Sunday, October 30, 2016

If The Lord already knows, why must we pray?

Jeremiah 33:1-9
Colossians 3:22-4:6
Luke 18:1-14

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.”  Colossians 4:2

It has been said that prayer is what we do when we talk to The Lord, but meditating is what we do when we take the time to actually listen for The Lord’s response.  Jesus goes to great lengths to assure His followers that earnest prayers are always heard.  There are several passages in the Scriptures, however, which have been twisted to suggest that if we only believe when we pray, we will get what we want – “the desires of our hearts”, the psalmist says (37:4). 

We often skip over the part that seems to require we first “take delight in The Lord”; not just that He exists, but also including delight in His ways, His commandments, His requirements.  When our hearts match His heart, then we may expect the desires of “our” collective heart – our heart matching The Lord - not strictly our personal desires that have nothing to do with The Lord, the Kingdom, or His Church.

So we should not be surprised that the answer to our self-serving prayers from a truly loving Father is often “no”.  St. James says “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:3). 

How, then, do we put it all together so we may have a clearer understanding of the awesome task, the remarkable responsibility of prayer AND meditation without asking, “If The Lord already knows, why must we pray?”

A couple of weeks ago we began an exploration of biblical stewardship.  Recall that I suggested it is more often than not that when we hear “stewardship”, we hear “money” and stop listening – having already determined we are a) giving all we’re going to give, or b) giving all we think we can give, or c) not going to give, no matter what. 

Believe it or not, every church – without exception – has a mix of all three.  And believe this or not, but a, b, and c all miss the mark as it pertains to diligent and faithful stewardship because all three are subjective reasons that do not consider the privilege of stewardship; they see only burden.  Not just with money but with prayer, committee assignments, and other church endeavors that require membership participation.

And no less so when it comes to the many other means of grace we have been entrusted with.  Through it all, we fail to understand the principle of stewardship – what it means when we are entrusted with something of immeasurable value rather than that we are given something for our own personal enjoyment and benefit with no regard for The Lord, the Church, or the Kingdom.  Believing to the point of boasting that we are personally blessed only for our own sakes as some cosmic reward for our faith is a perversion of what is actually written in the Scriptures.

More than once (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11; James 2:9) we are told that The Lord shows “no partiality”.  The Lord favors no one over another; rich or poor, black or white, male or female, Jew or Gentile, Democrat or Republican – all have found equal favor through redemption by the Gift of Christ Himself whether they believe it or not.   But all we are entrusted with is to be devoted to helping the “or nots” to believe – to give them a reason to believe.

When we finally determine that The Lord entrusts His people with such gifts for “making disciples” as per the Great Commission to the Holy Church and helping unbelievers and doubters to come to know of The Lord’s profound love and their own need to actively fellowship with the Church, then we can begin to understand nothing is given to us that we are not expected – actually, commanded – to give freely to others (Matthew 10:8). 

Big difference between having been given something and having been entrusted with something.  Yet both must be greeted and received with profound gratitude.  Sadly, however, we seem grateful only when we believe what we have – however much or little – has been given strictly to “us”.  We cannot seem to muster the gratitude to be thankful for what is entrusted to us for the Kingdom’s purposes in and through the Church.

Hence our acute need to pray AND meditate, and to understand what is really happening when we do engage the Kingdom of Heaven when we pray AND meditate.  This, of course, depends on why we choose to pray in the first place, and how much of our own precious time we are willing to devote to such prayer AND meditation – both talking AND listening.  We cannot call prayer a “conversation with The Lord” if we are unwilling to hear Him speak – or give Him time to speak.

I could not help but to think about the coming US election and how much we believe to be at stake as I was reading Isaiah 62.  The chapter begins with The Lord’s determination that when Judah is finally restored from her exile, “her vindication will shine like the dawn, and her salvation [will shine] like a burning torch.  The nations will see your vindication, and all the kings [will see] your glory” (1,2).

To this end, however, comes a duty to The Lord’s people before and after the Restoration: “You who remind (pray to) The Lord, take no rest; and give [The Lord] no rest until He establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth” (6,7).

The engaging principle of stewardship in constant prayer, and being given a reason to pray, was set to remind the people of Judah to think very hard about what it is they really want and what they are willing to hear.  Did they only want to be returned to their homeland for their own sakes?  Or were they willing to “shine like the dawn” and “burn like a torch” as a deliberate – rather than an incidental - testament to the Living God who alone delivered His people from bondage and will set His people back on the right path – if they were willing to follow Him?

Are we so willing to “shine like the dawn” and “let our salvation burn like a torch” as a deliberate testament to the Living God who alone has atoned for our sins and who alone can set His Church back on the right path – IF we are willing to follow Him?  Are we willing to take no rest, and give The Lord no rest” in earnest and diligent prayer until He delivers the Church from a culture that has become entirely too self-involved and self-centered?  Including those who have convinced themselves by a perversion of the Gospel that our God and the Father of ALL creation actually shows favor?  Or that the material blessings of this life are signs of Divine favor bestowed personally on one over another? 

That, my friends, is the very heart of the so-called “prosperity gospel”.  It does not fit the biblical narrative of The Lord’s people, and it does not acknowledge the reality that the entire Church is set apart – as Israel was intended – to work as a whole entity for His glory and for the spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of others! 

Because genuine gratitude is not what we feel.  Like love, gratitude is what we do with what has been entrusted to us.

It is the nature of our prayer and our willingness to earnestly meditate which determines what we come to know about gifts and blessings.  It is entirely about how open we truly are to The Lord’s voice in our lives and in our hearts through the heart of the Church.  It is true, of course, that The Lord already knows.  What is not true is that we ourselves already know.  We don’t.  And if we think we do, it is only because we are not open to the distinct possibility that The Lord may ask more from us than we are willing to give. 

For heaven’s sake, Abraham was called to pack and move at the age of 75!  Was he blessed?  Or was he burdened!  We cannot say he was comfortable – which seems to be at the heart of our own desire.  Use me, Lord, but don’t inconvenience me!  Bless me, Lord, but don’t ask anything of me.

All the other components of stewardship, all the means of grace at our disposal to become all our God has intended for us to be, become meaningless if we do not understand the importance of, and our desperate need to, pray AND listen – not to make ourselves feel better but to learn to feel better about our Holy Father regardless of what He asks of us!  

Because it may be that where we are is what WE have settled for – not what He has asked of us.

There are 1001 reasons not to bother with prayer, not least of which is that “your Father already knows what you need”.  As with public worship, however, there is only One Reason to make time for prayer and meditation.  It is the only way we will ever come to know what our God, our Holy Father wants us to know – needs us to know AS A BODY for the sake of those who do not yet know. 

If we can get past the false notion that prayer is strictly about “me”, and if we can embrace prayer as the privilege it truly is rather than the burden we think it is, then we are well on our way to a healthy and truly fulfilling prayer life.  Because the entire Church of The Lord depends on our faithfulness and diligence in prayer.  The Whole Church – and the communities we are called to serve … for His Glory and no other.  Amen. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Thought

“Not every who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.  Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness’.”  Matthew 7:21-23 NKJV

“I’m a good person”, many say; and according to certain cultural standards, it may be entirely true.  “I’m a good Christian”, many others say; and, again, according to certain cultural standards, this may be equally true as well – subjective, but true enough for us.  Yet there is an element to each of these statements which often contributes to not only a profound (if willful) ignorance of what Jesus actually requires of His followers; there may also be a significant amount of “boasting” as well as we attempt to justify ourselves not even according to our works (however these works may be defined) but according to our own subjective standards.

Jesus uses examples that may not even be indicative of any particular cultural standard, but there is a religious standard being expressed by those who are attempting to justify themselves and their works.  Casting out demons, prophesying (preaching/testifying/witnessing), and doing wonders all in the name of The Lord were works performed by the apostles before and after the Resurrection.  While it cannot be said Jesus is rejecting these efforts entirely, it can be said these are not enough.  Clearly Jesus is judging these things to be insufficient to “making disciples”.

So what are we to make of this?  These practices Jesus seems to condemn are not done without some measure of cultural risk, so why are these being so easily rejected? 

It must first be acknowledged that whenever we stand before The Lord on “that day”, we may not likely be asked to submit a list of accomplishments, things we may feel to be worthy of bragging rights, awesome deeds we performed in the Name of The Lord.  I can almost see it for myself that we who call ourselves Christian will stand before The Lord as He asks, ‘Did you pray for your enemies?  Or did you slander them to anyone who would listen?”  “Did you pray for your national leaders?  Or did you malign them on social media?”  “Did you feed the hungry?  Or did you blame them for being careless and lazy?”  “Did you visit those in prison?  Or did you write them off as getting what they deserve?”

When Jesus condemns “you who practice lawlessness”, He is speaking of much more than our own notions of “good” – as in how we determine we are “good” persons or “good” Christians.  He is speaking volumes about what it takes to be “faithful” disciples.  He is not talking about citizenship; our Lord is referring strictly to discipleship!  And the Judgment on “that day” will not be based on some vague and long-forgotten profession of faith!  It seems by Jesus’ words the Judgment will be entirely about how we chose to live into that profession of faith.

Jesus’ words do not present a conflict between “New Testament faith” and “Old Testament works”.  This is a false dichotomy we have created for ourselves over time precisely because of our inclination toward selective Scripture reading and personal interpretation – because that personal interpretation outside of traditional teachings and perspectives of the Church is how we choose to measure our own goodness and make the Scriptures fit our personal narrative rather than to make the effort to live into His narrative.  If we were to discern Jesus’ words as demanding works without understanding faith in discipleship, we would still be missing Jesus’ point.

We must not rely on our own or our culture’s standards of what is good, for our Lord’s standards are much higher but not unattainable!  We can live up to His standards.  He invites us to live up to His standards!  And why?  Because it is the only way others will be open to their own experience of our Lord’s grace – through His disciples.  We must suit up and step up – for “freely you have been given, and freely you must give” (Matthew 10:8).

The Lord is great, is He not?


Monday, October 24, 2016

A Thought

“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15 NRSV).

“Now is the time!  Here comes God’s Kingdom!  Change your hearts and lives, and trust this Good News!” (Mark 1:15 Common English Bible)

First things first: did we begin our week with worship of The Lord?  With other disciples?  Did we devote ourselves, our lives, and our gifts to lifting up the Holy Church and being challenged with a new perspective on The Word? 

If the answer is yes, then the week has begun on the right foot, and the tone for the coming week is potentially set.  If not (with exceptions of illness or other infirmities), then there must be a better understanding of what being in the Body of Christ is about, what public worship is about, what being the Church is about.

“Believing the Gospel” and “trusting the Good News” carries much more weight than we often give credit for.  Too often we are determined that this message is for “me”, while the more difficult passages that don’t seem so good-newsy (downright threatening!) is for “them” – whomever “them” may be – usually those who do not live the way we think they should.  In both instances, we miss the essence of the Gospel, the “good news” as well as what it means to “repent”, which is to “change our hearts and lives” – not merely apologize.

Absent the knowledge of the Gospel, we pretty much keep to ourselves.  We do as we please when we please and however it may please us.  We consider ourselves “good people” by our own definitions, and we do for those we love and we may do for others beyond those we love as long as we do not have to go too far out of our way.

To “repent”, however, to “change our hearts and lives” means we cannot – must not - continue as before; such as doing only for those we love, helping others so long as it is not too inconvenient, or not engaging in public worship with and in the Church, the whole Body of Christ – warts and all!  If we claim to “believe” the Gospel but our lives are largely unchanged, how can we claim to have knowledge of salvation?  How can we claim to know Jesus at all if nothing about our daily routine has changed?

There is one sure way to weaken the Church, and it has nothing to do with the devil: that is when believers stay away.  Withhold our hearts, withhold our efforts, withhold our gifts, and withhold all manner of our contributions.  If this is our deliberate choice, what choices were made when we claim to have come to ‘believe’? 

The current political climate is such that getting everyone to vote is important because so much is at stake.  We encourage citizens to vote because it is how our republic is at its best.  How, then, do we think the Church will be just fine without us, without all believers doing our part to “make disciples”, without our contributions (of all kinds), without our active participation?  The answer is that it cannot.  The strength of the Church is fully invested in those who truly “believe” and “trust”, who fully “repent” and “change their hearts and lives”. 

Do we dare to notice Jesus does not say He will change our hearts and lives?  No, His call is an invitation to a life we have not yet known.  It is a challenge to go beyond ourselves and live into a life we had previously denied ourselves – and others!  We are invited to “change our hearts and lives” by our determination to live into the Invitation.  WE have to make that choice!

Each new day is an invitation into this New Life – until such time as we run out of days; and only The Lord knows when that Day is coming.  But with each day that passes without our having chosen to live into that Invitation, we are cheating ourselves out of the kind of life our Lord has in store for us. 

Let not another day pass without making some kind of change.  Accept the Invitation, the challenge to become more today than yesterday!  The Lord assures us He will lead us, but He makes no provision for following us wherever we may choose to go; for there is only one Way and one Gate.  The Church is the Body of Christ, and Christ is the Head of the Body.  There will we find Life – in Him and with one another.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Stewardship: the true measure of devotion

Genesis 2:4-9, 15
1 Corinthians 9:3-14, 17
Luke 12:42-48

“Each of us will be accountable to God.”  Romans 14:12

“Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by [The Lord]. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service, you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already.” 
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

So according to Mr. Lewis (and no less according to sound biblical principles), there can be no part of our being that is not already claimed – and more especially so by the Blood of Christ Himself.  It stands to reason, then, that everything we do and every word we speak are responses to this reality.  We are in a constant state of response to The Eternal Covenant.  This is an important distinction because we must not believe being justified before The Lord automatically makes everything we do or say good or right.  We still possess the capacity to do our own thinking.  It is the power of thinking which is given from Above.

So the first thing the modern Protestant Church needs to do is to shed the common assertion that in the Covenant of Christ, we don’t “have to” do anything.  This is not only held to be blatantly false by Jesus’ many words; it has been proved over the generations to be extremely destructive to the Church and Her mission because at best it is an incomplete statement. 

This “alibi” has led to the statistical reality that only 20% of the people of the Church gives, and only 20% of the people of the Church does the work.  The other 80% simply does not care.  The Church is already limping through the 21st century; imagine what the Church would look like if EVERY Christian decided he or she didn’t “have to” do anything.

On the other hand, imagine what the Church could accomplish for the Kingdom and the communities we are called to serve if every Christian spent more time thinking in terms of stewardship instead of ownership.    

What is most unfortunate about the biblical principle of stewardship is that many, maybe most, Christians immediately think of money; and almost immediately after this thought crosses the mind, we go numb, we shut down, and we stop listening.  Tithing and other offerings are certainly a part of a total heart for stewardship, but money in and of itself is not at all a component of a life devoted to faith and to Christ and His Body, the Church.  Stewardship is entirely about what we do with money and with every other component of our being.

So we must not think of stewardship as an “expensive” proposition but, rather, as an “expansive” one that encompasses every facet of our lives – whether we are working, shopping, playing, babysitting the grandkids, worshiping, or studying the Scriptures.  Stewardship is where the concepts of faith, work, and leisure time come together.  There is no part of our doing that is not “accountable to God”, as St. Paul wrote to the Romans and no part of our speaking that will not be called to account, as Jesus spoke in Matthew’s Gospel (12:36); because every part of our being - in how we worship and work and play in stewardship - is equipped and called for the sake of the Gospel.

The psalmist begins the 24th psalm with, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”  And from the very beginning, humans were created to work.  The work in the beginning was to tend and care for all of creation – not only for man’s own benefit but for the sake of The Lord’s charge to him.  Then, of course, as the Genesis account goes, The Lord determined that man could not do this alone, so woman was created. 

This account can go in a couple of different directions, but for our purposes let us consider what I believe to be the dominant principle: stewardship is too big to do alone.  And let us also consider that each human was not charged to do only so much as what may have been required for individual need or desire.  The charge to care for it all is humanity’s first “commandment”.  And within the structure of woman being created for man, we should consider the very broad principle that we are created to care for one another to make the work possible.

Stewardship, then, is our expression of obedience, a measure of faith and devotion to all The Lord has entrusted to us.  This is part of the reason why the vows we take when we join the United Methodist Church – which must never be taken lightly - challenge us to consider stewardship to be of the utmost importance in the life of the Church; because much like our marriage vows, we are not promising to go along as long as everything is going well.  We vow to The Lord Himself that we are committed to the very end.

Hugh Whelchel is executive director of the Institute for Faith.  In a 2012 article, he pointed out four fundamental principles of stewardship: ownership, responsibility, accountability, and, last but not least, reward.  Each principle has a biblical justification, and each principle speaks volumes about the biblical reality that we own nothing.  And if we do happen to think we are entitled to these things we think we own, even as we worked and saved for and hold title to these things, we are also reminded by the Scripture, as the Israelites were cautioned by Moses, “Remember The Lord your God, for it is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). 

The “ability to produce wealth” but still with a mind to decide what to do with it, however much or little.  As a nation, we’ve come to expect the so-called “one-percenters” to pay their fair share – whatever “fair” may be; but as the principles of biblical stewardship go, we often fail to realize that no one who claims the Holy Name is immune.  No one of us should consider ourselves so poor or so in debt that we have nothing to offer to The Lord and His Church – or so ‘saved’ that we don’t “have to” - because it simply is not true.  This is why stewardship must never be reduced to only a discussion about money and tithing.

Jesus’ parable in Luke 12 (42-48) combines all the principles of stewardship held forth by Mr. Whelchel (ownership, responsibility, accountability, and reward), but take note that the parable says nothing exclusively about money.  This is not to say that stewardship is about everything except money; but we do see by this parable that while the Master is away, those who live and work and do according to His imminent return will find reward.  Not the reward we think we are entitled to by our own standards, but by our faithfulness with everything entrusted to us will The Lord decide what our reward will be.

It is not enough to think of stewardship in terms of how severe or light our punishment may be when The Lord returns and calls us all to account.  What is most important – above every principle, every standard, every ideal, certainly above every silly superstition – is that in stewardship, we live and work and play and shop with the joyful expectation that our Lord IS coming back!

Like the slave (or servant) in the parable, we must not allow ourselves to be convinced The Lord “is delayed” in His return to the point that we may do according to our own desires and exploit what is at our disposal for our own pleasure or personal gain.  Rather, we must learn to live in the Promise of Joyful Anticipation – the kind of anticipation we experienced as children while counting down to Christmas!  Remember “being good” for Santa?  Helping around the house? 

In the simple mind of children, it was – and still is - all about what might be found underneath the tree on Christmas morning.  For the mature disciple, however, it is entirely about a state of mind and heart to live with the knowledge that The Lord’s Promise is sure and certain – much more certain than our paychecks or Social Security! 

Stewardship is discipleship more clearly defined.  Stewardship goes far beyond believing something to be true; it is a life spent in knowing our Lord is true.  And just.  For the principle of stewardship is not at all about gaining adequate reward; it is entirely about showing The Lord what we can be trusted with in His Eternal Kingdom! 

Because that Kingdom is coming!  Glory to The Lord Most High!  Amen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Where we are, we are

“Where we are, we are”

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

“If we have died with Him, we will live with Him.  If we endure, we will also reign with Him.”  2 Timothy 2:11-12a

As one of the nastiest political campaigns many can recall is mercifully coming to an end, it grieves me that many may already be resigned to their worst fears; that things will not turn out the way they should, that the nation will never be the same again.  What is most grievous is that few are “for” anything, but are rather “against” many things.  Think about how, rather than extol the virtues of a preferred candidate, many are reduced to comparing vices in trying to decide not who is better but which would be worse!

There are some things we’re stuck with as nothing more than further evidence of a long-fallen world drifting further from The Lord, but I also think if the Church’s attention is primarily directed toward trying to reclaim what we may believe to be ours to claim, we are deceiving ourselves and cheating our children – and, consequently, the Church - of a truly prosperous future in The Lord’s Covenant. 

We cheat ourselves and deceive ourselves by denying what is written in the Scriptures for the faithful, in which we are encouraged not to reclaim what we only think we’re losing, but to navigate together in faith “what already is” while encouraging one another to look forward in truly joyful hope to “what is yet to be”.

It is true there are some things we will never be able to change, but what is equally true is that NO ONE will get their own way – and we as individuals must make peace with this.  This is not the appropriate mindset for a Christian anyway; it is the very sort of mentality that has closed many churches, permanently damaged relationships, and destroyed any witness that may have had half a chance – because ultimately, those who do not get their own way would rather see a church – and perhaps this nation - burn to the ground than to give even an inch toward anything resembling unity and sense of collective purpose.  As it is written, “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18).

What we often fail to appreciate, let alone embrace, is the certain reality that Christians are charged with and baptized into one thing: to become and to share the Gospel as the Body of Christ; to live and to do collectively just as Jesus Himself would do.  When we refuse to do even that because we’re too busy or it just “ain’t my thang”, what is left for us but to fight and argue over things that have no bearing on the Church’s mission and witness?  As has been said by people much smarter than I, if we are not focused on doing what is right, we will only focus on what is wrong. 

There are still some who refuse to turn their backs on the witness of the Church, working their fingers to the bone, giving all they can; and still, just as Jesus encountered the lepers in Samaria in which ten were healed of that dreaded disease, there may be only one who will bother to say ‘thank you’ for what is offered faithfully.  Yet, like our Lord, we must persevere in faith because we (hopefully) can better appreciate what is coming much more than we hate what is happening.

We are – or should be – a people of great hope, no matter how dark the clouds may seem; the very hope Paul was certainly speaking into when he wrote, “[I am] chained like a criminal, but the Word of God is not chained” (2 Tim 2:9).  Paul knew he could not change his circumstances, but he also knew he could control the way he thinks and lives – not to engage in the current circumstance which would likely evoke feelings of hatefulness and resentment, even fear (look at us now!).  Rather, Paul was fully engaged in the hope that should regulate the life of the faithful – all for the sake of the Word of The Lord.  Nothing less.

Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles carries a great deal of meaning not only for those who have lost everything but also for those who live in fear of losing what little they may think they have.  ‘Go on about My business’, says The Lord.  “Build houses … plant gardens”.  Don’t engage in the culture, but live right where you are.  Don’t think about where you were, don’t lament where you are – and for Heaven’s sake, do not dread tomorrow!!  And do it all as faithful witnesses to a much Greater Truth.

What stands out in Jeremiah’s letter, however, is not the tone that seems to require that The Lord’s people settle for anything.  Instead, consider what Jeremiah’s words mean to the people of Judah as The Lord encouraged them to “take wives and make babies” … “take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage” … “multiply” right where you are

At first glance it may appear as though Jeremiah is encouraging Judah to mix and mingle in that Babylonian culture.  Marry a local girl or boy.  Get along with the world you’re stuck with, and learn to go with the cultural flow.  However, it has often been said that the only fish that go with the flow are the dead ones.  Going with the flow is not at all what Jeremiah is encouraging The Lord’s people to do! 

Even as they appear to be defeated, as things are not going the way they would like for them to go, as NO ONE is getting his or her own way, The Lord’s people are being called into something much greater than what is right in front of them.  But what they faced in Babylon is what they also faced in the wilderness as a test, just as we are being tested today.  It is as Moses encouraged the people of Israel to never forget that 40-year trek in the wilderness: “The Lord led you … to test you in order to know what is in your hearts, whether or not you would keep His commands” (Deuteronomy 8:2).  Not just what we may be feeling in our hearts, but how we express outwardly what is in our hearts.

As a matter of being tested, how are we doing?  Are we working and living diligently according to this culture’s standards?  Or are we learning more about living and growing in community with one another according to The Lord’s Covenant?  Are we “multiplying”?  Or are we diminishing? 

We all know the sad answer, of course, but we must also take stock of what else is being diminished along with our numbers … our witness.  Somewhere along the line, theology and faith became only about “me and Jesus”.  Along with this narrow viewpoint came a “clubhouse” mentality that has hijacked the Church’s witness and turned it into preferential choice.  Much like our politics, the dominant question is ‘what’s in it for ME’? 

And all the while we are picking and choosing as we are pleased individually, we are fighting amongst ourselves over personal preferences rather than focusing on the one and only reason for which we of the Church are even called to exist: The Gospel.  This, and only this, is what the Church is about.  Living the Gospel, being the Gospel, and sharing the Gospel.  But if we are defensive and think we must protect what we only think is ours, we will never move ahead.

I cannot help but to think about last night’s Razorback game.  Alabama is #1 in the nation and for good reason; they are a formidable force to be reckoned with.  It did not take long for them to dominate the game; and as a result, the Razorbacks were constantly on the defensive even when the offense was on the field.  There were some bright spots, but our quarterback had a very hard time getting anything going because he was being almost constantly overwhelmed.

I am no coach nor can I critique a team or a game, but I see the team much like the Church as the Body of Christ functioning as St. Paul encouraged the Church to function as one - “yet with many members”.  The quarterback could not do what he is very capable of doing because the other members of the body were not functioning as they should.  They were being constantly pushed back.

Thinking about how we often feel swimming against the “tide” of the dominant culture (no pun intended), we may sometimes feel like we are being overwhelmed.  For every single step we seem to gain going forward, we get pushed back two.  The culture is gaining ground offensively because the Church is constantly put on the defensive. 

But we must endure as The Body because of the Promise that is before The Body.  We may end up bruised and bloodied by the time it’s all said and done, but we are assured that “if we endure, we will also reign with Christ.”  We will not overcome this culture, and what we only think we are fighting to gain is not ours to gain because we are “co-heirs” with Christ Jesus to something much greater than we will ever see in this life.

We are the people of The Covenant – now and later.  And if we live and work together faithfully and endure to the bitter end, we will hear our Lord call out to us, “Get up and go your way.  Your faith has made you well.”

Glory to You, O Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Taking? Or Receiving?

Lamentations 1:1-6
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

“Guard the Good Treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”  2 Timothy 1:1-14

“Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way.  I can't wait to look in the mirror ‘cause I get better lookin' each day … Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble, but I'm doin' the best I can!”  Mac Davis, 1997

Sometimes it is hard to be humble when things are going our way, but just when we think we’re riding pretty high, someone – or some THING – lets the air out of our balloon.  If we’re lucky, a slow leak will allow us to drift gently back to earth.  There are more often times, however, when the balloon pops and we crash hard when we get a little too full of ourselves.

There may be no more humbling statement in the Bible than Paul’s words to Timothy: “Join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to His purpose and grace” (2 Tim 1:8b-9). 

“Not according to our works”.  So we should bear in mind that, even though we have each been endowed and entrusted with certain spiritual gifts unique to each individual, none among these gifts is “personal awesomeness” – and certainly not “personal favor”!  Consistently, we are reminded throughout the Scriptures that it is The Lord alone who is truly “awesome”.  Our works, the very ordering of our lives, are merely responses to the awesome deed that atoned for the sins of the entire human race without our having to ask.

Being so completely and unreservedly loved, then, sometimes it may be hard to be humble; yet “humility” is a spiritual strength, a discipline, and a mark of spiritual maturity that may be among the most misunderstood (and perhaps least desired) of the virtues, much in the same way we confuse “meekness” with “weakness”.  Humility not only keeps us sufficiently in our proper place but also is the virtue which reminds us how and where to appropriate our trust, our faith; not in ourselves or our accomplishments, but in The Lord alone.

Humility as a virtue, then, is defined as a “firm attitude, a stable disposition, the habitual perfection of intellect and will” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1804).  Both are necessary responses as spiritual disciplines when we fully embrace our Lord and His teachings and as we commit ourselves not to our own understandings or our desired interpretations of scriptural precepts - but striving as though there is always more to know … because there is.  No one among us knows “just enough”.  As it is written in the Proverbs (3:5-6); “Trust in The Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways, submit to The Lord, and He will make your paths straight”. 

Jeremiah’s Lamentations is a profound prayer of acknowledgment and confession after intense soul-searching of what Judah once was by the Hand of The Lord, and what Judah had become by their own hands in surrendering their faith in The Lord in favor of trust in their own desires and confidence in their own demands.  Oh, I’m sure they still “believed” there is a God; but they were so busy loving themselves and neglecting one another that they completely forgot how to love The Lord and their neighbors. 

Jesus’ admonishment, according to Luke, is also a bitter pill to swallow.  Yet Jesus takes the time to remind His followers that “doing good” (the 2nd General Rule of United Methodism) is not something for which we should ever seek recognition or even acknowledgment from others.  Rather, we do “only what we ought to have done”.  That is, what should have been done in the first place should never have been neglected nor should it be assumed that “someone else” will take care of those things which demand the attention of the Church.

The broader context of Luke’s Gospel necessarily includes the apostles’ request for an increase in faith.  Such a prayer might seem worthy of recognition and a Divine Pat-On-The-Back for such loyal servants of The Lord seeking to be even more loyal.  Yet with one broad stroke, Jesus teaches us humility. He gut-punches us by reminding us that we are mere servants, “slaves”, “bond servants” as St. Paul often refers to himself – to The Lord AND to one another. 

If genuine humility is lacking in us, what is also lacking is the kind of faith which justifies and sanctifies.  Lacking any real sense of humility, we can actually convince ourselves that we are due something, that if we are not happy or even just satisfied, someone owes us what we think we have been cheated out of. 

Faith cannot function well within such a state of mind and heart and being.  We are owed nothing.  We are entitled to nothing, and we are not due any extra wages for obedience, for doing what we should have been doing all along; for what we demand for ourselves in the here-and-now and try to “take”, our Lord says, “You have received your reward already” (Matthew 6:1-21).

So then it becomes a matter of whether we believe we can “take” what we want when we want it, or if we possess the patience and humility to “receive” what is offered to us when it is offered to us – not according to what we think we are entitled to, but what The Lord Himself decides He wants us to have – and this according to our genuine need rather than according to what we desire.  For it is also written, “What is prized among humans is an abomination in the sight of The Lord” (Luke 16:15b). 

It is Jesus’ statement and parable in Luke 16 that leads us to Luke 17.  Recall that Jesus says, “Since [the time of John the Baptizer], the good news of the Kingdom is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter by force” (16:16).  And then Jesus tells the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus.  The rich man died after having received all the good things this life, this world can offer; yet because he somehow believed he was entitled to these riches for himself, he stepped over and completely neglected poor Lazarus who lay at his gate “covered with sores” (16:20).

We know how the story ends.  The rich man is tormented in Hades while Lazarus rests in the “bosom of Abraham”.  All this is in accordance with the Law of Moses and the prophets, just as Abraham had chastised the rich man (16:31).  Though Lazarus was in dire need, he did not receive by begging nor did he try to take in this life all he had hoped for (just morsels!).  Yet when he received what was finally offered, as opposed to the rich man who took all he could gain for himself with no thought of what he should have been doing – according to the Law of Moses - Lazarus’ hand was full.  It was the rich man who finally came up empty after having been so full for so long.

The assurances of the Kingdom cannot be “taken”.  In humility (no thought of self-worth or self-entitlement) and abiding in sufficient faith, the Kingdom will be “received” in due course and according to the will of The Lord – and no other.  Humility fully trusts this to be true.

The assurance we have is what is offered only to those who “wait for The Lord” (Psalm 27:14) with patience, with humility, with strength of heart and mind … with faith.  And the assurance offered to those faithful to The Lord in the fullness of humility?  “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).

There can be no greater gift offered to any of us than that of a heart hungry for our Holy Father and His Eternal Word … for His purposes and not for our own personal gain.  The state of this nation – and the state of the Church today – are clear indications that we have so set our own hearts on what we want and when we want it that we are inclined to “take” more than we are open and patient in our humility to “receive”.

Let this time of celebration, then, be a time in which we learn – together - to wait patiently for The Lord; for whatever it is He chooses to entrust to this particular congregation must be “received” not only as a blessing … but as a calling, a purpose beyond ourselves.  St. Peter and St. Paul both agree that “The Lord shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11) but “welcomes all who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:35).  That is, doing “what we should have been doing all along”.

This IS the Gospel of The Lord, and is the work of Christ in the world today.