Monday, November 27, 2017

Hope Remains

            If you have ever visited Spencer Farm in Marion Junction, then you have noticed they have some sheep and some goats along with plenty of other farm animals. The last time I visited I noticed that the sheep and the goats were contained within the same fence. I remember this because the sheep were on the right and the goats were on the left.
Immediately, my preacher brain thought, “Jesus doesn’t have to separate the sheep from the goats. They’ve already separated themselves!” I still haven’t quite figured out the theological implications of this but the scene at Spencer Farm has caused me to ask a question about today's lesson that I might not have asked before.
Is Jesus giving the disciples an image they already understand? He has, after all, already told the parable of how the Son of Man will separate the weeds from the wheat at harvest time. There was also that parable about separating the good fish from the bad fish. So, what is Jesus telling the disciples in this parable that they don’t already know?
Like a good realtor, we need to consider: location, location, location. Translated into a literary device this means: context, context, context. Today’s lesson is the last of Jesus’ parables on judgment and comes on the heels of a parable that warns against a fear-based response to the gospel. 
As Henry pointed out so well last Sunday, there are those who hear the gospel message from a posture of hope and there are those who hear the gospel from a posture of fear. If we receive the gospel from a place of fear, then we become paralyzed.
While the posture of fear might keep us out of “trouble”, fear will do nothing when we find ourselves in trouble except lead us into more trouble. It is as Bonhoeffer said, doing God’s will is less about cautiously avoiding sin and more about courageously doing God’s will. In other words, if we focus too much on trying not to be a goat, then we will never learn what it means to be a sheep.
Responding to the gospel message isn’t about a fear-based response where our lives marked by trying to avoid hell and eternal punishment. Rather, responding to the gospel message is about finding the joy of salvation in all the wrong places – at the food pantry, at the medical clinic, by welcoming the foreign refugee into your home, at the local prison.
We certainly live in fearful times where decisions are made from a place of fear instead of a place of hope. We live in a world where people walk into a church and gun down the congregation. Instead of talking about how we can reach out in love and concern to those in our society who are driven to commit such acts, we talk about having armed guards at the entrance of our church.
We live in a world where the sanctity of life and marriage are threatened at every level of society. Instead of talking about ways to rebuild our families and our communities with compassion and grace, we cast the blame on the poor, the gay, the other – the most vulnerable.
We live in a world where those who occupy positions of public trust cannot be trusted. Instead of talking about how to move beyond partisan politics and slanderous rhetoric, we root ourselves even more firmly in our partisan positions even when there is no solid ground to root ourselves in.    
There is no doubt that fear is the easier and more convenient response to the sins of the world. A fear-based response solves the problem in the here and now. A response based in fear makes us feel better in the short-term. Ultimately, a fear based response leaves the next generation to clean up the mess.
And there is no doubt that a hope-based response plays the long game. A response rooted in hope is risky because hope changes a narrative of death into a narrative of life and any kind of change, no matter how positive, is scary.
A response based in hope is likely to cause pain and suffering – see Jesus on the cross. A hope-based response, however, endures in the long-run because ours is a God whose hope for us lives beyond the grave in Jesus Christ.
Today’s gospel lesson is a spiritual diagnostic tool given to the disciples before the big event – the Passion of Jesus Christ. Jesus is preparing them for this final push. The parable invites the disciples to consider whether they are a sheep or a goat.  
Building on the two parables that came before, the disciples are challenged to ask, “Am I prepared should the Son of Man return today?” “Am I living a life from a place of fear or from a place of hope?”
If I answer these questions honestly, I must admit that sometimes I am a goat and sometimes I am a sheep. Sometimes I let fear get the best of me, and I bury my talents. Sometimes I grow complacent and forget to be ready for the Lord to intervene in my life at a moment’s notice.
But I am thankful that Jesus is always there to tap me on the shoulder and remind me that I don’t have to remain a goat. There is always hope. In the Jesus’ kingdom, there is always another chance to be a sheep. The hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the stranger, the incarcerated are all around me and where they are, Jesus is there too.
These parables of judgment are meant to provide us with a hope that is rooted in a relationship with Christ the King. As I grow in relationship with Christ the King, I notice that these parables of judgment are not meant to strike fear in my heart. Rather, these parables of judgment come as both a warning and an invitation. These parables always communicate – there is still hope for you yet.
We have a God who loves us enough to warn of us of what will happen when our life is lived in service to earthly kings and idols. Our God loves us enough to invite us to return to himself by seeking him in the last, lost, and lonely. And by seeking the last, lost, and lonely, we, too, discover the last, lost, and lonely parts of our ourselves that need to be sought out and made whole by a God who will stop at nothing to save us.
In this final parable on judgment, Jesus is clarifying the picture to the disciples. Our vocation to follow Jesus isn’t about faith in our own good works to save us. Our vocation to follow Jesus isn’t about playing it safe because we are paralyzed by fear.
Rather, our vocation to follow Jesus is about risking our lives for the One who stooped low to find us and save us from the mess of our sin and death. Our vocation as Christians about giving up all that we are and all that we have to Christ the King – the One who will not stop until the last of the least of these is found. Amen.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Turning Thanks Into Gratitude

     If you subscribe to a social media account like Facebook or Twitter, then you might have noticed how some are participating in a campaign called "Thirty Days of Thanksgiving" (#thirtydaysofthanksgiving) during the month of November.
     The campaign encourages people to not only think of something they are thankful for but also encourages them to express what they are thankful for to others through social media. The practice of giving thanks in a tangible way is what ultimately gives way to a life of gratitude.
     Obviously, there are other ways to express thanks. Some people use journals. Many families sit around the dinner table and talk about what they were most thankful for during the day. We give thanks in casual conversation. And some people still handwrite thank you notes.
    At a Bible Study a few weeks ago, someone asked, "What is the difference between thanks and gratitude?" It seems to me that giving thanks is an action. We say thank you when someone is kind to us. We say thank you because it is what we are expected to do.
     However, gratitude is cultivated by a life of giving thanks. Gratitude moves beyond action into a state of being. Our hearts are filled with gratitude by constantly giving thanks for all our blessings and even all our disappointments or failures. For in the end, all of life is a gift.
     A couple of years ago, during a golf lesson, I was taught a valuable lesson about the act of giving thanks. For every bad shot I hit, I complained about it. But for every good shot I hit, I said nothing. The pro giving me the lesson asked, "Why are you celebrating the bad shots instead of the good shots?"
     We live in a world that loves to celebrate the bad shots while barely stopping to notice the good shots. I believe this is a symptom of a world and society that lacks a sense of gratitude. Even more, this is a symptom of a world that is entitled. Instead of giving thanks in all things, we complain in all things unless of course things go our way.
     Like with my golf game, the world is going to hit a lot more bad shots than good shots. When I am on the golf course, I often ask, "How is complaining going to help my golf game?" Instead, I can learn a lot from the ball I just hit in the trees.
     I can take the wayward drive as a hint that I need to change some things. Ultimately, I can give thanks for the shank because it helped me hit the next shot down the middle of the fairway. Even more, I can truly appreciate the good shots because those are the shots that keep me coming back.
     As we prepare for Thanksgiving, consider again how this holiday can begin to cultivate a life lived not only in giving thanks but also a life lived in gratitude. As a Christian, a life lived in gratitude is rooted in returning in thanks to the God who gives us life, health, and salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. 
     The good news is that a life lived in Jesus opens our eyes to a world where nothing ends in failure, nothing ends in disappointment, nothing ends in death, a world where there is no end - only new joys, new possibilities, new life. Thanks be to God.

Article originally appeared in the Selma Times-Journal.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What is Faith?

“Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Upon first reading these words this week, I could almost feel a dagger pierce through my soul. What do you mean, God, “I do not know you”? I thought ours was a God who says, “I have called you by name; you are mine”?
 In today’s parable, we see Jesus start to paint a pretty clear (and scary) picture on what to expect when judgement day comes. In a few weeks, we will hear Jesus tell the ultimate parable on judgment where he will separate the sheep from the goats.
Today’s parable shows Jesus separate the wise from the foolish. The wise will gain entrance because they have enough oil while the foolish are left scrambling to make a last-ditch effort to find some more before getting shut out.
Like any parable, we can’t take it too literally or we will get lost in the weeds. We must ask ourselves, “What is the ultimate truth that Jesus is trying to convey here”? We must not let the symbols become the object of our obsession. Rather, we would do well to look at the big picture.
In my reading of the scripture this week, the ultimate truth invites us to consider the nature of our faith. What do we mean when we say, “saved by faith alone.”?  Even more fundamentally, “What is faith?” Is faith gained when we believe in a certain doctrine or dogma about God? Is faith about enduring difficult times? Based on today’s parable, these two definitions of faith seem to be incomplete.
If faith was simply about belief in a doctrine or dogma, then bringing the lanterns should have been enough. The lamps, in my estimation, represent religion. The lamps are vehicles in which we hold our faith.
However, for the lamps to work for an extended period of time, they must be refilled. Sooner or later our religious practices, our spiritual disciplines will burn out and we can’t be running to find more religion when the bridegroom comes. Religion alone will leave us empty.
Even more, if faith was simply about enduring and persevering, then none of the bridesmaids would have made it to the party at all. They all fall asleep just as Jesus’ disciples fall asleep in the garden. Our faith cannot rely on our own strength because sooner or later we will all doze off, sooner or later we will all give up.
Going back to the curious phrase the bridegroom says to those who are shut-out – I do not know you – faith is completely dependent on a relationship with the bridegroom – with Jesus. Our faith is about our knowing God and about God knowing us. And every Sunday, the celebrant invites you to grow in faith with the final blessing – may you grow in the knowledge and love of God.
As Jesus has said to the Pharisees on numerous occasions, what good is your belief system unless it draws you into a relationship with God? Likewise, Jesus challenges us today to ask, what good is our religion unless it orients us to the love of God – a love that pours out into our daily lives – a love that allows us to be in relationship with those around us?
Sharing the love we draw from God with others is the hard part. We are consumers. We want to keep that love for ourselves as if that love will run out.  But our faith tells us that Christ is risen. The love of God lives beyond sin and death. Love is an energy that grows exponentially when it is given away. Our faith also tells us that when we do not share that love, we lose it.
If you are still paying attention, then you know this is the perfect segue to talk about stewardship on this our last day of the Annual Pledge drive. Stewardship is a response to our faith. Giving what we have been given by God for the extension of God’s kingdom on earth is what makes our faith real in the world today. Stewardship is how we keep our faith alive.
Stewardship isn’t just something we do because the Bible tells us to do or because the preacher tells us to do. The giving of our time, talent, and money for the extension of God’s kingdom reminds us to whom we belong. The act of giving reorients our life to the work of God’s kingdom in the here and now.  
The act of giving for the extension of the kingdom is tangible evidence that we believe God who God says God is – the One who delays his arrival as long as he can so that you can, we all can have a chance to act on our faith.     
In essence, stewardship calls us back to our faith – a faith that is totally dependent on a relationship with a generous God, on the one who gave up everything - even his only Son - so that we might know life abundant. Stewardship is meant to reorient your life to what matters, reorient your life to what endures – that is a loving relationship with the source of your light and life – a loving relationship with the world God has made.
Ultimately, faith works when we trust that we are not in charge of our destiny, of our ending. We are not in charge of God and how God’s world works. And just when we think we are in charge, God shows us up and we are forced to admit that, left to our own devices, we aren’t as ready as we thought.
And as you well know, God has a way of reminding us, often, that we are not in control. If you need a reminder, turn on the news, watch the weather channel, look at the stock market, listen to a friend or family member who is experiencing hardship and change, consider your own life.
And now ask yourself, “Do I need more oil in my lamp?” How is God calling me into a deeper relationship with himself? What are those things that I am fooling myself into thinking I need for a better life? What of my life can I give to God today that will make God’s light in me shine with more intensity? How can God make me wise today?
The journey of faith, the journey to generosity is a journey that grows into eternity. And if we wait long enough, if we pay attention long enough, if we travel the road long enough, we will discover that only God can carry us through the changes and chances of this life, only God can give us what we truly need, only God can open the door to the banquet hall.  
Beloved sons and daughters of God, you are invited to start investing in your eternal future today so that you may know more and more in your soul that you belong to God. You are invited to start investing in your eternal future today not just because the outlook is fantastic but because God promises that you will start seeing returns today. Amen.



Tuesday, November 7, 2017

There's Fake News and There's Good News

            In September, I started a weekly Bible study which meets every Wednesday at 12 noon – you are all welcome. It is not one of those Bible studies where the preacher rambles on for 45 minutes. There is no theme. You don’t have to come every week to understand what is going on.
Instead, we use a simple practice called Dwelling in the Word where we focus on the reading for the upcoming Sunday, and the practice relies heavily class participation.  And like any good discipline, it takes several weeks to get in the rhythm.
            In short, we each take turns discussing the word or phrase that stood out to us the most in the selected passage. At the end of our time together, we name what God is up to in our lives and in the world. It is always amazing to see how the Holy Spirit works through this process.
            Anyway, I want to share with you the word or phrase that stood out to me this week. I was stopped by the eighth and final Be Attitude. “Blessed are you when people all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”
            I was particularly drawn to the word “falsely.” In the year of “fake news,” I can’t help but wonder how much of our lives are informed by fake or false news. Even worse, how much of our lives are informed by people who intentionally use false news to persuade people into thinking about it “their” way. The consequences are devastating.
            Let me be clear. When I speak of false news, I am not talking about stuff that is completely out-of-bounds. I am not talking about stuff that has no basis in fact. I am talking about incomplete truths which are more dangerous than flat out lies because incomplete truths are harder to discern because they are, as I said, rooted in some kind of fact.
I am talking about stuff that is created out of our own biases and near-sightedness that fits our own narrow world views. I am talking about the lies we construct to justify ourselves and our own actions. I am talking about the stuff that creates derision and division all in a vain effort to save-face, all in an effort to say we are right and they are wrong.
Take for example the issue of slavery. While we can all agree that slavery is wrong today, we must remember that for most of human history slavery was an accepted institution in our collective societies. And for much of that history, people used the Bible to support the institution of slavery.
Many would argue because slavery is commonplace in the Bible then that must mean that God is okay with it. But as one reads scripture, it becomes abundantly clear slavery is antithetical to the kingdom of God.
Consider today’s lesson from Revelation, God’s kingdom includes people of all races and cultures worshiping together in the same place. In the end, slavery was about controlling the weak and vulnerable with power and control. And any institution or system which preys on the weak and vulnerable is antithetical to the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus exposes these corrupt institutions and systems, which are built on false news, with the good news of his kingdom. And today’s gospel lesson couldn’t be any clearer on what the kingdom of heaven looks like. In the Be Attitudes, Jesus is telling his followers that his kingdom looks totally different than the kingdoms of this world.
In Jesus’ kingdom, blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who thirst for righteousness. He goes on to say, blessed are those who respond to the weak and vulnerable with goodness and compassion. Blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure of heart, blessed are the peacemakers, and finally blessed are those who are persecuted and reviled and cursed for sharing the good news of the kingdom. Blessed are those who would gladly be talked about falsely for the sake of the kingdom.
Today, on All Saints’ Sunday, the Church looks to the myriads of people who gladly accepted the burden of discipleship for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom come on earth. Today, we look to the saints who inspire our own witness to the kingdom. Today, we draw strength and encouragement from those who did not waiver in the face of opposition and persecution, from those who exposed false news with the good news of Jesus.
On Facebook this week, I asked, “Who is your favorite saint?” And so, I ask you this morning, who is your favorite saint? They may be listed in the church calendar. They may not. Who, living or dead, remember we are bound together in the communion of saints, has and continues to inspire your Christian witness? Who gives you strength to fight the good fight when you are weak or afraid?
It is hard for me to pick just one because there are so many. I have been especially nourished and inspired by the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, at our Wednesday morning Eucharist – again you are always invited – we meet at 7 a.m. and have breakfast afterwards. As Edgar Reeves says, you get Jesus and breakfast by 8. But wait, there’s more – the Adult Forum meets every Sunday to talk about a different saint. Today we reflected on St. John Chrysostom.
While it is hard to choose just one saint, there are consistencies in all their stories. Like all of us, they struggled. They all experienced moments of crisis in their life. They laughed and cried and sinned just like you and me.
Ultimately, they all let God use them to make known the plan of salvation, to make known the kingdom of God in the here and now. As we collectively named at the Wednesday Bible study, they all came before the Lord as empty vessels.
For some reason or another, life made them empty. They came before God in their poverty, in their grief, in their humility, and in their hunger and thirst for righteousness, in their hunger and thirst for truth in a world full of lies and fake news. It was here in their emptiness where they were filled with the eternal truth of God. And like an empty vessel that gets too full, the truth of God’s enduring love poured out into the world around them.
These saints flooded the world with the healing power of God’s mercy and purity and peace – not because they were good but because God is good. Their lives reflected the power of God through their emptiness.  And since this past week marked 500 years since Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses, I’ll quote Luther. He said, “God made man out of nothing, and as long as we are nothing, God can make something out of us.”
And ultimately, these saints of God did not conform to culture. These saints were remarkably different but in a way that affected change in the church and in society. They were willing to translate scripture into English even if that meant death. They were willing to preach grace to the same people who imprisoned them. They were willing to proclaim Jesus as Lord even as a sword rest on their neck.
No amount of fake news would dissuade them from proclaiming the good news of Jesus. In fact, incomplete truths and lies only strengthened their resolve to proclaim Jesus and his kingdom.

Beloved child of God, may you find strength and courage to take up the cross of Jesus Christ today. Do not be afraid of what they may say about you. Do not be afraid of what the cross might cost you. Do not be persuaded by false news but stand firm and proclaim the good news of the Jesus and his kingdom which endures from age to age. Amen.