Monday, October 30, 2017

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

            After enduring Stump the Priest, a fundraiser for The Bloom House, at The Sandbar a few weeks ago, I have a new respect for the dignity and grace in which Jesus responds to the questions posed by the Pharisees. In today’s lesson, a Pharisee, who happens to be a lawyer, tries to stump Jesus and asks, “What is the greatest commandment?” And remember Jesus had 613 to choose from.
Stump the Priest
Bloom House Fundraiser
The Sandbar
             Based on Jesus’ answer, it is clear that Jesus isn’t simply satisfied in getting the answer right. Instead, Jesus sees this question as a teaching opportunity to explore further the implications of loving God.
The first part of his answer is, of course, correct. He quotes the Shema – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. He quotes the most recited law in the Jewish tradition. However, he doesn’t stop there. He continues.
He says, “the second is like it – love your neighbor as yourself.” In part, Jesus is responding to the Pharisees’ tendency to love religious traditions more than the people around them. Jesus challenges them to understand that love of God should also result in the love of neighbor.
How can you say you love God when you don’t love your neighbor? And neighbor in Jesus eyes means everyone even the enemy. Even more, Jesus says the love of neighbor has something to do with the love of self  love your neighbor as yourself.
Earlier this week, Mary Katherine was making a Halloween decoration. On the decoration, she wrote the names of her friends. I helped her spell the names of her friends. When she was finished, she read the names to me and then pointed to another name.
She asked, why do you think I wrote Mary Katherine on the decoration? I said, “because it is your decoration.” She replied, “No silly!” And with a big smile she said, “because I love myself too!” “I wish it were that easy,” I thought.
Even more, love of self is a tricky concept to digest in the Christian tradition. After all, we are constantly told to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We are told to put our own needs last – to put the needs of God and the Church first. So how can we reconcile love of self with the call of discipleship?
I am not a therapist, but I am an amateur theologian. So, while I can’t give a therapeutic answer to the question (I am sure Jamie can), I can invite you to explore the question from a theological lens.
The love of self begins and ends with God’s love for you. Everything begins and ends with God’s love for you – for all of us. But how well do you know the truth of God’s love for you – for everyone? Does God’s love for you and the world translate into your love for yourself and the world?
It seems to me that the best way to figure out how well you know the truth of God’s love for you – that is – the best way to figure out how well you love yourself is to discern what you love. Who is at the center of your life?  What relationships do you put first in your life? Who or what are you putting your full faith and trust in? Ultimately, where does love of God rank on your list of greatest loves?
It has been said that the human heart is an idol making factory. Writer and Pastor Tim Keller answers the question What is an Idol? well. He says, [An idol] is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
The temptation for us good church going folks is to say, “Well, of course, God is first in my life.” But I am going to invite you to dig a little deeper this morning. Worshiping idols is not just something the pagans did back in biblical times. Idol worship is just as alive today as it was back then. The problem with today’s idol worship is that it is more subversive.
While none of us worship golden calves, I presume, we do put a lot of our faith and trust in material possessions. Imagine for a minute what would happen to your spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being if one of your material possessions was destroyed.
Imagine if your smart phone or your TV or your game system was stolen. It might not be the end of the world but it would cause distress in your life. I know it would mine. Even more, take a look at how much money you spend on these kinds of things. I know I am a little disgusted at how much I spend on non-essential things especially when I see poverty all around me.
The good news during this stewardship season is that the Church is inviting you to be a little less disgusted by your spending. Through the Church, God is inviting you to give your money away as a demonstration of a faith that puts God first, a faith that believes that it is in giving that you receive. And I hope your giving to God’s work through the Church gives you the grace to not only love God more but also yourself more and ultimately love your neighbor more.  
Now that the stewardship add is over – back to the even more popular subject of idol worship. While none of us lay down a mat to worship a false god at the appointed time of the week, many of us schedule our fall around college football. We schedule weddings around football. We even schedule church around football. I know I have.
Even more, think about how you are impacted when your team loses a game. When I was in college, it would take me a week to recover from a loss. And our team lost a whole bunch during my college years. But something happened when I had children. Football didn’t seem to matter as much.
So, now my life is largely centered around my children. While it is hard to call my children an idol, I am aware that many of my decisions in life are decided by what is best for my children. I know there are worse things to be controlled by, but I know that my identity is incomplete when I am only John and Mary Katherine’s dad.
I am more than that. I am more than a husband. I am more than a priest. I am more than a football fan. I am beloved child of God and this is an identity that can never be taken away from for my life is hid by Christ in God.
Ultimately, love of self must come from God alone. If love of self primarily comes from your possessions, your accomplishments, your jobs, your entertainment outlets, your football teams, from even you family, then you are begging to be disappointed.
These good things that we make idols out of, the good things we put too much of our trust in will fail us at some point or another. Even more, we will fail the good things we make idols out of. Our idols are not as forgiving as our God. And we, ourselves, are certainly not as forgiving as our God.
In the end, I want you to leave you with something I came across this week in a devotional. “Define yourself racially as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is an illusion.”
Beloved of God, remember that even when God is not at your center, even when you are not being your true self – you will always be at the center of God’s love – of God’s own self – you will always be God’s beloved child.
And if you need a reminder of your eternal belovedness, I invite you to offer something of your life to God today, something that you are offering to an idol, and I pray that your offering will help you love your neighbor as yourself. Amen.


Monday, October 16, 2017

God's Will Be Done - With or Without You

            C.S. Lewis once said, “For you will certainly carry out God’s plan, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you act like Judas or John.” This curious saying is highlighted quite clearly in today’s difficult gospel lesson from Matthew.
            Today, we are confronted with the last of three parables on judgment that Jesus tells the chief priests and Pharisees. The theme of God benching the starters in favor of the 2nd and 3rd string players continues. And of course, God doesn’t bench the starters because they are pitching a blowout. Rather, the starters get benched because their head isn’t in the game.
            Like the previous parables on judgment, today’s story spells out God’s judgment in exaggerated terms. For starters, who in their right mind would decline an invitation to the greatest party ever thrown? Even more, when was the last time someone was hunted down and killed because they didn’t come to a party? And finally, there is a man who is sent to the dentist’s office (that is my new euphemism for hell) because he didn’t come wearing the right kind of clothes.  
            Ultimately, this parable reminds me that God will go to any measure to get our attention. In fact, God goes all the way to the cross – sacrificing his own Son – in hopes that we will claim a transformed life in Christ. But even then, there are those among us who will continue to resist the new life we are given freely in Jesus. “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
            Now, if I were a Calvinist, this would be the perfect time to make a pitch on why we should believe in the Doctrine of Predestination. But I am not a Calvinist, so this lesson isn’t that easy to explain.
            While I believe in Calvin’s doctrine of Unconditional Election (that is – we are all invited), I do believe we have a choice – like C.S. suggested in the opening quote – in how we respond to the invitation – something a Calvinist would reject based on the doctrine of Irresistible Grace (that is – those who are elected will be unable to resist God’s invitation). It seems clear to me that some will not know what to do with grace when it hits them in the head.
Human nature holds a doctrine of fairness and deservedness. Human nature is not conditioned to choose grace because it shatters how the world is supposed to work according to the law of deservedness. Human nature likes to make sense of the world by separating the good from the bad.
But again, quoting C.S. Lewis, “we don’t know how bad we are until we try to be good.” Eventually, we are all confronted with the truth that we are not as good as we would like to think. But this is the beginning of the good news. According to today’s lesson, we are not judged on whether we are good or bad. The king, after all, tells the servants to gather up the good and the bad for the party.
I have an image of John and Mary Katherine in my head when I think about this extended invitation. When Mary Katherine wants to have nothing to do with Mom and Dad’s love and affection, Mom and Dad go and squeeze on baby John. But when Mary Katherine sees that she is missing out on the hugs and kisses, she suddenly changes her minds and wants to be a part of the action. And of course, we let her in.
While this is not spelled out in the parable, I like to think that those who initially reject the invitation will be drawn back to the party because they don’t want to miss out on the action. I like to think their illusions of fairness and deservedness are shattered when they see how God’s grace and mercy makes room for the greatest party ever thrown. For those who initially reject the invitation, God’s judgment to extend the invitation to others turns out to be a word of mercy.
However, this parable shows another kind of judgment – a final judgment. The people who are judged most harshly in today’s lesson are not the ones who reject the invitation to the party. Not even the bad people are judged harshly. The person who is judged most severely is the one who comes to the party wearing his own clothes rather than the clothes given at the door by the king.
The place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth is not for those who decline the invitation or even for the bad people but rather for the one who shows up to the party thinking they are good enough to wear their own clothes to the party.
I guess this might be like the highly recruited starting quarterback who thinks he can call whatever audible he wants to because he thinks he is smarter than the coach. And I’ll let you draw your own conclusions as to what the head coach will do to this quarterback.
God doesn’t care if you are a one-star recruit or a five-star recruit – you are invited to join the team – everyone makes the cut. And your decision to accept or reject the invitation doesn’t stop God from throwing the party – God’s will be done – with or without you – Judas or John. But it does matter how you act once you make the decision to show up. And by the looks of it, you have shown up to the party.
While all are invited to the party, you can only stay if you are all in. You can only stay if you are willing to change into new clothes, if you are willing to take off your own clothes of righteousness and put on the robe of righteousness given by the King of grace and mercy, if you are willing to accept that your life is in the hands of God and only in the hands of God.
  Until you are willing to go all in, you must stay on the bench. Until you are willing to give it all to God, you must sit in the dentist’s office where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is God’s hope that this reverse psychology, that this hard word of judgment will be revealed as a happy word of mercy where you want to get back in the game.

May God’s word of merciful judgment give you the grace to stop trying to look good in your own clothes, give you the grace to stop trying to keep up with the latest fashion trends, so that you may put on the clothes that God has chosen for you to wear through Jesus Christ – clothes that will never go out of style. Amen.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Shield the Joyous

            One of my favorite prayers is found in a service called Compline. The last line of the prayer says, “shield the joyous.” As the father of two young children, this prayer has become especially meaningful in recent days. For now, my children are living in a world where there is no gunman who murders 59 people and injures 500+. For Mary Katherine, tragedy looks like not being able to stay at the Fair for another thirty minutes.
            I know that the cruel reality of the world will shatter their reality soon enough. I still remember that sinking feeling in my gut as I watched news reports out of Columbine where two students murdered thirteen other students before killing themselves. I was a freshman in high school and was confronted with the terrifying thought that something like this could happen at my school.
            Since then, I feel like this kind of news has become almost routine. I have moved beyond feeling shocked when something like this happens. Humanity and human sin is more destructive than we can possibly fathom. This is a terrible feeling especially as I think about the future of my children.  
What if their reality is so filled with acts of violence and evil that it seems commonplace? What happens when I can no longer shield them from evil and hatred? What will I say when their heart breaks the first time the world disappoints them? As Mr. Rogers once said, I will tell them to look for the helpers. Look for the people who risk their lives for the sake of another.
But what will I say the tenth time the world disappoints them? As much as I’d like to tell them to keep trusting in the goodness of humanity, it is growing more and more apparent to me that, despite our best efforts, the goodness of humanity is not capable of ridding the world of evil – at least not on our own. We are too prideful. We are too married to our own ways and own ideas. At least, I know I am.
However, I do trust that with God’s help we can start to convey a different reality amid a broken and sinful world. And that reality becomes real when we look at our children. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
Our children - the joyous - remind us of the way the world should be.  Most of our children are living in a reality that is filled with hope and possibilities and joy. God was on to something when he chose to come into this broken and sinful world as a vulnerable, giggling baby boy.
When I look at children, my heart changes. I become softer and more kind. I can let go of my arrogance and pride – the things that give birth to sin and destruction. I become more willing to compromise and give up doing things the way I’ve always done them.
When I hold my son John, I discover that John is the one who is holding me in love. In this moment, my life is not so much shaped by my own needs but the needs of my child.
Jesus invites us to hold the children of the world close so that we may be held by a love that makes the world a more joyful place – a love that is not passive or silent in the face of hatred and violence, a love that turns swords into ploughshares, a love that puts into action the faith we proclaim, a love born out of the goodness and mercy of Jesus Christ our Lord. 
Shield the joyous not just for their sake but for the sake of the whole world.

Let us pray.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the  joyous; and all for your love's sake. Amen.