Monday, June 27, 2016

Benedict Option, part II: prayer and service

Leviticus 19:1-18
1 Peter 1:3-17
Mark 14:27-42

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”  Soren Kierkegaard 

Historical perspective has everything to do with understanding what brought on the “Dark Ages” and what finally brought western Europe out of that spiritual decline so many centuries later.  For our purposes, it may be enough to know the Roman Empire under Constantine in the 4th century legitimized the Church.  Consequently, the power of the Church rose and fell with the Empire itself since the power of the institutional Church came from the Empire.

Without delving into a lot of historical detail, let us remember that the real and legitimate and lasting power of the Holy Church comes from the Spirit of the Living God and our willingness to embrace the Eternal Word.  Imagine, then, the limitations of the Church’s legitimate moral authority when we grant to the “empire” the power to say “yay” or “nay” in the life of the Church. 

It makes me think of the irony between our disdain for Islam’s very rigid sharia law, the power of which comes from an “empire’s” authority to control – and our demand for institutionalized moral laws.  I’ll grant it is a tension not well considered by many – including myself - because of the “rightness” of what we believe to be good and true and moral. 

Nevertheless, institutionalized moral, religious laws were a disaster for the Dark Ages (hence the name) because the emphasis was (and still is) directed at what one must not do.  The Gospel of our Lord, on the other hand, emphasizes what the Church must do in ministry, in service to others in life-changing ways not according to what the “empire” will allow, not according to what tickles our fancy, but by faithful devotion to a life of prayer in earnestly seeking The Father’s will.

It must never be our declaration that “the empire (rather than the Kingdom of Heaven) has come near”.

Yet this is the awkward position the Church finds itself in today, but it is not because the “empire” has done anything (though many are suspicious, and opinions vary regarding the overreach of the “empire” in the life of the Church).  Rather, we are finding ourselves appealing to the “empire” in every election to … what?  Give us back what we think we’ve lost?  Protect our rights and privileges?  Ask the “empire” to use its power to protect the Church from … the “empire” itself? 

The Benedict Option, then, (named for the 4th-century monastic, not the former pope) challenges us, the Church, the Body of Christ, the community of believers, to return to our roots, to look into ourselves and to the ordered – and ORDAINED - life of the Church to determine exactly who it is we are appealing to for answers, for authority, for guidance, for protection, and even for permission to live into the Covenant into which we are baptized.  If we are clamoring for judges and senators and presidents to be the guardians of the Holy Church, the Church is no longer holy and no longer guarded.

So we turn to prayer – not as a “last resort” but as recovery of the necessary, fundamental discipline; the order of the Church’s life AND the disciple’s necessary service and contribution to that life.  I know many, perhaps most, Christians would impatiently prefer “action” to “contemplation”, but our actions must be informed by and bathed in prayer.  It is what keeps us grounded in The Lord’s Presence and Will.  “Life as a Christian requires both contemplation and action [because each] depends on the other.  There is a reason Jesus retired to the desert after teaching the crowds.” Rod Dreher, The American Conservative, “The Benedict Option”

What this means is, first, we understand the nature of prayer; and that nature cannot be understood or even appreciated without acknowledging the contemplative nature of prayer.  This means we do not merely recite a prayer, call it good, and then go about our business.  Rather we take the time to fully engage in and immerse ourselves into the very Presence of The Lord.  This requires no distractions.

In Jesus’ devotion to His prayer time, it was necessary for Him to disengage from the culture, from the crowds, and even from His friends so He could be completely with the Father without distraction.  So in order to fully connect with the Father, Jesus was following His own advice: “When you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father …” (Matthew 6:6).

Jesus’ life, His very being was entirely wrapped up in His intimate connection to the Holy Father.  His prayer life was not incidental to His social life; rather His social life was dependent on His devotion to prayer.  Jesus was not impulsive, it seems, because He was undivided and uncompromised in His prayer time.  If you or I were to recite a simple prayer “on the fly”, it is likely we are already on a particular mission, our minds are already made up as to what we desire, and our prayer is not inclined to Divine Will as much as it seeks Divine Endorsement of our own desires.

It is a form of the false narrative of the so-called “prosperity gospel” we claim to reject.  If not this, then perhaps the obligatory, perfunctory prayer just to say we prayed – rendering the undisciplined practice as empty as receiving Communion without understanding what it means or being baptized but only getting wet, lacking real resolve to follow Jesus.  In each instance, then, we are reminded of Jesus’ affirmation of The Lord’s words to the prophet Isaiah: “They honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me”.

In every instance in which anything less than our whole self is engaged in prayer, we come away empty and perhaps eventually decide prayer doesn’t work; that we are better off simply operating for conscience’ sake, just “being good”, doing feel-good “programs”, living into that other false narrative of the “New Age” doctrine that we ourselves are our own “gods”. 

Yet simply “being good” or living into our own self-proclaimed doctrine will never be good enough because we are acting on our own impulses, according to our own desires, and primarily for our own sakes.  A question was posed at Annual Conference as to why things and persons are sometimes so nasty in the Church.  It is because we are completely disengaged from the very Presence that feeds us and sustains us and informs us.

Compare Jesus’ actions with Peter’s actions within those last hours of Jesus’ life.  Jesus devoted Himself to prayer – ALONE - before His arrest maybe because He knew there was the danger of His human impulse to survive overtaking His spiritual need to stay on The Father’s course.  Peter, on the other hand, rather than being connected to The Lord except by physical proximity, lied when questioned, and then fled when he felt threatened. 

Was it The Lord’s will that Peter survive to serve another day?  Maybe, but this misses the point of our need to be in constant prayer – “on the fly” to keep ourselves aware of The Lord’s presence in our daily living and work, in our rooms with the door closed to be mindful of the reality of The Lord in our homes, AND with the Body of believers for the sake of the Church’s mission to be always mindful of The Lord’s reality in HIS Church – not OUR club.

Only in faithful prayer, then, can we know and appreciate what it means to fully serve in The Lord’s Name rather than acting according to our own desires.  The ministries of the Church cannot be based only on what we may feel like doing within a particular “season” and only according to what we think is important and affordable; for our Lord, our God, our Shepherd alone knows what He needs from us in every “season”; and only He knows what it is we truly need for ourselves.  Only in devoted prayer, then, will we ever know what these are.

We may already be in the midst of a modern “Dark Age” in which we have come to depend on the “empire” to subsidize and legitimize the Church.  If this is true – and I think it must be because we seem to be more aware of the limits imposed by the “empire” – the only way out of the Dark and into the Light is by our Lord and Shepherd.  Nothing grows in darkness.  It is long past time to turn on the Light of the Church, the very Light of the world [for] (“You are the light of the world …” Matthew 5:14).  Amen.  

Benedict Option, part I: Order - a sermon for 19 June 2016

Hosea 6:1-11
Romans 11:13-24
Luke 9:57-10:10

"He who does not have the Church as his mother, does not have God as his father."  St. Augustine of Hippo

Many of you have probably heard of the so-called “nuclear option” in the US Congress.  The “nuclear option” is defined as the most drastic or extreme response possible to a particular situation.  In WWII it was Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In the Congress it is a parliamentary procedure that can be invoked when all other options seem unworkable.  Of course, the need to be so drastic is subjective according to whichever political party happens to hold the majority.  It is a way to stick it to the other guy.

The Benedict Option is the same idea but without the vindictive nature.  It is “an extreme response to a particular situation”, but what makes it seem so “extreme” is not the actual practice itself.  Rather, we would only see it as “extreme” because it demands complete obedience and humility before The Lord in His Church.  It requires that all else in our lives be placed secondary to our primary being and purpose, and it adheres to the biblical reality that we “cannot serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24).

“The primary purpose of Christian community life [whether in a monastery setting or in the Church] is to form Christians.  The Benedict Option can teach us to make every other goal in our lives secondary to serving The Lord.  Christianity is not simply a “worldview” or an add-on to our lives, [as it has come to be taught by the Church and practiced by church members].  Christianity must be our lives, or it is something less than Christianity.”  Rod Dreher, “The Benedict Option”, The American Conservative

In a manner of speaking, then, the Benedict Option is the “nuclear option” of the Western Church.  The more we understand it, the more we may come to realize just how far from our faithful witness we have drifted; that the primary purpose of our being – to form Christians - has been relegated to secondary or even incidental status, and our baptismal vows rendered void.  It is as when those who expressed a desire to follow Jesus but first wanted to take care of other things, and our Lord’s simple answer was: nope.  That’s not how this works.

Jesus was clearly unwilling to compromise, and yet somehow compromise has become the natural order of the Church.

St. Paul had very strong words for the Gentile believers in Rome when he wrote of the boundaries of The Lord’s patience.  That is, we can quite possibly drift so far off the holy grid that we may soon be “cut off” (Romans 11:22), assuming we are not already cut off, as in much of Church practice and practical living by which we claim to “know God” but we do not really “honor Him” (Romans 1:21).

This state of being leads us to a point at which we are given up “to a debased mind and to things that should not be done” (Romans 1:28).  Though St. Paul’s inference seems to be directed toward “that issue” which keeps haunting the Church, we must be willing to acknowledge there is much more we can do, have done, and still do to dishonor our God and Father; things that have come to be quite normal to us.  This is when we can honestly say we are CINO (Christian In Name Only); when we “honor The Lord with our lips while our hearts are far from Him” (Isaiah 29:13; Matthew 15:8).

So the Benedict Option seeks to radically change the course of our thinking and doing and being.  And the first order of our reorientation must be toward the “order of the Church”, but this “order” has nothing to do with the weekly bulletin or committee meetings or budgets.  Rather it speaks of how we order the very life of the Church itself to reorient ourselves to the Church’s primary purpose: “to form Christians”, to make disciples who are equipped to make disciples themselves.  The Church does not and must never exist to entertain nor to comfort those of us who are already a little too comfortable for our own good. 

Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).  That is, if we set ourselves on the work of the Kingdom and yet try to somehow make secular Christianity work for us, we are not “fit” for the Kingdom.  We are not ready; we are unprepared.  This can mean one of two things: we have either gone back to our old life, whatever it was; or we can acknowledge we still have a lot of work to do before we are “fit” or actually prepared for the Kingdom itself.

Jesus is defining a critical crossroads every believer faces at one time or another, and yet this passage has been taken so lightly by the contemporary Church to have been stripped of any real transformative meaning and power.  Think about what is happening in the Church today.  Fornicators, adulterers, gamblers, gossips, slanderers, homosexuals, drunks, addicts, and hoarders and lovers of money all claim to “know God”, all claim to have been “saved”; but few have a notion or even a concern about what it takes to truly “honor God”.  They testify of their salvation, almost proudly boasting of being a “sinner saved by grace”, but they never even try to “put their hand to the plow” for The Kingdom, having been convinced it is unnecessary and, consequently, missing the entire purpose of the Christian faith and the Church.

Now we can easily dismiss any of these by saying “they are not really saved”, and there may be some merit to this, but it is not for us to say. Such a dismissive and shallow statement fails to look more deeply into the life and the order of the Church – the Christian community - that has made such a narrow mindset and state of being possible.  “Don’t judge me” has become the favored defense of these who refuse to repent, and the Church has turned a blind eye to that “leaven” which threatens – and has largely already infected – the entire Body.

What does this mean to us who can clearly see “others” so narrowly engaged but cannot – or will not – see the complicity in ourselves? 

The first thing we must do is to acknowledge the reality of The Lord.  Not to simply say He exists (which is intellect, not faith), but to fully understand His Holy Nature revealed in His Law, His prophets, AND His Messiah.  Looking to the prophet Hosea – as the other prophets – we see a God whose arms are always open to the truly repentant; but we also encounter that same God who offers no excuses even to His own chosen people, and certainly not to those who try to live on both sides of the fence, working diligently to prove we CAN “serve two masters” in spite of Jesus’ direct words to the contrary. 

The Lord’s judgment is harsh and yet just – and is coming.  Those who will find favor with The Lord fully repent; that is, they do not merely apologize for their mistakes and hope for the best.  They make a complete determination to radically change their behavior and the trajectory of their lives.  They not only pray for mercy; they actively engage in acts of contrition and mercy, “bearing fruit worthy of repentance” as The Baptizer insisted upon, making right their many wrongs especially in the lives of those whom they have deliberately harmed.

Truly penitent persons do not try to justify their sins nor does our Holy Father justify us in our sins.  We must not take salvation to be so extremely personal that we fail to understand our place in the greater Christian community, to recognize, embrace, and then use our particular spiritual gifts for the sake of the Church’s whole and holy purpose.  It is how we learn to “love The Lord our God with everything we have and with every fiber of who we are” so we are then enabled to “love our neighbors as ourselves”. 

The Spirit of the Living God is our Teacher and our Guide.  It is only in this Reality  we are able to live fully into the ordered life of the Church toward its primary purpose of making, teaching, and then training disciples as we grow in discipleship ourselves; according to our fullest desire to truly transform ourselves into that Divine Image in which we are created.

There is a lot of angst and anxiety, fear and anger about the direction of this nation; but if we truly desire to transform this nation, we must first transform the Church to be the community we are called to be.  Not a “club” in which we get to make up our own rules and do as we please, but a living, breathing, disciple-making organism alive in the Spirit of our Holy Father to do His Will.  The Benedict Option drives us to it because St. Benedict knew our God requires it.  And in Benedict’s time, the Church was falling apart much like today.

We are nothing without the fullness and the wholeness of the Church, but the Church cannot be the true Body of Christ without devoted disciples of Christ, diligent and active members dedicated to Christian excellence in service to our God and to one another.  Anything less is something less than Christianity, unfit for the Kingdom of God.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Which Shepherd?

“The gatekeeper opens the gate for [the shepherd], and the sheep hear his voice.  He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.  They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.”  Gospel of John 10:3-5

What is most disturbing about the 2016 presidential race is not the unusually harsh rhetoric or the “Twitter wars” or even the juvenile name-calling.  What is most profoundly disturbing are the many Christians who rabidly claim one candidate or another *or* the many more Christians who gleefully slander the opposing candidate with misinformation, half-baked information, or downright false information, all the while feeling perfectly justified while doing so.

Even this, however, is not nearly as disturbing as the profound silence from the Church universal.  Oh, we hear plenty from churches (little “c”) and various denominations, but the Church (big “C”) does not speak boldly with a prophetic voice on behalf of the Only One who can save, the Only One who can truly shepherd a people.  Churches are speaking to specific social issues (for or against), but few are truly speaking on behalf of The Great Shepherd Himself.

There is a key component of Jesus’ discourse in John’s Gospel we Christians would do well to pay closer attention to, and that is this grossly misunderstood statement: “They [the sheep] will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers”. 

Christians may have convinced themselves they more clearly recognize the voice of the Shepherd; but if Christians and churches (again, little “c”) are doing more speaking for a particular candidate than they are for The Great Shepherd, which is truly “the stranger”?  Too many are so diligently following one candidate or the other that it seems clear (at a glance, at least) whom is being followed.  Sadly, it isn’t Jesus they are hearing and responding to.  Rather, in our public political discourse, Jesus Himself appears to be “the stranger” from whom these are running.

This is not to say Christian citizens should not vote their own consciences or ask hard questions and demand reasonable answers from their chosen candidates.  Indeed we all must, but this isn’t about exercising responsible civic duty.  This is entirely about what it means to be disciples of Christ, members of the Body of Christ in which Christ Jesus alone is the Head, the Holy Church united not in foreign or domestic public policy but united in doctrine, in purpose, and in mission to share the Gospel of The Lord and make disciples who are equipped to make disciples themselves.  If we are not fully devoted to Christ, we are something less than Christian.

St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).  If this same apostle were to write a letter to the Church in America, surely he would also state “there is neither Republican nor Democrat … for you are all [supposed to be] one in Christ, not in Trump nor in Clinton …”

This is also not about whether one is “saved”; it is entirely about whether one is “faithful” … and to whom we are being faithful.  Publicly slandering anyone is not faithfulness; it is foolishness.  The only “foolishness” Christians must be privy to and engaged with is the “foolishness of the Cross”, (1 Corinthians 1:18).  For all the talk about those who are “perishing”, it may well be the churches (maybe even the Church) perishing under the weight of its own disobedience and faithlessness.

It is a safe bet The Lord has not ordained anyone with such filthy mouths and deceptive practices to “shepherd” the Church in the United States.  We have but one Shepherd who has already given all He had to give in order to lead us to blessedness and safety and security and prosperity.  Hear Him before hearing others, and soon come to know who the real “stranger” is and who the real “Shepherd” is; for anything less than Life” (John 14:6) is death.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

4th Sunday of Pentecost: Of Sacred Worth in Sacred Trust

1 Kings 21:1-20
Luke 7:36-50

“We affirm (rather than “assign”) that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God.”  ¶161, Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church

When we are baptized we are set apart from the rest of the world, having been claimed exclusively by The Lord and brought into His Covenant, His Church.  Baptism, then, is much more than a mere rite of passage.  As a Sacrament of the Church, we understand baptism to be an initiation into something broader and more fully encompassing than even we realize.  It takes a lifetime to live into what baptism truly means – a lifetime of more than mere devotion to self.

The challenge of baptism for us, however, is that nothing on the surface really seems to change so much.  The world is still pretty much as it always has been.  There is still plenty of heartache, exploitation, injustice, hunger for food and fellowship and comfort and peace, and it seems clear few really care that we are baptized, reborn by “water and the Spirit” (John 3:5) into a relationship that can never be fully understood in the context of the world into which we are born nor can it be understand as strictly “personal”.

What’s more, the Bible reads like a fantasy book filled with stories of the poor, the weak, the marginalized coming out on top in the end; and those who would exploit these weak, poor souls finally get what’s coming to them.  The stories express hope in The Lord, comfort in His Covenant, and peace in the world which is to come.  Yet it is this world we must contend with.  It is the stories in the daily news we read as the reality we seem stuck with; stories which seem to prove the good die young, and the wicked always come out on top.

By faith we know our God is always going to get the last word when the wicked and the greedy take unfair advantage to get what they want, but we do not always get to see the final outcome.  I do not know that we ever will.  Maybe there will come a time when we will rest in the “bosom of Abraham” (Luke 16:22) and see those on the other side begging Abraham for mercy, but we must also consider the possibility that someone else – someone we victimized, someone we stepped over, someone in distress we overlooked and never made peace with – will be looking down upon us.

For the contemporary notion of what it means to be “saved”, I think maybe we do not give enough thought or attention to the reality that being baptized and confirmed into the Holy Covenant imparts to us a “Sacred Trust”, rather than a personal privilege; a Sacred Trust that requires more from us than we realize or can even fully appreciate if we allow the moment to pass as only a “church practice”, a “thing” it is time to do. 

“We Americans have to unlearn some of the ways of individualism that we absorb uncritically, and we must relearn the craft of community living.”  Writer Rod Dreher made this observation in an article published in “The American Conservative” about the so-called “Benedict Option”.  Though the “Benedict Option” cannot be fully understood in a single statement, the idea that “we Americans have to unlearn some of the ways of individualism that we absorb uncritically” is thematic to the whole of the Option.  That is, we are baptized into a Body, a community, what is known in the Greek as the “ecclesia”, the congregation of The Lord.  We enter into a community, a covenant of shared responsibility.  “To each his own” has no place in this community.

What is revealed in this simple statement is the reality that we have become so enculturated to the American Ideal of “rugged individualism” we have “absorbed so uncritically” – that is, with little or no thought - that we have lost our sense of who we are in the larger context of the community, the Church, the Holy Covenant.  We have become so “personally” saved that we don’t really give a rip about anyone other than ourselves.  It is that very shallow notion of “saved-ness” that allows us to hate others with a clear conscience.

We have become so caught up in taking care of ourselves and getting our own way that we have all but forgotten (assuming we ever knew) our Holy Charge; that Sacred Trust which acknowledges the biblical reality that “to whom much is given, all the more will be required” (Luke 12:48).  That is, we have been given much in this world because there is much to be done for the World To Come.

King Ahab had no real concept of what it meant to be Israel’s king (1 Kings 21).  To him, it was about power and personal privilege.  He had no idea about the enormous responsibility that came with such a Sacred Trust.  The same can be said of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50).  He believed himself to have been put in a position of authority as a teacher and enforcer of the Torah, the Law.  Indeed he was in such a position of authority, but the fuller meaning of Divine Law had clearly been lost on him so much so that he did not even think to offer to Jesus the very basic of cultural courtesy which was due a guest in his home.

Each of these persons of authority – and even King David in the murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 11, 12)!! – lost all sense of all they had been entrusted with and why they were so entrusted.  They “absorbed uncritically” (without thoughtful introspection) all they had at their disposal that they became overwhelmed with a sense of personal privilege.  Within that Sacred Trust they had no concept of the Sacred Worth assigned to the entire human race created in The Divine Image – even the “sinners”! 

I have no doubt most of us believe we really are doing the very best we can do with whatever we have at our disposal, but I also think we do not “critically” consider how much we really have.  We measure ourselves and our worth according to cultural and social standards that are incompatible with covenantal standards. 

We live in an age in which those who lack have somehow been convinced they have been cheated out of what they are entitled to, never “critically” considering … well, anything.  Caught up especially in an election year in which it is customary for politicians to promise all things to all people, we have allowed this shallow narrative to convince us we are coming up short through no fault of our own.

Some are coming up short, but not always in the way they think because they are listening to the wrong narrative.  Public policy debates even within the Church pertaining to doctrinal disputes have become so loud, so bitter, so resentful, so malicious that we have forgotten the Sacred Trust inherent to the Holy Covenant. 

We have forgotten that the Sacred Worth assigned to us is the same Sacred Worth assigned to all by the God who “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).  I will grant that we sometimes get pushed to our limits, especially when the nature of sin itself is not always “critically” considered and respected for its destructive power more than it is considered something personally offensive to us.  We only use the Bible incidentally to make our own case without fully understanding the holy nature of the Sacred Trust

This, I think, is what Simon the Pharisee was being called on.  He was so caught up in the woman’s sin and the response he expected from Jesus to back him up that he failed to look upon the woman as a human being of genuine Sacred Worth, the worth measured by The Lord rather than by humans.  He could only see her sins for which she was apparently well known, and he expected Jesus to do the right thing, the cultural thing, even the religious thing; to shun her for the sinner she was, unworthy of any human consideration.

We’re pretty good at this; a little too good at it, I’m afraid, for our own spiritual well-being.  We are so caught up in our own “saved-ness”, our own self-righteousness, that we are virtually incapable of seeing others with anything less than with disdain and contempt because they do not fit our preconceived cultural molds of what is proper.  Yet when The Word calls on our contempt and our narrow vision, we often become even more resentful, more contemptuous than before!  Repentance is for “them”!  Not for us.

As baptized Christians confirmed in the faith, however, we must not lose sight of the Sacred Trust which comes with baptism in discipleship.  I think if we were more aware of the The Lord’s Covenant and put less emphasis on “personal” salvation, we may get a better sense of the Sacred Worth of others within the Sacred Trust placed upon us.  And when we are able (and willing!) to do this, we will get a better sense of the Body we truly are a part of, the Body of Christ; and “church” won’t be quite the dirty word it has become in our society.

If we truly desire a transformed society, it must begin within the Body of Christ – not within the US Congress or the White House.  Let us therefore strive to become more aware of what we are called into rather than what we think we have been “saved” from; for when we are more aware of who we truly are, we will become more aware of who our “neighbors” are also in Christ.  Only then will the transformation begin.  Amen.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Where We Are - 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 3:1-9
1 John 3:10-15
John 15:18-25

“There are just some kinds of people who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”  Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
It has been said there are two important moments in every person’s life; when we are born, and when we finally come to know why we were born.  That idea has been attributed to Mark Twain, but I heard it in the introductory monologue to the series, “Roots”, which played on the History Channel this past week. 

I cannot wrap my mind around the idea of being captured when we could not really know we should have been running, branded as livestock to eliminate any sense of self, and then thrown chained and shackled into the hold of a ship with no idea of what was to happen next – certainly with no real idea about why any of this was happening.

White Europeans had been coming to trade in western Africa for at least a couple hundred years prior to the 18th century, so white men were not so strange to these Africans.  Some had even learned to speak some English but only for the purposes of trading.  How did this friendly trade relationship morphed into an idea of buying and selling human beings on so large a scale? 

The reality is slavery had been around for a very long time – the nature of which usually revolves around power and dominance.  Rival clans not only gained power by trading members of other clans for guns; they also gained territorial power by simply getting rid of rival clan members who posed a potential threat to them.

So author Alex Haley had been trying to make sense of this whole thing by wondering if the capture of “Kunta Kinta” and so many millions of other Africans could serve any useful purpose beyond the profit.  Later in America when “Kunta Kinte” was whipped to within an inch of his life for refusing to embrace his new American name, his friend and mentor “Fiddler” was tending to his torn back.  While he was dressing the deep wounds, he told “Kunta”, “This ain’t your home, but it’s where you got to be”.

How could something so evil ultimately serve a useful purpose, even a Divine purpose?  Recall that Joseph, Isaac’s beloved son, the “dreamer” had been sold by his own brothers and for much the same reasons!  They got a little coin but more importantly perhaps, they got rid of this nuisance who kept dreaming that one day his family would be paying homage to him!  Power.  Dominance.  Doing whatever is necessary to eliminate a potential threat.

Joseph came to know later it was The Lord who had a hand in everything in keeping Isaac’s family from starving to death, The Lord protecting His Covenant with Abraham.  Coming to know this, Joseph was able to forgive his brothers for having done this terrible thing to him.  He came to fully appreciate that while Egypt was not his home, it was still where he had to be: to serve a much greater purpose beyond himself

Because it was not about Joseph.  It never was.

So here we are in 21st-century America, often wishing we were back in the 1950’s when things seemed so idyllic.  In post-war America, families went to church.  Men were men, women were women, and many families made do on one salary.  Children were not latchkey kids.  They were supervised and protected even by neighbors.  Gangs and gang warfare were the stuff of big cities, and it was almost unheard of to see a teacher’s photo and name splashed across the front page of the daily newspapers for having had an inappropriate relationship with a student.

And we seem to have lost all that as the “Greatest Generation” slowly fades.  What they helped to build is crumbling around us, and it seems beyond our control to do anything about it.  Perhaps we wonder if we will somehow be destroyed along with everything and everyone else. 

Why can’t The Lord just end it all, take all us “saved” folks Home where we think we belong, and restore all things as The Word has assured us will one day certainly happen?

We are more compelled to ask, however: why should He?  Why should The Lord intervene when we won’t?  Why should The Lord concern Himself with the “greater good” when His own people are concerned only with themselves?  Indeed how could The Lord intervene if we won’t, we being concerned only with having a “good life” and protecting what we think is “ours”?  

In Jesus’ discourse with His disciples in John’s Gospel, it may have occurred to at least a few of them to ask why they must stay if things really are going to be as bad as Jesus tells them it would be.  So when we talk about pain and suffering and fear and helplessness and uncertainty, asking the unanswerable question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, we fail to make the connection between what Jesus told His disciples then … and what He still tells His disciples now

The disciples then had a purpose that would extend beyond Jesus’ time on this earth and certainly beyond themselves as individuals.  How have we managed to convince ourselves we should somehow be immune from what they had to endure?  Because we think we’re “saved”??

“Saved” for what?

Their world was falling apart, too.  They could not seem to round a corner without the potential of meeting up with “Judiazers”, maybe even coming face to face with the likes of Saul of Tarsus himself.  And I have no doubt they all, at one time or another, questioned why.  Why do things have to be so bad for “me”?  Why does my family have to live in fear?  What is the point of my “salvation” if it gets me nothing in this world?

All these, of course, are the wrong questions for a disciple to ask.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing written in the whole of the Bible to suggest in any way that we should expect to be immune from what the disciples before us endured – not strictly because they were “Christians” but because they were active witnesses to something greater than any moment, greater than any person, greater than any personal desire or demand.  They were “testifying” to what they knew beyond this world, not demanding this world to respect their “rights”.  It wasn’t about “me” then, and it isn’t about “me” now.

It is ok to pray for peace.  It is even ok to pray when we are afraid, but above all else is our duty to pray for clarity.  We are where we are – and when we are – for His purposes.  Though there are certainly unplanned pregnancies, there is no such thing as an accidental or incidental life that serves no holy purpose … not in Christ, and certainly not by the Hand of the One who created us so “fearfully and wonderfully”. 

I think, though, the reason we get so caught up in all that’s wrong is because we are almost completely oblivious to all we must be doing that could be so right.  It is the atheist who believes his life has no meaning, no purpose beyond himself.  It is how “children of the devil” (1 John 3:10) are revealed – when they are only concerned with themselves.

Yet we “must not be astonished that the world hates us, for we [should] know we have passed from death to life because we love one another” (1 John 3:13-14).  We are not “victims”.  We never have been, and we never will be as long as Christ is in us and we in Christ.  “We ain’t home, but we are where we got to be”. 

Because our Holy Father needs us here.  Because the world and those who live in darkness have been entrusted to our care.  It is why we are born, and it is why we are here.  To the Glory of Almighty God and for the sake of His Eternal Word.  Amen.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The Weakest Link as the Point of Strength

Isaiah 1:16-20
Romans 14:14-23
Luke 7:1-10

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”  Mother Teresa of Calcutta

We have surely heard the adage, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”  And we know this to be true because the point of weakness is where the chain will break when stressed.  The overall strength of the chain to serve its purpose can only be measured at its weakest point.

The very same must be said of any community, any sort of congregation of people regardless of their purpose for gathering.  We may have convinced ourselves that our strength is measured by individual might or wealth, by military power or political connections, or by any number of other measures of value in the secular world.  But “Do not, for the sake of food [or other weakness], destroy the work of God” (Romans 14:20).

There may indeed be a measure of power in these things - temporal thought they may be – but the hard truth is we as a community, as a congregation of the people of The Lord, can only be as strong as the weakest and most frail among us – because the true strength of any community, any congregation, any nation is measured in how we treat the weakest among us – even if they are not directly a part of “us”.

What is so revealing in Luke’s Gospel is not the miracle of Jesus healing the centurion’s slave without actually touching him.  It is most revealing in understanding that the centurion, a Roman military commander, was not actually considered a part of the community, the congregation of the people.  Even though he was considered friendly to them, he was still an outsider, a “foreigner”.  So, too, was his slave.

Now we may be tempted to think the Jewish elders agreed to go to Jesus with this request from the centurion because of “quid pro quo” – returning favor for favor – and there may be some merit to this; but we may also consider that since Jesus had come “only” to the House of Israel (Matthew 15:24), going to this Roman was out of line. 

Yet we should also consider something much broader and with much more depth than “getting saved” as the only reason to have an encounter with Jesus, “the Word which became flesh”.  We are compelled not only to know and appreciate The Word in its fullness; we are compelled also to consider that order to lift up the entire congregation of the House of Jacob, it would be necessary to reach out to the very weakest among them.  And I doubt there were many who would be considered much weaker or more worthless than a sick slave – and a slave to a Roman at that!

In Deuteronomy 24:17 it is written: "You shall not pervert the justice due an alien or an orphan [outsider OR insider, both in a position of weakness] … .”  Yet the prayer of the psalmist also reads: “O Lord, You will hear the desire of the meek; You will strengthen their heart, and You will incline Your Ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed so that those from earth may strike terror no more” (Psalm 10:17-18).

We are often quick and sincere to pray The Lord’s mercy on those who are marginalized, who are weak and frail, who are unable (but not unwilling) to fend for themselves.  We pray for justice and we certainly pray for mercy for ourselves and for our loved ones; yet The Lord Himself seems to say, according to His commandments (The Word) and affirmed through His prophets, that justice and mercy, acts of true righteousness and faith, must come from the hands and the hearts of The Lord’s people.  This is how justice is done rather than wished for.  This is how mercy is shown rather than hoped for.

The tone is set early on in Isaiah as The Lord chastises His people for their empty religious ceremonies, assemblies, and offerings.  This is very strange since Exodus and Leviticus are chock full of regulations and rules for worship and sacrifice offerings.  They are not recommended; they are required!

Yet The Lord declares through His prophet, “What to Me is the multitude of your sacrifices … I have had enough of burnt offerings … I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs or of goats … I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity [that is, the presence of sin] (Isaiah 1:11-13).

So how can there be sin in the midst of doing all the right worship stuff?  We follow the rules of our traditions.  We show up for worship.  We participate in the prayers.  We offer our tithes and other offerings.  We receive the Sacraments of the Church.  We do all the right “religious” things, but something is clearly lacking, says The Lord.  “Remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes.  Cease to do evil, learn to do good.  Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:16-17).

It would seem, then, that for all the praying we do in asking The Lord to watch over those who cannot fend for themselves, The Lord is tapping His fingers on the arm of His Throne and wondering when we are going to get busy going about His work in looking out for one another.

This is not to say the religious practices are not important.  They are very important for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the very worship of The Lord Himself.  Yet it is impossible to please Him or to offer to Him anything at all if everything we have and everything we do is tainted with the lack of care and concern for the well-being of the whole community.  Not only those we happen to like, or only those who are like us, or only those who can return a favor – but perhaps especially for those we do not particularly like and certainly especially for those who absolutely cannot return a favor.

In Isaiah’s context it would seem only the well-to-do were offering anything at all, effectively trying to buy The Lord’s favor by slaughtering only the best of the livestock (as the regulations require).  Even those who thought perhaps they were only giving what they believed they could spare would not be immune from the Divine Judgment that stated very clearly that no gift, no offer, no sacrifice would be accepted if those who could not participate – for whatever reason - were excluded in any way – not just excluded from the worship gathering but who were excluded from the attention of the community.

The community was failing right before The Lord’s very eyes, and throughout the prophets we get a sense of a very slow degradation of society in general not because no one was giving – but perhaps because so many were only giving to the Temple and to worship but were ignoring the clear social component of Torah, what we call “Law”, in looking after the “least” among them – even the “aliens”. 

What we commonly refer to as “The Law” (what we Christians have been convinced we are excused from) is much more than a list of “thou shalt not’s” – and there are many more than just ten.  The entire Law (Torah) rests on the two Great Commandments to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:40).  Even St. Paul sums up the entire Law as loving neighbor (Galatians 5:14).  We Christians, however, have marginalized the Divine Law and have reduced the Gospel itself only to “getting saved” or having a “personal” Savior.

We all get a little overwhelmed with need because we can clearly see the needs around us are so great.  Many of us have convinced ourselves we do well to tithe at all, assuming we can actually reach the tithe level.  And the political climate in this country right now is such that we are much more concerned about keeping “outsiders” out for safety’s sake, not realizing or even caring about those who are being categorized unfairly.

We are more acutely aware of potential danger than we are of our own Divine Authority to act in the Holy Name.  We are not a people of Faith; we are a people of Fear.  In this mindset, we harm the very neighbor we are commanded to love as ourselves – and we cheat the community (including ourselves) out of its real strength, the strength found only in wholeness, in holiness.

It is written, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  Before we try pasting that bumper sticker on our cars, maybe we should actually try doing “all things” before we boast about any Christian privilege.  For our privilege AND strength are not in quoting favorite Bible passages … but in living them.  For Him who strengthens us … for those whose strength has faded or has been taken from them.  Only then will we know our true strength.  Amen.