Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An Open Letter to Open Letter Writers

“Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him.  Do not add to His words lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.”  Proverbs 30:5-6

Following the United Methodist General Conference 2016 in Portland OR, there have been “Open Letters to …” written by those who mean to lift up and encourage some but to chastise and perhaps shame the “other” – whomever that “other” may be.  Some “open letters” have been informative perspectives while some have been downright condescending; and regardless of which side (orthodox or not-so-orthodox) one happens to agree with, it has been clear that all the talk of unity in the United Methodist Church is just that: talk. 

We will never be able to shame “others” into agreeing with us nor will we help the conversations along by giving those of our particular camp “ammo” to fire back at those with whom we disagree.  Accusatory language will not go far with those we mean to denigrate since such language usually only steels the resolve of those being accused, and our case will not be made by human reasoning.  As the Teacher maintains in the Proverbs, the purity of our chosen words comes only from the mouth of The Lord. 

We all have something to say, and we all have a right to say it within reason.  As it is often said, however, yelling “fire” in a crowded facility just for giggles is not protected speech, and the reason is simple: people are likely to get hurt in panicked stampedes.  Do we do any less harm in our feeble attempts to slander or shame those we cannot agree with? 

Kenneth L. Carder, in his book, The United Methodist Way: living our beliefs, wrote: “Preachers could, a few decades ago, attract a following through denominational chauvinism.  Condemning other churches and extolling the superiority of one’s own denomination could build churches.  Such a message today receives but isolated response.”

Those decades have long passed us by.  The idea of making others look bad in our feeble attempts to make ourselves look good simply does not wash (sadly, however, it is still the way of electoral politics).  Thinking and reasoning people today demand more, and rightly so.  If they are going to choose to go along with us, they must be shown the virtue of our chosen way rather than the vice of the “other”.  It is not enough to tell people how bad or awful or unjust or ignorant or unenlightened the other may be (in our own opinions, of course), but we can be sure that those who are attracted by such language are themselves bad and awful and unjust and ignorant and unenlightened – taking perverse delight in character assassinations. 

Especially pertaining to theological reasoning (holy language with holy intentions) while claiming to speak in The Lord’s Name, our reasoning must be much more closely connected to the “pure word of God”, recognizing the intimate connection between Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.  Not “one or another”, but rather “all/and”.  Beginning first with Scripture as the “pure word of God” and the necessary foundation, then we evaluate Tradition AND THEN Reason AND THEN Experience – all within the scope of our Holy Scriptures.  The Church’s tradition is steeped in the Holy Scripture.  Indeed can there be any Church as the biblically defined “Body of Christ” which is substantially disconnected from the very Word which became Flesh?  The same Scripture Jesus Himself came to “fulfill” rather than to do away with?

Sometimes a firm word becomes necessary toward those who have strayed, but a harsh word has been shown over and over to be counter-productive to making earnest disciples of Christ.  As it is written, “A harsh word makes tempers flare” (Proverbs 15:1).  It is no different from threatening fire and brimstone from the pulpit in an attempt to make people afraid of hell.  They may well be sufficiently afraid of hell, but neither are they fully on board with the Kingdom of Heaven.

So to “open letter” writers seeking to make a point at the expense of the “other”: enough.  If we set out to shame the “other” in the name of our God and try to pretend we are holier-than-thou and oh-so-enlightened especially by “adding words” to the Holy Scripture, we will not only fail to make our case on its merit; we will also be revealed as the “liars” we truly are – because our God, and our God alone, is Truth.  Anything less than this Eternal Truth is spoken only by “liars”.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Steward's Reward - 1st Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 1:26-31
Romans 14:1-12
Luke 19:11-27

“Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored.”  Proverbs 27:18

The phone rang at a church.  When the assistant answered, the voice on the other end said, “I want to speak to the Head Hog at the Trough”.  Not being sure of what she thought she heard, she said, “Who?”   The caller again said, “I want to speak to the Head Hog at the Trough”. 

Very indignantly, the assistant said, “Sir, if you are referring to the pastor of the church, you will have to treat him with a little more respect – and ask for ‘The Reverend’ or ‘The Pastor’ – but you must not refer to him as the Head Hog at the Trough”. 

The caller answered back, “Well, I was thinking of donating $10,000 to the building fund”, to which the assistant replied (very quickly), “Hold on.  The Big Pig just walked through the door!”


Before you begin thinking this may be a sermon about tithing, let me stop you there because a broader understanding of stewardship does not mean only tithing or giving money to a special church fund.  Tithing is very much a part of responsible stewardship, of course; but it is only one component of stewardshipStewardship encompasses much more than what we choose to put into the collection plate on Sunday.  Think about it like this: a tithe means 10%.  Would we suggest The Lord is only concerned with 10% of our money or only 10% of our lives? 

At the same time, stewardship principles challenge our sense of priority.  A priority list which puts The Lord first and then stair-steps downward may sound noble and even almost biblical, but it also implies there are segments of our lives and the choices we make that need have no bearing on our religious faith or our devotion to The Lord and His Church. 

That The Lord should come first is, of course, biblical as Jesus teaches us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33a), but that decision bears not only on a priority list but in every moment of life and living.  We need not worry about what comes 2nd or 3rd if The Lord really is #1. 

Jesus assures us we will be shown what we need to focus on, what will be pleasing in The Lord’s sight, and what will ultimately not only bring Him glory but will make possible for us a much fuller life than we can make for ourselves – “all these things [we truly need] will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33b).  Make no mistake, though; “full life” cannot – and must never - be measured subjectively by material or cultural standards.

So we are compelled to look more closely for a broader understanding of what “dominion” means in the Genesis context, what was intended from the very beginning.  In doing so, we may discover that our God-given “dominion” does not mean we “own” it; and it certainly does not give us license to exploit anything or anyone for personal gain just because we think we can.  Rather we may find that what we mistakenly think of as our own private domain - with no Divine Concern - is not personal privilege or blessing but complete, perfect, holy responsibility. 

Everything we have and everything we do must reflect our abiding faith in The Lord.  “Abiding”; to be completely and unreservedly “in” as Jesus “abides” in the Father and the Father in Him.  For as our Lord says, “The Father and I are One” (John 10:30).

Thus to have “dominion” over all of creation and even to “subdue” it, as some translations read, does not mean to claim it or to dominate it or beat it into submission as an owner would - but to tend it as a manager would for the Rightful Owner, to control it as we have ability, and to use it responsibly as if all has been entrusted to us for a short time for the sole purpose of bringing Him Glory rather than handed over to us to squander at our own discretion.

The responsibility of “dominion” takes on even greater meaning for the Church after the Ascension of The Lord.  Leaving the Church with Her “marching orders” to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) and to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47), and then empowering the Church on Pentecost to do these very things, we find ourselves large and in charge of all creation as in the beginning.  We are placed in The Lord’s creation in this time and space to “till it and keep it” just as Man was charged to do in Eden (Genesis 2:15).

So everything we see, everything we touch, and everything we acquire must be understood as much more than a personal blessing meant only to enrich our own lives.  The concept of personal blessing as opposed to having been entrusted with something much greater has given rise and traction to that false – or very misleading - prosperity gospel narrative that proclaims material wealth as a sign of Divine Favor.  

The seriousness with which we must acknowledge and accept this responsibility as a condition of our baptism and membership in the Holy Church as “slaves of Christ” is emphasized in Jesus’ parable of the “minas” (Luke 11:19-27; known as “talents” in Matthew 25:14-30).  In each, the “pound” or the “talent” are understood as measures of currency.  In reading each passage more broadly, then, we must learn to appreciate all The Lord has left for us to manage, to “keep and to till” until His return – however much or little.  I dare say 10% of what we only think is ours barely scratches the surface.

Now we might be tempted to think we would not really care to be put in charge of anything in the Kingdom which is coming, that we would be perfectly content with that little “corner of a mansion in Glory Land” as the old hymn goes, but that option was not offered to the third slave who did absolutely nothing with his entrusted portion of his master’s wealth.  In the end, that “wicked slave” was left with nothing – not even a little “corner”.  In Matthew’s version, that “worthless slave” was thrown into “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30).  He was thrown OUT of the master’s domain.

In Luke’s account, the “citizens” who chose to rebel against the “nobleman” do not even factor into the nobleman’s “slaves” whom he knew and trusted.  Understanding this concept on this Sunday following Pentecost, we should consider that the remarkable Gift of the Holy Spirit on that glorious day was, indeed, the “wealth” with which we are entrusted. 

It was then given freely and generously without reservation.  Not 10%, then, but 100% “with you until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). 

For us, then, there is the tithe which Jesus affirms (Matthew 23:23).  Yet Jesus also refers to the rest of our lives, the rest of our being and doing with, for, and to one another for the Glory of God and for the sake of the whole society on behalf of the congregation of the faithful as the “weightier” or more important matters of the Divine Law – NOT either/or … but both/and. 

Our Lord asks much more from those to whom He has entrusted the Entire Kingdom for the sole purpose of “making disciples” in “proclaiming repentance and the remission of sins”!   It is a BIG JOB no one can do alone.  This, I think, is exactly why even Jesus teaches that we must all “count the cost” (Luke 14:28) before we decide whether we are all in or not at all in.  There is no middle way or third choice except that which we’ve created only for ourselves to justify ourselves and our godless choices.

We must not misunderstand the comparisons, though we must understand that as burdensome and inconvenient as discipleship may sometimes seem (as a careless and empty man-made gospel tries to imply that we don’t “have to” do anything), our Lord assures us the rewards for the faithful are immeasurable by human standards.  And through it all, though our Lord asks much from us, He promises us even more.  But first must come our willingness to trust Him and take Him at His Word.

Let us consider, then, that our Lord truly is The Lord of our whole life and not just a small percentage of what we choose to offer to Him.  At Gethsemane, Jesus made His own decision to be all in to include even His very life.  Dare we offer any less than our whole life?  Amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

What about Portland?

There is a lot of hand-wringing and anguish over what has (not) happened at the United Methodist General Conference in Portland OR.  It has been reported there were over one hundred pieces of legislation to be considered at GC regarding human sexuality (code for whether or not homosexuality will be affirmed as “incompatible” with Christian teaching and tradition or, as some might hope, declared … ok?), but all have been tabled for future consideration after a period of prayer and discernment. 

Coupled with so many of the articles being written by various news outlets are the comments from those who oppose, who affirm, and who simply do not care one way or the other.  There are the many who are threatening to leave the UMC if the language is retained or changed regarding “that issue”, and there are the many who have already left the UMC because the Church cannot or will not resolve to do as it declares.  The General Conference is the only entity which can officially speak for the United Methodist Church, but the truth is United Methodists have been speaking for themselves for quite a long time.

Even the general agencies of the UMC which should be a reflection of the will of the General Conference have not always been faithful to the most basic tenets of United Methodism, and yet no one has been called to account for their choosing to go in another direction.  This, to me, is a much greater problem not accounted for because the secular media assume that if, say, the Church and Society agency is actively lobbying the US Congress for expanded abortion rights or gay rights – all in violation of the General Conference of the Church – only a few lone voices cry out.  The United Methodist Church itself is largely silent.  The agency is acting independently.

As the United Methodist Women (UMW) organization (not all United Methodist women) actively engage in a working relationship with NARAL (formerly known as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, then the National Abortion Rights Action League, and later the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League), there is hardly a peep except from a few isolated corners of the Church.  Though the agency is doing its own political thing, the United Methodist Church as a whole remains silent.

Lotteries and casinos have proliferated in the United States and gay marriage has been declared by the US Supreme Court as a fundamental “right”, and I dare say many United Methodist Christians participate (especially those who make headlines).  The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, as a covenant of doctrine and accountability from top to bottom, is largely unknown to many (perhaps most) United Methodist Christians (except for “that issue”) because it is seen as a “rule book”.  Very uninteresting and largely irrelevant to local United Methodist Churches.  Or so it seems.

The list goes on, but the picture seems clear.  What has (not) happened in Portland pertaining to “that issue” that gets everyone so stirred up, however, cannot be the end-all-or-be-all to local churches.  And because local accountability seems to mean only those cliques or persons with money, what has (not) happened in Portland really is of no consequence in Magnolia AR or Memphis TN or … or … well, you get the idea, because quite frankly, few will abide by or protest General Conference terms anyway unless, of course, a particular agenda is served or a headline is to be made.

Everyone is welcome in the United Methodist Church, saints and sinners alike.  The narrative on one side or the other may suggest some do not feel particularly welcome because “that issue” makes some feel unwelcome, but the official doctrine of the United Methodist Church is that all are welcome to worship, all are encouraged to learn more about the Gospel of The Lord. 

What should be equally clear, however, is that not all will get to have their own way.  Not all will be allowed to serve as pastors, deacons, board or committee chairs for one reason or another.  Not all will be allowed to railroad others just to get their own way, and inactive members who have fallen away or have chosen to follow the latest fad outside of the Church (Christian or not) should not expect to be retained as “members”.  Those with the most money do not always get to call the shots, and the whims of a few cannot push an appointed pastor out.  In other words, “rights” to certain agencies or certain positions are not absolute.

What we are all allowed – even encouraged, commissioned, and charged – to do is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ”.  This is the biblical charge to the Church universal and is the mantra of the United Methodist Church, a recognition that this is entirely, solely, completely what the Body of Christ exists to do.  Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.  There are, of course, expectations.  Respect - for existing rules, existing doctrine, existing expectations - is required; and if this respect is not forthcoming, regardless of circumstances, one must not expect to be allowed to continue in the relationship.

So what does Portland have to do with Magnolia?  Or Memphis?  Or Albuquerque?  What does Portland have to do with our collective charge to “make disciples”?  Some may suggest Portland has everything to do with our charge, that since the law-making Body of the United Methodist Church cannot agree on even the most basic, most fundamental component of our being because of “that issue”, it all rolls downhill to affect (or infect) the local churches.

I will still be trying to work this all out long after I click the “publish” button because, you see, I am a licensed pastor, a second-career person who has been granted this enormous responsibility and profound honor to serve as a pastor of a United Methodist Church.  Unlike the elders, however, I have no “rights”, no “privileges”.  I am completely as the mercy of the bishop, the appointive Cabinet, and the District and Conference Board of Ordained Ministry – any one of which can discontinue my appointment at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.  I have no “rights”; only duty.

So why do I persevere?  Why do I continue to live with anxiety from one appointment year to the next, not knowing if I will even have a job?  Because Someone much larger than I compels me to, Someone more infinitely powerful and authoritative than any human body will ever be.  And for as long as it lasts, I will do the best I can to faithfully preach the Holy Scripture and the doctrine of the United Methodist Church.  Integrity requires no less.  And through it all, guaranteed nothing at all, I will continue to march.

Monday, May 16, 2016

We are More - Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:39-45
Romans 8:12-17
Matthew 5:1-16

“The Holy Spirit is not a blessing from God.  The Holy Spirit is God.”  ~ Colin Urquhart

“The counting [of 50 days from Passover to Pentecost in Judaism] is a reminder of the important connection between the two holy feast days.  Passover freed Israel physically from bondage, but the giving (not receiving) of the Torah at Sinai [which is the celebration of Pentecost/Shavu’ot] redeemed Israel spiritually from bondage to idolatry and immorality.  (www.jewfaq.org, “Judaism 101”)

They were shown that they are “more”.

Even in Christianity, Pentecost is still the Jewish feast of Shavu’ot.  It is not a brand-new holy day created by Christianity, for the day still belongs to The Lord.  He revealed Himself in His Covenant at Mt. Sinai in His instruction to His people Israel, and He had revealed Himself yet again in Jerusalem.  And in that Holy Moment, Pentecost became “more”.

So it is too bad this same important connection expressed in Judaism is not more widely felt for the Christian celebration of Pentecost as much as for Easter or Christmas because the Pentecost is yet another Divine Promise fulfilled when our Lord assured His Church: “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). 

So following the celebration of Messiah ascending into Heaven’s Glory, this is an important consideration for the Church today – especially in answering the false notion that The Lord does not care for His creation and does not interact in history or ministry … or in the Sacraments of the Church.  “I am with you always”.

Because we live in a largely post-Christian society (greatly diminished Church influence coupled with Church pandering to secular values in a vain effort to be culturally relevant or “popular”), taking note of these important days, how they are connected in perpetuity, and what they mean to the entire world become all the more important to us who are called to be “more”. 

Pentecost, then, cannot be just another Sunday on the Christian calendar because it is the fulfillment not only of Divine Promise as with Christmas and Easter but also of Holy Purpose, as our Lord Jesus assured His disciples this Day would come: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26).

On this day some 2000 years ago, on the Jewish feast of Shavu’ot (Pentecost), the Church was breathed into life for one reason, and one reason only: “That repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His Name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47).   

We are shown in the Acts of the Apostles that thousands were convicted and drawn to the communal spirit of the Church.  They did not get “personally saved” and then go on about their business as if nothing happened.  They become “more” than an individual.  Even in the periods of great persecution, though many were forced into hiding, they hid together, protected one another, and continued to worship; and people were still coming to answer the call of the Holy Spirit not just to join but to become an active part of this new “Way”, a Way like no other before or since. 

As it is written, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day The Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47).  

I submit to you that numbers of new believers being added “day by day” happened not only because of the Power of the Holy Spirit but also necessarily because of the faithfulness of the peoples’ response in “having the goodwill of all the people”.  That is, actually possessing Divine Love in their hearts for God and for one another.

The only way this cannot have meaning for us today is if we do not understand – or reject altogether – the Holy Purpose of the Church.   Do you notice that we often disagree as to exactly what this Day looked like (‘tongues of fire” or “speaking in tongues”) while we overlook completely what came as a result of this sudden rush of the Holy Spirit, the very Presence of the Holy God Himself. 

The highest ideals of the Kingdom.  Commonality.  Accountability.  Connectedness.  A shared sense of being in Holy Purpose.  Genuine care of and concern for neighbor so much so that all they had and all they owned was put into one common pot so that no one would go without the basic necessities of life and living – the most profound and most basic necessity of all, of course, being fellowship, being connected, being cared for, being loved, and knowing rather than being stabbed in the back, someone had your back.

We don’t have this so much today.  In fact I submit it does not exist at all except in theory and maybe in very small, very exclusive groups.  Within the greater Church universal as well as within the individual churches, there is a dominant “to each his own” mentality and mindset.  Oh, there are sub-sets of groups who may look out for one another and maybe will extend beyond a group as long as it is no real inconvenience, but on the grander scale this idyllic notion of community and Holy Purpose is a thing of a very distant, almost unrecognizable past.

There is often only the curse of eternal condemnation toward those who will not agree or go along with us”.  There is a good talk about unity among the political party loyalists and even such talk as at the UM General Conference.  Unity among humans according to strictly human behavior and human desire, however, is a myth.  We can seem easily to agree to a common enemy, but common purpose is lacking because within us as a Body there is lacking the very Substance of who we really are; “for all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8:14).

*IF* we are “led by the Spirit”.

We United Methodist Christians have our Book of Discipline which is our covenant (not strictly “rules”) with and to one another.  It is the covenant we freely join as members and as clergy.  We expect (demand?) our bishops to uphold certain portions of that Discipline (especially the parts pertaining to that issue), but on the local level we almost completely reject those other portions of this same United Methodist Covenant which demand accountability to our vows and care for one another. 

In all this human frailty and imperfection there is the Divine Promise to those who live and love and witness according to The Lord’s Holy Purpose.  This is unconditionally true regardless of our individual responses because this Divine Promise is not according to human will, and it is certainly not according to conditional human involvement or desire.

In spite of these divisions among us, “we are more”.  Those who choose to live in covenant and in peace are more than those who choose not to.  Even those who choose not to are more than even they realize; but they will not know this unless or until it is brought to their attention and they are held accountable.  United Methodist Christians only seem to be fixated on that issue because of the secular media, but in reality we are much more than just that single issue that haunts us every four years.  

We are more than the empty promises of predatory “something for nothing” lotteries; and we are more than a single moment of escape in drugs, alcohol, or inappropriate relationships.  We are more than even this great nation of ours, and yet we can be no more than the cry of a hungry child, the lament of those who are imprisoned, or the hopelessness of those who have no home to rest in.  We are no more than the Gospel of the Lord, and yet the Gospel is precisely what we must become.

We are more than the constant bickering and infighting that seem to be the hallmark of the Church universal today.  We are much more than our petty differences, and we are more than even our most profound disagreements.  We are more than our notions of individual salvation.

It all began at Pentecost.  In The Lord’s giving of His Covenant and Holy Law at Sinai and in The Lord’s giving so fully of Himself in Jerusalem on this blessed and glorious Day, we are surely more than we have often settled for!  And because we often settle for less rather than to reach for more and live for more, we defy the Eternal Word which is Christ Jesus and we cheat ourselves and our neighbors out of the fullness of joy and blessedness that is the Divine Promise given – but not always received - on this blessed Day throughout the generations.

We are more than anything this world can possibly offer because we are the “salt of the earth” and the “light on a lampstand” which must shine brightly and boldly.  We are ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are the people of the United Methodist Church and members of the Church universal.  And now that this time and Day has been named, it is time to claim it, and to live it – all to the glory of God our Father in Christ Jesus our Redeemer, our Savior, our Brother, our Friend.  Amen. 

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Of Blessings and Duties - 6th Sunday of Easter

John 14:25-29

"All the blessings we enjoy are Divine deposits committed to our trust on this condition; that they should be dispensed for the benefit of our neighbors."  John Calvin

What brings us peace?  The kind of peace entrusted to us to be dispensed to our neighbors?  What does the Christian community embrace and celebrate as true and enduring, even empowering?  The kind of peace Jesus is referring to does not strictly mean the absence of all conflict; but, rather, striving for a higher end even within the presence of conflict.  This peace demands an enduring faith in something much greater than any single moment or any individual desire. 

It is entirely about the Mission of the Holy Church – not having our individual demands met.

Do you ever notice that when we think of peace, much in the way we think of Divine Will or blessings, we think almost exclusively in terms of what peace means to us as individuals, how we personally benefit?  That is, there will be no peace unless or until we get our own way, this measure of peace coming only on our own terms. 

The nature of this peace is entirely subjective to individual standards; and if these standards are not met, there is no peace nor even any desire for peace.  The sad thing is that too many Christians seem to be perfectly ok with this.  Pride is at the core of what can only be termed a power struggle – having our own demands met, things going our own way regardless of the cost or collateral damage to others.

For those of you who think I watch too much TV, too many gangster movies and irreverent cartoons (South Park!), I offer my most profound apology because a TV show/family drama brought to mind a common peace Christians and non-Christians alike can share.  It is that sense of “community” which reminds us we are not alone even when we choose to be.

This particular episode revolved around a baptism for an infant.  The dad and his family are not even a little religious but the mom and her family are very religious, so it was mom’s desire that the baby be baptized. 

The non-religious family went along with it and even participated without understanding or even caring what baptism means to the community of faith, but the dynamic of that non-religious family (which, incidentally, is being in each other’s business all the time!) expresses the very best of what baptism and membership in the Church mean to the Christian community. 

Even as this non-religious family did not understand the practice or the belief behind the practice, they were willing to respect the practice and the family members who desired this thing because, ultimately, is was (is) a family thing in more ways than only a biological or marital connection. 

I get it, though.  It is a TV show.  It isn’t real.  It could be.  It SHOULD be.  What is all too real, however, is that this kind of peace and fundamental respect are NOT forthcoming in the broader Christian community across denominational lines.  We get too caught up in our own individual or denominational notions of right time/right place/right practice of baptism so much so that we will not even offer the kind of respect which may more likely come from those who do not care about or understand baptism at all.

Even within the Church – which should ideally be a sanctuary against the conflicts of the world - things are sometimes messy and downright unholy.  I’ve heard from many that they “can’t stand” so-and-so, and thus they refuse to be a part of a particular church.  I’ve heard the same thing regarding myself; that my very presence is driving or keeping people away.  While staying away might provide some sense of temporal peace or even personal satisfaction, it does not scratch the surface of the kind of peace Jesus is referring to because the conflict these persons only think they are avoiding by avoiding these persons fail to realize the real conflict is within themselves.  Pride, however, refuses to acknowledge this possibility.

We may feel better about ourselves in the moment and may even feel some false sense of superiority in staying away or attempting to drive others out, but the peace Jesus alone is offering will still lacking – because the kind of peace Jesus is referring to has nothing to do with any individual demand or desire.  We may be successful in driving away those whom we blame for all manner of conflict and think we’ve resolved the conflict, but the heart of the conflict still remains and will inevitably involve others sooner or later when they find themselves on the wrong side of these persons.

When we get what we think may pass for peace when our own terms are met, it is the false sense of peace Jesus is referring to as what “the world gives”.  It is temporary at best, and by a wide margin it misses the mark of the peace Jesus is offering and advocating.  This peace goes to the very heart of what membership in the Holy Church really means: family, community, connection beyond ourselves, beyond our own agendas, certainly beyond vendettas – all of which are profoundly toxic to the Body of Christ and destructive to the community the Church is called to serve.

Pope Francis, in his remarks for the World Day of Peace on New Year’s Day 2016, stated that “Peace is both God’s gift and a human achievement.  As a gift of God, it is entrusted to all men and women, who are called to attain it ... Along these same lines, with the present Jubilee of Mercy, I want to invite the Church to pray and to work so that every Christian will have a humble and compassionate heart, one capable of proclaiming and witnessing to mercy ... Personal dignity and interpersonal relationships are what constitute us as human beings whom God willed to create in His own image and likeness.  As creatures endowed with unalienable dignity, we are related to all our brothers and sisters for whom we are responsible and with whom we must act in solidarity.  Lacking this relationship, we would be less human.”

I think, then, Pope Francis’ idea – and the Kingdom’s ideal – of peace rests on and revolves around mercy itself – for the absence of mercy is the absence of peace.  And mercy withheld from others is mercy withheld from us (Matthew 6:16).  As such, peace is a Divine Gift, its origin traced to its only Source – our Holy Father – and is given freely only by His Gracious Hand in Christ. 

As a “human achievement”, it manifests itself in our active participation when we recognize the foundation of our baptism: being brought into the community of faith and resting in the assurance that the community will fulfill its own vows to teach and to hold accountable to discipleship and the life of the Church all who call Christ “Lord”.

So it seems to be that if we are unwilling or unable to offer peace by offering mercy, it is because we are lacking peace because we have not yet known the Mercy of The Lord.  We cannot offer what we lack or have never known.  Now if we think we have known it and have experienced it and yet still refuse to share or offer it, we make ourselves “liars”.

As it is written (1 John 4:20): Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar.  For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

Claiming faith in Christ while actively trying to do harm to another because of a difference of opinion or a misunderstanding is not compatible with the kind of peace Jesus is offering to His disciples, and the “peace which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) will not be found nor will it be offered to we who refuse to participate in mercy.

So before we offer our gifts, before we offer our prayers, before we dare approach the altar for the Supper of The Lord, let us not fail to understand that how we define our relationships to one another is precisely how our relationship is defined with The Lord.  Just as Christ cannot be separated from His Body the Church, neither can we be separated one from another.

Let there be peace by our determination to make peace; for it will come no other way.  Amen