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.