Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Unraveling at the Point of Dispute

"Methodism was not born because of any doctrinal dispute”.

Disciples studying for the ministry in the United Methodist Church (UMC) as elders, deacons, and licensed pastors have surely read and heard this declaration from many seminary and course of study professors.  John Wesley was a priest of the Church of England, and there is no indication he ever had disputes with Anglican (catholic, little “c”) doctrine.  His disputes with the powers-that-be were that the church needed to more proactive in the lives of the marginalized, that the church needed to go to the people rather than to merely expect the people to show up. 

However, it was not social justice or social principles Wesley took to the people.  It was the Good News of The Lord faithfully delivered, and the people were left to decide for themselves which “side” they would choose – the full promise of the Gospel or the empty promises of the world.   Only the Holy Spirit compelled many to step forward and receive that Good News for themselves.

It is strangely ironic, then, that disputes of doctrine may soon be the undoing of the United Methodist Church - as we now know it - whose only mission is to “make disciples” but whose mission has been seriously compromised in favor of a very highly subjective “social justice”.  The UMC’s steadfast teaching on human sexual ethics has been ruled by the UM Judicial Council as having the force of church law, and it was recently affirmed in decision 1341 that “Under the long-standing principle of legality, no individual member or entity may violate, ignore, or negate Church law”.  This includes matters of sexual conduct.

Since 1972, there have been those who have insisted that the church’s stance be changed to be more accommodating of the dominant human culture.  Now we are at a point of official declarations of disobedience by bishops, clergy, and even whole Annual Conferences because the covenant they all freely entered into is no longer tolerable to them.  

“Holy Conferencing” is upheld as one of many means of grace in the UMC.  That is, we gather to worship, to pray, and to celebrate our common ministry in Christ with one another and with the communities we are called to serve.  Included in this principle of “holy conferencing” is our need to be held to account for the very challenging components of discipleship with a sincere and expected offer of help and support when (not if) we falter.  Sometimes we or our fellows must be challenged in some chosen courses of action not merely because we disagree with the action but because we understand the Judgment is coming and is perhaps upon us now, and that it is our intense desire that “all” be found in good standing with The Lord.

While the circus continues on the national stage as some of our fellows insist upon publicly airing the Church’s dirty laundry (note that the secular press will gleefully report these disputes and protests but are virtually silent on the remarkable work of the United Methodist Committee on Relief {UMCOR} during this challenging hurricane season and other disasters!), the local church is having a difficult time trying to wade through the nonsense and find some measure of good sense as it pertains to the doctrinal practices of the United Methodist Church.  It isn’t always easy to maintain a solid composure and missional focus on the local level, and it certainly presents challenges to clergy and laity alike to stay focused on the “main thing”.  If the Primary Mission of the UMC is to “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world”, how do we stay focused on that Great Commission while some insist we first hear, and agree with, them and their ideas on what is most important?  And frame it under “social justice” just for good measure – in case we’re not biting?

It matters because the UMC continues a steady decline in worship attendance, Sunday school and small group participation, professions of faith, and tithing – all measures of the Church’s vitality.  It matters not to a connectional Church that one Conference may be faring better than another, for we can be no better off than the weakest among us.  Of course we must acknowledge there are many who are only looking for a reason to bow out of the life of the Church and/or to withhold funds – all spiritually very risky – and we cannot accommodate the demands of every individual nor must we cave to those who scream the loudest or give (or threaten to withhold) the most money. 

And this is the very reason why this “issue” is so troublesome to so many.  It seems one side (or maybe both) may be willing to see the whole Church burned to the ground rather than to concede the greater point.  Perhaps we need King Solomon’s wisdom to guide us from this point (1 Kings 3:16-27

Even those who might be willing to be more accommodating have acknowledged the difficulty with trying to stay on task and remove ourselves from any sort of political posturing; and on the local level, what happens at General Conference does not always flow easily to the local church.  Clergy are in a very difficult position in trying to maintain the vitality of our Connection without making members feel compelled to pick a side before we can continue on The Way.

Yet this is how many are left to feel.  The raging battles make many feel as though the UMC cannot continue to “make disciples” until we first choose which “side” we will make disciples with.  At least, this how the advocates of a much more liberal doctrine make us (me) feel.  It is as if I cannot continue until I decide whether or not I will agree to marry any and all who demand to be married regardless of my personal beliefs.  It is as if the Gospel itself has no meaning or purpose until we choose which “side” we will work with.

Worse than this is the false dichotomy that we must choose between what we understand about “faithfulness” to The Lord and another’s notion of secular and cultural “inclusiveness”.  It is an impossible choice to make and an unfair burden to place on Christians, many of whom are not yet equipped to deal with such matters.  Never mind the “milk” vs “solid food” of theology; we’re trying to serve these “babes” hard liquor!!  It is, I believe, the primary reason so many are choosing to leave the UMC.  They come to hear the Good News, not the latest political or social news “from the front”.

Regardless of the outcome of the “Commission on a way forward” and the called session of General Conference, the UMC is going to walk away from this bruised and bloody.  Only The Lord knows whether we will recover and remain intact (or even useful) for His Purposes rather than for our own.

Monday, August 21, 2017

On Circumstantial Hatred

Genesis 45:1-15
Matthew 15:10-20

If anyone had reason to be bitter and vengeful, it would have been Joseph.  Though he was favored by his father Jacob (Israel), his brothers hated him.  Recall that from an early age, Joseph had dreams; dreams he probably did not fully understand and so should have kept to himself … at least among his siblings, because these dreams foretold of a time when his older brothers and even his parents would bow down to him (Genesis 37:7). 

Little did Joseph know what he would be forced to endure before this would take place!  He knew he was “favored”, but he had no idea what The Lord may ask of those who have found favor with Him.  Like the “beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”.  Remember Him?

His brothers had conspired to kill Joseph, so deep was their hatred for him.  It was his brother, Reuben, who had convinced the brothers to spare his life (Genesis 37:21-22).  Yet it was also Reuben who had the idea to throw him into a pit. 

We don’t know why the pit seemed a good idea but when a caravan of traveling merchants came by, it was his brother Judah who proposed the idea to sell Joseph to these traders to be rid of him once and for all.  Even if they had no idea what would become of Joseph, they had to know that they were about to break their father’s heart.  But they did it anyway.

Joseph had plenty to be angry and resentful about, and he had every reason to use his substantial power and influence to make his brothers pay for their crime against him.  For a time it looked as though he would have done that very thing but, as the saying goes, all’s well that ends well!  It wasn’t “fate”, however, that turned the tables; it was Joseph’s unflinching faith!

There are a couple of things for us to bear in mind in reading this passage.  First is to listen to Joseph as he testifies it was The Lord who sold him rather than his brothers; second is to hear Joseph reveal why this thing had been done: “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth” (45:7).  This “remnant” is important for the sake of the Covenant The Lord had long before made with Abraham.  The “remnant” would keep the Promise alive.

Let us also consider, however, that it was not The Lord who threw Joseph into the pit and it was not The Lord who sold Joseph into slavery; it was his brothers who did this horrible thing and lied to their father about Joseph’s fate.  It was The Lord who turned the story around by way of one agent – Joseph – who refused to submit to the dominant culture, who refused to renounce his faith, who refused to give up hope!

We know there are those who have learned to resent The Father because life has been unfair to them.  Things have not worked out the way they had hoped or intended, so it must be God’s fault in directly causing the harm, or God’s non-existence or unwillingness to intervene for His “favored”.  Either way we slice it, The Lord takes a pretty big hit.  And because He is not physically present to sit down with us to help us to work through whatever it is, it becomes easier still to blame Him for all the misfortune in our lives.

We must always bear in mind this kind of “genie-god” only exists on the lips of some certain TV preachers whose end game is money, not making disciples.  Even in the early centuries of the church’s history when there were conflicts about the nature of God and the very being of Jesus, there was no “prosperity gospel” that offered material wealth and perpetual happiness in exchange for real faith.

But because we have learned to make this God into our own image and discovering it does not quite work that way, we develop the very angry and bitter heart which not only defines us but also defiles us, as Jesus points out.  We might like to believe we have every right and reason to be angry and bitter, and there are some worldly (even Christian) remnants that would tell us it’s ok, but Jesus also points out that when the blind follows the blind, both will nevertheless fall into the same pit (Matthew 15:14).  In other words, our anger and bitterness may be understandable under certain circumstances, but it is never ok.

This is important for us to understand because even though we might like to believe someone else is at fault for whatever misery may befall us and should pay the price, the reality is if we follow a narrative that goes along with what we’ve already made up our minds about, the fault will have to be shared – by the “blind guides” as well as the blind who follow them.

A lot has been written about what happened in Charlottesville VA last weekend, but most of what I’ve read so far is trying to create an exclusive narrative of racism and our legitimate need to confront this particular evil.  I do not suggest racism does not exist and did not play a part; but when the dust settled and a young woman lay dead, it became extremely difficult to confine the narrative to a single issue – unless that issue is ultimately hatred borne of a lack of hope – spawned by defiled hearts and brought about by profound spiritual blindness and a perverse need to be defensive.

The very essence of the character of the Holy Church is our mission to make disciples.  In the name of “social justice”, however, we seem unconcerned with making disciples and more concerned with identifying enemies.  The manner in which we conduct ourselves while angrily shouting in the streets or cursing the president or ANTIFA or white supremacists on social media reveals we are doing the very thing Jesus warns us against.  While cursing those whom we seem to believe are already defiled, we ourselves become defiled.

It has long been said Christians are better known for what we stand against rather than what we stand for.  Can we really stand with anarchists toward the same cause?  By being anti-racist, are we being pro-Gospel?  How is fighting by any means promoting the Good News of The Lord and making disciples?  As if we have even a right to be angry and bitter as Joseph truly did.

So many on both sides of this culture war are claiming to be angry and bitter and resentful for what has been heaped on us, but where can we show direct harm and, ultimately, direct offense?  Unlike Joseph, we have not been thrown into a pit or sold off against our will – by our own siblings, no less!! - and yet we seem eager to freely jump into the pit of defilement rather than to offer to help someone out of that pit.

Our cause is Christ, the Eternal Word which became flesh.  Our cause is the Good News that speaks to the Hope we share in our redemption and adoption.  Our curse, however, comes upon us when we choose to “return evil for evil” as our Lord prohibits instead of “praying for our enemies” as our Lord commands His followers.  Our false bravado impresses only the weak-minded who are equally ignorant of what our Lord expects and demands of all who are baptized into His Covenant.

So if we live in hope rather than to dwell in darkness, we can expect to be like Joseph.  Through the ashes of our despair and refusing to become defiled and defined by our circumstances but trusting fully in The Lord and His Word, we can be sure we will be raised up! 

Sooner or later The Lord will save His people – but only those who play by His Rules and not by the rules of this self-destructive culture.  “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.  Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but The Lord rescues them from [all those afflictions]” (Psalm 34:18-19).

Trust in this, dear friends, and He will deliver us from our own anger and afflictions.  Believe and live into this assurance, and we will also be looking down on our enemies who tried to crush us.  But let it come in The Lord’s time and not our own, for it will come soon enough.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Leave it alone

"As you enter a house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your worlds, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." Matthew 10:12-14
The twelve disciples had been given "authority over unclean spirits ... and to cure every disease and every sickness" (vs 1) and were instructed on exactly how they must go about announcing the Good News that "the kingdom of heaven has come near". They were also specifically instructed to "go nowhere among the Gentiles".
What's more, Jesus also instructed them; "Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave".
I suppose we can turn this passage any way it suits us, but it is careless to suppose Jesus has sent these men out to confront social ills. What was the charge? "Announce that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near". And what is the instruction? "If they will not hear you, shake the dust from your feet" ... and move along.
Jesus has not asked His followers to get involved in useless arguments and shouting matches. Discipleship is dangerous enough without deliberately walking into a volatile situation and asking for trouble. In fact, He further says, "If you are persecuted in one town, flee to the next" (vs 23).
It's not always easy to know what to do in today's political climate in The Lord's Name, but stoking an already burning fire is not a good choice. Trouble is around every turn but Jesus seems pretty clear that if emotions are already stoked to the point of irrationality, it is best to move on. Irrational mobs cannot be reasoned with, and we should know this by now. People who come looking for trouble are not going to settle for less than the trouble they were seeking in the first place!
What can we do? Appeal to those who know The Lord (hence Jesus' call to "go nowhere among the Gentiles") and encourage them to remove themselves from the situation. If we can thin out the crowd, we can not only perhaps calm the situation, we can also prevent someone from getting hurt needlessly.
This is not about refusing to speak for Good in the face of evil; it is about creating an environment conducive to rational thought. There are some hate groups that will not hear us, no matter what we say. "Leave them alone", Jesus seems to say. And why must we "flee to the next town"? Because there is perhaps someone there who wants to hear the Good News! And we should not waste our time, breath, or energy trying to shout down those who will not hear us in the first place!!
The Good News is only for those willing to hear it. We must not waste our time getting into shouting matches with those who will not hear it under the best of circumstances. Proclaim the Good News; and if you are told to go jump in a lake, move along. "Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town" (vs 15).
Imagine what The Church might look like if we would actually heed Jesus' words and follow His instructions ... to ... the ... letter. Surely if the Word of The Lord is powerful enough to save us, it is good enough to guide us. Yes?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Charlottesville and the Truth

I am not quite sure what to make of what happened in Charlottesville VA over the weekend.  Since I was not there I have to depend on the news media.  The problem with the media is the facts are not quite clear even though many insist there are clear facts.  More than getting to facts, however, I would prefer the Truth.  What was (is) at the heart of the conflict?

Some say it boils down to race.  White Nationalists were there to protest a city decision to dismantle a statue of Robert E. Lee, the statue presumably being city property.  Since Dylann Roof mercilessly gunned down those nine innocent black persons in Charleston SC in 2015, there has been a movement to remove any and all monuments to the long-dead Confederacy.  Sadly, it was Roof’s stated desire to start a race war.  Sadder still, he apparently succeeded.

The truth goes much deeper than race, however.  Various Antifa groups converged on the protest – some armed (there are photos) – to counter-protest in an effort to prevent a “normalization” of a white supremacy narrative.  In other words, it was the stated intent of Antifa to deny the White Nationalists their 1st Amendment right to protest a government action.

President Trump condemned the violence wrought by all; but because he did not single out the White Nationalists, many condemned his response as “tepid”, even “racist”.  Two days later the president condemned the actions of all white supremacy groups, but the condemnation was rejected and judged as insincere.  Because President Trump is blamed for the rise in white nationalism, there would be no words he could have possibly spoken that would have been accepted by any.

Aside from facts, however, the Truth may be more disturbing.  According to the New York Times, a Charlottesville-based network of activists and clergy members called ‘Solidarity Cville’ called attention to the “Unite the Right” rally and urged people to show their opposition. The group includes ministers from local churches. 

Violence was expected.  Brittany Caine-Conley, a minister at Sojourners United Church of Christ in Charlottesville who is part of Solidarity Cville, sent a warning message in advance of the rally. “There is an extremely high potential for physical violence and brutality directed at our community,” she wrote. “We need your help — we don’t have the numbers to stand up to this on our own.”  Note she did not discourage attendance nor encourage peaceful persons to avoid the area; she invited and encouraged a bigger crowd.

Could the Truth be that the only threat of violence was the determined presence of counter-protesters?  Would the White Nationalists have had anyone toward which violence could be directed?  They were not, to my knowledge, threatening to blow up government buildings or shoot anyone; they were protesting the planned destruction of government property.  When they were confronted with angry counter-protesters, however, the threat of violence escalated with words.

It may seem as though I am defending the White Nationalists.  In a manner of speaking, I suppose I am only in that I am not ok with tearing down historical markers of any kind.  At the same time, I am not ok with idealizing and sanitizing the Confederacy on any level.  It is undeniable history, but idealizing it does bring legitimate offense to some.  Yet angry confrontation with that offense – in an offensive manner – does not justify violence, though it will inevitably invite and incite violence.  It’s the “mob mentality”, an angry mob always being perhaps the most dangerous and irrational animal on the face of the planet.

It is said the White Nationalists had a permit to be there, and it must be said the Solidarity Cville group had every right to be there.  Having a right to do something, however, does not mean it is always prudent to do so.  Walking into a volatile situation with a confrontational attitude is a lot like walking into a hay barn with an open flame – damage is imminent.  Confronting any kind of protest with a counter-protest will always be counter-productive.  Trying to shout down a voice with which we may disagree only makes us look foolish and afraid.

That is what happened in Charlottesville.  “The prayers of both could not be answered.  That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh’." (Abraham Lincoln, 4 March 1865).

Both sides were asking for trouble, yet both sides were demanding to be heard at the expense of the other side.  And a young woman is dead.  I cannot help but to wonder if her family believes her counter-protest was worth the cost.  I wonder if the clergy person who put out a call to action for help – knowing there was the “potential for violence” – may rethink her chosen language in encouraging someone to bring matches and gasoline to a powder-keg situation. 

I do not know the mind of the White Nationalist movement though I can probably guess.  Whether I disagree with them, however, does not necessitate my presence and protest each time they make headlines.  The Gospel of The Lord requires wisdom and prudence; and “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that … town” (Matthew 10:14).  Note that Jesus did not say, “Press harder and call in reinforcements”.

There is a moral issue at the heart of it all, to be sure, but I don’t think it can be boiled down to race.  It seems to go much deeper.  I pray we figure it out before someone else gets hurt.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mistaken Identity: a sermon for 13 August 2017

Matthew 14:22-33

Dr. Tom Caneta has spent the last nine years sequestered in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan in northern Africa.  Because he is the very last doctor left in a war-torn region marked by starvation, disease, death, and rocket attacks, he alone treats up to 500 persons per day.

Dr. Caneta summarized his life’s work to the 2015 graduating class at his alma mater, Brown University: ‘Everyone is searching for happiness.  Everyone is searching for fulfillment.  I think if you really want fulfillment in this life, what I would suggest to you is go and get rid of everything you have.  Sell everything you have.  Get rid of all your baggage and go live a life of full and total service to other people.  If you do that, you will find that the rewards are incredible.  You will find that you have fulfillment more than you could ever have imagined.  So I throw that challenge out to you’.  “Good News” magazine, July/August 2017, pg 37

Can we get so busy with doing or having whatever it is we do or have that we forget who we are?  Is it possible to lose our sense of identity when we accumulate too much “stuff”?  This, I think, must be at the heart of Dr. Caneta’s observation as well as Jesus’ own lesson about becoming “perfect”; whole, holy, “perfect” (Matthew 19:21).

I think it is entirely possible, even likely, that we can get so caught up in what we do for the Church that we forget we should always be not just representing The Lord but, rather, revealing Him.  It is easy to forget, especially when we receive personal recognition, maybe get our picture in the paper, or community service credit for school or the courts.  Sometimes a genuine desire to serve can be obscured by our own need to feel good about ourselves, to make our lives count for something. 

In the name of religion or in a personal quest to ‘save souls’, what we do for others can often become confused if we take on the mantle of ‘crusader’ rather than the identity of ‘servant’.  ‘Crusader’ is what we choose to do; ‘servant’ is what Jesus was, is, and has called His Church to be (“I came not to be served but to serve”, Matthew 20:28).

I cannot help but to wonder if this may have been at least part of Peter’s great challenge, the same challenge we often face ourselves when we lose sight of Who not only gives our lives real and everlasting meaning but is our True Identity, bearing the Image in which we are created.  But when we are more aware of the world around us and our uncertain place in that world than we are aware of the One who calls us out of that world of obscurity and distraction, we become afraid.  And we become afraid, I think, because we begin to lose sight of who we really are.  Not who we think we are, but who we are created to be.

Think about it like this.  We strive to get a good education, get good jobs, find a mate, get married, have children, buy a home; in all this, we are making a life for ourselves.  It is normal, it is expected.  It is, in fact, the American Dream. 

Aside from the education, however, all these other things – even persons – will absolutely be lost.  None of this will last beyond its own time, including those we love.  We’ve all been to funerals; we know how every life story ends.  So if what we acquire can be so easily lost – and we lose ourselves in trying to keep all we’ve acquired – how can any of this be our true identity?  Stuff that can be lost, stolen, or can rust and rot?  Other persons with their own identities?  Where is our own, unique, individual identity if we are only someone’s husband or wife?  Someone’s father/mother/brother/sister, employee, employer, etc?

On the other hand, if we seek to be connected first to the One who created us “fearfully and wonderfully”, the One who redeemed us, claimed us, and adopted us, the One who gifted us and calls us into the Life He has already established – if we go there first, then all the other things, all the other persons, all the other jobs will fall into place.  Then we can know who we really are – which is much more than who or what the world expects us to be.  Think of it; the world expects us to be generous, to give a little; but to give it all, the world would call “foolish”. 

We must also bear in mind that perhaps Peter’s first mistake was in “testing” The Lord.  Could this be construed as a means of testing our own identity?  Remember what Moses had affirmed to the Israelites in the wilderness; trust The Lord, but do not test Him.  Do not test His mercy.  Do not test His power.  Do not test His determination that we can only be – for all eternity! – what He has created us to be from the very beginning. 

Absent that, like Peter, we will lose sight of The Lord at the first sign of trouble because The Lord was incidental to begin with.  We even teach our children this way, do we not??  Think about it.  We will fight with and encourage our children to get them to school, to do their homework, to become involved in extracurricular activities, to excel and succeed … but we do not put that same energy into getting them to Sunday school.  Worse, we fail to teach them why this is important in the first place.  From the beginning!

They may be prepared to find a place in this world which demands all that and more, but they – like we – will one day struggle to find out who they really are, who they were “fearfully and wonderfully made” to be from the very beginning.  They will know only what the world expects and demands from them.  And at the first crisis point, whatever that crisis may be, they will be lost – as many of us have been.

Then when they, like Peter and like we, “notice the strong wind” and the waves of the sea lapping over their feet and getting what we refer to as “that strong, sinking feeling”, we “test” The Lord to see if He’s still there – mindful of our own will rather than His.  Or, like Peter and the others in the boat, whether we can even recognize Him – especially if The Lord was the last One we expected to see!

We can spare ourselves and our loved ones a lot of anxiety if we will take the means of grace at our disposal more seriously than we take our jobs and our education.  Those means of grace – worship, study of Scriptures, fasting, praying, the Sacraments, even fellowship with other Christians – are offered to us so we can not only discover who we are in The Lord but grow more faithfully into that role. 

Then, like Dr. Caneta (Mother Teresa, MLK) and so many others who have come before us, we will have no doubts, no worries.  The “strong winds” of human culture will not disorient us – because we will know who we are in Him.  The case of ‘mistaken identity’ can only apply when we worry more about what the world thinks of us and what we do than what The Lord has created and called us to be before we were even conceived by human means!

He knows us, all of us as The Body, each of us as individuals.  And He wants us to know Him … first.  Only n that Identity will we find peace and calm and confidence.  Even in the face of life’s storms, adversity, and our own doubts.  This is what He wants for us all.  Let us together find the courage and the identity to live into that.  Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Overcoming our 'Weedness' - a sermon for 23 July 2017

Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 1619
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

At Stanford University in 1971, there was an experiment to study human behavior and responses.  It was a role-playing experiment intended to be conducted over the course of two weeks but had to be terminated after only six days because the volunteers got out of hand.

It was a prison experiment.  All were paid volunteers, and all who applied were screened for psychological and physical wellness.  Once they were hired, some students were randomly assigned as guards; others selected as inmates were “arrested” at home before they knew they had been selected.  They were brought in to the local police station, then blindfolded and taken to the “prison”. 

The authority of the guards was not to be challenged; they had the duty to control the prison population and maintain order.  Because the guards had not been trained or prepared, they were left to decide for themselves how best to control the prisoners.

Within only a couple of days, some had already begun to test the limits (or extent) of their power.  The guards became sadistic, and the inmates began showing signs of extreme mental and emotional distress.  In order to get the full effect of prison life and the controlled environment, the prisoners could not quit!  Before anyone got seriously hurt, though – and it appeared to be going in that direction! – the experiment had to be terminated.

What was most interesting were the reactions according to assigned roles.  Even the administrator of the experiment serving as “warden” found himself acting completely outside his personal character!  The guards got the prisoners to turn on one another in efforts to protect themselves. 

Though some may have considered the experiment to be a failure, analysis revealed that people will generally fall into assigned roles according to how they are treated.  To put it into the context of Jesus’ parable, it seems if we treat others as “weeds”, they will learn to adjust to the assigned role.

It may seem incomprehensible that any one of us could be so easily manipulated by roles or environment, but it is telling that what had been planned for two weeks fell apart after only a few days.  In fact, they were only 48 hours into the experiment when certain degradations began to show - in guards and prisoners alike.

What was learned from the experiment is that within us all is the potential for good … and the potential for evil.  Take a good person who would not harm a fly and give that person absolute power, and it has been shown that over time that person will soon abuse that power.  The philosophical concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely is very difficult to disprove.

Human nature being what it is, Jesus warns us that even our best intentions can sometimes do harm.  The workers of the field knew what useless “weeds” looked like and so wanted to clean up the fields to provide more good soil for the wheat.  What they could not see, however, was what was going on beneath the surface. 

And this should not escape notice; the workers meant well, but it was the wisdom of the “master” that kept them in check.

In their enthusiasm to rid the field of what they believed to be useless and even degrading to the whole crop, however, the master revealed to the workers – and to us - the reality of their nature.  If they were left unchecked to go and do as they thought best for the whole field with no mind toward a few stalks of good wheat, they could possibly ruin a significant portion of the good crop.

No one wants weeds.  They are unsightly; and because they serve no useful purpose and can possibly take over a whole garden or flower bed, we think nothing of bending over to pluck a few weeds and hopefully get them at the root.  If we don’t, we know it will not take long before our gardens and flower beds are overrun!  And when the weeds take root and become entangled with the roots of the good stuff, it is difficult to pull the weeds without doing some harm to that which we intend to protect.

We don’t often think of this in terms of our society and our communities, even our churches, but maybe we should.  We can often be a little too quick to judge a “weed” without realizing our quest for our own sense of purity and order - and righteousness - could possibly do more harm than any good we may hope for.  Think of this in terms of deciding it is better to jail 100 innocent persons than to risk letting 1 guilty person go free.

I think the Church, throughout its history, has been a little too concerned with ridding itself of the “weeds” among us – failing to realize we were all, at one time, considered “weeds” by someone.  Think of the Crusades or the Inquisition.  Yet given time and care and concern, we were empowered and led to overcome our own “weedness” through the faithful work and the witness of the Church acting according to the Master’s wisdom.  But it seems that once we overcome our own “weedness”, we would rather jerk out the other “weeds” before they take over!

In some cases perhaps some of us were “judged” rather harshly by others; and that judgment served as a serious, spiritual “wake up call”.  There are many more, however, who were gently guided into – or back into – the fellowship of the Church.  It is these who are most likely to stay and continue to grow and thrive with the rest of us.  So when we stop to think about it, the one response that brings most people back is one of encouragement, not ultimatums. 

We Americans who place great value on our liberty and independence are not likely to respond well to “or else” warnings or threats.  Some of us may be prone to go the “or else” route just to see what it might look like!  Or maybe even as a strict act of defiance to be sure it is understood we will not be controlled by others. 

We can all take a lesson from the Stanford experiment.  If we are randomly thrust into a certain role without having been adequately prepared for that role, as the students were – for us it is becoming disciples before we start trying to make disciples – we have the potential to do grave harm even as we begin with the best of intentions.  Think of it as being more concerned about the “speck” in someone else’s eye before we’ve dealt with the “log” in our own eye!

Tending to the “soil” of the mission field is not at all about pulling undesirable “weeds”; it is about making sure the soil is adequate for spiritual growth and maturity.  Though the nature of a real weed cannot be changed, the Stanford experiment reveals that if we would allow our “weedness” to be assigned a new and more fulfilling role, it is very likely we will grow into that role.  But if we are treated as “weeds” or treat others as “weeds”, “weeds” we will be.

It is our task to tend the field rather than to decide who is worthy to be there.  If we really trust our Lord for our own salvation, perhaps we can learn to trust Him for the salvation of others.  And if we will live fully into our discipleship roles, we can have a hand in that salvation; but we can never have a hand in judgment and condemnation.  As St. James wrote, “You should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:20).

So let us embrace the Wisdom of Solomon in a common prayer: “Although You, O Lord, are sovereign in strength, You judge with mildness, and with great [patience] You govern us; for You [alone] have the power to act whenever You choose” (Wisdom 12:18).

Jesus assures us the final act of gathering the weeds for burning will be His alone.  Let us resolve to put away the matches and kerosene lest we burn ourselves.  Amen. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Imitation of Perfection: a sermon for 16 July 2017

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23                                                                                                           

“To err is human; to forgive, Divine.”  Alexander Pope (18th century English poet), “An Essay on Criticism”

The sentiment behind Mr. Pope’s essay, and especially behind this particular point, is that forgiveness is something that does not come easily or naturally to mortals.  To be willing – and even able – to forgive someone takes an extraordinary measure of faith, the certain knowledge that some good will come from our willingness to let go of whatever gripe we may have, no matter how justified we may feel in holding a grudge.

Sadly, we often think of forgiveness as being weak, but there is more to it.  As Mr. Pope expressed, “to forgive [is] Divine”.  In other words, forgiveness is an act of the Almighty Himself.  Even if our very mortal and very human sense of justice demands satisfaction or retaliation, when we forgive someone, we are imitating The Lord Himself!  Think of it in terms of redemption written of by St. Paul; “Though we were sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

This incredible – and incomprehensible! - act of Divine Love had nothing at all to do with who we are, what we did, or how awesome and special we think ourselves to be.  We did nothing worthy of that measure of love.  The Lord did this thing for all of humanity – Jews and Gentiles alike – precisely because of who He is – and for the sake of who we can become!

Now, you may ask, what does forgiveness have to do with Jesus’ parable of the seed and the sower?  There is nothing in the parable to suggest our need to forgive.  The word itself does not enter into the parable. 

In fact, this parable does not talk about an “end” but a “means” to an end.  The “means” to “be imitators of The Lord” (Ephesians 5:1).  This is our end game.  This is the plan of salvation in a nutshell; not just to be saved but to be sanctified, to become imitators of The Lord, as beloved children; and walk in love just as Christ also loved us and gave Himself up for us”.

How can we imitate Christ Jesus if we do not have intimate knowledge of Him?  Remember Jesus spoke early on in the Sermon on the Mount that He is “the law and the prophets fulfilled” (Matthew 5:17).  St. John described Jesus as “the Word which became flesh” (John 1:14). 

It stands to reason, then, that lack of knowledge of The Word is lack of knowledge of The Messiah Himself.  As we study the Scriptures, we become more and more familiar with Christ Jesus.  One cannot know Jesus and not know The Word.  We can claim it all day long, of course, and some may even believe themselves – but they only deceive themselves.

So the importance of this parable to us is found in being given what we need to become The Word.  The Word must have deep root in sufficient soil to survive the elements of this world which can indeed destroy the very best of intentions.  The Word also cannot thrive while being choked out by the things we choose to pursue for the sake of personal happiness and satisfaction. 

If we are to know Jesus, we must know The Word.  Only by our knowledge of The Word can we hope to become “imitators of The Lord”.  This is necessary for disciples because Jesus Himself commands it: Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

We often declare we are not perfect and will never be perfect.  Yet our Lord not only commands it, but by His command conveys that such perfection is not only possible through Him, through The Word, but necessary to the fullness of Life to which we are called! 

Think about this simple statement: I am a sinner saved by grace.  On the surface we can find no fault in such a declaration; in fact, it fits nicely on a bumper sticker, don’t you think?  (Incidentally, a disciple has no use nor room for “bumper sticker theology”.  Too narrow and shallow to really fill the heart).  Besides, how much can a bumper sticker say if no one ever sees

The flaw in the statement, however, is found in the declaration, “I am a sinner …”  We must strive toward something greater than a simple acknowledgement of His Love in the midst of our failures.  Our profession and declaration of faith should be more about what we were against what we are striving to become … by Grace through Faith!

The Word must become who we are rather than merely a part of our lives.  This is achieved by our best efforts to become so familiar with The Word that we cannot help but to speak it and convey it – not just in memorizing key verses but in daily living hour by hour.  Above all this, of course, must be a desire to be “imitators of The Lord” and all that comes with it – including “the crosses we are to bear” for Him … and for one another.

It will not be easy.  It will not come magically, and it will likely not come immediately.  This is because we are, very generally speaking, already “good people”.  We are kind, we are neighborly, we are helpful, and we are responsive when we become aware of someone’s genuine need. 

Yet we have limits.  More often than not, these limits are self-imposed.  We will only go so far; and for folks we don’t really care for, we may likely not go at all.  And while, culturally speaking, we may still consider ourselves to be good, decent folk, we must understand that being given a pass by our human culture is not to be confused with being blessed by our Father in Heaven – especially if we are acting more like our neighbor than we are acting like the One who commands us to love our neighbor.

More than merely “imitating” the Divine Image, however, is “becoming” once again the very Image in which we are all created; living into the restoration of that which was lost so many generations before in Eden – the Divine Image in which we are created given up in favor of our human inclinations, our human limitations, and our desire for personal satisfaction or human acceptance according to cultural rather than biblical standards.

To live fully into The Word by our intimate knowledge of The Word is to awaken to the reality of what has been offered to us, what is revealed to us.  The “thorns”, the “beaten-down paths” everyone walks on, the “rocky ground” are the challenges we must face – not only in the ungodly but also in the unbiblical … those cheap preachers Jesus refers to as “false prophets”, “wolves in sheep’s clothing” who use cheap and easy slogans that are Bible-like but not quite biblical.   

We must not worry ourselves with being perfect more than appreciating the journey of “going on to perfection” (Hebrews 6:1); moving beyond the basics and growing stronger in faith and in love with each passing day.  What Jesus is offering to us in this parable is the “means” to that Glorious End – the Day when we can look upon even our worst enemy and see them as Christ sees them; with compassion and with mercy.  That Day when our enemies can look at us and say, “So that’s what The Lord looks and sounds like.”

We rise above our humanness by The Word, and we become “imitators of The Lord” in The Word.  This is nothing less than the Life of Christ Jesus, and it is the Life we are called into – to the Glory of God and in the Name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

Monday, July 10, 2017

Making Room

A sermon for 9 July 2017
Romans 7:15-25                                                                                                                           Matthew 11:25-30

How is it with your soul?”  And when was the last time someone asked you this?

This is the fundamental question to be answered as we venture into this text to discover what it is Jesus is really offering.  Our Lord is not offering to salve our consciences which may be haunted by less-than-holy actions on our parts.  Rather, our Lord is talking about what repentance really means when it leads us into a life of sanctification – becoming more holy, more perfect in love.

It is often said the Good News is only for those willing to believe it, but I think this particular piece of Good News would be most welcome news to those who struggle and cannot see their way out; those who have finally come to understand the world and our human culture do not have the answers to life’s most challenging problems.

There is a catch, though.  We like to think of Divine Love as without any conditions, but this is being less than honest with the text, the overall context in which it is written, and with the whole of biblical doctrine.  The catch is this: we must “make room” for this Reality.  Many of us are so overwhelmed with such complex lives that we think there just is not any more room – OR – we are afraid.  What’s worse than this, though, is we often expect Jesus to navigate the clutter in our lives, walk around or get rid of the junk Himself – with no effort or thought on our part. 

In other words, we may be subconsciously saying if Jesus wants a place in our lives, He will need to make the room Himself.

When we talk about what it means for us to “make room” for Christ, though, we don’t often know what it involves.  A contemporary and careless reading of this passage speaks precisely to what I have mentioned so often before: we are not quite prepared to follow Messiah; instead, we call ourselves ‘saved’ and expect Him to follow us as we go our own ways.  It is when we refer to Jesus as our “co-pilot” rather than our Shepherd.

So what to do?  Believe it or not, there is a simple solution to help us to begin anew this seemingly complicated Journey of discipleship.  It will require a willingness to be vulnerable, a willingness to trust, and a willingness to make the effort; but the solution is recapturing a uniquely Wesleyan practice that has fallen by the wayside over the generations:  The Class Meeting.

In his book, The Class Meeting, Dr. Kevin M. Watson cited a remarkable and impressive statistic: in 1776, Methodists in America accounted for 2.5 percent of church folk; by 1850 that number had exploded to 34.2 percent!  Hundreds of thousands of people were coming to faith in Christ as a result of the ministry of American Methodists; but they were staying in the Covenant of Christ because “every Methodist was expected to participate in a weekly class meeting”.

The class meeting was not another “program” and had no agenda or curriculum.  It was not another Bible study or Sunday school class, important and necessary as these will always be, and it isn’t even a “how-to” study session.  The class meeting is a signature of Methodism, but it is the root of discipleship, the faith community, and growing perfect in faith and in love.  John Wesley once wrote, “… whatever weakens, or tends to weaken, our regard for these [class meetings], or [interferes in our] attending them, strikes at the very root of our community”.

The class meeting was not – and is not - about being a good or loyal Methodist.  Denominational brand-name does not have the influence it once did, but this (I think) is due largely to the fact that many cannot tell the difference between a Methodist or a Baptist, a Catholic or an Episcopalian.  There are profound as well as subtle differences in understanding and expressing doctrine and theology, of course, but many (perhaps especially the Methodists) over time have diluted the distinctions by choosing “programs” (that seem to have a hint of entertainment) over substance. 

Many “programs” designed to attract public attention are good and have some merit to them.  Biblical literacy and doctrine are always extremely important tools for discipleship.  But when was the last time a fellow Christian approached you and asked, “How is it with your soul?”  When was the last time someone offered to pray with you?  Not just for you but with you?  

“How ya doin’?” or “What’s up” are not at all the same thing!  And because our expressions of concern are not specific enough, a good many Christians have become marginal at best and completely disconnected at worst.

The class meeting is not at all about being a “good Methodist” or supporting the numbers.  More than making and keeping Methodists, the class meeting is the method of strengthening disciples and the community of faith.  However the expression, “How is it with your soul” comes, the class meeting is entirely about very purposefully, very intentionally, very deliberately, growing in faith and in love with The Lord and with our neighbors … even those we don’t like.  Maybe especially them.  Because as it is written, we cannot claim to love The Lord and hate a neighbor (1 John 4:20).  It is entirely about the sanctified life, a life in pursuit of holiness.

George Whitefield and John Wesley were contemporaries in 18th-century England.  They were both priests in the Anglican Church, and they both took to “field preaching” rather than to sit and wait for folks to show up for church.  There were distinctions between the two, however.  Whitefield was said to have been the more dynamic preacher, but Wesley was the teacher, the disciplinarian (not the ‘punisher’!), the shepherd, a true priest of the Church.

What came because of their efforts was nothing short of astounding, but the staying power of Methodism was in the class meeting.  Thousands were converted to Christ as a result of Whitefield’s preaching; but because there was no structure, no real connection, no real expectations, and certainly no community support, many ofthese converts soon became as “seed by the wayside” (Matthew 13:4).  Wesley wrote, “The consequence is that nine in ten of those once awakened are now faster asleep than ever”.

The failure of Whitefield, then, was not the preaching; it was the lack of community substance.  It was the lack of follow-up, connection, and even fundamental care and concern for the souls of the newly converted even he came to acknowledge.  He wrote, “My brother [John] Wesley acted wisely; the souls awakened under his ministry he joined in class and thus preserved the fruits of his labor.  This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand”.

Church membership is easy and calling oneself a Christian is easier still, but discipleship - which necessarily involves taking up one’s own cross and all this implies, including church membership and being Christian - is hard.  Trying to maintain the life of a disciple is harder still … especially when we choose to go it alone.

It becomes necessary, then, that when we choose to “make room” for Christ, it also means making room for His disciples, the other “members of the Body” … because they need us as much as we need them! 

The goal of the class meeting and our intimate connection with one another, then, is not to make being a Methodist hard; it is to make discipleship more fulfilling by helping us to make more and more room for The Lord and for one another.  And this happens when our faith becomes experiential rather than theoretical.  Our Lord does not call us to isolation; He calls us from isolation.

The life leading to entire sanctification – meaning, when we can look upon the worst of the worst and still see “sacred worth” hidden underneath – means making more and more room for that which is everlasting, for that which breathes life into us all, for that which clarifies the true meaning of life – the Eternal which has already begun for we who are justified (pardoned) before The Lord.

Even fasting seems to be focused on giving up something, but it is not the end; it is a means to an end.  We do put aside things we can live without, but in doing so we find more and more room for Christ and more and more room for our fellow disciples. 

When Jesus said, “Come to Me, you who are weary”, He was not saying, “How ya doin’?”  He was – and is – saying, “How is it with your soulHaven’t you had enoughTake My yoke upon you and learn from Me … and don’t worry, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light”. 

This is what the sanctified life is leading us to and what Christ Jesus is calling us to.  But we still must make the room.  And when we do, we will find still enough room for all the other things in our lives we have to deal with.  When The Lord comes first, however, our priorities will certainly change – and so will our lives and the life of the Church … all for the better.  All for life Eternal – the fullness of the Life we are created to live.  Amen.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

Numbers 27:15-23                                                                                                                   Philippians 4:6-9                                                                                                                                       John 3:25-30

“Better is the end of a thing than its beginning …” Ecclesiastes 7:8a

I’ve tried to take stock of the last four / nine years to hopefully share some brilliant insight or profound perspective.  I remember thinking when I got here that I should probably begin keeping a daily journal.  Now I wish I had!  Through it all, however, one thing has kept coming to mind: even on some of my very worst days, I could only think, “I got exactly what I asked for.  I just never knew what it looked like or felt like”.

To share only a glimpse of what I have observed, I offer the following:

First - Church Ministry is Full Time.  For the pastor and for the congregation.  There are few moments completely free from thoughts of the church and what the church could or should be doing.  Even while doing something as mundane as mowing the parsonage lawn, raking pine straw, or washing dishes, there are always thoughts and prayers and hopes and laughs and even some tears for the church as well as thoughts and ideas for sermons and Bible lessons – always trying to figure out how it all connects to “real life”.

Though being the pastor is the job for one person, the burdens must be shared as willfully as the joys.  Do you really pay a pastor to do for you what you would rather not be bothered with?  If so, can it biblically justified?  OR – as covenant people who are The Church – can we not rather appreciate our true strength when we share the burden of duty and responsibility as well as the joys?

Secondly - Church Ministry Never Was About Me.  At one time I was on the elder track pursuing full ordination, but I finally came to realize this may not be the track The Lord has set for me.  This decision to stop the pursuit struck at the heart and soul of who I once was – or thought I was.  And I was compelled to ask such questions as, Could I more faithfully serve the church as an elder as opposed to being a local pastor?  Would it make me more effective?  Would it make you more devoted to the missional life of the church if I were?  Would it make me, in the eyes of some, a “real” pastor?

To be sure, elders are more educated and education is always a good thing, something I will always pursue, but are elders more diligent only by virtue of their education and ordination?  Does the laying on of hands by the bishop make anyone more dutiful and mindful of the Great Commission?  Or are they only aware of their ordination?  Not to impugn the Order of the Elders, but I finally had to be serious about what The Lord would ask of me.  I also had to decide how elders’ orders would better equip me to do as I am called to do, or if those orders would change anything at all.

Over time it became less about “me” and my personal ambition – and more about the vocation which can in no way be confused with a job.  I discovered it never was about “me” nor is it about “you”.  No one of us should ever expect or demand to get “my way”.  We have no “rights”, no “personal privilege” to claim as members or as Christians. 

As the Body of Christ, we have only responsibilities which will always bring opportunities if we would just be willing to take a chance and drop “I / me” from the equation (“I” don’t feel like it; “I” don’t have time; it ain’t “my” thing”, etc).  It is always about The Lord and our place in Him which is the Church, the Body of Christ, the congregation, the community of saints and what we are all called to be in Christ.  It isn’t what we do or choose to do – it is (or should be) who we are.  And we can never stop being who we are.

Third - Church Ministry Is Covenant.  Among the many unique attributes of Wesleyan Methodism, we are a covenant people accountable to and for one another.  We do embrace a personal component of our spiritual journey such as in prayer and fasting, but on the whole and in the common Covenant by virtue of our baptism, we are a people – not persons.  We are never so strong as when we stand together in common purpose and help one another rather than try to hurt or keep out a few.

A covenant is more than a promise or a contract.  Covenants cannot be revoked any more than our being who we are can be revoked.  Covenants can be violated (and often are).  They can be ignored or denied, even defied – but never can a covenant be revoked.  It is why Jesus demands we “count the cost” of discipleship (Luke 14:28) before we enter into covenant with Him and with one another.  Going back to doing only what we feel like doing as opposed to being true to who we really are”, and a personal desire to be ‘saved’ only for one’s own sake as opposed to a collective desire to live ‘justified’ in covenant accountability for the sake of spiritual perfection, this means someone should always be in your business!  No one should ever fall through the cracks and be lost or forgotten.  Our fellow disciples should be diligent not to “meddle” but to support and encourage.   

This means, of course, that one cannot simply join the church on the spur of an emotional moment.  A covenant relationship must be established, developed, and nurtured.  Covenant standards of doctrine and community expectations of behavior must be faithfully conveyed.  After “counting the cost” of what it means to be a United Methodist Christian, the covenant is to be embraced with the vows of membership.  Respect and honor and integrity within the one single mission of the Church: to make disciples who are equipped to make disciples themselves.  It is never about burdens of “membership”; it is always about the sacred privilege of “discipleship” – loving and serving The Lord by loving and serving one another … even our enemies.

Finally - The Itinerant System of Pastoral Ministry is a lot like the old joke about Arkansas weather; if you don’t like the weather (or the pastor), just give it a minute and it will change.  For better or worse, it is always for the appointed season and the purpose for which the seasons or circumstances dictate.  Like the weather, however, we cannot wish it would change and stop being who we are and what we are called to do until it does change to suit us. 

The bishop and the appointive Cabinet work and pray diligently to ascertain the needs of every local church, and they do their best to match pastors equipped to meet those needs.  They may not always get it right (according to any church or individual), but they always do it faithfully and with the best of intentions for the sole purpose of “making disciples”.  Always.

Never is a pastor appointed to a church to do alone what the church must determine to do for itself and for the community it serves as a matter of principle, as a matter of calling, and as a matter of mission.  The role of the pastor is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12) … not to do the ministry for them, but with them.

This Body of Christ is the living, breathing, loving Presence of Christ The Word Himself in the community, but it can be no stronger than its weakest member and no more loving than its most hate-filled member.  It is not only about how much you care for, like, and look after one another; it is entirely about how much you are willing to care for and look after the community.  YOU are the Presence of Christ in McNeil / Magnolia.  With the pastor, regardless of who that pastor is, YOU are always the Gospel of The Lord. 

The Lord knows I’ve made my share of mistakes, and I know there are some who will not let those mistakes and misjudgments go.  It grieves me deeply that these will not let them go.  Like you and them, I will continue making mistakes and, hopefully, learning from them.  I pray, however, that you will not hold my mistakes against my successor or the DS or the Conference.  I also pray you will one day find it in your heart to forgive me as I have forgiven you and as The Lord offers forgiveness to us all.  For just as Jesus taught us, only when we forgive will we ever find forgiveness and peace of mind, heart, and soul.  Only then can we live fully as the Redeemed of The Lord set free from bondage to hate, spitefulness, vindictiveness, sin, and death.  Only then can we finally become who we are created to be. 

We are the Body of Christ in the world today.  Apart from who we are and what we are called to faithfully do, there is no hope for the community we are called to serve.  It's who we are.  It is who we must become.  To the Glory of the Almighty and Everlasting Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.