Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Outcome of Faith

Acts 2:22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31

“You are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”  1 Peter 1:9

In his book, Living Above the Level of Mediocrity, Chuck Swindoll tells the story of a man lost in a desert, dying for lack of water.  He came upon a weather-beaten, broken-down old shack that at least provided a little shade from the desert sun.  Looking around, he saw a pump, an old and rusted water pump coming from the ground.  He crawled over, grabbed the handle, and began to pump up and down – but nothing came out.

He staggered back.  Filled with deep disappointment, he looked around and saw an old jug behind the pipe running up from the ground.  There was a message scratched on the jug which read, “You have to prime the pump with all the water in this jug.  Be sure to refill the jug before you leave”.

Popping the cork from the jug, he sure enough found it filled with water, but now he was faced with a decision that would certainly change his life.  If he drank the water, he would surely live.  If he followed the instructions and poured all the water into a rusty ol’ pump that looked like it had not been touched in years, he may have wasted the good water he had in hand and desperately needed.  If it worked, though, he could have all the water he could ever want.

After thinking about it for a time, he reluctantly poured all the water into the pump.  Grabbing the handle, he began to pump.  No water, though.  Not at first.  Eventually there came a trickle, then a steady stream and finally a full-on gush of fresh, cool water!  He filled the jug and drank it.  Over and over, he drank his fill.

He then filled the jug for the next traveler.  He filled it to the top, put the cork back in, and added this note: “Believe me, it really works.  You have to give it all away before you can get anything back”.

We could wish that faith were not quite so challenging, but then it wouldn’t be faith.  The truth is we cannot really know or even understand faith until it is put to the test.  That is, we cannot really know what our faith is made of until we endure some traumatic experience.  The testing of our faith could even be as innocuous – but no less insidious – as allowing ourselves to become engaged in a malicious conversation about someone … you know, gossip.

I always think about the hard choice facing Abraham when The Lord called upon him to sacrifice his beloved Isaac.  That is a test we cannot begin to wrap our minds around and is, in fact, one of those times when we may be relieved to think maybe many Bible stories – especially this one! – should not be read literally but should be thought through with a little more serious time and contemplation than to think, “better him than me!  I could never do such a thing.”  Or to be completely honest with ourselves and declare, “I would never do such a thing!” 

Faith is hard.  Unfortunately, faith is also grossly misunderstood.  Like love itself, faith is not at all about how we may feel at any given time; it is more about what we are willing to do even when we would rather not.  This is what distinguishes faith from mere belief. 

It is easy to believe something to be true, especially if what we believe promises us some personal benefit without cost or effort.  Faith, however, has much more substance and is about much more than just “me” or “me and Jesus”.  Faith is about a willingness to heed our God and His Word – that is, His Son - and obey and follow Him ... even if we do not fully understand … or agree.  Especially when the cost, the risk may seem to be more than we could bear or when His Word challenges us to rise above our cultural or even personal standards.  You know, turning the other cheek, actively praying for our enemies, and other such “nonsense”.

It is not unlike the exchange between the Risen Christ and Peter (John 21:15-19).  Jesus had asked Peter over and over, “Do you love Me?”  Peter answered over and over, “You know I love You”.  After each answer, Peter’s spoken love for Jesus compelled Jesus to respond, “If you love Me, feed My lambs”, “if you love Me, tend My sheep”, and “If you love Me, feed My sheep”.

It was not enough for Peter to simply say, “Yes, Lord, I love you”.  It was not even enough for Peter to call upon Jesus to look within his heart so Jesus could “see” Peter’s love for Him.  It was not about only Peter and Jesus; it was about Peter’s need to understand Word and Deed are not mutually exclusive; that saying it was not as good or even the same as doing it, that claiming “Jesus knows what’s in my heart” is insufficient as genuine faith goes.

It’s hard to understand what really held “doubting Thomas” back.  Maybe he was still living with and running in the same fear that drove him and the others into hiding when Jesus was arrested.  Maybe he was still dealing with the anger of such a profound let-down; “believing” Jesus was the Promised One who would save Israel but never quite understanding all Jesus had tried to teach them about the real enemy we still face.  Or maybe he was just plain angry that this God whom he was challenged to trust did not deliver – at least, not on his terms.

When Thomas was finally blessed with the real Presence of the Risen Christ and was finally assured of the certainty of the Resurrection, everything changed for Thomas.  His eyes were finally opened when our Lord challenged Thomas to “reach out your hand” and literally touch the New Reality.  And even though Thomas spoke into this Reality with “my Lord and my God”, Jesus still maintained that believing only with one’s eyes – as the proof the religious leaders had demanded with “signs” – was not enough, was not quite the same as the faith which is fully prepared to trust enough to act even when physical proof is lacking.

We are facing so many problems within the Church universal and specifically within the United Methodist Church.  We are blaming so many for diminishing the witness and the integrity of the Church and we usually attach some social “hot button” issue to those whom we believe should bear the greater burden of the Church’s failure.

In the end, however, we may need to acknowledge that the Church’s failure is not in what the Church chooses to believe.  Rather it may be the Church’s collective failure to fully trust enough to act that may be at the core of all our short-comings.  It is easy for us to pretend “that issue” the Commission on a Way Forward is dealing with is the one single issue that is dividing the Church - until we stop to consider this “one issue” and all its residual sub-issues are only symptomatic of a much greater and more insidious threat to the well-being of the Church and its witness.

Ultimately it may be precisely our failure to act within a particular, divinely ordained pattern that is preventing the greater Church – and many individual churches – from breaking the cultural molds we’ve fallen victim to.  How to act, however, is not quite the challenge until first things really do come first.  Recall in Matthew 17:14-21 that the disciples were unable to drive out a demon.  Jesus had already chided them for their lack of faith but when they asked Jesus specifically why they had been unable to cast out this demon Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only through prayer and fasting”.

The “outcome of our faith” has everything to do with what we are willing to first put in, but we are assured there is great power to be found in what we choose to do and how we choose to go about it.  If not much is coming our way in terms of what we believe to be good and true and right, we must consider what we are – or are not – putting in.  Like the man at the well in the desert who expected water before he was aware of and willing to follow the instructions.

Our Lord assures us there is much to be gained for what we are willing to give of ourselves.  It is written, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).

Let us pray we learn to let go of what we only think we possess as our own – especially as it pertains to Truth.  Only then will we begin to see and embrace the genuine “outcome of our faith”.  Then will we know the genuine power of faith.  And then may we finally begin to really live!  Amen.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter Sunday 2017: All Things New

Acts 10:34-43
Colossians 3:1-4
John 20:1-18

“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under Heaven.”  Ecclesiastes 3:1

We know, of course, that as one season comes to an end, another season awaits us.  It is the prior season which prepares us for the new season and the necessary changes which will likely come.

Yet it is also written, “That which has been is what will be.  That which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl 1:9)

It may be part of a greater understanding of the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  This means that as much as we may dread what changes may come, there is One Constant we can still count on.  We will be a year older, but The Word remains.  We will be a year closer to the time when The Lord will return and “make all things new” (Isaiah 43:19; Revelation 21:5), yet The Word remains. 

Sometimes, however, the same ol’ same ol’ becomes so redundant that it no longer packs a punch.  We no longer get as much out of it as when The Word first penetrated our hearts of stone.

There is nothing wrong with being confident in our justification, but there is everything wrong with taking that salvation for granted.  There is a manner of living and serving the Church and the community which is conducive to gratitude, the “fruits worthy of repentance”, when we understand we’ve been given something remarkable for which we had to do nothing.  There was no price we could pay, no “works” to be done in order to receive this Gift.

Yet we must also know there is real and spiritual value in the “works” which build up the Church and lead to sanctification – not in order to be “more saved” than we were before but so we may learn to live into the Eternal Reality which is before us.  We cannot become bogged down, nor may we allow our families and our brothers and sisters in faith to become bogged down, in same ol’.  The Message of Redemption can never be – must never become – redundant! 

We are living in an age of entitlement in which most everyone seems to believe they have – or have been denied – some encumbent right, an unlimited measure of liberty due all Americans.  The problem with this idea, however, is the “rights” are often demanded and expected without the requisite “responsibility”, and “liberty” is confused with “license”.  We want it.  We demand it.  And come hell or high water, we will not be denied.

Could it be the “new thing” we actually seek is whatever tangible thing we can lay our hands on?  Could it be the “new thing” assured The Lord’s people who abide in faithfulness has, in fact, become so redundant, so same ol’, that there is no longer any real meaning attached to it?  That we hardly notice it?  Could it be this “new thing” we are assured comes with a price – a price much higher than we may be willing to pay?

I have shared with you before the redundancy of biblical and doctrinal language which speaks of the “free gift” of salvation; for if it a true gift, there are no strings.  A gift, by its nature, is already “free”.  The gift is given because the giver has a need to share, but that need has nothing to do with an expectation of reciprocity.  That is, there is no price to be paid since the gift comes from the giver’s genuine heart and desire to share something special to enhance our lives.

Every gift, however, requires a response; and it is that response in which we may find something altogether “new”.  Accepting that gift, living into that gift, means our lives will be forever changed, no matter how great or small the gift.  It is the gift-giver’s hope and desire.  Someone has given a piece of themselves for the sake of another. 

This is the theology of the Resurrection, but even the Resurrection is not a stand-alone event; everything is connected.  The Divine Word became human flesh in Christ Jesus; and in giving so fully of Himself, He made it possible for us to become co-heirs with Christ and The Kingdom – above the trappings of our human flesh and its carnal desires.  In the Resurrection, everything changes ... except The Word. 

Change is hard for us, though, isn’t it?  We get used to a certain way of life and living and settle into a comfortable routine; and as much as we may enjoy things just as they are, we know – or we must surely know – change is as much a part of life as breathing.  Sometimes the changes are not exactly what we may have envisioned for ourselves, but the sanctified life learns to trust that The Lord will drive these changes in our lives for the better - especially in helping us to climb out of the spiritual ruts of routine we often fall into.  And most especially if, in our spiritual journey, we find ourselves at a point of “good enough”, that moment when we stop growing in faith and love and actually begin to slowly die.

It is part of the reason why our Methodist tradition cannot accept the idea that we can skip past Holy Week and Good Friday and go directly to Easter.  The Resurrection does, in fact, come at a cost; and that cost is the value we attach to our own lives on our own terms.  Without at least a measure of death to self, however, there can be no Resurrection.

There is real meaning for us in Jesus’ words to Martha upon the death of Lazarus (John 11:24-26).  Recall that as Jesus arrived at Bethany, He had assured Martha, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23).  Martha had replied, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day”.

Our Lord had assured Martha – and has assured us – He IS the Resurrection – rather than only the Resurrection to come - for those who suffer death.  Though it may seem otherwise, Jesus was not referring only to physical death.  When we are “born from Above” (John 3:3), a certain kind of death is necessary; a death to self and selfish desire.  When we declare to The Lord that we surrender our whole lives to Him in service through Christ and the Church, we may need to acknowledge there are some parts of our lives The Lord simply does not want, cannot use, and will never accept!

This is a bitter pill to swallow for some, but the reality is the Vinedresser does, in the course of perfecting our lives, cut away dead branches that only weigh us down and choke out the possibility of New Life (John 15:1-8).  These “dead branches” are the things we choose to hold on to, the things that are not pleasing in His sight, yet the things we are more invested in than we are in Him and His Church.

All this cleansing, however, all this death, this sacrifice, this suffering, this “pruning”, is done for One Reason – and only One Reason: so we may share in the Resurrection not only in this life but in the Life of the World to come.  It is not enough to only talk about the Resurrection. We must experience it. 

We need also to understand all which took place.  Jesus is The Word, the Eternal Word, the Living Word.  He taught and preached and lived The Word.  It was The Word, however, which disturbed the Establishment, both religious and political.  It was The Word which called them all to account.  It was The Word which was not always easy to swallow, not always easy to take or even to understand, but it was always The Word which sustained Jesus … and will sustain us.

It was The Word which humanity tried to silence and finally sought to extinguish – and our own part in this even today cannot be ignored or denied.  It is the reason why the Church dare not “skip” Holy Week and Good Friday lest we try to deny our part and assuage our false beliefs.

In spite of humanity’s best efforts, however, it was The Word which was raised, and it is The Word which rests in all Eternity at the Right Hand of The Almighty and Gracious Father.

For it is The Word which “prunes” us.  It is The Word which sometimes seems even to torture us because The Word itself does not give us what we desire or demand.  Rather it is The Word – and only The Word – which offers to us what we need and grants to all who surrender to The Word what we aspire to: Eternal Life. 

So it is The Word in which we must reside.  It is The Word we must learn to embrace in its fullness, for it is The Word which will restore us.  It is The Word alone which will make “all things new”, and our lives given to The Word will never be the same again.  For this we give thanks … in this hour, in this life, and in the World to come.

Glory to the Most High God and glory to the Risen Christ who was murdered, was buried, was raised, and will come again!  “Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus”.  For we are Yours.  Amen.  

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Passion Sunday 2017 - Famous Last Words

Isaiah 50:4-9
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-35

“Even though I must die with You, I will not deny You.”  St. Peter, Matthew 26:35

If ever there were “famous last words” spoken by any person, these would be those words.  These are the same words so many of us speak, so sure are we of our faith in Messiah even though we have never really been tested; questioned maybe, but not tested. 

And while we may certainly understand Peter’s intent and state of mind when he spoke these “famous last words”, we must surely also appreciate the wisdom (in hindsight, of course) of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes 5:2-3; “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God.  For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.   For the dream comes through much effort, and the voice of a fool through many words …”

I doubt any among us has a death wish.  I don’t have romantic notions of dying for my faith to prove my loyalty to The Lord.  What I pray I had, and what I pray for all of you to have, is an abiding appreciation for the very real power of Messiah’s words.  Peter didn’t - even though he had been following and watching and learning from Jesus for about three years.  Surely in that time Peter and the others had come to know Jesus did not speak hastily or thoughtlessly. 

Peter did speak hastily, though; and often so do we.  Peter meant well, and so do we.  We want Jesus to know we are with Him even to the bitter end should such an end come, but we must learn to have an appreciation of what following Jesus in discipleship really means beyond reciting a creed or attending worship; what it really means to us as individuals, and what it can or should mean to the greater Church and every individual congregation.

What is interesting about this discourse in Matthew’s Gospel, however, is not just the portrayal of the Last Supper nor even the establishment of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Rather it is the beginning of the discourse when Judas set out to betray and set up Jesus for arrest. 

There is, among the so-called Gnostic gospel accounts a “Gospel of Judas” in which Judas is presented not as a betrayer but as the dear and most trusted friend of Jesus who merely set things in motion as they were intended to go.  Jesus does say in Matthew’s Gospel that “the Son of Man goes as it is written of Him”, but our Lord also says “but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed” (Matthew 26:24).  It has been traditionally taught that Jesus was referring exclusively to Judas Iscariot, and by what is written there is no reason for us to believe otherwise.

However, preceding the discourse was the dispute over the jar of “costly ointment” in Matthew 26:7-13.  Recall that the woman (not named in Matthew’s Gospel) poured an entire jar of this expensive ointment over Jesus’ head, as Jesus taught, to “prepare [Him] for burial”.  It was an act of worship Jesus says we are compelled to remember.  Judas objected because the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. 

Remember Jesus’ admonishment, however.  “You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have Me” (Matthew 26:11).  Meaning what?  That poverty is a fact of life?  Yes, but that reminder has nothing to do with the plight or the failure of the poor to make the most of every opportunity they may have.  Rather it may be better understood in the fullness of the context as an indictment of those who have resources to share but choose not to.

When we understand fully what is taking place here, that indictment cannot be restricted only to “the rich” because wealth as we may try to define it is subjective.  There is no magic dollar amount that defines “rich” nor is there a cut-off point at which it may be determined that we are protecting our assets OR betraying our Lord as surely as Judas did.

“Surely not I, Rabbi?”  These were Judas’ “famous last words”.  As they were all sitting around the table, Jesus had said, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with Me will betray Me” (Matthew 26:23).  And while Jesus had said, “ONE of you will betray Me”, it may be safe to assume they had all dipped into the same bowl since they had all said, “Surely not I, Lord?”  “Famous last words” spoken by all the twelve at one point or another.

It falls on us all, then, to examine this entire chapter with a much closer look at what Jesus is talking about; for though Judas is specifically named as the one actively seeking to betray Jesus, they all (and perhaps we as well) are named when Jesus quotes from the prophet Zechariah (13:7), “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered”.    

As we prepare ourselves for the Journey that is Holy Week and we endure together Jesus’ final days on this earth, it is not for us to skip directly to Easter without first looking more seriously at ourselves and the often careless words we speak, the religious practices we share, or the excuses we allow ourselves to do neither.  We claim an allegiance to Messiah in these words and in these actions, but what about the rest of our time?  Are we truly walking with Jesus in faithful discipleship, or are we going our own way?  “Surely not I, Lord?”

It was our own Bishop Mueller who recently wrote, “We ask, “How could you allow this to happen, God?” God asks, “How come you did nothing about it?” We say, “Thank God we’re okay!” God says, “What about those who are crying because their loved ones aren’t?” We say, “Life is good because everything worked out the way I wanted today.” God says, “Call your neighbor down the street who had a horrible day.” We say, “Lord, I’m so blessed you love me unconditionally.” God says, “I long for you to love me with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.” It’s interesting. So very interesting. It’s always a matter of perspective.”

Loving The Lord with all we have and with all we are is about much more than any single religious practice or single prayer of gratitude.  If we are spared calamity, are we “blessed” only for our own sakes or are we “equipped” to help others who were not so lucky?  Speaking a prayer of gratitude with no mind or thought toward others who have not escaped life’s harsh realities may be considered our own “famous last words” precisely because we lack a proper and much broader perspective; that the Word of God is not about “me” but about “we”.

Peter spoke his “famous last words” hastily and there can be no doubt he meant them when he spoke them, but I am not so sure Peter was as eager to protect Jesus as much as he was seeking to protect his friendship.  That is, Peter was speaking for and about Peter … not Jesus.  Because of this reality, Jesus had to remind Peter that when things get hard – and they will – Peter will again become much more concerned about Peter than about Jesus.  So goes the indictment against perhaps all of us to one extent or another – not because we are ungrateful but because we are not completely committed to Christ Jesus, not completely committed to The Word.

Lent and Holy Week are not designed strictly to make us feel or even share guilt, however.  Just as we cannot appreciate good without enduring evil, we cannot experience Life until we have endured at least a measure of death.  And none of it is because of the words we speak; it is entirely about what we choose to do in and for The Living Word which became flesh in Christ.

For the Word to endure, however, the flesh must be stripped away … in Messiah, in Peter, and in us all; for it is The Word itself in which we live fully, not our words.  Let it be so, Lord.  Amen.