Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sometimes we get to reap

Father, I need the addresses of those two ladies checking out on Saturday.  "Why?" I asked.  I owe them apology.  "For what?" I asked.  I was a jerk to them.  "How so?"  Well, I was pretty short with them as I tried to check out.  Here you guys are, trying to help us out and serve those most in need in our midst, as Jesus commands us.  And I hated them for a few hours.  I said things to them in my heart, and I don't know why, but I need to apologize for how I felt toward them.  In rejecting them, I rejected Jesus.  I am such a ass.  If it makes you feel any better, they did not mention that you were particularly nasty to them to me.  It's not how I behaved outwardly; it's about what I felt on the inside. -- I probably need to back up a bit and let you in on the background. . .

We had a record month for our church for Angel Food (the link is on this page).  Angel Food helps people stretch the groceries.  We call it a hand-up ministry rather than a hand-out ministry because it requires people to budget, to plan, and to be responsible.  In a way, it teaches people to fish.  As with every previous record month, there was a major screw-up (almost like somebody wants this ministry to fail).  The USDA and AFM had sent the pre-prepared meals to the Gulf Coast to feed the victims of Hurricane Ike.  They were supposed to have saved enough to fill our orders, but somebody made a mistake counting.  So, here we were, no Special #4's and less than half our Senior Boxes.  Connie and Pauline were warning people at the front, and Judy, Jennifer and finally I were re-explaining at the check-out.  The responses were both everything we might expect and beyond our wildest expectations.

Some people were mad.  They had paid for food and did not get it (AFM will get them the food next month, so theft will not be an issue).  When you are living on food stamps, you can't afford mistakes like this.  What will they eat this month?  Other people were understanding.  They understood that the victims of Ike lacked power and even kitchens in which to cook food.  By comparison, they were better off than those in the natural disaster area.  "At least it went to a good cause."  A couple teased me if we were finally going to steal their money.  For two years they have told me they expect me to take their money and not give them any food at some point in the future -- "that's what Christians really do."  And still others were worried about our possible response to the attitudes expressed that day.  As I carried food out for those who could not carry their own, some begged me not to listen to the ungrateful, "Father, I could not buy my medicine without this ministry."  "Father, I cannot feed my grandkids without this ministry."  "Father, I cannot live without this ministry."  All added "Please do not listen to the angry people.  Listen to those of us that are thankful."  That is the background.

So here I was, Monday morning, working on the bulletin and wondering if it was really worth it, but thankful that God had encouraged me in the midst of a bad day (I love this ministry, and look forward to it each month.  When it goes wrong, it is double bad because I know the harm it causes.)  And into my office walks a man whom I had only met twice.  I knew his name.  I knew a little about his history.  I knew that he had fallen away from his church.  God had seemingly abandoned his church; why should he waste time on God?  And here he was, in my office, unsure of why this feeling so bothered him, wanting to apologize to ladies that he did not know and who did not know how he felt about them.  As we talked, he discovered that he was no different than those in the Bible who rejected Jesus' ministry among them, and it hurt him.  For so long, he has sat in judgment of God convinced that he was wronged by God, and so he has set out to live a good life.  And when confronted by an incarnational ministry, he rejected God's servant.  For all his protestations to the contrary, he was a sinner in need of God's saving grace.  We prayed.  I invited him to church, wishing that this meeting had been Friday or Saturday, knowing that the week would interfere with his insight.  But for a moment, I got to see a fruit ripen before my eyes.  This man is so close to being loved into the Kingdom.  And Jennifer's and Judy's, as well as everyone who showed up Saturday afternoon to serve while Iowa was losing to Northwestern, servant hearts had softened this man's heart and given him eyes to see his own need.

It is harvest time here in Iowa.  Whatever crops not damaged by the floods are being gathered into barns and prepared for market.  Some of the crops look pathetic, damaged by the weather.  Hmmm.  Just like some of us.  Some of our growth has been been stunted by the events of our lives, and yet God still wants to gather us into His Kingdom.  And just when we think we do not need help or others are beyond help, His laborers show up, faithfully laboring.  And just like that, in the conviction of a heart, the old is made new, the dead is given new life!  Thanks be to God!


Monday, September 29, 2008

By whose authority?

     As I remarked this weekend, none of the readings seem to speak to a particular pastoral problem we are experiencing at St. Alban’s. Sure, the Exodus story reminds us that we are very much like the people of Israel. Even when God provides for us in ways unimagined, we soon find ourselves once again questioning whether He is able to provide for our newest perceived need. We quarrel with God like professionals. The letter of Paul to the church at Philippi reminds us of, among other things, the eschatalogical end when every knee will confess Christ is Lord and every knee will bend. The psalm reminds us of the need for us to remember God’s provision in the past as a way of reminding us that He will provide in the present and the future. And Matthew’s stories seem to be better discussed among the leadership in the Church.
     I say stories because we have bits of two different pericopes combined in the one reading for Matthew’s Gospel. The first part of the story deals with Jesus’ condemnation of the temple elites’ and elders’ complete lack of integrity. When Jesus asks them by whose authority John proclaimed repentence, the best that the leaders can come up with is a feeble “we do no know.” To say that John’s baptism came from God would simply highlight to the audience and to us their unwillingness to repent and their unwillingness to follow the One to Whom John pointed. And, of course, like all good church leaders, the temple elites cannot say what they want to believe for fear that the people will revolt. The festival is in full swing. To deny the most recent great prophet would be to lose their support. They might take up arms and remove them, or they may simply cut their giving. In a brief question, Jesus unmasks the lack of integrity which the leaders who question Him possess.
     For some strange reason, however, the editors of the RCL have us proceed immediately to the first of Jesus’ three parables which point out human culpability in the face of divine judgement. The parable of the two sons is meant to demonstrate the difference between the people of Israel and its leaders. The prostitutes and tax collectors hear the call to repentance by John and return to God. Confronted with the living Christ, many submit and are so loved into the kingdom of God. Yet, like the second son, the leaders of Israel not only reject the ministry of John, but also of Christ, and so find themselves outside the Kingdom of God. What is worse is that even after they see the tax collectors and sinners repenting, they “refuse to repent and to believe him.” The very people who should most understand the call of God upon His peoples’ lives are the very ones who will not repent, will not submit, and are judged as wanting. Like the Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the leaders of Israel are unable to see that they are need of God’s mercy.
     Naturally, the story would not be Gospel were it not full of good news,. And, though we might first miss it, the parable is full of good news! God has waited on the tax collectors and the prostitutes to repent and, so long as the Day of the Lord has not come, even the leaders have an opportunity to repent. As our collect reminded us this week, their and our trust, their and our faith must be in the mercy and grace of God. Only He can accomplish all the He purposes; only He can save.
     Though our stories are somewhat squashed together this week, the two remind us of the need for repentance and the need for faith. Once we recognize our position before a holy, righteous and just God and repent of our sin before Him, He is ever quick to grant us mercy. And if we repent, then we can certainly begin to believe in all of His promises. You and I live in a period not unlike that in which Jesus ministered. There are challenges to His claims. Differing truth claims assault us nearly 24/7/365. There is an understandable desire to take the position “I do not know.” Yet, unlike those Pharisees and other who came before His work on the cross, we have seen the validation of His claims; we know His claims are the Truth. The One who makes these judgements and the One who drives home the teaching about human responsibility is the One who died, was raised, and ascended to the Father. God has validated all that Jesus said and did by, as Paul reminded us this weekend, giving Him the name that is above every name. So, by what authority do you say He did those things?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

One Lord, One faith . . .

     I think I learned last night why the Celebration of New Ministry is meant to be held early in the pastoral relationship between a congregation and its newly called priest:  it is so the priest can get through the prayer where we pray for God's grace to properly care for those whom He has entrusted to our care without crying.  I can imagine it is a much easier prayer to say without tearing up when one does not really know the church.  But, here I was, saying that prayer as my mind flashed to various brothers and sisters (parishioners seems so impersonal) and some of the road we had trod over the past couple of years all the while trying to hold back tears.  At least I was not alone.
     I had asked my bishop for permission to let one of my best friends preach during my installation.  Bryan had planned to be here for a mission trip to Waterloo to help flood victims, so I thought it was maybe a Godincident.  Given how tired the bishop sounded and looked, I knew that it was.  It saved him one more bit of work for a difficult week.  Yet, I may have caused him far more problems than really assisting him.
     As we gathered before the Eucharist, Bishop Scarfe was nearly moved to tears.  Now, I sometimes have that effect on people, but this seemed different.  Bishop Scarfe paused before he began, and then he began to share.  Gathered at the table were a priest and a bishop who are on opposite sides of the presenting issue of the church, but we have none of the bad relationships that are so common throughout our communion right now.  As Bishop Scarfe has remarked on more than one occasion, we both try to serve the same Lord faithfully.  But also gathered at the table with us was a priest of Tanzania who is currently serving at a church in CT under the authority of a Kenyan bishop whose consecration is recognized as valid but irregular by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Knowing and loving Bryan as I do, I had simply forgotten that he was a Tazanian priest serving in a Kenyan church in CT.  I do know Bryan, as I do know my bishop, to be a faithful laborer in God's harvest.  There was no political statement being made; there was no begrudging acceptance of one another's presence.  All, including the congregation there present, were gathered in light of Paul's ethical "therefore."  And Bryan had been there to remind me and my parish and my bishop of the cost of those demands and the demands of Paul's therefore.
     Bishop Scarfe remarked that the gathering was significant as I had been one who was able to walk between both "sides" with a graciousness which embodied the priestly call of reconciliation.  I do not know that I would go that far, but I do recognize that God has given me a voice and an ear with some of the leaders on both sides of our current discussions throughout our communion.  And I do hope and pray that I have spoken with His voice and listened for His voice in those various discussions.  No doubt some have been as angry with me after our discussions as I have been with them.  But, I like to think that those who serve Christ as do I have been able to continue those discussions, however heated, in a context of mutual respect.
     So here we were, three ministers gathered before a congregation of God's calling, preparing to serve His body and His blood.  And Bishop Scarfe made note of the gathering.  It will not get covered by the press.  It will not be discussed at the next Primates' meeting.  It will not get him elected as the next Presiding Bishop.  It will not be discussed anywhere significant; except perhaps only in God's kingdom.  But, I think that Bishop Scarfe was right to note it.  I certainly did not realize what I had done until he made his remarks.  And I am certain that the congregation did not realize that they were witnessing a remarkable event which occurs far too irregularly in our communion nowadays.  How far have we fallen from His command that we love one another as He and the Father love each other that our bickering is the rule, and such a joyful gathering as we experienced last night is the exception.  Lord have mercy.
Christ's Peace,

Friday, September 19, 2008

Now, where have I heard this story before?

Nathan's teacher's mother was in a severe accident last week.  Her seatbelt snapped, and she flew through the windshield.  As one might expect, her injuries were severe and life-threatening.  As it turned out, however, an old injury was conspiring to save her life.  Apparently this lady had suffered for many years with a couple of degenerative disks in her neck.  It was an injury that doctors had told her she would have to learn to live with the pain.  As a consequence of the degeneration, she had lost the full range of movement in her neck.  This loss of movement, as it turns out, actually saved her life.  Doctors told her she would have died when she snapped her neck, had her neck been able to move normally.  Because it could not turn any further, she simply snapped her neck.  There is no paralysis.  And her prognosis for a recovery is good.  Better still, she realizes that an old injury saved her life.  What seemed painful and, at times, debilitating prevented the forces exerted during the accident from killing her.  Hmmm.  Redemptive suffering which leads to life:  now where have I had this story before?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

How many times must I forgive?

     Poor Peter. Just when he finally sort of thinks he "gets it," he still misses it. Matthew's teaching this week begins with Peter asking Jesus how many times he must forgive his brother (apparently even apostolic siblings did not get along well all the time). "As many as seven times?" Understand that Peter is starting to understand Jesus' teachings a little bit. The rabbis required that one forgive a brother three times. If a brother had been forgiven three times and still sinned, he was allowed to be treated as a Gentile. Peter no doubt thought that by doubling that number and adding one, the Master would be impressed that he was finally learning. Poor Peter, like us, is a slow learner. Jesus responds with a bit of a vague idiom. Literally, the Greek could be translated 77 times, but it could also be translated as 70 times 7 times. Jesus' answer is better translated as "lots and lots of times, Peter." Ugh.
     The Gospel ethic can be such a difficult way of life sometimes, and forgiving can sometimes seem like a cross of enormous weight. Who wants to keep forgiving? Jesus, though, recognizes that temptation not to forgive in all our hearts and relates the parable of the king and the debtors. The amount owed by the first slave is enormous. It would be like one of us today being responsible for the national debt, so huge is the number. And, against all expectation, the king forgives the slave when the slave begs for mercy. Understand, a Gentile king would have been within his rights to sell the man, his wife, his family, and all his possessions to pay down a bit on the debt. The kings offer of mercy would have shocked Jesus' apostles. Yet Jesus' story does not end there.
     Jesus goes on to show the first slave in the role of the king. When the first slave comes upon the second slave, he demands payment for a relatively small debt. Understand a 100 denarii would have been the equivalent of more than three months labor; when compared against the 10,000 talents, however, it pales by comparison. How does the slave react? He reacts as one would expect had he not first received the king's mercy. He throws the slave in jail until the debt is paid. Coming on the heals of the king's offer, however, we would tend to argue that the man reacts ungraciously. He has been given a wonderful gift. Why can he not return the same gift to another? Why cannot he not, as society would say, pay it forward?
     The problem with the parable, of course, is the fact that we have to think about its message. Where do I fit in in the story? The uncomfortable truth is that you and I are often the wicked slave. For far too long we tend to think of our need for grace as some sort of scale or ledger book. Our sins go in one column or on one side, while our good works go on another. Our fervent desire is to balance both sides. As a consequence, we sometimes find ourselves bargaining with God. "Lord, if you will (fill in the blank), I promise I will go to church." "Lord, if you will help me (fill in the blank), I promise I will serve the hungry at Community Meal or Angel Food." "Lord if you will not make me face the consequences of (fill in the blank), I promise I will give more money to the church." Over and over we offer God these bargains, as if we can somehow "pay down our debt." The truth is, of course, our debt to Him is like the 10,000 talents in our story or the national debt. We have no hope of paying it off, let alone making a significant dent in the amounts owed.
     Thankfully and mercifully, He is like the king in Jesus' parable. Against all expectation He has granted us an opportunity for pardon. If we will accept the sacrifice of His Son and pledge ourselves to Him, He will forgive us our sins. That unbelievable debt is immediately wiped clean; but we become His sons and daughters, we become His nation of priests to the world. The behavior He expects of us, however, is that behavior He first demonstrated to us. We cannot claim to follow a merciful and forgiving God if we cannot bring ourselves to show that same mercy and forgiveness in our own lives. Matthew, we might say, is claiming that God has no room for cheap grace. His grace is costly. It cost Him His Son. And it costs us our own lives and our own rights.
     So often we have opportunities to incarnate forgiveness and mercy to burdened and guilty world. Family members may well wrong us; bullies may pick on us and steal our lunch money; co-workers may well use us as rungs on the corporate ladder; our friends may say something that hurts our feelings -- how we respond may well be the best sermon those most in need of mercy and forgiveness ever receive. How you and I respond to the injury of us may be the faintest glimmer of the mercy which they are seeking in their own lives. Yes, we may have every right to feel wronged. Yes, we may have all kinds of penalties that we want rightly to enforce. Yet Jesus is calling us to an ethic of the cross. Just as He died that God would forgive us our sins against Him, He died that we would not have to seek punishment for sins against us. Jesus has truly born the cost of all the sins in the world, and our responses to sins against us will teach others whether we truly believe.
     Jesus' command here is not just a good ethic; it is of amazing importance to each of us for it has eternal consequences for each of us. When we act like the wicked slave and refuse to grant forgiveness in our own lives, we are subject to God's punishment. "So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." If we cannot forgive others in our lives, how can we expect Him to forgive us? Jesus' teaching about forgiveness, which began twelve chapters earlier with the words "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" is brought into clarity by this question first posed by Peter. "Lord, how many times must I forgive my brother" Jesus answer is as many times as your Lord has forgiven you for your sins against Him. Such a number may be incalculable, but then again, so was our debt to Him.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"We don't help people here"

     Yesterday, I had one of those pastoral drop-in’s that drives me nuts. A gentleman with a need stopped in to ask whether I could help. Naturally, the need involved cash, but it was the ninth. All my discretionary funds had been spent. There was nothing I could do but offer him a prayer. The gentleman thanked me. I asked for what. He said he had just gone to another church here in town (it will remain nameless) to ask for help. I naturally assumed that the church had also spent all its discretionary money, so I said, “It’s really tough out there for a lot of people. We have way more need than resources right now, no matter the denomination.” The gentleman said he did not know about that, but he sure knew that was not this particular church’s problem. “How’s that?” I asked. The gentleman said that when he went to theis particular church, he had not even been able to speak to the pastor. The secretary interrupted him as he was explaining his need with the statement, “We don’t help people here.”
     I was shocked. Apparently so was the man, who had his daughter with him. He said, “I know. That’s how I felt.” Apparently my poker face was not on. But he was not done. “I asked her if I could speak to a pastor to explain my need,” he went on. Once again, the secretary told him, “Sir, I am sorry, but we do not help people here. You will have to go somewhere else.” Wow!
     Admittedly, this story could end in a bit of a rant, and I am sorely tempted so to do. I could throw the church and the church leaders under the bus and feel all sanctimonious and self righteous. I also have no doubt that the church leaders would explain to me that they do all that they can, but that there is way too much need. I am sure they have a lot of demands on their time with services, Bible Studies, pastoral counseling and the like. But there has to be a better way.
     Now, because of their witness, two generations of a family have heard of a particular church that “we don’t help people here.” When these people are in need in their lives, for however long they live, when they think of turning to their Father in heaven, they will remember that His people “don’t help people here.” What a testimony. Given attendance figures at mainline churches across the country, maybe a lot of people have begun to figure out the truth of that statement made to that man and his daughter.
     It would be easy to condemn the church and the attitude expressed; however, our purpose in gathering as a church community is always to build up. First, we owe it to our Lord to examine ourselves. When do we become roadblocks to His grace? When do we trip people up on their way to meet Jesus? When do we, in our daily life and work, decide that He is too small to meet any needs? The man thanked me for a prayer of provision. I had no money, not even personally, and he recognized the genuine effort to try and meet his need. Similarly, he recognized the lack of care and concern in the other church. He recognized that their unwillingness to serve was beneath the promise and mercy supposedly offered by Christ’s Church.
     Second, we must remember that part of our testimony, as His faithful people, is that we have died to self and are now His disciples. We claim that our Lord has authority over all things on heaven, on earth, and under the earth. We claim that He can conquer all things, even death. Why, then, do so many of us choose not to act as if we believe?  Yes, it is hard out there. Yes, the need is so much greater than any of our resources. But our God is a God who calls all to abundant living. Our God is a God who stretched out His arms on the hard wood of the cross for everyone to be drawn into His loving embrace. His mercy is offered to all people, not just to those whom we feel like offering it. Who are we to claim, in His name, “we don’t help people here.” If churches are not helping people, why do they even exist?

Monday, September 8, 2008

Gentiles and Tax Collectors

     "And if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." -- Our reading from Matthew deals with a subject which many of us would prefer to avoid. I suppose, on the one hand, it is human nature to want to avoid conflict. Many of us, when confronted with a conflict, choose either to avoid it as much as possible or to "punch back" way too forcefully. We seem not to be good at handling conflict. Of course, on the other hand, the spirit of the age, that "there is no such thing as truth with a capital t" or that "everything is relative" attitude, makes it even harder to determine an offense. What might seem perfectly fine to you may offend me greatly; and that which offends you mightily may seem perfectly fine to me. Who is to say which perspective is correct in this age?
     Adding to the complication this week, seemingly, is the fact that both parties are member of the church. People often join churches because they expect church to be the one place where they can get away from conflicts. Families, offices, schools, and the rest of the world has plenty of opportunity for conflict. Church ought to be that place where we find solace from those behaviors. After all, do not church members love the Prince of Peace? Do not all church members try to love God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their mind?
Yet, here is Jesus instructing His disciples and us how to handle conflict in the church. This is not conflict between a pagan and a Christian; this is not conflict between a non-disciple and disciple of Christ. No, Jesus is telling His disciples and us quite clearly that there will be conflict in the church. Why? Mostly it is because we have one foot in His kingdom and one foot in this world. As St. Paul would say, we sometimes make too many provisions for the flesh for there not to be conflict. As a pastor, I am often amazed at how one sentence in a Bible study or sermon can feed a listener like a heavenly feast and how that same sentence absolutely starve and drive away another listener. The words are the same. They are heard simultaneously. How can there be such a difference in response?
     Still, Jesus predicts that there will be conflict. And rather than leaving us wallowing in our conflicts, Jesus tells us how we should handle them. First, we should talk privately. If both parties are followers of Jesus, such a discussion should cause no dread, no fear. If both have the same Lord, each should be willing to listen to the other so as not to become a stumbling block to anyone.
     But, in those cases where the two cannot reconcile themselves, Jesus commands the offended party to go to others in the church. Usually, we interpret this to be leaders, particularly spiritual leaders. This is done for a couple obvious reasons. One, the leaders can tell the offended whether he or she should be offended. They can provide a perspective and a loving ear. Sometimes, their advice may be for the offended to let it go. At other times, they may agree that such an offense needs an intervention. The leaders are called to go with the offended party to hear both sides of the dispute, to serve as mediators, and to serve as witnesses.
     Finally, if the offender refuses to listen even to the leaders, the offense is to be taken to the whole church. The body of Christ then goes to the offender and tells the offender what needs to be done in order to restore the relationship. Amazingly, as we might not want to believe, some offenders will not listen even to the church. They will ignore the council of everyone in the church and continue to ignore the need for repentance. Jesus instructs us that we should let such a one be to us as a Gentile or a tax collector.
     Naturally, when an offender is a leader in the church, they are removed from office, be they lay or clergy. To us this only makes sense. But should we treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector? As I remarked this weekend, a couple commentators were convinced that Jesus never uttered those words. "Matthew," they argued, "penned those instructions to deal with recalcitrants in a new and struggling church." "Jesus," these same commentators continued, "would never exclude anyone." Leaving aside for a moment Jesus' numerous teachings on the last judgment, where He and His angels separate the sheep and the goats and the wheat and the tares, consider the author of this narrative. What was Matthew's job prior to His call from our Lord? He was a tax collector. As much as we hate the IRS today, tax collectors were despised even more in Jesus' day. They were Benedict Arnold's and thieves all rolled into one. Think of a tax collector as a modern Johnny Taliban who could use the armed forces to take your money from you to support his lavish lifestyle. And, oh, by the way, if you did not pay, you could be sold into slavery to pay your debts. Appeal? What appeal? Tax collectors had a writ from Caesar. Nice guys these tax collectors. They were utterly hated by the people of Israel.
     Yet Jesus' command to treat unrepentant offenders as tax collectors and Gentiles ought to give us pause. What was He thinking? And why would a former tax collector ever tell his brothers and sisters to treat unrepentant sinners like his former fraternity of thieves? Why remind people who you were if it was not Jesus' instruction? And what would Jesus mean by such a statement?
     Sometimes, I think scholars often miss the trees for the forests. When the scholars read of Jesus excluding anyone, they immediately reject such statements out of hand because of their preconceived notions of how they think Jesus thought and acted. Yet, those very notions keep them from seeing how Jesus acted. What does Jesus do to tax collectors and Gentiles? Does He avoid them like the plague, as the Pharisees and Sadducees demand? Does He treat them as unclean, as the temple elites and priests do? Does Jesus mean by this instruction that we are to ostracize an unrepentant member? Of course not! Jesus hung out with the tax collectors and Gentiles. Jesus partied and feasted with the very people whom He seemingly rejects in our statement from this week. Why? Jesus' goal was to incarnate God's love to a broken and battered humanity. Jesus brought people to God by loving them into the kingdom. Jesus, more than any human being who ever lived, understood the pain and isolation that we can heap on ourselves because of our sins. And Jesus, as fully God, also understood the love which God feels for us. Though He could have justifiably left us to wallow in our sin and condemned us to death, God chose to send His Son to restore us. Each of us, before accepting the offer of salvation from Christ, was a Gentile and like a tax collector to God. We were His enemies.  We were traitors to Him.
     Thankfully and mercifully, He sent His Son to where we were. Jesus met us in those least likely of places. He met us in our hurts, in our pains, in our fears, and in our sufferings. He did not stay only in the synagogues. He did not stay in an ivory tower isolating Himself from the world. Jesus engaged those living in the world. And He engaged those living in the world with love and joy and compassion! So, what does Jesus mean by instructing us to let offenders be as a Gentile and tax collectors? He means for us to need to share God's love with them. We must treat them as they once were and now are, unrepentant sinners, and show them the radical servanthood that was first and best incarnated by Him. With that love and with some patience and with God's grace, we may well love that offender back into the kingdom! And then the angels and the whole body of Christ can truly rejoice!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Our fascination and faith about the end times

     Our readings this past weekend were pretty straight-forward. God reveals Himself to Moses in the burning bush. Paul reminds the church in Rome, as well as us, of how we are to behave towards one another and towards our enemies. And Jesus reminds us that we all, at times, slip into the comfortableness of the Pharisees and describe the Messiah as we would have Him, not the way that God has invisioned Him. What to preach and teach on?
     Then came Thursday morning. One of the real joys of my ministry here has been the Thursday morning Eucharist and Bible Study. Mostly, it is populated by women. Mostly it is populated by discerning and prayerful women who are not afraid to speak their mind about whatever comes up in our discussions, be it an Old Testament lesson, contemporary news, or a fabulous new recipe. And these women have been doing this for many years now, so there is a real sense of trust built up between them. No one is required to apologize for what is about to be said because each of them knows from where the speaker is coming from. And the laughter. This group has been together so long that they simply revel in one another's presence. And the joy is usually so pervasive that relative newcomers like myself or Pat can slide right in and feel a part of the group way sooner that we should. But this past Thursday, a number of questions popped up mostly about Paul's letter to Rome, but also about Jesus' teaching on the Last Judgment and justice. Why? What amazed me was just how much the ladies' questions seemed to have captured one of those problems with which society is fascinated. After listening and talking with the ladies on Thursday, I noticed that "End of Days," "Constantine," "The Devil's Advocate," "Contact," and a few other similar movies were playing on the cable channels this weekend. Society, it seems, struggles with similar questions. Is this all that there is? Or is there more happening than meets the human eye? All of those movies did ok at the box office, and each gets run on cable tv from time to time, so the questions would seem to resonate in our culture's psyche.
     I made the statement this weekend that centered around the belief that our faith is best tested by our understanding of the Last Judgement and God's vengeance. It must have given a few spiritual wedgies because it generated a great deal of discussion. What prompted that statement was our Thurday discussions about how hard it is not to seek revenge against those who wrong us. Now, understand, we are not talking about not bringing the court system into play for criminal or civil acts which abridge our rights as citizens, though some may choose to live an ethic that radical. What we are talking about are those acts which harm us and for which we want to be the executors of judgment: when somebody uses us as a rung on the corporate ladder, stealing the promotion and benefits that should have been ours; when that sibling or other family member throws us under the bus so that we look bad in how we handled or dealt with a particular situation; when that bully threatens us for our lunch money or Wii game or whatever; when that idiot drunk driver who has no license or no insurance crashes into us; when that friend stabs us in the back; when that first love inevitably breaks our heart; when anything happens which causes us to want exact revenge on someone else. It is precisely those situations into which Paul was speaking to the Romans. "Never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads."
     Can you imagine? Were the backstabber who stole your rightful promotion and blew the money on whatever nonsense to come to you hungry, God expects you to feed them! Were that family member who made you look unfairly bad to your loved ones to come to you with hand out, God expects you to clothe them! Is He trying to make it impossible for us? One of our hopes as Christians is that God will keep His promises and come to judge the world. And that final judgment is important because it is at that time that God will repay all the injustices. Christ will have paid the penalty and born the wrath for all those who accept His work and offer of salvation. But there will be punishment for those who have rejected Him and His offer. That belief in the final judgment and our faith in Christ, however, can often be tested when we are the victims of an injustice. Our nature cries out that we "have to get even." Yet God consistenty instructs us that He will get even. And when He judges, there will be no mistakes, there will be no errors, and there will be no further appeals. He will have His justice in the end! Why can't we get even; why can't we seek revenge?
     Part of it, of course, is that we make mistakes. How many times have we been absolutely furious with someone, only to realize that the other either was unaware of the hurt or that the other unintentionally harmed us? How many times would our temper cause us to seek an exhorbitant punishment for recent hurt that far outweighs the injury to us? How long do we carry grudges and then seek to pounce on the other when given the opportunity, giving no thought or consideration to the injury which we may cause? But part of it is that remembrance that you and I and all who have now accepted Christ and His offer of salvation were once enemies of God. Like the "ites" of the Promised Land, the citizens of Nineveh, the Pharisees, the Romans, and whoever else ignored God's will, you and I each were once God's enemy. Only His grace, His mercy, and His patience gave us the time to seek a right relationship with Him. Only His Son made that right relationship, as a beloved son or daughter, possible.
     What is more amazing is that He has called you and I into a relationship where you and I are meant to be His incarnations in a broken world. You and I have become part of His nations of priests who are called to be a light to a dark world. How we treat our enemies, in light of the wrongs done to us and of what society expects us to do in retribution, can have a profound effect upon the world. When we act as if we believe that God will repay the wrongs done to us, the world takes notice. If I flip off an idiot who first flips me off after running the four-way stop in front of church, the world laughs. Worse, were I to punch the one in the mouth for their lying to the cops when their selfish behavior caused them to injure another innocent, law-abiding driver by running those same signs (don't laugh, there have been at least 7 injury accidents in front of church since I arrived), the world chuckles and revels in such behavior. The world mocks us because I am no different than them. For all my profession of Christ cruicified and resurrected, I felt the need to seek vengeance and belittle my enemy.  Where is my trust in God's promises to repay?
     Yet God calls us to love the enemy. Just as He loved us while we were still His enemy and sent His beloved Son, you and I are called to love the enemy. We are called to feed the enemy, clothe the enemy, and pray for the enemy. You and I are called to meet the needs of the enemy as we are given resources so to do. Why? Is it a cosmic farce? Was Al Pacino's Satan right when he said that God was playing mind games with humanity, "Look but do not touch. Touch, but not taste. Taste, but do not enjoy." Should He have added, "Have enemies, but do not battle them?" And loving our enemies is incredibly hard. How can we ever love someone who intentionally causes us harm? As I said, it is a question of faith. When we realize that we were once His enemies, loving our enemies is not quite as challenging. Once we begin to pray and think on His promises, we begin to be challenged by His instruction. Once we give up our perceived right to vengeance to His will, we can become amazing tools in His great plan of salvation.
     Thursday, the ladies and Pat were drawn back to the Amish schoolhouse murders from a couple years ago. Each of us remarked how hard that must have been for them to forgive that man who murdered their children. If any group of Christians ever had a right to execute their own judgment, surely it was them. Yet, to a person, the Amish forgave that troubled man. The hurt did not go away; the anguish is likely still there. Yet each trusted that God will repay, that vengeance is His. And what did the world talk about for a news cycle? The world did not talk about how the Amish had tortured the young, troubled man. The world did not laugh at the Amish's gestures toward the man when a couple actually hugged their child's murderer. No, the world wondered how they could ever do such a thing. Why are they not furious with the man and pressuring the prosecutors to seek the death penalty? No, the Amish lived into the biblical ethic and caused the press to scatter seeds to the end of the earth.
     Brothers and sisters, how we face death and how we face life may be the best sermon any of our friends and neighbors ever hear. Do we live as if we believe in His resurrection and His promise to return to judge? Or do we live like the world expects us to live? Do we incarnate that mercy He so wondrously bestowed upon us? Or do we still seek our ways instead of His? Whether we know it or not, whether we accept it or not, the world is always watching us; our enemies are always watching us. How will we treat them and so love even them into the Kingdom? By the world's ethic, or by God's.