attack.  But as Niemöller himself wrote:  “Then they came for me …”

No secret there.  True to his own “confession”, Niemöller had his eyes opened.  He became an opponent of the Third Reich and helped to establish the anti-Nazi Confessional Church after the Nazis nationalized Germany’s Protestant churches.  For his opposition he, along with over 800 Protestant ministers, was sentenced to labor camps and served time from 1937 in some of Nazi Germany’s most infamous concentration camps until his release in 1945.  His initial sentence was only a few months; but because of Niemöller’s outspoken opposition and leadership, he was “invited” to stay a while longer by the personal invitation of Hitler’s right-hand man, Rudolf Hess.

What Niemöller witnessed during his imprisonment can only be imagined, but his own imprisonment was clearly a great spiritual awakening for him.  Surely he began to see that his – and the church’s - silence in the face of what was unfolding in Nazi Germany was part of the reason the Third Reich became so powerful.  It was the silence of fear – or maybe the silence of exclusivity (they won’t come for me, so what do I care?) - that emboldened the Nazis and ultimately led to a post-war confession, the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt.  It is a document initiated by Niemöller and collectively signed by the Council of the Evangelical Church of Germany shortly after the war.

The confession reads in part:Through us (meaning the silent Church) infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the [Nazi] regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”  Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, 19 October 1945

It should also be noted that Simon Wiesenthal, a former Jewish POW, a post-war Nazi hunter, and author of the book, The Sunflower, raised a question in that book to further haunt the conscience of the German church as well as those who read the book even today: who is guilty of the greater atrocity; the one who does the deed, or the many who remain silent in their knowledge of these deeds?

Nazi Germany is an extreme example of what can – and ultimately will - go wrong whenever humans are left unchecked to decide for themselves what is right and what is lawful, what should be allowed, and what should be done to or against those with whom we stand opposed – especially in lacking a moral and Divine compass.  The Holocaust serves as a reminder that the so-called “mob mentality” can cause grave and unspeakable horror before we come to our senses … usually when our blood lust is eventually satisfied and we are confirmed in our sin of silence.  We think we have learned a lesson from that era, but the truth is we haven’t really learned anything – or perhaps we have just forgotten because, well, it wasn’t us.

Especially during an election year, we are inclined to get stirred up over “conspiracy theories” by which many (from both parties) try to convince us there is danger lurking around every corner, a boogie-man is hiding behind every tree, and no one is to be trusted.  Not only does this mindset have the potential to do great harm to individuals who do not fit a popular profile, it also renders impossible the necessary task of building communities – especially churches. 

There are undeniably a great many challenges we face – as Americans, as Christians, as a people who prefer peace but who will wage war if and when it becomes necessary, war-weary though we are.  As Americans we can easily say “all is fair” when it comes to facing our enemies.  As Christians, however, a “call to arms” presents perhaps a greater challenge than simply facing down an enemy while well-armed with plenty of ammo.  “For the weapons of our warfare are not merely human”.

It must also be noted by Christians that the “kingdom” we are baptized into and commissioned to speak and to work for “is not from this world”, as our Lord testified to Pilate.  It is the very Kingdom the “Word made flesh” attested to at His trial, the very Kingdom that only seemed to leave Jesus to fend for Himself against a “mob mentality” that is so easily stirred but not so easily contained. 

We also cannot help but to note that in the instance of Jesus standing trial against religious leaders and refusing to even try and defend Himself to Pilate – who was in a position to help him and seemed determined to release Him - is a testimony to the reality that we are talking about two entirely different and wholly incompatible realms of existential reality.

The way we are called to live and the ways in which we are called to arm ourselves and to fight do not in any way fit a profile we can create for ourselves on our own terms.  Yet because we are so deeply enmeshed in a culture we embrace as our own (however we may define “normal”), we find it nearly impossible to think and to act in “kingdom” terms.  As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is contrary to the flesh.  They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (Galatians 5:17).

There are no easy answers to the challenges we face, but we must learn to face these challenges together – “for a house divided against itself cannot stand”.  Let us remember that our Lord set the tone for such days as these.  We must remain vigilant, of course, but we cannot allow ourselves to get so caught up in the problems of the "world" that we forget it is the Word that protects us, the Word that sustains us, the Word which has redeemed us. 

It is the Word itself with which we must be armed, the Word which calls us to look ahead and learn to more fully trust Him, look to Him, earnestly pray to Him, and allow Him to show us the way.  It must be faith – rather than fear and suspicion – that compels and informs and motivates us.  Faith in the Word rather than fear of the world.

This is the path chosen by Jesus, the path which has been laid out for us.  It is the path to righteousness and is the path to our own Resurrection, the fullness of Life offered to all who call Him "Lord" and trust His Living Word, the Word made Flesh, the Word which endures forever – with us or without us.  Amen.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Vain Search for Pastoral Utopia

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!”  Luke 13:34 NKJV

“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears!  You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you.  Which of the prophets did your fathers not prosecute?  And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”  St. Stephen, Acts 7:51-53 NKJV

The gift of prophecy is the ability to speak God’s word to others, or more appropriately to be open for God to speak God’s word through us. Prophets do not predict the future (emphasis mine), but offer insight and perspective on current conditions and how things might turn out if changes aren’t made. Prophets are incisive, clear, and often controversial, communicators. Prophets see things that others often don’t, and they have the courage to “tell it like it ought to be”.

Not all pastors are prophets, and not all prophets are pastors.  One of the most deeply disturbing results of my own spiritual gifts assessments upon entering pastoral ministry has been the indication that “prophecy” is consistent among my primary spiritual gifts.  When I received these results in the beginning I went to my own pastor at the time to help me clarify exactly what this meant since I knew perfectly well I could not (and still cannot!) foresee or predict with certainly what will happen in the future.  At that point I was clueless as to the real meaning of this gift.  This many years later I may be more uncertain than before!

It should be understood I was not only beginning my pastoral journey into licensed ministry, I was also a “journeyman” disciple – at best.  I grew up in the Church (Roman Catholic) and, like many cradle Christians, I had (and still have, I must admit) definitive ideas and strong opinions about denominational doctrine.  To describe myself as a “Bible-believing” Christian, however, would have been a stretch.  I had, at best, a vague understanding of what is actually in the Bible.  Up to that point, this limited knowledge seemed adequate.  It was not until my pastor (same guy) asked me to lead a Bible study when I began to take the written Word more seriously, to look more carefully, and to contemplate more deeply and openly and quietly.  Make no mistake: I was no teacher.  I was a facilitator of the class discussions.

Back to the idea of “prophecy” as a spiritual gift or a necessary pastoral attribute.  My pastor had suggested that whatever one happens to be good at or enjoys doing may be an indication of a spiritual gift.  After years of discernment, however, that somewhat narrow and shallow observation seems inadequate.  Some attributes of prophets may indicate, according to that pastor’s concepts, that prophets enjoy stepping on toes and get a perverse delight from tightening the screws on people who do not agree with that “prophet’s” ideas about the Bible, sin, the Church, and the Divine Relationship we ultimately desire. 

To be good at it, however, can be perceived as more a character flaw than a genuine gift of the Spirit.  “Telling it like it is” is often necessary, but many who boldly (and often, proudly) claim this particular attribute only seem to enjoy speaking without any filters.  It is much easier to simply say aloud what one is thinking without considering the feelings and sensitivities of others.  In other words, it may be taken as license to simply be a jerk.

Having the courage to “tell it like it ought to be”, as per our United Methodist understanding of this particular spiritual gift, comes closer to describing the work of the prophets of old, “those who foretold the coming of the Just One”, as St. Stephen pointed out.  More than to tell of “the coming of the Just One”, however, the prophets were sent with messages to Israel and to Judah that were not as hopeful as the Promise of the coming Messiah.  What makes the prophets so hard to read now – and surely made them as hard to listen to then – were the darker and more foreboding messages of doom and destruction if the people who “have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it” did not soon repent and turn to The Lord.  For their faithfulness, many prophets lost their lives.

As has been so often observed, we are much more inclined to embrace the “promises” of the Gospel than we are to even acknowledge the “demands” of the Divine Law.  To that end we are quick to quote St. Paul, “You are not under law” (Romans 6:14).  It is an accurate quote of what is written, of course, but it is a betrayal of the overall context.  In embracing the “promises” of the Gospel, we stop reading Romans at that point.  We’ve not gotten all we need, but we have heard all we care to hear.

We deny or decline the “demands” of the Law when we no further read, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?  Certainly not!  Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?” (Romans 6:15-16)

A pastor who is not a prophet may more likely quote and stop at verse 14, and oversee phenomenal church growth.  A prophet, on the other hand, will not allow the context to be robbed of its fullness because the prophet knows the people who hear an incomplete message will themselves be incomplete and ill-equipped “for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17).  People will not stand in line to hear that.

It seems to me, then, that a pastor’s vain search (and a governing body’s demand) for ministerial utopia – seeking the perfect church in which things always go the way they should go or the way we wish they would go, with lots of baptisms and professions of faith and growing attendance and membership – may be denying a reality as certain as the inherent discomfort of the prophet’s life and task.  And this discomfort is profound because a faithful prophet can be assured of the many in the church – professed Christians! - who will turn on that prophet and work diligently to that prophet’s demise.  The prophet may not be “stoned” with rocks, but the pain often endured is no less hurtful not only to the prophet but to the Church as well. 

How can it not feel like a personal attack?  When a prophet faithfully preaches the Word and takes no short-cuts and pulls no punches, the arguments and slander and innuendo will be entirely personal because those who choose to attack cannot attack with the Word itself.  I have been so slandered on social media for quoting the Bible and teaching United Methodist and Catholic doctrine for “not knowing what he’s talking about”.  And this by a marginal Christian at best who simply did not get his or her way in a particular demand.  How is it not personal indeed!

Yet the prophet should be mindful of Samuel’s faithfulness and The Lord’s assurance that the people of The Lord, the very people “who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it”; these same people “have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them … however, you shall solemnly forewarn them and show them the behavior of the king [or the favored sin] who will reign over them” (1 Samuel 8:7, 9)

So The Lord had not promised Samuel a successful ministry – at least, not successful in how we currently measure success.  Rather The Lord assured Samuel that his pastoral life was going to be filled with conflict and confrontation – some of the very things many who leave pastoral ministry cite as key to their decisions to leave.  There will certainly be some who appreciate the Word in its fullness; but those who refuse to be held accountable will become the prophets’ greatest enemies – and gleefully so!

I have struggled and continue to struggle with my own “calling”.  My governing body has marks and measures of “vitality”, measures of church growth.  To say that I am not hitting those marks is an understatement, so I have questioned my calling to that very end.  Since I am not growing a church by the numbers, I must be doing something wrong.  There are some notable and very successful United Methodist pastors who are helping to grow churches by leaps and bounds, and every book these clergy publish are touted and received as virtual “scripture”.  After all, if these have found success in such ways, why can’t everyone else?

I don’t mean to be unfair to anyone who has measurable success.  I actually envy them.  I’m sure they have their own battles to fight, but their numbers indicate some measure of success, some sort of payoff for their trouble.  Maybe all the blood they have lost and the bruises they have endured have paid off when they get to baptize so many and receive so many new members. 

Yet I have also come to understand this cannot be what will happen with every church in every demographic.  As the prophets faced, as the apostles faced, as the “Just One” Himself faced, some folks just do not want to hear it.  Even if they are “shown the behavior of the king [or sin] who will reign over them”, they will still feel perfectly justified in going their own way – especially in America, the land of unencumbered rights (meaning, all the promises but none of the demands).  

I am not at all sure of what the future holds for me and for the ministry to which I am called, and this may be precisely the point of a ministry solely devoted to The Word.  Though I would not be so bold as to believe I always get it right and that those who reject me are indeed rejecting The Lord, but there is much to be said about a willingness to hold others accountable to The Word that does indeed demand one’s life but, in turn, promises Christ’s life.  And as wonderful as this is with “joy unspeakable” to those who turn to The Lord, the task of making this Eternal Truth known will be filled with days of less-than-joy … and many other things probably best left unspoken.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Our Deepest Need

Isaiah 8:11-15
1 Peter 3:8-17
Matthew 15:1-8

“I never knew how to worship until I knew how to love.”  Henry Ward Beecher

Why do we worship?  Who, or what, is the recipient of our expressions of worship?  What are we focused on in worship?  What do we hope or intend to gain from worship?  For that matter, do we even know what worship is besides “going to church”?  Sometimes we can become so accustomed to something, we hardly notice it when we do it.  Mindlessly, then, we “do” nothing.  Consequently we gain nothing. 

These are compelling questions not only for the laity but for clergy as well – maybe more so.  The danger many clergy face is discerning between “doing the job” (which becomes more about trying to please the “audience”) and genuinely leading the “congregation” in worship, keeping the focus on The Lord.  It is actually the same question to be faced by the choir and the liturgist – worship leaders all. 

So it is all the more important that we ask and answer these questions honestly.  Worship - a giving of oneself to something greater - must be measured by how much of ourselves we truly give.  It is not strictly defined by one's tithe (though there is that measure); it is more fully measured by what we are willing to put aside in favor of reaching for something else.

When it comes to worship of The Lord, there are components of worship intended to do much more than to occupy a space in the weekly bulletin or kill time before the Sunday buffet.  There are reasons we do the things we do, biblical reasons why we should strive to develop good worship habits over time, and spiritual reasons why some things, such as The Lord’s Supper, are worth doing over and over again – even at the risk of developing a mindless, mechanical response to a “thing” we do with no thought or appreciation for why we do it.

As important as worship is to ordering the life of the Church, however, I don’t think we can get a lot out of worship if we do not really understand (or care to understand) the nature of worship, the necessity of actively engaging in worship, or the components of the worship service and setting.  The Sacraments, the Scripture readings, the singing, the offertory, the call to worship, the sermon, the benediction.  If we do not actively engage in each of these and give fully of ourselves to these things, we cannot possibly come to know the meaning these things can have for us nor can we expect to get anything from them.  Some may complain they are not “being spiritually fed”, but the reality may be they are not taking their seat at the table to which they are invited.

It seems clear some things we have taken for granted for so long that we no longer consider worship to be important enough to jealously protect and preserve – and we wonder why we have lost an entire generation.  And if we are asked why worship is so important – like when we try to get people to “come to church” - chances are we cannot “give an account for our hope” that would be satisfactory to someone who really wants to know or needs to know – including ourselves or perhaps especially those we love who have deliberately fallen away from the Church and still call themselves “members” or “believers”.

St. Peter was referring to our faith in what is already given as the hope we have, the faith that drives and motivates us in daily living, but surely our hope transcends a self-serving desire only to one day “go to heaven”!  To look at worship as the central focus and expression of the Church, there must be an element of hope not only because we are responding to something greater than ourselves in what is already given but are also actively engaged in that hope long before we breathe our last.

Finally we may ask: how can worship speak to anyone who considers worship to be spiritual “gravy” (meaning, nice to have once in a while but not totally necessary) rather than the full meal it is?

Worship is a response to something we know.  Worship is not, and must never become, a strict “demand” for something we desire only for ourselves.  This consumerism makes us the focus of worship rather than The Lord.  When this happens, worship planning becomes a free-for-all with impossible demands from this group or that group.  And the worst part of this proposition is that we simply do not care what “others” are getting or not getting.  The Lord Himself does not factor in.

There continues to be a big debate/divide over “contemporary” worship vs. the more “traditional” worship setting or finding a satisfactory “blend” – something for everyone, but even that is something of a “red herring”.  In reading Renovation of the Church, pastors and worship leaders of a very large, happening, hip-hop church found themselves digging a very deep hole for themselves and the congregation they were called to lead because every week, the “production” (and that’s what it was) was getting bigger and brighter and busier than the week before.  They soon realized it would be impossible to sustain for much longer.

They were already physically exhausted, emotionally drained, and soon discovered themselves to be spiritually bankrupt.  They were focused strictly on what they believed people wanted, but they were not leading worship of The Lord; they were entertaining the masses.  They were catering to the consumerist crowd and vainly trying to anticipate “demand”.  The only thing they were not doing, as opposed to a live secular show, was charging admission. 

The congregation was not responding to The Lord’s goodness or their part in the mutual Covenant nor were they even being given a chance to do so; they were reacting to the “show”, the lights, the noise.  When the worship team finally came face-to-face with the monster they had created and tried to move from what they called a “seeker church” (just trying to get people in the door) and transition to becoming a “spiritual formation” church in which disciples are made and accountability comes into play, they lost many at great expense (these “shows” were not cheap!).

Soon there were layoffs because the budget could no longer support the staff necessary to keep that level of “production” going.  But they also discovered something much more compelling; in the “quiet” of their retreats, in their silence as they earnestly prayed and sought The Lord’s guidance rather than new ideas for the next “show”, they heard this: “This people honors Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me” (Mt 15:8).

One author has observed, “Worship … means worship motivated by the life of The Lord.  It can be energetic, spirited worship [but] in conformity with scriptural principles ... [because] it is the altar which sanctifies our [gathering and] offering, making them both holy to The Lord and useful for The Lord’s work, and not the other way around.”

The meaning seems clear enough.  Sometimes we are so determined to have it our own way and do it our own way that the end result is worship of self rather than genuine worship of The Lord … especially if we come to worship empty-handed, bringing nothing of ourselves but expecting everything for ourselves.  It is like calling oneself a “member” of a church but offering and giving nothing, yet expecting the church to cater to our demands.  This is not “being motivated by the life of The Lord” and is certainly no response to His goodness and the Covenant we are offered – it is a consumerist “demand” with an ultimatum: give me what I want, or I will walk.  

How is the Church to respond to that?  The answer, of course, is we can’t.  It can also be said that when we spend less time trying to rock the boat, we will find more time and energy to help row the boat.  Make no mistake, however; there can be only one boat, and that boat belongs to The Lord.  For us it is the “life boat” the very soul of all creation cried out for, the “life boat” our Savior and Redeemer determined we need above all else.  Now that we know it is clearly offered and freely given, how will we respond? 

Our response to this Holy Reality is the heart of worship and the soul of the Body of Christ which is the Church.  Let us strive and pray that our worship be a full expression of what is already given – not a demand for what we covet for ourselves. 

For the Lord Jesus has so spoken: “Whoever comes to Me, I will never drive away” (John 6:37).


Friday, January 08, 2016

When a lie becomes the truth

At what point does a false statement become an outright, deliberate lie?  When we pass along information based only on its source or its content without actually checking out the information, we think we are doing a service.  The possibility that the information (or opinion) could be false or, at the very least, misleading does not seem to be of great concern as much as doing damage to those with whom we disagree.  That we merely “heard” something we wished to hear seems to be enough for us to consider it to be true.

Thinking of some of the more contemporary controversies we are faced with on an almost daily basis, there seem to be ways to tell the truth without actually knowing the truth.  Politics is the big one especially in this charged atmosphere about the president’s attempts to strengthen gun control.  Second Amendment advocates call him a “liar”, but gun control advocates (including the president) insist it is the gun rights lobby that is being less than honest or downright dishonest – and only for political gain.  I propose both sides are not taking the time or giving the sufficient energy and attention to fully understand what each is saying, but I also think both sides are allowing (or deliberately manipulating) emotions, as opposed to facts, to achieve what they each intend.

“These are the things you shall do: speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these are things I hate, says The Lord.”  Zechariah 8:16-17

The pretext to The Lord’s commandment to His people indicates The Lord means to “do good to Jerusalem and to the house of Judah” (vs 15).  In order for “good” to prevail, however, “good” is required of The Lord’s people: they must “do good” to one another: “speak the truth”, “render … judgments that are true”, “do not devise evil”, and “love no false oath”.

There is more to this declaration than to merely refrain from lying or misleading one another.  In rendering judgments that are true (which requires a knowledge of facts), we are to render judgments that make for peace.  Righteousness is not defined by what is not being done or said; rather genuinely righteous and moral behavior is marked and defined by what is actually done and said. 

It should go without saying, then, that each of us is responsible for the well-being of the whole society, the whole congregation by what we choose to do and to say; and if we choose to pass along information that is not vetted by us personally, to have heard with our own ears what we choose to pass along as “fact”, we will also be responsible for the harm done by information that does not take all known facts into account, including what has actually been said as opposed to having been “translated” by opinion writers.

It boils down to this: how can we possibly claim to know something we do not actually know?  It is not about what we believe or suspect or even what we wish to believe or suspect to be true.  What is actually known, fully known, can be based on nothing less than first-hand knowledge and direct experience. 

Passing on a rumor, the direct knowledge of which we knowingly lack, knowing this rumor to be less than favorable to the subject matter (or person) and has the potential to do great harm is to be directly engaged in a “lie”.  We know we do not have first-hand knowledge.  We know we have not been party to the original discussion; but because of the disdain we happen to feel about the subject matter (or person), we gladly, gleefully, eagerly pass it along.  What is true is not nearly as important as the harm we can do to those with whom we stand opposed.

The Lord prohibits this conduct and behavior.  There are no caveats, no exemptions, no exceptions as to “informed opinion” (which is based less on “information” and more on “opinion”).  Those who consider themselves “people of The Lord”, those of the Church, those who call themselves Democrat or Republican and at the same time men and women of faith cannot love a false oath” (eagerly passing along incomplete, unknown, or outright false information) and still claim allegiance to The Lord.

There are very few among us who can escape this indictment.  Our passions for what we believe in can often overwhelm our sense of right and wrong – especially when we feel threatened in any way.  Yet we must be always mindful of The Lord’s desire to “do good” to those who likewise “do good”.  We can attempt to do some theological gymnastics to try and find exemptions for ourselves by quoting any of the Reformers of the Church or even a favorite preacher who also tells us what we wish to hear, but ultimately we cannot escape what is actually written in the Holy Scripture for us to know; that which is written for our good and for building up one another and the congregation of the faithful – not for tearing one another down.

A deliberate attempt to destroy or degrade another human being or even a careless passing along of information we have not bothered to vet is to “love a false oath”, a thing The Lord directly speaks of as “things I hate”.   If The Lord “hates” it, how can we embrace it and still call ourselves children of the Most High God?  For it is the peacemakers [not the troublemakers] who will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Strangers no more

Isaiah 60:1-6
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

"You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 22:21

As Luke’s Gospel is unique in the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple, Matthew’s Gospel is unique in the story of the wise men.  Yet as with stories of the boy Jesus being found in other, extrabiblical sources, so are the visiting wise men found in some of those same sources.  There are details lacking in the Bible found in these other sources. 

So we can find all sorts of twists and turns to this story that may cause some confusion and even doubt as to whether the story itself is true.  There is even a birth account of Jesus in the Qur’an.  So any questions would be fair.  Looking more closely to the biblical and the extrabiblical accounts, however, will reveal a significant and fundamental Truth we can all embrace: all these sources point to the biblical prophecies written so long ago of what was to take place.  The Lord made a Promise long before this time, a Promise made in the midst of Israel’s darkest days, and the time of that Promise to be fulfilled was upon them.  Emmanuel had come to Israel.

Now come the visitors from the East, visitors from outside of Israel.  Other sources give these visitors names and countries of origin, but the Christian tradition does not name them though the tradition insists upon three.  Yet the only count we are given is to the number of gifts, so it has been deduced that since there were three gifts, there must have been three individuals bearing each gift.  Ok.  So what?  That number in itself tells us nothing useful, and has actually been the source of some conflict as we find ourselves engaged in senseless arguments about things that are not biblical, traditions we have created and embraced as “truth”.  These are alleged “facts” we dispute while unintentionally overlooking The Truth.  Stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime.

What we must see is a Covenant not only renewed in the sight of Israel with great Promise; but a Covenant greatly expanded so much so that the Holy Creator used His own creation, a Star, rather than a prophet to summon the Gentiles from a far-away land.  Kings, maybe.  Herod’s response was less than overwhelming as to the presence or even the status of these guests, but he was greatly disturbed as to the purpose of their visit. 

Though I think maybe the fulfillment of the prophecy may be the central part of the story, there are still a few elements of this story we should take into account.

It has been suggested perhaps Herod was Jewish by race, but it seems clear by what is revealed in the Scripture that Herod was no child of Israel; he was a minion of Rome.  If it is true Herod had some Hebrew lineage he was born into, it is pretty clear Herod favored his Roman acquisitions.    

There was power in Rome.  There were riches in his position of favor and authority; the best the “world” has to offer even today.  In the birth of this Messiah referred to as “King of the Jews” by these “strangers”, these “outsiders”, there was a potential threat to his power and authority.  And Herod did take this prophecy very seriously once he became aware, enough to confer with the religious leaders to pin it down.  A Gentile would not have so bothered, but Herod believed enough to feel threatened. 

He believed enough to feel as though all he had, all he believed he was entitled to apart from the Scripture, was now at risk.  He believed enough to know the world was not big enough for him and another King born in the land Herod thought was his own to do with as he pleased. 

Let us also consider that the chief priests and scribes, the Scripture teachers of Israel, are not written of as rushing out to see for themselves all which has been taking place.  Their reading of the prophecy pertaining to this news seemed almost casual as if with a shoulder shrug.  Would we not get pretty excited about the coming of the King we’ve so eagerly waited for if we read it and heard some rumor that added substance to the prophecy?  

Frankly, no.  We often point to the Revelation and some of what is written in the epistles and the Gospels of “signs” pointing to the End of Days, yet there is very little in the way of repentance.  Even within the Church it is business as usual.  Too many people, even those claiming to believe, are running away from the Church.  So it would seem we are no more excited about “signs” and prophecies than the chief priests and scribes were.  We are as casual today about worship of The Lord as the chief priests were about the Word of The Lord.  The Church must not overlook that parallel.

What we might be able to see is that these Gentiles, these “strangers” had come to find something worth the effort and the risk and the trouble they went to; a prophecy from the very Scripture Israel as a Body, as a people had come to take for granted.  These “strangers” were searching for something inside of Israel they seemed to believe included them. 

That alone might be worth some concern on Israel’s part, and certainly on Herod’s part.  Think of it: a KING who would summon outsiders by command of nature?  A King who would welcome “strangers”?? 

The prophecy speaks of more than a single “event” as the birth of Messiah.  This prophecy speaks of a “King” who was now laying claim to a Kingdom which extends beyond the borders of Israel, certainly beyond “Caesar’s” reach, well beyond the walls of any Church today.  The exclusive territory was no longer so exclusive that it is defined by “us” and “them”. 

The Church today must take a good, long, and much closer look at what is being offered to these “strangers” not by Israel as was Israel’s call as a “priestly nation”, but by Israel’s God. 

This God of Israel was always the God of all creation, all humanity; but because The Lord’s own people did not celebrate and worship and offer Him as such but tried to make Him exclusive and unique only to them – their “personal” God – the God of all creation has burst forth in an all-inclusive, all-encompassing way to summon those we have deemed unworthy of His attention.  The God of all creation has declared His independence from those who would dare try to hamstring Him as their “personal” or exclusive God.

Pope Francis has called 2016 the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and our own Bishop Mueller has issued a call for prayer and fasting for Spiritual Revival – both of which are to direct us to the “strangers” among us; the very “strangers” we once were.  Let this Epiphany no longer be what we have allowed it to become: a boring story with no real significance for us beyond the liturgical calendar or the little statues. 

Let us be renewed in the Spirit of the Living God to actively extend mercy and justice to those who cry out for mercy and justice.  Let us become once again the Body of Christ we are called to be.  “For we, too, were strangers once” … until a Star summoned us to come inside.  Amen.