Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The School Yard: electoral politics in the 21st century

“Keep these words I am commanding you in your hearts.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your homes and on your gates.”  Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NRSV

The so-called “fourth estate” of the press is arguably the most powerful of the estates, the other three attributed to branches of government.  The term can be traced back to 18th-century England and speaks of the power of the press in reporting government actions.  A government can command virtually anything but is often stayed in going too far by the power of a free press to make citizens aware of what could be an unpopular and morally questionable policy.

That power occurs to me as I read the reports of the Republican presidential contenders who had once pledged to support the Republican nominee, whomever it may be.  Things being as they are, nasty and unfiltered as school yard fights often are, each of the remaining contenders has backed off the pledge to support the Republican nominee.  The reason such a thing has come to be is because of the vile words and actions especially between Trump and Cruz.  More to the point, Gov. Kasich has not allowed himself to be drawn into this spitting match and, as a result, does not get nearly as much press coverage.

In speaking of the power of the press, however, it has occurred to me – especially in comparing this election to that of a school yard or street fight in this age – that just as kids provoke others in getting a fight started and keeping it going, so also is the press by continuing to “report” on every nasty thing spoken.  Then, of course, we have children recording these fights with cell phones and posting them on social media.  The “reporters”, of course, are pretty pleased with themselves as are those who report every nasty thing spoken by these “adults” who aspire to the highest elected office in the land.

When Moses spoke his words to the Israelites prior to their moving into the Promised Land, he also issued a standard by which the people of Israel must conduct themselves; assuring them that the measure of their success in their new homeland will be directly proportional to their faithfulness to their God and His Law.  Their willing faithfulness, however, was not restricted only to the contemporary generation. 

Moses was adamant that this Law should not be only an afterthought or only something to consider during their worship times; this Law must become a part of their being and their doing and their relating to one another.  Only in this way will the children begin to understand the Law and how it works in daily living, in “real life” beyond what is theoretical.

Electoral politics is ideally a time in which ideas and policy proposals are exchanged in public debates.  Voters, through the “fourth estate”, get to hear about these proposals and ideas and then decide for themselves how they should vote.

Unfortunately, the “fourth estate” is giving us little more than an exchange of insults, and maybe this is all there is to report.  Finger-pointing and name-calling between grown men and women have always been an unfortunate part of this electoral process, but this time around it seems to have gotten much worse – especially when it has become a contest between who has the more attractive wife.

Make no mistake.  The anti-Trump PAC (not affiliated with Cruz) which released the nearly-nude photo of Mrs. Trump before the Utah primary crossed a line which should not have been crossed and opened this door which should never have been opened.  Trump accused Cruz of being behind the profoundly inappropriate ad and threatened to “spill the beans” on Mrs. Cruz.  Not long after this, Trump released a comparative photo of his wife alongside an unflattering photo of Mrs. Cruz.  The “fourth estate” ran with it, the electorate has been hungrily eating it up, and the children continue to provoke and record even nastier school yard fights.  We as a nation, as a people, are the poorer for it, for the children are only a reflection of the culture in which they are raised.

It is often said the press can only report what is, that who we are and what we do is only exposed by the press.  Perhaps this much is true; but I cannot help but to wonder if we are in some measure being defined, at least in part, by what the press chooses to report rather than that we are being merely exposed. 

At this point it is not at all about whom we may elect to serve as president, for it will be far from over come November.  Our children and the future of this nation are at risk.  From the time of Moses, a people – the whole people – are responsible for teaching our children well; and when we poison the well from which everyone drinks, we will one day be called to account for how we have lived and what we taught.  Call it “karma” if this is the preferred term of an agnostic society, but Divine Retribution is near at hand; and the judgment may already be upon us.

Yet Moses also called it.  The people will forget themselves and their God and will go and act in accordance with what seems best for the time.  They will forget the Law which governs and the God who set the standard for His people. 

Even still, there is always a way back.  A change of behavior, a determination of exactly where we went wrong, and a determination to make it right means we have a chance to make things right once again.  And when we do, as Moses told the people of Israel: “When you … return to The Lord your God … then The Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you …” (Deuteronomy 30:1-3). 

It is a standard which demands mutual respect.  When we refuse to engage in our own brand of retribution, when we refuse to “return evil for evil”, the evil will be slowed.  Can we not see it only gets worse when we engage evil on its terms, become evil ourselves, and that our children become the “collateral damage”? 

There is hope for this nation, but that hope will not come by any one person.  It will come only when we stand for what is truly right and live according to that standard of righteousness; for this is the true strength of a people … a whole people.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Worst becomes the Best - a sermon for Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday 2016

John 20:1-18

“As yet they did not know the Scripture; that the Messiah must rise again from the dead.”  John 20:9

Traditionally speaking, Mary Magdalene has gotten a bad rap.  The only thing we really know about Mary prior to her becoming one of Jesus’ most devoted disciples is that she had been cleansed of “seven demons” (Luke 8:2).  Prior to that, Luke’s text only speaks of “evil spirits and infirmities”. 

There is no specific mention of Mary having been a prostitute; but over time she has been so portrayed (and for reasons unknown beyond conspiracy theories).  The only thing many can figure is that because Mary was a woman, among those“seven demons” must surely have been one of prostitution.  This is the unfortunate result of our “reading between the lines” instead of allowing ourselves to be informed by the Scriptures themselves.  So when Mary is deemed a prostitute, she is also marginalized culturally and socially.

When we begin to talk about the significance of the Resurrection, however, that small title (true or not) becomes entirely insignificant – scandalous though it surely would have been.  It does seem to speak, however, of our strange need to assign to others a sin worse than our own – sort of like what we do with homosexuals today.  This way we can claim the Resurrection for ourselves and still leave those less-than-desirables out of the mix until they come around to our ways of doing and thinking. 

Isn’t it interesting, though, that the common factor in all the Resurrection accounts is that Mary is the first one to come to the tomb?  What this might suggest to us is that those who come to The Lord later in life, as opposed to those who grew up in the Church, may have a distinct spiritual advantage.  They may have experienced the worst.  They may have seen the worst and may have, most generally, been treated the worst.

Nowadays, it seems to be somewhat trendy to be an agnostic or even an atheist; a freethinker or a humanist – a designation of great pride for some.  And although we may be able to blame the presence of so much “progression” in our culture and in our colleges and universities, it may come closer to the truth that the Church has remained largely silent.  Maybe we’ve tried to be trendy ourselves, and those we propose to witness to can see that this culture and The Kingdom of Heaven are simply not compatible.  The Church cannot be “trendy” without compromising Her integrity.  Freethinkers know this.  They also know when they’re being played for fools.

Either way, the one who once knew degradation and marginalization all too well became the one who genuinely mourned the death of Jesus as opposed to the others who remained hidden out of fear now that the One who stirred everything up may have been a fraud – “As yet they did not know the Scripture …”; after all, how can the immortal Sonof God be destroyed by mortal hands?

Notice that even though the others came running to see after Mary reported the empty tomb, Mary remained at the tomb as the others left.  Maybe the others went away in confusion, but I think more likely they went away because it seemed clear at this point that the Romans or the religious authorities were not quite done with this “movement”.  It was not enough to kill the Leader of this “movement”, this self-proclaimed Messiah; now they took His body away!

Mary not only refused to leave; she even confronted, meekly perhaps, a Man she supposed to have been the gardener.  Even after seeing two angels, it is still not quite sinking in.  This passage often makes me wonder exactly what she was seeing – especially in coming face-to-face with Messiah, she does not recognize Him or the moment for all it is.

Think about this, though.  The “Teacher” suddenly becomes clear to Mary after this temporary “haze” during which she is probably filled with grief, maybe a little anger, and certainly a lot of confusion.  Through it all, however, she has refused to give up her search.  She is the manifestation of Jesus’ assurance that those who “seek will find”. 

But we should also be mindful of the encounters Jesus had with the religious authorities as He hung out with those “undesirables” who had been cast out, marginalized, or altogether ignored.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners of all stripes found their way into Jesus’ heart by little more than a simple invitation: “Come, sit and eat.  Let’s talk for a while”. 

But this is also the breath of that very deceptive modern invention referred to – very often, incredibly arrogantly - as “spiritual but not religious”.  They might claim a “personal” relationship with Jesus or a “spiritual relationship with the universe”, but they generally keep “organized religion” at a safe distance.  The problem with these lofty claims is that these relationships they claim to be a part of rarely produce the “fruit” necessary to sustain any relationship, let alone invite others in.  It is entirely one-sided and takes nothing into account except one’s own personal gratification. 

When we think about the apostles themselves, then, especially on this Brand New Day which has dawned, who was the first to see?  It was Mary, of course, who came to see; but when she did not find what she was looking for, she committed herself to search.  She refused to allow “the world” and its encumbent distractions and potential threats to stand in the way of her search for “[her] Lord”.

Think of it.  The one who once had “seven demons” cast from her, the very worst of the worst in terms of being separated from The Lord, was the first to see the Risen Messiah.  The fullness of the Resurrection and the Glory of the Kingdom had been revealed to her!  Now we might be tempted to say that if the others had stuck around, surely Jesus would have revealed Himself just the same.

Maybe, but we cannot ignore what is written.  Only Mary stuck around.  AND YET when Jesus fully revealed Himself to her, He did not invite her to stick around for a “personal” encounter.  No, Mary was sent on an errand for The Lord.  She was in no way advised to keep it to herself nor is it suggested The Lord revealed Himself only for her sake or her personal sense of spiritual gratification.  She was not told to go back to her own life on her own terms.  NO, she became the Message itself!  She became, in that instant, an apostle to the apostles!  The others knew nothing … until Mary came back to tell them.  The Empty Tomb, it turns out, had no meaning to them, to any of them.

It’s too bad Mary has not been assigned a more prominent role in the historic Church, and it is a profound injustice that in spite of her intense fidelity in the face of possible danger, she stood her ground until she found her Lord, her Teacher.  Even before Jesus advised His Church to “go” and “tell the world”, He sent Mary to the Church … the apostles … to “tell” them the Good News!

So we know what happened on this Glorious Day so long ago … not because someone wrote about it but because someone refused to leave until our Lord’s Body was accounted for.  Not only the Body that was missing from the tomb, but the Body which would come about by the due diligence and the faith of the apostles … especially including Mary.

The Lord our God be praised, for He was once dead but is now alive … alive in the Father, alive in the Spirit, alive in His Body the Church.  The “worst” of Mary became the very best of Messiah!  Now go and tell it … for Christ has been raised, and death is no more!  Amen.

Let's Get Real - a sermon for Easter Sunrise

Luke 24:1-5, 11

“He is Risen”.  So?  “The tomb is empty.”  And?  “Well, this proves The Lord has overcome death”.  How? 

And this, I think, is the difficulty we as the Body of Christ face: this Good News does not seem to travel well outside the Sunday gathering.  We pastors study it, teach it, and preach it.  All too often, however, we AND the congregations we serve leave it where we found it.

It is almost like a private, “inside” story reserved strictly for those already in the know.  For some odd reason – or perhaps for many reasons – this news of a Risen Messiah has not come to mean much except for those who claim to already believe … and maybe hardly even then.

Think about this, for instance.  When was the last time you had a discussion about The Lord with anyone outside of the Sunday school or Bible study setting, beyond what is theoretical?  I mean genuine heartfelt discussions about how the Gospel informs and the Resurrection impacts your life.  Not in the past tense, but in the present.  Can’t remember?  Neither can I. 

So we must not overlook the possibility that this News, remarkable though it is, has become stale, redundant.  It’s the same ol’ same ol’.  Year after year we hear the same stories, we read the same Scripture passages, we look forward to this gathering every year, but something is still missing.  There is an undeniable element that seems to escape us year after uneventful year as well as throughout the year. 

Could it be that as much as we claim to believe it, maybe it just isn’t real to us?

This would explain why so many of us are running on empty.  This would explain why there is no real excitement.  This would explain why we spend more time hating on and talking about one another than reaching out to strangers.  This would help to explain why so many move from church to church in search of something they cannot quite identify until they finally give up and leave the Church altogether – because they never found what they were looking for in the One Place where evidence should be in abundance?

No wonder seekers do not feel welcome enough or even curious enough to come see what the fuss is about – because there is no fuss though there seems to be no shortage of fussin’.  Many of us feel unwelcome to make an unorthodox observation - for fear that others may pounce at the chance to set us straight, often very publiclyby telling us just how wrong we are, making us feel foolish, stupid, and unwelcome to think out loud as we try to work things out in our minds and in our hearts. 

Some may say, “Well, if we had a different pastor, things would be different, let me tell you!”  Or “Well, if more would participate in this or that, things would be different, let me tell you!”   Which, of course, we know isn’t true because what we are already doing and have been doing for so long is what we will likely be doing tomorrow and the next day …

Someone once said the reason things get so ugly in the Church is because there are so many willing and eager to criticize what is but will not envision or participate in what could be.  And the reason this is so is because the very News that should inform the Church’s every action, every decision, every step, every breath is not only “old” news … it’s not even news.

Think about it.  We will talk about sports and politics, work and school, children and family, and just about every little thing under the sun in our casual conversations, but to talk about what happened at Mt. Sinai, or the deeper meaning of the Sermon on the Mount, or to discuss any sermon for that matter (beyond criticizing the preacher) … well, that’s being all “religious”.  And while we may not mind being known as “Christian” (that identity being more of a cultural thing), we do not wish to be perceived as Jesus Freaks!  Something more reminiscent of the 60’s and all those long-haired, peace-loving pot smokers.

Why can’t we have conversations around the dinner table and the pot luck tables and our living rooms about The Lord and the Gospel instead of the inane conversations about a new rifle, a new truck, a new fishing rod, or a new putter?  Could it be that we have been so overwhelmed by life and death and taxes, that just as surely as Jesus assured His Church He would be with us for all time, we simply have not noticed that He truly is … with us … for all time … still?

I pray for an awakening.  I yearn, I ache for an “He’s in the next room” experience.  I fear, however, that we’ve become so wrapped up in being Christians, we have forgotten our deepest need to be genuine disciples.  For, you see, it is in earnest discipleship by which we discover how the Gospel must inform our actions.  It is in earnest discipleship by which we have any chance to discover why it matters that Christ our Lord was indeed raised from Death and now sits at the Right Hand of our Holy Father.  For that matter, we may even finally discover exactly what THAT means beyond what is theoretical!

We talk about what is real to us, and we think about those things that are truly important to us.  We allow the preachers and Sunday school teachers to “talk” to us on Sunday morning about Jesus and stuff, but then we go on from there as if nothing happened … because nothing happened. 

And yet … the Eternal Kingdom is the only “real” thing we have.  This is the undeniable element that is often missing.  The Kingdom of Heaven is the only thing in our lives that cannot be taken, cannot rust, and cannot be destroyed.  The Kingdom of Heaven is the only thing we have that will not have to be repaired or replaced or upgraded in the course of our lives.  Everything else is an illusion, a temporal state of being that will absolutely, unequivocally come to an end.  One day the “vanity” we devoted a lifetime in pursuit of will not even be a distant memory. 

The only way the Glory of the Kingdom – the fullness of which is revealed in the Resurrection – will be real to us is when we get real about the Kingdom which is already at hand.  It is ours for the taking only because it is so freely offered.  “Come”, our Holy Father beckons us, "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost” (Isaiah 55:1). 

For I have already covered the tab, says The Lord.  Your debt is no more.  Oh, and by the way, in case you HAVE forgotten, I love you.  Amen.

Friday, March 25, 2016

How low must we go to be raised up? A Sermon for Holy Thursday

Exodus 12:1-14
1 Corinthians 6:1-11
John 13:1-17

For all He was about to do – to stand as only the Innocent can, to be beaten to within an inch of His life, AND THEN to be hung up until dead – Jesus, for some reason, still found it necessary to display yet another act of extreme humility. 

Reading this account about the Son of the Most High God, then, and envisioning Him stooping so low – literally and figuratively – to wash the foot of another goes far beyond the act itself.  It is incredibly intimate, deeply personal, and remarkably humbling.  It is about as low as one can go in relating to others.

So as Jesus finishes washing Peter’s feet, our Lord asks, “Do you know what I have done to you?”   Chances are Peter had no more a clue than you or I beyond having witnessed a foot washing, a ritual.  And indeed Jesus tells them they must wash one another’s feet, but what we are seeing has nothing to do with hygiene or foot care.  There is something else going on, something so far-reaching as to have escaped the notice of the Church probably since the time when Jesus did it Himself.  We do it once a year – if then - to commemorate this moment, but in daily living it seems clear we really don’t understand it.

Yet Jesus chastised Peter AND those who would dare to refuse it: “You have no share in Me”. 

So if we are not talking about foot washing, what can we see in this act of extreme humility?  What is missing from the very heart of the Church today that is signified by Jesus in this humble act as a must-do

American poet, Maya Angelou, may have expressed it best: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

So how do others – those we consider to be outsiders, guests, unbelievers, non-Christians, or any others who are not like us in any way - feel after having had an encounter with any one of us?  With the Church as a whole?  Do they feel unconditionally accepted … or judged and rejected?  Do they feel comforted … or are they cast out and even lonelier than before? 

It is a haunting question, but it is also a necessary evaluation not only of how we relate to others but, more importantly, how we do so in the spirit of such humble service in the Name of Christ – acting as He did, acting as He would still, acting as He commands.

And this is the point about the deeper meaning in the act.  Until we actually engage in such acts of humility in service to one another, we will never be able to fully understand what it is Jesus wants us – NEEDS US – to know.  Reading it only makes it theoretical.  Actual engagement in the act makes it real.  And this is the essence of faith: trusting Him to reveal it to us as we trust Him to so engage.

It is not about washing feet.  The foot washing represents something much deeper and more far reaching than merely stooping down to wash the feet of another.  The significance of this act comes before THE Act we must allow, THE Act we must engage before we can have a share of Christ Jesus: the Crucifixion.

What can this mean to those of us who do not deny the Crucifixion?  Surely we believe it happened; and every year we hear it and maybe try to understand it.  I think, however, that what Jesus is actually conveying is the depth of His Crucifixion and what it ultimately means.  If it is the forgiveness of sins, then it has to go beyond a single moment, beyond a one-time-and-only-very-general confession.

In order to have that “share” in Christ Jesus, we have to allow the fullness of the Crucifixion; but we do not merely allow Him to die.  Rather we allow Him to take away sin – our own sin.  And not just sin in general, but specific grievances and burdens and deep, dark secrets we continue to bear; for only in this may we expect to reach a point at which we can – or will – excuse the sins of others.  Do you see there is only so much we can do – even if we were so willing - when we are so overwhelmingly burdened ourselves? 

We cannot love unless we know we are loved.  We cannot forgive unless we know we are forgiven.  So if we do not fully love and will not completely forgive, it is likely we have yet to experience the fullness of that love and the depth of that forgiveness.  When we have the weight of sin on our own shoulders, when we are shackled about our necks and having the spiritual life choked out of us, we have only the spiritual energy to worry about ourselves – and often not enough even for this!  We are not at all interested in worrying about or helping others as long as we are so heavily burdened and our own needs so great.

So as Peter allowed Jesus to serve him in this incredible way – even if Peter did not fully understand it at the time – Peter was, unbeknownst to himself, enabled to serve others in the same way.  It is the “example” Jesus left for His Church, His Body; not as a warm-and-fuzzy, feel-good organization of people who like each other as long as they play by our rules but as the genuine Body of Christ willing to love and serve others as we have been so thoroughly loved and served.

Sometimes we worry a little too much about “getting saved” as pertaining to what we are personally saved from and do not spend nearly enough time and thought and prayer and discernment considering exactly what we have been “saved” for

The apostles were still not quite getting what was coming, let alone what it would come to mean; but we have the benefit of knowing we are about to be set free – if we will allow ourselves to be freed!  This includes the sin in our lives we have left buried and ignored for too long.  It is time to allow our Lord to do this thing for us we’ve been aching for, yearning for, but were too afraid to bring up – maybe hoping it would just go away.  Heaven forbid we face it again when all we want to do is forget it and pretend it never happened!

Yet “Unless I wash you”, our Lord says, you have no share in Me”. 

Let it be so, Blessed Savior!  Teach us to face it, confess it, and hand it over to You!  Wash us clean.  Break our chains!  Free us from the anxiety that so weighs us down so we may have that “SHARE” in You that You so freely offer as You call us also to share as freely with others!  By Your Mercy and in Your Most Holy Name, may it come to be!  Amen.  

Monday, March 21, 2016

Who Could Do Such A Thing?

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23

“The one who betrays Me is with Me, and his hand is on the table.”  Luke 22:21

We know by what plays out that Jesus was referring to Judas Iscariot (Luke 22) as the “one who betrays Me”.  In that moment, however, the disciples were not aware that it was Judas.  They may even have had doubts about themselves and/or one another.  Sadly, however, we know how the story ends. 

Yet the story does not quite end at the Table – not for us.  The author of the Letter to the Hebrews essentially asks, ‘How many times can we betray Him?  How many times must He be crucified?’  (Hebrews 6:4-6).  And although the author seems to suggest that once we betray Christ after having “tasted the good word of God”, we may not be able to find our way back.  Yet we are compelled to embrace the call of our Holy Father to “seek Me while I may be found”; calling out to His people time and again in the midst of their own sorrow, I’m still here.

It is a little too easy to assign this drama to simply “God’s will”, for it cannot be said to be “God’s will” that Judas – or anyone, for that matter – to face the “woe” that is coming to the one who would dare to betray Jesus.  There is a lot more at stake than in only this single moment.

Jesus expressed the anguish He must have felt in trying to gather His people “as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings … but you were not willing”.  So if our Lord expressed His anguish and His broken heart in such a way even before He was betrayed by His friends, how much more so the depth of His sorrow that as He broke the bread of the Supper to express what would become His broken body, He still looked His betrayer in the eyes.

As we prepare ourselves for the journey that is Holy Week, when the Scripture invites us to explore the broad weakness of humanity and the depths to which we often fall, we will soon find ourselves at the foot of the Cross and looking up into the sorrowful eyes of Jesus; and even while He struggles to breathe, He will utter the most profound prayer of His life on this earth: “Father, forgive them.  They don’t know what they’re doing”.

The reality of 2000 years of Christian history and teaching, however, denies us any legitimate claim of spiritual ignorance as it pertains to betrayal of our faith and our God.  I seriously doubt there are any among us seated in churches across the world who can honestly claim, “I didn’t know”.  “I didn’t know” my innocuous sin, my harmless “white lies”, my love for my stuff and my money (after all, are these things not blessings from Above?), my spitefulness against those whom I do not like, my greed against those in desperate need, my refusal to forgive those who had harmed me or slighted me; was doing any real harm, spiritual or otherwise.  And yet having “tasted the good Word of God”, ignorance is no longer a viable claim.  IF we have actually tasted it.

“How could anyone do such a thing” as betray our Lord, we ask as we read the Gospel accounts of that very betrayal, without realizing this story involves us all today?  We prefer Judas the scapegoat rather than ourselves.  I get that Passion Sunday and Holy Week are hard.  I get that when we are completely honest with ourselves, these events about to unfold demand more from us than we are often willing to give.  I get that it is much easier to jump straight from Christmas to Easter, and pay attention to only the “happy” stuff.  I get that we already have beliefs firmly entrenched in our minds and how uncomfortable it is to discover we may have not looked closely enough. 

Yet just as the birth of Messiah didn’t spring up from nothing, we cannot experience the Resurrection without first experiencing death.  And that, my friends, is the “castor oil” of the Christian faith; often ignored or overlooked.  It is bitter to swallow, but it is absolutely necessary for our spiritual well-being.  To follow Christ in discipleship transcends mere “belief”.  Discipleship requires, quite literally, that we model the very life of Christ in our daily living. 

As St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, having the mind of Christ means we do not regard our form (as the Image in which we are created) or our justification as something to be exploited, something to be used only for our own benefit, personal gratification, or sense of self-righteousness.  Rather, we are called to “empty” ourselves as Christ did, take the form of a slave as Christ did … and be willing to be obedient as Christ was – even at the cost of the life we once knew. 

For us this means death to our fleshly desires, death to our personal demands, death to our sense of entitlement in whatever form it may come … death to self.  That is, we as individuals cease to exist but become, instead, much bigger and more vital parts of the very Body of Christ.  This must become our identity, for this becomes our salvation … but not before we are prepared to persevere to the end (Matthew 10:22).

“Who could do such a thing” as to betray the One who challenged the repressive religious orthodoxy of His day?  To betray the One who, even within the Law, gave meaning to that very Law beyond “thou shalt not”.  To betray the One who did nothing more than to convey the eternal Truth that our Holy Creator and Father loves us with a love the depth of which cannot be measured by human standards?  To betray the One whose only “sin” was to challenge us to step outside of “self” and ultimately find real meaning in discipleship and living by giving ourselves completely to Him?  Not as a concept to be talked about only on Sunday but as the existential part of our being which we experience all day, every day.

An agnostic friend recently shared with me his utter dismay at how nasty this election season has gotten, and ironically made even nastier still by so-called “evangelical” Christians who convey nothing but fear, suspicion, anguish, and raw hatred!  The very things we claim to have been “saved” from are the very things that seem to be motivating us!  The word my friend used – regarding Christianity as he sees it – is “superficial”. 

That is, it seems to be only a “surface” expression, a cultural identity that has no depth, no meaning except what we assign to it ourselves as was expressed by Peter ("Lord, I’ll follow you to the bitter end”) without realizing Peter was not being entirely honest with himself.  I’m sure he meant it when he said it, but he nor the rest of the disciples had seriously considered what was happening, what was about to unfold, what was to become the full “cost” of being a disciple that has no personal privilege whatsoever.  The truth may be that though they certainly “liked” Jesus, they did not really believe Him.

“[The disciples] began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do [such a thing as betray Jesus]” (Matthew 22:23).  The more honest question for us, given the currently perceived shallow climate of Christianity, is: who among us wouldn’t … for a little extra cash?  That is, of course, if we are willing to be honest.  If we are willing to literally walk with and follow Jesus and perhaps discover, to our own dismay, that the real “cost” of discipleship may be more than we are willing to bear.

“Who could do such a thing”?  The Lord our God willing, may we never have to find out the hard way.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Present Reality

"See, My servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him - so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals - so he shall startle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate." Isaiah 52:13-15 NRSV

Context is everything. Leading into Isaiah 53 - a chapter almost entirely ascribed to the last days of Messiah - the "servant" is assured of vindication. The day will come when those who had mistreated the "servant" will be called to account for themselves when the fullness of the Truth is revealed.

There is nothing wrong with making some parallels to Jesus, of course, for He is the "word which became flesh". Yet Isaiah seems to have a much broader context and application for the people of The Lord in the generation to which the prophet spoke as well as subsequent generations that find themselves in similar circumstances.

In fact there must be a contemporary application to all that is written and revealed in Holy Scripture for the Word to be practical and to have real meaning in the Present Reality and not strictly limited to the past or to an obscure future.

So what does the "servant song" say to the Present Reality? What sort of comfort did it provide to the people of The Lord then - and the people of The Lord now?

Again, context is everything. It must first be acknowledged that Torah - what we Christians generally (and narrowly) refer to as "the law" - had not been temporarily suspended while Torah people are in exile, whether in Babylon or America. The Word of The Lord speaks always to the Present Reality, for it is in faithfulness to the Word from which the people of The Lord will be vindicated. Even in Christian theology, we can only be "justified" by The Lord in the Word; that is, living fully and trusting in the Word regardless of how we are being mistreated or by whom.

Rather than to read this section of the Bible as strictly a prediction of Jesus' final hours and His vindication at the Resurrection, we must learn to read the entire Bible as the revelation of our God always in our Present Reality. We must come to know and trust The Lord is always at work in the Present Reality with those who are living fully in the Word in faithful obedience - not lashing out, not seeking retribution, and not by trying to make things right only for ourselves; but fully trusting there will come a day when the "servant" will truly "prosper", when the faithful will - by the Hand of The Lord - be "exalted and lift up".

The genuine "servant" of The Lord will one day "startle many nations" and those who chose to mistreat us not by our might or our intellect but by our faithfulness. Then the "nations" and those who mistreated us will see the fullness of our God and the might of our Savior.

This is our Present Reality, and it is the song of joy which can only be sung by the true "servant".

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Decisions, decisions ... 5th Sunday of Lent

Deuteronomy 4:25-31
Romans 10:1-13
Mark 1:1-15

“Where there is no counsel, the people fail; but in the multitude of counselors, there is safety.”  Proverbs 11:14

The heart of the Proverb simply states “two heads are better than one”.  We have individual ideas about what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, but different perspectives with varied experiences can help us to see the same idea and the same goal much more broadly.   

This is why church committees can often be seen as unnecessarily cumbersome when the principle of local church governance is misunderstood.  The local church is not “run” by any single individual; not the one with the most money, not the one who screams the loudest or complains the most, and certainly not the pastor.  The real power of the Church depends on an equally invested Body participating equally toward the mission to which the Church is called – to make disciples - not to cater to individual demands.

I remember an article I had read some years ago about a church in a large city going to the “inner city” to have a picnic for an “outreach”; to offer Christ to children and youth.  With hot dogs and hamburgers and music and games with prizes, a good time was had by all.  At the end of the time, the pastor called for everyone who was there to “make a decision for Christ”.  By the host church’s account, “hundreds” came to The Lord that day.

The thing I never quite understood about these “hundreds” – apart from the host church’s presumption that none had ever heard of Jesus - is how their “decision for Christ” did not translate into new or enhanced discipleship training programs for children at the host church; how these “hundreds” did not translate into increased worship or Sunday school attendance, or how these “hundreds” (who were presumably transformed) changed the landscape of the “inner city” itself.

Now, of course this is a pretty narrow vision and may be an unfair assessment of the overall success of this outreach effort.  Maybe some among these “hundreds” did renew their commitments to churches in their own neighborhood.  Maybe the Holy Spirit really did reach out and touch these “hundreds” just as “thousands” were so touched by the accounts of Acts

This church that went to all this trouble to step outside their own bubble in the name of The Lord had the right idea and should be commended; they just did not have a mechanism in place – or even a real desire - to follow up, to disciple these “hundreds” and work to create real and lasting relationships.  The “hundreds” may have decided in that moment for Christ, but what they may have decided after that afternoon in the park is anyone’s guess. 

And the reason there is nothing left but a guess is because there was no follow-up.  The church leading this charge only needed these “hundreds” to repeat the so-called “sinner’s prayer” out loud to consider their efforts successful.  Whether these “hundreds” would follow them to their church was up to these who made their own decisions.  The church did not feel it was their responsibility after this – unless any of these “hundreds” would choose to follow them back to their church.

Here is the reason why this host church – and many others – ultimately fail with such one-time efforts: a decision for Christ is not a once-and-done proposition.  The “decision” must take much more into account than what may be happening in that particular moment, and it is the duty of the Church (the whole Body) to make sure these decisions are fully understood and not made in a void. 

No one wants to face eternal condemnation, of course, but few seem to understand a decision for Christ can never be reduced to only “smoking or non-smoking” – or any other such cheesy slogans – for all eternity.  Discipleship and Christianity are much bigger and much more holistic than this, involving the life that is now as well as life in the world to come.

There was a period in the early church in which the season of Lent was a time of preparation for catechumens to be baptized on Easter Sunday.  In that 40-day period it was necessary for these future disciples to fast and to pray and to learn not only about doctrine but to be given the time and information necessary to “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14:28), Jesus Himself making it plain that following Him is a life and lifestyle choice that can often come at extreme risk – as our brothers and sisters in China and Iran and in other parts of the world can attest to, extreme risks we know nothing about.

Ideally when we make a decision about anything that has the potential to be life-changing, we’ve done our homework.  We’ve consulted experts in a particular field, and we’ve considered the experiences of those who had gone before us, and we have made sure the mechanisms are in place to ensure continued success.  It is no less so in making a decision for Christ, because it will be far from over once that decision is made.  The decision itself is only the beginning.

Baptism, as a genuine Sacrament of the Church, must also be understood beyond the ritual.  Whether we are receiving a youth or an adult in baptism who had not known the Covenant or parents presenting their infants or toddlers to be baptized, there is a principle in John’s baptism that is often overlooked and involves the entire congregation.  That principle is in John’s calling to “prepare the way”.

The “way”, of course, is affirmed by Jesus Himself (John 14:6); but we have often been confused about how One who was “born without sin” would even need to go through the ritual of baptism.  The Apostles’ Creed affirms “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”, but that statement requires a basic understanding of the doctrine of original sin but still does not explain Jesus’ decision to be baptized.  When we understand baptism as a “beginning”, however, rather than a destination or a single “decision”, then it begins to make more sense.

This “ritual” is reserved for those who are willing to fully repent; to prepare for and seek life in a whole new direction.  This “ritual” is only the portal through which to enter.  It is not the destination.  And we must decide not only to follow Jesus through this portal but beyond as well.

For us today, this standard is equally applicable to parents who present their children to be baptized.  Even if the child is not yet able to make his or her own “decision for Christ”, the parents AND the Church are stepping outside of their own bubbles and are making a vow to our Holy Father.  In the fullness of appreciating the depth and the breadth of that vow to teach – young and old alike – we are putting ourselves on the Holy Line in promising one and all that this “decision” must not end in that moment, that this “decision” settles nothing.

It is not possible for humans to know all there is to know about doctrine, theology, or the Kingdom itself.  For this, then, we have faith; faith enough to trust, faith enough to learn and to teach, faith enough to continue – because discipleship (“following Christ”) is hard, pure and simple.  As it is often said, if we find being a Christian to be easy and comfortable, we are not doing it right.  Or perhaps it could be said we’re not doing it at all.

There is nothing wrong with engaging in a “personal” relationship with The Lord … until it becomes an “exclusive” relationship that does not involve and include the whole “ekklesia”, the Body, the congregation.  When we serve as our own exclusive “counsel”, according to the Proverb, we are facing imminent failure in some form or fashion.  Perhaps when we choose to stand alone and are challenged for our faith or tempted beyond our capacity to resist, we may likely falter.

There is no real support, no real encouragement, no real accountability when we “decide” to stand alone.  And if we believe the Bible to be the “unerring” Word of God, we cannot discount the wisdom of the Proverb which serves to advise us that we need one another.  This need is the fullness of The Body of Christ and the measure of spiritual “safety” – when we can depend on, rather than to be suspicious of, one another. 

We must not seek out “guarantees”, but rather “safety” in decisions that can be affirmed and supported … or rightly challenged and corrected when we “decide” to stray too far from the safety of the “multitude of counselors” who have vowed to have our backs.  This will always involve the “decisions” we make daily according to the “Decision” we made long ago. 

When a decision for Christ is made, it must be made with the full assurance of not only the Holy Spirit but the manifestation of Christ in the world today: the Holy Church.  This is our affirmation that this “decision” was the right one, and the Church stands as the assurance that we will never be sorry for the “decision” we made. 

Let it be so; in the Name of The Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Safe Spaces and Holy Places; 4th Sunday of Lent

Exodus 25:1-9
Hebrews 9:1-15
John 14:1-13

"Every foundation stone that is laid for a Temple, and every Temple completed according to the order the Lord has revealed for His [people], lessens the power of Satan on the earth, and increases the power of … godliness."  George Q. Cannon

To be clear, George Q. Cannon is a Mormon elder, and the temples to which he is referring are physical structures.  Yet there is a principle in his observation that makes what he says worth hearing.  Lest we think otherwise, however, what I wish to share has nothing to do with the LDS Church or Mormon teachings.  We must, instead, strive to “listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.

“Divine truth always sits in plain view for anyone with eyes to see, yet it remains hidden in the places where nobody would ever think to look.”  JD Walt

Looking at the state of the world and our nation, it seems to be that the “gates of Hades” (Matthew 16:18; i.e., the powers of death) are gaining considerable ground.  I submit to you, however, that it may be more accurate to say the “gates of Hades” are not prevailing as much as they are being accommodated - not only by a society that has convinced itself it has no need for a god that does not exist but also by a Church that claims The Lord does exist but lives and acts as though The Revelation of The Lord is of no real account! 

There are many reasons for this, for it can never be said to be only one thing or one person.  It also cannot be said to be anything new, a strictly 21st-century phenomenon.  The reality of this conflict between that which is holy and that which is common requires each of us, then, to evaluate where we stand and what we intend to accomplish for the sake of Christ’s mission – or whether we intend to be in mission at all. 

Our Lord does not suggest or recommend but commands the Church (not the state) to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those who are sick or in prison; but there should be much more involved in these acts of mercy and justice than the acts themselves.  In committing ourselves to these acts, we are creating “safe spaces and holy places” where the “last, least, and lost” can find safety and true sanctuary, and discover their own genuine sacred worth not as society sees them but as The Lord not only sees them but openly welcomes them – especially those we deem unworthy.

An earlier devotional this week brought to mind the profound difference between ancient Israel on a journey and the contemporary Church which seems convinced the journey has ended.  And the differences are accentuated between what Israel freely chose to give and what modern-day Christians deliberately choose to withhold – out of spite, vindictiveness, or just plain selfishness.

The Lord shared with Moses, as it is written in Exodus 25, what it will take to build the Tabernacle; the worship place Israel will take with them as they move along in their journey, the worship place which will serve as a reminder that The Lord is in the midst of them, the worship space that will define the very heart, the essence of Israel.  So the offerings will require the very best of what they have – AND (and this is key) what “their hearts prompt them to give” (vs 25:2); not what Moses or The Lord command them to give. 

The offerings to follow were so generous and so abundant, “more than enough” (36:5) that eventually Moses had to tell the people, “No more” (36:6)!  Then for the next three chapters are described very intricate details about how it will come together – how this “holy place” will come to be.

Now it has become a little too easy for New Testament people to consider all this of no account in the New Covenant.  Even Jews today do not abide by all the regulations of the many offerings, but this is only because the Temple itself no longer exists except for a remnant of the Western Wall where many still gather to pray. 

Of course through Christ the Living Word it is direct access to the Holy Father we have gained.  No longer are we encouraged to “fear” - as we understand “being afraid” - but are, instead, called to “approach with great respect” the Throne of Mercy.  For YHWH is still the Almighty, the Holy One who commands great respect, whose Name we are commended to glorify.  In Christ Jesus, then, there is a great and open door through which to enter.  “The Way”.

Here is the tricky part for Christians.  We may have convinced ourselves or have been convinced that it is WE who possess the “keys to the kingdom of Hades and Death” (Revelation 1:18) as we judge others worthy of being in our midst.  Consequently there are many who may not see the Holy Church as a “safe space” because we do not go far enough to help “strangers” feel so welcome, so safe; and we do not respect the “sanctuary” that is the Body of Christ, the place where all – regardless of whatever it may be that makes these strangers so different – can feel and experience the very Presence of the Holy One when they are with us.

There is a lot of doctrine we are more likely get wrong than right, but there is one component of theology – that which defines the relationship between Heaven and earth – we can always get right by sheer determination to glorify our God and Father: that of radical hospitality.  It is that sense of being in which an unfamiliar face enters into the sanctuary, and members – rather than simply stare – will fall all over themselves to welcome them … seeing not the color of their skin or the way they are dressed but, rather, seeing them through the same Eyes of Mercy which sees past the worst of us!

For, you see, that is the intricate detail with which the Tabernacle was built – everyone giving freely the very best of all they had rather than hoarding it as “their stuff”.  It is not in what we have acquired for ourselves that defines us; it is what we do with all that has been entrusted to us that defines our relationship with The Lord and establishes a “safe space”.  It is how we are equipped to “lessen the power of Satan and death” and increase godliness in a world still struggling to find its way out of the dark where only fear exists – fear which has only been magnified in this election!

But our Lord Jesus has conquered everything which can destroy us – including fear.  In Him is the “safe space” in which “sticks and stones may still break our bones” when we show kindness and mercy and hospitality to those the rest of the world has rejected; but in the perfection of sanctified Love in which we give freely of ourselves is the Safe Space created and the Holy Place defined, where the human heart is filled to overflowing, where we all feel safe, loved, and respected.

Moses and the Mormon elder were speaking of physical structures, but the principle of “attention to detail” remains the centerpiece of all we do.  We take nothing – and no one – for granted, and we no longer fear anyone or anything.  It is that very confidence we are called to act in, for it is that confidence of faith and the assurance of redemption that has opened the Temple curtain through which we – AND our neighbors – may pass.

It is the “Safe Space” our Lord has commanded; it is the “Holy Place” where our Lord resides – and we are all invited in … especially those we would try to keep out!  So let us not try to repair the “torn curtain” by our own sense of privilege in keeping others out.  For if we think ourselves “first”, we will indeed be “last of all”.  Let us glorify and celebrate the “Holy Place” that is our God and King; and let us be for the “least among us” the “Safe Space” that is Christ our Savior!  Amen.