Monday, June 26, 2017

When Happiness and Christianity Don't Mix

            If you’ve been to any of my Episcopal 101 classes, then you’ve heard me talk about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.  I know that is a mouth-full but the term describes the five-basic spiritual and religious beliefs of young people today. 
These beliefs are based on extensive research and documented in a book entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.  As a side note, I don’t think these tenants apply solely to American teenagers.  One of the five tenants of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism states, “the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.”
Now, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with the desire to be happy in and of itself.  But pay attention to the times when your happiness comes at the expense of someone else’s misery.  Pay attention to all the times when your desire to be happy conflicts with God’s desire for justice and truth.    
Based on today’s scripture readings, it is not difficult to conclude that being happy and being a Christian aren’t always compatible.  Jeremiah rails against God because despite having done everything God asked of him; Jerimiah is a laughing stock and mockery to the people.  The psalmist pleads with God, “Surely, for your sake have I suffered reproach, and shame has covered my face."
Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  Jesus goes on to say that taking up the cross will tear families apart – not because Jesus is interested in breaking up families but because following Jesus will always challenge the allegiances we hold dear. 
And finally, Jesus says plainly, “Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  C.S. Lewis once said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
In a country where Christians occupy the majority especially the majority in power, it is easy to forget just how radical this way of life really is.  The first Christians were a minority group with no power who had to practice their faith in secret for the fear of discrimination and even persecution.  For these first Christians and Christians in other parts other world today, getting baptized was a really good way to get yourself killed. 
Of course, we are blessed in the United States of America with religious liberties that the first Christians did not have and liberties that even Christians in places like Syria do not have today.  But that does not mean that our lives as Christians will not be marked with struggle.  Jesus never promises that following him will make all our problems go away.  Christianity is not the key to happiness.
So, if Christianity is not the key to a happy life, then why bother?  If your central aim in life is happiness, then Christianity will surely disappoint you.  But if you are looking for truth in a world full of lies, then Christianity is the way for you.  If you are looking for love in a world full of hate, then Christianity is the way for you.  If you are looking for justice in a world full of injustice, then Christianity is the way for you.  If you are looking for compassion in a world full of judgement, then Christianity is the way for you.
The way of Jesus is much more life-giving than the pursuit of happiness.  While there is nothing wrong with feeling happy from time to time, we can’t expect that the feeling of happiness will abide.  But the good news of Jesus and his kingdom tells us that we can expect that the love and joy and peace and hope of God will abide no matter the circumstances.  Happiness depends on circumstance while joy depends on the goodness and mercy of God in all times and in all places.
Jesus is calling us to live in a world where fulfillment is not measured by our happiness; rather, in the kingdom of heaven, fulfillment is found when we give up this pursuit of happiness and find ourselves by giving all of ourselves for the sake of the gospel.
In order to know the fullness of life that the gospel promises, the fullness of love that the kingdom of heaven promises, we must start letting go of our pursuit of happiness, we must start letting go our version of what will the world should look like, we need to die to self. 
Jesus doesn’t promise that dying to self will be easy or be de-void of suffering or pain. The way of Jesus will constantly make you re-think what you hold most dear in this world.  The way of Jesus will constantly challenge you to abandon beliefs that you once thought were true and even abandon relationships that are antithetical to the Christian way and life.  The way of Jesus will humble you to the point where you have no other choice but to surrender and give everything to God. 
We live in a world where our loyalties and allegiances are stretched in so many directions.  We live in a world where it is easy to get swept away by a particular agenda or ideology or cause.  We are often asked to choose sides.  A relationship with a friend or family member can change dramatically if we establish that we are on the other side of an issue or on the other side of the political aisle.
This, I believe, is exactly what Beelzebul – a demon – desires to see.  Christians and even members of the same Church are often torn over issues that they hold dear.  Unfortunately, these issues have become so politicized that the true vocation of the Church has been put on the back burner.  In particular, the marriage of church and state in this country has created a system where we tend to follow specific agendas that are attached to a political party rather than following the one whose love separates good from evil like a sword. 
In her book The Heart of Centering Prayer, Cynthia Beauregault says, “What you are in Love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.”  In other words, if we are not guided by the love of Christ, then we are likely to fall in love with our own ideas of how the world should work – not matter how good our ideas may be.
The problem with our own ideas and agendas is that they are incomplete.  Our own ideas are limited to our own experience in the world which is short-sighted to say the least.  Even our best human leaders fall short of the glory of God.  Even the best political agendas erode with time.  Like Robert Capon says, “if the villains don’t wreck it the heroes will.”
Therefore, our only hope is to set aside our own agendas and look for life through the One who guides into all truth.  One of the ways that Jesus is guiding our congregation into truth is through our companion relationship with Tabernacle Baptist. 
Dion and I have scheduled two dinners in the fall that are designed for faith sharing and fellowship.  We hope these dinners will create space where we can learn to have dialogue with people who think and act differently than us trusting, that despite our differences, the love of Jesus will guide us into the ways of truth, trust that the love of Jesus will add depth to our understanding of the household of God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “the biggest danger to authentic community are our dreams for it because we will love our dreams more than reality.”  More appropriately for today, the biggest danger to authentic community is an individual’s pursuit of happiness because our pursuit of happiness will inevitably come at the cost of another, our pursuit of happiness will inevitably make us choose between happiness and the way of Jesus. 
            In the end, the Christian way and life doesn’t promise to make your life any easier and odds are your life will be more challenging.  But one thing is for sure – the Christian way and life is the way to a peace that surpasses all understanding, the way to a joy and love that surpasses any fleeting human emotion, the way to a kingdom where God shows us life the way God intends.  Amen. 


Monday, June 19, 2017

Sheep Without a Shepherd

            I was recently asked if I believed in hell.  Like a good Episcopalian (or politician), I circled around the question for about 5 minutes.  I focused on the truth of God’s infinite goodness and mercy.  When I finally finished, he asked again, “So, do you believe in hell or not?”  I answered plainly this time, “I don’t want to believe there is a hell but can’t say that hell doesn’t exist.”
            The purpose of this encounter is not to give you a treatise on the existence of hell.  Rather, I want to explore with you my answer to his next question.  The person followed up to my answer on hell by asking, “How do you motivate your congregation if you don’t hold up the possibility of hell?” 
Now, I am not completely sold that Jesus doesn’t sometimes motivate us by fear of hell.  As we see later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus does talk a lot about the weeping and gnashing of teeth and the outer darkness which I perceive to be a place on earth rather than a place of eternal damnation chaperoned by a devil with a pitchfork.
            But today’s gospel lesson suggests that Jesus is primarily motivated out of a place of compassion.  Scripture says, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  After Jesus instructs the disciples to proclaim the kingdom to the nation of Israel through acts of healing, he says, “You received without payment; you give without payment.”
            Ultimately, the life that we are given through Christ, the life of the kingdom of God is a gift.  This new life in Christ is not given as an ultimatum – do this or else.  The new life of Christ is not given because we earned it. 
As Paul says to the Romans, we are justified by faith.  More specifically, we are justified by the faith of Christ – the One who loves the ungodly.  And this justification by faith is what allows us to see ourselves as living members of Christ’s kingdom, as beloved children of God. Our justification through the one who shows compassion to the nth degree is our motivation to put our faith into action – not the fear of hell.
            One of the big problems I have with motivating people by hanging the possibility of hell over their heads is that this fear tactic seems to suggest that the goal of our faith is an escape from hell.  The Lord’s Prayer says, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  It doesn’t say, “beam me up to thy kingdom in heaven so I can escape the fiery flames of hell.”  The movement of Jesus is all about transforming the kingdoms of this world with the kingdom of heaven.  
Unlike the kingdoms of this world, your place in the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with what you’ve done, your place in the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with who your ancestors are, your place in the kingdom of heaven has nothing to do with you, period.
Rather, your place, our place in the kingdom of heaven has everything to do with what Christ has done.  Your place, our place in the kingdom of heaven rests on the mystery of faith – Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. 
Our in the kingdom of heaven is gift given through the compassion of Christ in God.  And I can say for sure that if not for the compassion of God, we’d all end up in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
If you are a church history geek, then you know that most of the church reformers in the 16th and 17th century spilled a lot of ink (and blood) on this notion of justification by faith alone.  And if you are an even bigger church history geek, then you know this year marks 500 years since the Protestant Reformation began when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses.  While I firmly believe this reformation was a part of God’s ongoing plan of salvation, I sometimes wonder if we haven’t taken it a little too far.
Like I suggested earlier, our justification by faith is not the end of our conversion experience.  Rather, our being made right in God’s eyes through the blood of Jesus is only the beginning of our conversion, it is the beginning of our new life with Christ, it is the beginning of our vocation as living members of Christ’s kingdom on earth. 
We wouldn’t know anything about St. Paul if his conversion on the road to Damascus didn’t result in his tireless proclamation of the gospel.  But even then, Paul’s conversion was essential in his ministry in proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.  And perhaps this is why we, the Church, focus so much on justification, on the truth that God makes us right by giving his Son up to death so that we might have life.
But again, justification is only the beginning of our story of life with Christ in God.  Paul goes on to say that the knowledge of our justification is what gives us peace and hope.  Our right standing before God through the gift of grace given in Christ Jesus is what gives us the courage to be at peace even in times of violence and war, grace is what gives us the conviction to hope for glory even in the darkest hours of human history.  It is often said that while Jesus meets us where we are, he will not leave us there.
And as followers of Jesus, as people of The Way, we are equipped to bring peace and hope into a world that is ravaged by violence and war and hatred and intolerance and bigotry and perhaps worst of all – indifference and apathy to the state of humanity.  We are called to bring peace and hope into a world that is content on justifying itself by putting ‘the other’ down.
As I continue to mature in Christ, I am less motivated by the fear of hell and more motivated by the sight of so many who live in hell on earth – the orphaned, the persecuted, the refugee, the widowed, the orphaned, the poor, the prisoner, the hungry, the diseased, the forgotten, the outcast, the bullied, the ridiculed and anyone else who is held down so a select few can go on living their lives with as few inconveniences as possible. 
By the gift of Christ crucified, I guess this means I am learning how to be more compassionate – a gift that opens my eyes to God’s kingdom on earth, a gift that I am sometimes scared to accept because it is a gift that breaks my heart when I am present to the pain and suffering of this world, a gift that humbles me because it is a gift that reminds me that I am no better than anyone else no matter my standing in society, a gift that reminds me of God’s infinite goodness and mercy when the life of Christ is poured out on the cross for the sake of a sinful and broken world.
The question for me and for you and for the Church today asks, “How is the compassion of Jesus moving you today?”  “Where is the compassion of Jesus taking you?”  If you need a hint, think about those in this community who are like a sheep without a shepherd. 
Perhaps he is a child in this community who is in need of a mentor – someone who cares about his successes and failures.  Perhaps she is one of the homeless people walking around the streets talking to herself.  Perhaps he is killing himself with an addiction to alcohol or drugs.  Perhaps she is lonely and has no family to visit her.  “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.”         
 If you are like me, responding to these people sounds awful intimidating.  If you are like me, then you might not think you are the one who can help.  If you are like me, then fear might convince you to stay where you are.  If you are like me, then you might think that nothing ever changes.  And if you hear the thought, “they don’t deserve it” creep into your heard remember the words of St. Paul – “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
In a manner of speaking, I do believe in hell but I don’t believe it is a place that we should spend our life trying to avoid.  Rather, hell is a place where Jesus himself went to minister to the lost and lift them to life.  And as followers of Jesus our Lord, we have been given the authority to do the work of Jesus, we too are called to visit the hells of this world, reach out our hands in love so that our lives and the life of the Church are living proof that God saves us sinners through the compassion of Christ.
In the end, Christ doesn’t motivate us to do his work by dangling the fear of hell over our heads saying do this our else.  Instead, God moves us to complete his work in the world by giving us the gift of compassion, a gift claimed when we too realize that Christ came to love me, a sinner.  Amen.