Thursday, November 25, 2021

What ARE the Sins of my Youth? (And Why Should God Forget Them?)



What ARE the Sins of my Youth? (And Why Should God Forget Them?)

 

Psalm 25:1-10
25:1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.

25:2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.

25:3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

25:4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.

25:5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.

25:6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.

25:7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD!

25:8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore God instructs sinners in the way.

25:9 God leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.

25:10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep God’s covenant and decrees.

 

Thanksgiving weekend is also the first Sunday of Advent, as often happens (the next time it doesn’t happen is in 2023, when Advent begins December 3). I was thinking I would do a “Thanksgiving” sermon for this weekend, and give Advent a week off, but when I read the Advent lectionary texts, I was nudged to tackle the Psalm. 

 

Advent is a lot of things in Christian lore. Traditionally, it is a time when we reflect on and anticipate the final arrival of the “Kingdom” (or Realm) of God. This often includes texts that refer to what is commonly known as the “second coming” of Jesus Christ. As I have grown older and wiser, and have tried to be a keen observer of current events and world happenings, I have come to emphasize more our “partnership” with God in bringing about God’s Realm, more so than the Second Coming. Why? Because we have been given the Holy Spirit and the tools (gifts of the Spirit) to make this happen, and because way too many people believe they will just wait on Jesus to “fix it” when he returns. This latter view is bad on several counts, not the least of which is many folk who so relish Jesus’ return are looking TOO forward to him squishing their “enemies,” although they would say they are “God’s” enemies. This nasty tendency to believe  in  retribution as the “wow factor” of Christ’s return is enough for me to demote it as a human creation, more than a scriptural one. No, I’m going to say Advent is more about getting our house in order so Jesus may actually want to return someday.

 

This weekend, though, I was taken by the verse in Psalm 25 that says, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions…” What were the “sins” of my youth, has my “youth” ended yet, and why does the verse speak of both sins and transgressions? Doing a little spelunking around various commentaries and Bible references, I will take a stab at this, and hope it is an educated one. 

 

“Sins of my youth” may refer to the bonehead things we do as kids and teens, some just because we don’t have a clue, and others because we think it will be entertaining. These things may not rate highly on a “Sin-O-Meter,” but either could have been—or were—harmful to ourselves or others. Think of the series of movies that all began with the title “Jackass.” Years ago, on my day off from the church, I occasionally went to the movie theater. My wife isn’t much of a movie buff, and besides she did not have the same day off as me, especially when she was working full-time. So, I’d pick a movie or two I would like to see, and off I’d go. There was this time when my first and second choice films were both so popular, they were already sold out, when I arrived. I had seen a promo for the film, “Jackass: The Movie,” and believe me IT wasn’t sold out, so in I went. I would say that “Jackass: The Movie” was the stupidest movie I had ever seen, but if you don’t know that already, you really should get out more. In keeping with the theme, I could call it asinine, as “sophomoric” would be high praise for it. Where I’m going with this is that this “film” was full of hijinks of the sort that we might have tried as teenagers? Things like loading a friend up in a shopping cart and pushing him over a steep hill, “having fun” by poking each other in the genitals with a cattle prod, or starting fires in weird places, just to see what happens—these would be major plotlines in “Jackass: The Movie.” As teens ourselves, I would admit to trying the shopping cart trick, only we didn’t put anyone in it, we just pushed it over a steep hill toward traffic (thankfully, it was so unstable, it just hit a curb and turned over). We used to start random fires, just to see how big they got before we put them out. How fortunate we were that none of them ever got so big we couldn’t handle extinguishing them! We got ahold of an old ham radio transmitter and used it to blast profanities through neighborhood TVs. Once, we used a friend’s pickup truck with a hitch to “borrow” a giant promotional steer from in front of a new steakhouse and back it into another friend’s front yard. Since he lived in one of the more “uppity” neighborhoods, the neighbors weren’t too happy with the lawn d├ęcor the following morning, nor were his parents. Our church life wasn’t without a few pranks, either. 

 

A bunch of us used to sit in the balcony like little cherubs, but when the sermon started, we would bolt to a little coffee shop across the street named “Famores” for sticky rolls and a coke, arriving back in the balcony just as the congregation was singing the final hymn. I think my dad knew what we were doing, as the church didn’t sell the “Sporting News,” and our pastor, the Rev. Hugh Crocker, would see us leave each week, too. He pulled me aside one Sunday and asked where we went each week. When I told him, he asked, “Do you talk about important things there?” And honestly, we did. It was great “guy talk,” and it really did usually cover the major questions about life, the universe, and everything. Oh, and girls. Rev. Crocker just said, “OK.” I never forget his quiet “endorsement” of our sticky roll klatches, and his “handling” of it (he never told our parents) would later factor into my call to the ordained ministry. I had a number of important pastors and lay persons who positively influenced my faith and life, but none who seemed to understand the wanderlust of a group of small-town teenage church boys in the 1960s like Rev. Dr. Hugh Crocker. I rejoice that before he died, I was able to tell him how much he meant to me.

 

All this to say that the “sins of my youth” mentioned by the Psalmist were probably “Jackass” sins like these—pranks, capers, fun stuff that could have been more treacherous, but thankfully weren’t. Transgressions? Well, that would be a different story. Transgressions, I believe, were things that ticked off God, mostly because they were actually intended to be harmful, or to hurt the feelings of another, out of some sort of spite. When we got old enough to begin dating, or fighting with each other over girls, or competing for accolades on the sports fields or in academic contests, there were transgressions. Privilege or selfishness often led us to attitudes of entitlement. Those of us who owned (or were just granted) popularity often hurtfully made fun of those who had none. High school-aged teens can be very, very mean, and while some may be born of naivete, most was manifest intentionally. Personally, I tended toward being more “inclusive” and accepting than some of my peers in my high school years, but I was not totally without blame—and transgressions. When I began to learn about “white privilege” in college, years later, I knew exactly what this was about. When others discounted it or denied it—as is still happening today—I knew it was all too real, and still is, today. 

 

The author of the Psalm appeals to God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” to forget all of these things—the “Jackass” sins and the serious transgressions of youth. And God did.

 

Out of God’s goodness, God forgives our badness. The Psalm goes on to say: “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore God instructs sinners in the way.” God doesn’t just forgive and forget—God uses these incidents to instruct us “in the way.” “The way” is a life that seeks “righteousness,” or “right living,” and in “the way,” this is not a goal just to make God happy, but to improve life. Righteous living is less about “obeying God,” and more about fixing the world and the communities in which we live. 

 

The major themes of this Psalm are: God is REALLY good and loving; we are NOT, and whether by “omission” or “commission,” we are guilty of sinfulness, stupidity, and spite, or the “trifecta” of them all. God forgives and forgets, because God loves, and God desires to restore the originally intended fortunes of humanity. Think of the great parable we call the Book of Job. Eventually, after a colorful drama of Satan, God, “Job’s friends,” and poetic speeches by Job AND God, Job’s fortunes are restored and once again, all is right with the world. This is the vector of Psalm 25, only it’s not a parable.

 

Have you spent time pondering whether you are “sorry” for your “Jackass” sins and your transgressions? Some may be, almost to the “clinical” level. We have the unfortunate ability to fixate on our shortcomings—some do, more than others—to the degree that we are rendered dysfunctional. Others, on the opposite end of the spectrum, appear to have the ability to forget their own transgressions, even when a little “remembrance” may bring at least a small level of accountability and repentance. God forgives, forgets, and educates. How we respond to this grace is up to us. Genuine contrition goes a lot farther toward healing and wholeness, and aids each individual to become a “Lego piece” of a restored community. Having a too-short memory of our “Jackass” sins and actual transgressions may feel good, but doesn’t help much. Repentance is not just “good for the soul,” but is also good for the whole human community. “Repenting” means we understand our infractions, and the Greek term metanoia means we will turn and go the other direction from them. One commentator said that “repenting” (metanoia) means “turning our lives God-ward.” Each of us doing so makes us the building blocks of a better, more forgiving and accepting society.

 

As the psalmist says, God’s “steadfast love and faithfulness” are amazing things, and each of us benefits from them. However, if they are not also infused into the human psyche and “redistributed” to the rest of the human community by our prayers, acts of mercy and kindness, and through our willingness to forgive others as we have been forgiven, they are just biblical niceties—cranberry sauce for the turkey, in the vernacular of the season. “Keeping God’s covenant and God’s decrees” is not done to please God, but to rescue and revive God’s community. We must always keep in mind that God’s original purpose was to create a loving, harmonious people with whom God could relate, and who would relate graciously to each other. Recovering this original goal of creation is now God’s “vision,” or aim, and the “Second Coming” is more about putting God’s covenant and decrees back into play than wishing Jesus to physically come again. Doing the latter is akin to the bad parenting model of “Just wait until your father gets home!” The return of Jesus model doesn’t fix the problem, it just metes out punishment for bad behavior.

 

This week, as we pause to give thanks for our blessings, may we also say a prayer for the First Americans who originally resided on the lands we now occupy. And as we begin the Advent season, may we purpose to live out God’s covenant and decrees in order to participate in God’s efforts to redeem and restore us, the church, and the whole of the human community.

 

Grace and peace to all. Happy Thanksgiving. And may you all have an Advancing Advent! Amen.

 

 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

King for a Day...


 King for a Day…

John 18:33-37
18:33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

18:34 Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"

18:35 Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"

18:36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

18:37 Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

 

This Sunday is “Christ the King” Sunday in most Christian traditions’ liturgical calendars. The text above is one of the lectionary passages for celebrating “Christ the King” or “Feast of Christ the King.” Others in this week’s lectionary come from Revelation, an apocalyptic work serving as the caboose of the New Testament—it is a really strange book about which countless books of “interpretation” have been written, with most authors proclaiming to have unlocked some of Revelation’s “secret codes” about the second coming of Jesus Christ. Another of the “Christ the King” lectionary readings is from the book of Daniel. It’s an even stranger book, and one whose inclusion in the Old Testament was much in dispute, historically. I chose the Johannine passage because it, to me, sounds much more like the Jesus we experience in the Gospels, and the Jesus I was called to follow.

 

Despite all of the “kingdom” language in the Bible, and the promises of a “kingly” messiah found in various Bible texts, I submit that Jesus was just “king for a day,” and it was on the day he was crucified. As we see in this text, it was Pontius Pilate who dubbed him a king. Jesus seems to deny the “coronation.” “You say that I am a king,” was Jesus response. Pilate “crowns” Jesus as part of his punishment (the crown of thorns) and puts him to death, mostly because he was a nuisance to Pilate. The reign of this “Christ the King” lasted only a few hours, and then Jesus was taken down from the cross and put into the tomb. 

 

Now, I already hear you protesting: But the scriptures proclaim that God’s Messiah will be “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and He shall reign for ever and ever!” Well, this certainly is in some of the messianic prophecies we read in the Bible, but is this really about Jesus? Or is it from the Hebrew tradition of a messianic king who will be a great military leader, and who will lead Israel to battle and victory over all of the oppressive nations and forces, and then establish a great earthly throne in Jerusalem? Most likely. And what of Revelation’s claims about “He who sits on the throne,” the “Alpha and Omega”? Let’s unpack this idea a bit.

King language would have made a lot more sense in the time of the Hebrew prophets. After all, it was Israel who cried out to God for a king, because they wanted a strong, earthly leader, and I’m guessing they may also have been trying to “force” God’s hand to give them the Messiah King who would not only rule them benevolently and “forever,” but who would get rid of all of their enemies, as well. Even as Christians today try to “shoehorn” Jesus into some of the Old Testament prophecies that are really not about him, so the Jews of old may have wanted their king to be THE king, the “great king” they saw clearly promised in prophecy. Even the best of their long succession of kings was not “great,” with the exception of King David, who we all know had a dubious immoral streak, and yet was forgiven by God and put on the throne of Israel. David is still the king venerated by the Jews. The author of Luke’s Gospel includes the Davidic line in his birth narrative that Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father was “of the house and lineage of David” as a messianic endorsement aimed at Jesus. Israel’s earthly kings were like many of the quarterbacks in the NFL today—they have a few good games and a few bad games, but what everyone is looking for is the next Tom Brady. That’s a good metaphor for Israel’s “king search” for a messianic king, one which they have yet to find. That said, it is simply a fact that we in Western society, and Christendom in particular, do not understand most “kingdom” talk.

 

Jesus never envisioned himself as this “conquering king messiah.”  He rather flippantly rejects Pilate’s “nomination” as King of the Jews. “You say I’m a king,” he says. Instead, Jesus speaks two important and self-revelatory statements: “My kingdom is not from this world,” and “I was born and came into this world to testify to the truth.” If we scrub the ancient “king” language out of this text, what we may hear Jesus saying is that the basilea of God is not a place or a “government,” per se, but an event! It is the restoration of the vision of God that our world and God may live together in a fulfilling, loving, and just relationship, and with equal footing as God’s children. It is the restoration of the vision of Eden. It is a realm where truth reigns and falsehood and struggles for power are banished forever. And while it may not ever happen on this side of the great divide, it is a vision that Jesus challenged the human community to tackle by living out his teachings and loving others according to them. This is the “kingdom” Jesus was witnessing to Pilate about. And it was through the sacrificial love of God that was ultimately manifested by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that the beginning of this realm (basilea) of God even becomes possible. 

 

When we were kids playing Hide and Seek, at some point, when the game needed reshuffled, the person who was “it” would shout “Ollie, Ollie in Free,” or in some neighborhoods, “Ollie, Ollie Oxen Free!” Those phrases never made much sense to me, but I read recently in one of those “etymology” sites that the origin of our silly phrases was actually a German expression, alle, alle, auch sind frei which translates, basically, “EVERYONE is Free!” In Jesus Christ, God is shouting alle, alle, auch sind frei! and “restarting the game.” Then through the teachings of Jesus and the inspiration, wisdom, and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we “gamers” partner with God to begin unveiling the realm, or a “kingdom that is not from this Earth.” 

 

If you really digest the totality of the scriptures about Jesus, there is less “king” language, and more about the profundity of the truth to which he bears witness, and the righteousness he calls his followers to. The “kingship” of Jesus has little-to-nothing to do with power or dominion, and everything to do with benevolently redeeming, restoring, and residing with God’s people, both now, through the church—the Body of Christ—and eternally, in the timeless realm of God we often call “heaven.” Even the Bible’s proclamation in Revelation that he is the “Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end” defines Jesus’ eternal status as part of the Godhead and participant in the on-going process of redemption, not of any “kingship” that bears resemblance to any historical, human understanding of what a “king” does. Jesus, in the earthly understanding of a king, was only king for a day, courtesy of Pontius Pilate. But the Risen Jesus sits on the throne, not to “lord over” God’s people, but to enjoy them, not unlike a loving parents watch their children at play. This “throne” is not a place to claim higher ground for Christ, but a seat, so he has a lap. Remember when Jesus told the disciples to “let the children come unto me,” and would take them into his lap to love and affirm them? THIS is the right model for the unfolding and future realm of God, friends. We will be forever beckoned to climb into the lap of Jesus. 

 

If you’re having trouble catching a vision of this view of Christ the King and what God wants the “Kingdom of God” to look like, remember also that Jesus said “The one who wants to be the ‘greatest’ (or most loved or appreciated) by all must first become the servant of all.” He also said, the last shall be first. When Paul talks about how Jesus will be “exalted” and “given the name that is above every other name,” this is the kind of exultation he is speaking of—the servant of all becoming the most loved, and the “last” being brought to the fore, so that “every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.” And this “Lord” is not one who “lords over,” but one who is the Lord of Love. In the text from John, Jesus states that the greatest praise we can give him is to listen to his voice. Obedience to the law of love is that which truly exalts Jesus, not empty words of praise. And living and acting on this law of love is the highest form of praise to God.

 

As a Methodist preacher, I have long been impressed with the “tone” I find in reading the sermons of John Wesley. Wesley’s veneration of his “King Jesus” is clear and vibrates through each of his famous sermons, but what is clearer and more pronounced is the sense one gets from them that Wesley KNEW this Jesus, and owned and fostered an intimate spiritual relationship with him. Wesley was driven not by “duty,” or a sense that he ministered merely out of “obedience,” but was led by the love he had for Christ and the love Christ had shown him. Do you feel deeply loved by Christ, today? Can you feel God’s pleasure in your just being who you are? Do you feel “close to God” when you practice being in God’s presence? Friends, I urge you to find THIS “King Jesus,” if you haven’t, already. If, when you think about God, you are first struck by fear, doubt, or with an emptiness, or an “unknowing,” then seek today the truth that Jesus brought to us. Open your heart to love God with all your strength, mind, and heart, and your neighbor as yourself. And in this experience, may you find the intimacy and peace with God you are seeking. And may you then experience Christ’s “kingdom that is not from this world.” Amen.

Friday, November 12, 2021

Holding Fast and Letting Go...


 “Holding Fast and Letting Go”

 

Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25
10:11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.

10:12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God,"

10:13 and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet."

10:14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

10:15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,

10:16 "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,"

10:17 he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more."

10:18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

10:19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,

10:20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh),

10:21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God,

10:22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

10:23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.

10:24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,

10:25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another
, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

 

 

Throughout Christian history, a theological debate has raged between “saved by faith/grace” and “works righteousness” people. For the life of me, I just don’t see this as a debate, frankly. They are two essential elements of Christian discipleship, not competing means of atonement. Yes, there have been those who promoted the idea that only “good people” go to heaven, and that our “good works” will be put on some kind of a cosmic balance scale when we croak, and see if they weigh more than our sins, but I question whether many serious theological thinkers endorsed this idea. There is what I would call a “comic book” summary of the three main views of salvation out there and it goes like this: 

 

1.    Some are “predestined” or “elected” by God to be saved, and you either are among the elect or you are not (this is often labeled “Calvinism”).

 

2.    Anyone who desires to be saved from their sin can be, simply by having faith in Jesus Christ, by whose grace we are saved when we believe (attributed to the Reformer, Martin Luther).

 

3.    We are “weighed in the balance” by our good works, and either given the thumbs up or the thumbs down by God at the judgment, and since we never know if we are measuring up, we just have to keep grinding out the good works, which hopefully will lead to righteousness (this is often attributed to John Wesley).

 

So, who’s right? In a manner of speaking, all three positions have a piece of the truth. I’m not a “Calvinist,” so I’ll leave most of the “election” argument in Point One to my Presbyterian friends, but in seminary, I read quite a bit of Karl Barth’s work, and Barth locates “predestination” in Jesus, himself. Barth believed that even from the foundation of the world, it was God’s plan to send his Son into the world to redeem humankind and to guide us back to a righteous life, one that would benefit the whole of the human community. So Jesus was the one “predestined,” not us. I also don’t understand how one can interpret the scriptures to say atonement is “limited” (election) when Jesus invites “whosoever” in John 3:16, and Paul goes on and on about the ever-abundant grace of God, and that we are “saved by faith.” The part of Point One that I think is worth considering is that God is intentional about being out to redeem the world, not just “offering” salvation--so much so that God’s passion for saving is not open for debate, and neither is one’s redemption, when it is received. This is a pretty liberal defense of the “Calvinist” point of view, but as I said, I’m not a Calvinist. And if I heard one of my professors, Dr. Charles Partee right, neither, really, was John Calvin, only dabbling in these “predestination” and “election” concepts toward the end of his famous two-volume “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” 

 

On to Point Two. I wrote this week that I am now calling myself a “Protestant” instead of a “Christian” because of how badly this latter term has been perjured by fundamentalists, evangelicals, right-wingers, and others who weaponize scripture and use it to exclude and harm people. I like to introduce myself as “Protestant” in religious discussions, for if my company is part of a faith community, they will understand that term, and may be prompted to ask why I’m using it. That would be a good conversation. If the parties with whom I’m speaking are not of the religiously “initiated,” they may well ask what I am “protesting,” and that, too, would be a good conversation. I think it’s a win-win. Of course, the term “Protestant” comes from the religious movement launched inadvertently by Martin Luther in 1517 when his exhaustive study of Paul’s Letter to the Romans led him to have some real issues with the prevailing theology of the Roman Catholic Church, which in his mind had taken a serious turn toward “works righteousness,” or believing that a. we find redemption only through accumulating enough “good works,” and b. it would be the Catholic Church that was the arbiter of whether the save-ee measured up. Luther came to fervently believe in salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, and that salvation was a gift of God’s grace. He got pretty hopped up on this concept, so much so that after his Protestant movement was off and running, he railed against the concept of “works righteousness,” afraid it would be the “black hole” that sucked people back to the hierarchical “works righteousness” church centered in Rome. In my opinion, Luther’s paranoia about “good works” launched another inadvertent movement that continues to this day wherein as soon as one mentions salvation and “good works” in the same sentence, a panic ensues, especially among evangelicals.

 

Let me state firmly that Point Three is not John Wesley’s position. Wesley never preached “works righteousness” as the way of salvation. Why, then, has the idea that “being good” was the means of pleasing God enough to bribe one’s way into heaven? Well, as already alluded to, there was a season in the life of the Roman Catholic Church when this was the dominant position, and that it was “the church” that served as the judge. It was an excellent way of controlling mostly illiterate people toward the end of keeping them faithful to the church, and therefore, God. 

 

However, something also happened later in American history that cemented “works righteousness” as the official “civil religion” on this side of the pond. I read in seminary that when the Puritans came to America, they practiced a brand of Christianity learned primarily from the Church of England—the Anglicans. This was a blend of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ AND was then manifested by the saved believer in “good works,” or “acts of mercy” toward one’s fellow human beings. These “good works” were how we lived out both our gratitude for God’s saving grace, and served to help usher in the “Kingdom of God” on earth. Doing “good” toward one’s neighbor was a primary teaching of Jesus, and it is a necessary element in building a loving community, which was a key Puritan aim. But to quote Dr. Emmett Brown in “Back to the Future,” “It’s your KIDS, Marty!” The Puritan’s children born in the New World rebelled against the Old World religion of their parents, and that was trouble, enough, but when they grew up, married, and began having the first grandchildren in America, the Puritans were in a pickle about wanting to baptize them. However, their strict church rules didn’t allow for this, if their parents weren’t “churched.” So, a Puritan Council—most certainly made up of new grandparents—met and declared something called the “Halfway Covenant,” which, if their sons and daughters would agree to, would allow the grandkids to be baptized. And guess what was in that covenant? You guessed it—“good works.” If their kids were willing to “do good,” and live a moral life, the Puritan church could baptize their children. And there you have the central element in America’s unofficial “civil religion.” A number of years ago, a group of religious researchers polled Christian church-goers in a wide variety of churches, asking attendees, “Do you believe you are going to heaven?” Guess what most of them said: “Yes, because I try to be a good person.” Way too few pew-occupying Christians answered it was because of faith in Jesus. Thanks, Puritans! You made our job as preachers of the Gospel that much harder!

 

As I said earlier, John Wesley took the theology of the Anglican Church and “personalized” it to the life of the believer. Wesley did not believe in “works righteousness,” but believed that the righteousness (forgiveness, redemption) that we receive by faith in Jesus Christ compels us to “live rightly,” following the teachings of Jesus, meeting the needs of the “least of these,” welcoming the stranger, and helping usher in the Kingdom of God. Wesley’s emphasis on holiness and piety was not driven by a desire to “gain” God’s favor unto salvation, but to please God by loving God’s people and following God’s commands. As one of my Presbyterian seminary professors would say, “John Wesley’s contribution to the Body of Christ was helping us see that our lives were to move FROM faith TO good works, out of gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.” 

 

Now, with all of this theology and history out of the way, I hope it begins to be obvious as to why today’s passage from Hebrews brought all of this to mind. The Hebrews text makes it clear that redemption for the believer is solely the efficacy of the Christ Event: 

 

…Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God," and since then has been waiting "until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet." For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.  (Hebrews 10:12-14)

 

Christ has saved the whole world and all of history for those who believe AND for those who don’t know it yet, and hopefully someday WILL believe. The efficacy of the Christ Event was once and for all:

 

Where there is forgiveness of these [lawless deeds], there is no longer any offering for sin.    (Hebrews 10:18)

 

Then the Hebrews author says that God is now going to write the new law on the hearts and minds of believers, and this law would now be the “law” (teachings) of Christ. To this great gift, and to the new hope that it brings to the world and to all who have already believed, we are called to hold fast because the one who has given both salvation and the promise is faithful, that being God. Holding fast means to claim the gift of God’s grace and redemption by believing in Jesus. Holding fast means to sell out to the surety of our salvation, and then to “move on.” Moving on requires a certain letting go—letting go of the inordinate emphasis on “personal salvation” that permeates what has come to be known as evangelical Christianity, for example. I remember going through “witness” training to be a “teen counselor” for a Billy Graham film (“Time to Run”) back in the 1970s. As a teen myself, I was quite impressionable, and the “evangelical” brand of Christianity I had latched on to back in that day led me to accept fully the idea of not just individual salvation (“being saved”), but a passionate need for it, even to the point of being told in that training, “If you can’t name a day and a date when you accepted Christ as your Savior, then you are not saved.” I remember that, as one raised in a mainline church, I didn’t have a specific “day and date” when I had come to believe in Jesus Christ, so in my anxiety, I asked the friend seated by me, “What should I do?” His answer: “Just make one up.” I often wonder if this sentiment is what began the sad slide the evangelical movement has made into darkness and entanglement in right-wing political intrigue? In fact, the Bible is clear: Christ offers salvation to all, and simply saying “yes” to God’s “Yes” to humankind IS salvation. It doesn’t require specific words, a doctrinal prayer said in earnest, or even a remembered “day and date.” Just say YES to the love and salvific grace of God, and then be a public witness to this faith—a witness that should be more through actions than words, according to St. Francis of Assisi.

 

This leads us to the next message we see clearly in the Hebrews text in verse 24: “provoking one another to love and good deeds.” Holding fast to the gift of God’s grace is the foundation upon which we build; letting go of our anxiety about salvation is the motivation to aspire to love and good deeds. These actions and not taken as an requirement for salvation, but instead, as a grateful response TO it. This is Wesley’s thought. Again, the “FROM faith TO works.” Of course the thread through all of this is love—God’s love for us, demonstrated and gifted through Jesus Christ, and the love that Christ and the Holy Spirit germinate and empower within each of us. This love is what motivates our “good works” toward others and the broader human community. No matter how you look at it, desiring this thread of divine love to flow through us requires a letting go. We must let go of the definitions of others that we have been “programmed” with through our family systems, or ones that our own minds have programmed as part of our primordial “self-preservation” instinct. God’s love must be directed toward all, not just persons who pass our cultural, familial, racial, religious, or even moral litmus tests. These “filters” we all develop, one way or another, are not easy to let go of! They are deeply ingrained, and often been reinforced (even by our religion!) so strongly that we have bonded them on to the “grace” foundation of our faith. For the conservative evangelical, for example, acceptance of persons with other than a heterosexual orientation is based on the ultimate idea that they must change, to be fully “Christian.” For the white, privileged society, persons of color must be willing to become “more like us” to be fully accepted, or at least to be fully included in the culture (even in the CHURCH culture). For the financially secure, “ministry” TO the POOR is from the top, down, with the eventual goal of helping them lift themselves out of poverty and moving them to a more “suburban” lifestyle. For many Americans right now, refugees and immigrants have been simply declared “not worthy” of our love and acceptance, and should be sent packing, or walled out. (This one always intrigued me: if we really are the “greatest country on earth,” which many of these people believe, should we be surprised that others would want to find a better life here? And would shutting them out and refusing to find a way to receive them “legally” not constitute an extremely cruel policy?)

 

If we are to manifest the divine love of God—which we have all benefitted from ourselves—we are compelled to let go of these artificial and aberrant “filters.” If we do not, we are guilty of the man in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18 who is forgiven a great debt by the king, who then goes out and demands that one who owes him a paltry sum by comparison, pay him back immediately or suffer the consequences. The king in this parable is not happy when he hears of this, and sends the unforgiving man to be “tortured.” I believe that when we put so many conditions on love, we are torturing ourselves.

 

Let us look, finally, to the last sentences of this Hebrews passage: 

 

…not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…

 

The author is making clear that Christ followers are called to be a part of the Body of Christ—a beloved community that supports and helps each other, and one that engages in ministry for others and the common good. “Meeting together” is the essential part of building the beloved community imagined by God in scripture, and seeded in humanity by Jesus Christ. The author is cautioning that forsaking these “meetings together” is a very bad and degrading thing, but one that too easily becomes habitual, when we focus on the “I” rather than the “we.” COVID has launched most churches who weren’t already there into the virtual world of live-streaming. While this may have kept the “community” together, in once sense, when the pandemic forced us to live apart, it also provided a convenient way to encourage “spectator” religion. How convenient it was to “watch church” on our big TVs while lounging in our pajamas and sipping home-brewed coffee. It has been estimated that as many as one third of regular worship attenders have made this new practice a habit, and may not return to face-to-face fellowship, classes, or worship. This is not a good thing. It will depreciate the value of the degree of beloved community the church had been able to create, which was struggling in many corners in the first place. The Hebrews author—echoing the teachings of Jesus and Paul—urges believers early on to not give up on face-to-face community experiences. 

 

I’m reading a wonderful book right now by the late Rabbi and philosopher, Jonathan Sacks, called “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times.” Sacks makes the case for morality as the third essential of a healthy, productive, and free society, the others being the state and the economy. Morality is that which “humanizes” any society and builds the trust necessary to sustain its freedom, without leaving anyone behind. Among the many important points he makes in the book, one is about the necessary “face-to-face-ness” in the community experience. This is a long quote, but worth reflecting upon, in light of today’s Hebrews passage:

 

Morality is born when I focus on you, not me; when I discover that you, too, have emotions, desires, aspirations, and fears. I learn this by being present to you and allowing you to be present to me. It is deeply subtle interaction that we learn slowly and patiently through ongoing conversations with family, friends, peers, teachers, mentors, and others. We develop empathy and sympathy. We learn what it is to receive acts of kindness and then to reciprocate them. Morality is about engaging with the raw human vulnerabilities of others that lie beneath the carefully burnished image, and about our ability to heal some of the pain. I learn to be moral when I develop the capacity to put myself into your place, and that is a skill I only learn by engaging with you, face to face or side by side. [Page 57]

 

This is the morality of Jesus. This is the morality of the church, when it is functioning correctly and in accordance with the Spirit of God. This is the morality, as Sacks suggests, of a healthy, compassionate society. And this is the morality of the author of Hebrews 10. Unfortunately, our American society is currently on hiatus from this morality, probably due partly to the pandemic, but more so, due to our political, social, racial, and economic division. 

 

If ever there was a time for God’s people to hold fast to the grace and love of God, to our gift of redemption, and the hope that these bring to us all, and to let go of our selfishness, our “rights,” when they become fighting words, and of our will to power, it is now. The division in the church and in American society is killing our world’s environment, making the poor poorer, setting neighbor at odds with neighbor, and poisoning the future for our children and grandchildren. We will never be the “greatest country on earth” unless we let go of the “I” and rediscover the “we,” and we will not be restored as the People of God until we do so, either. It’s time, Dear Ones, to hold fast and let go. Grace and peace. Amen.

 

 

Friday, November 5, 2021

 


 

MUCH Shall Be Required…

 

Mark 12:38-44
12:38 As he taught, he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,

12:39 and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!

12:40 They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

12:41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.

12:42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.

12:43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.

12:44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

 

As a religious leader for most of my career, let me say that this text really shakes my spine. The first thing Jesus says about the religious leaders of his day was “Beware.” Religious leaders have made a habit out of either turning our “connection” to the Almighty into coin, or at the very least into privilege. There was a time in America when clergy were honored in the public arena, given the same acclaim as elected officials and those masters of the financial community. Unfortunately, this is often the case in modern times, too, but you know what the general public things now of elected officials and investment bankers. The stain of profit and privilege has certainly rubbed off on the clergy, and in a few very prominent cases, has been exploited by “TV evangelists” and the occasional priest. 

 

As a “main line” denominational pastor, and one who served a sect that held out against all others to maintain its exclusion of some of God’s people based on narrow, dogmatic interpretations of hand-picked scripture verses, I felt the smear of stain, as well. In my United Methodist Church, the battle wages over “scriptural purity” regarding sexual identity and orientation, led by some who might be found wanting if this same scrutiny were applied to other areas of sin such as racism, gluttony, or care of the sojourner, a schism is afoot that will result in a weakening of all of the “splits.” “Homosexuality” (the word used by the UMC Book of Discipline) became the thing some folks—clergy and laity—decided to go to the mat for. Interestingly, systemic racism, poverty, sexism, ageism, income inequity, substandard public education, or even theological issues such as Christology, weren’t enough to trigger a schismatic revolt, but “homosexuality” is. Go figure.

 

Just this week, as part of my own personal meditations, I pondered what it means to be an ordained pastor, even in retirement. I used to be sensitive to declaring myself to be a “minister” when meeting people for the first time, and being asked “what do you do.” My reticence was about not wanting to prematurely end meaningful conversation because of the reserve most felt around “persons of the cloth.” Now, my fear is that they will paint me with the same brush the enlightened public does “TV evangelists” and other “P.T. Barnum” types, or even worse, the ones who shut the gates of the Kingdom of God to those who don’t meet their “scriptural” litmus tests. Worse yet, I fear being painted in the brush Jesus used in this text today!

 

Let’s go a little deeper on this. It is a fact that the public has begun to denigrate even those who would proclaim themselves to be “Christian.” There are very public Christians who use racist language, make fun of “homosexuals,” and who during this global pandemic that has killed over 5 million people, have preached “personal freedom” from wearing masks, being vaccinated, or observing other measures aimed at saving lives. It’s no wonder that the label “Christian” is falling into the kind of disfavor that no Christ follower should want to wear. 

 

So, what should we Christ followers call ourselves? That term—Christ follower—may be OK, but to the uninitiated to whom we wish to be a witness, it is pretty obscure. Personally, I think I will go back to calling myself just a Protestant. There are many who still understand what it means, and for those who don’t, they may well ask, “What are you protesting?”, which certainly opens an interesting opportunity for dialogue! Even if the other says something like, “Oh, then you are not Catholic?”, it is an opportunity to converse about ecumenical or interfaith experiences, both of which have enriched my ministerial career for over 36 years. Being “Protestant” doesn’t mean I am not protesting the Roman Catholic Church. No, it just means I have a different starting point in the continued ecumenical conversation. But if the other is among the uninitiated, regarding religious categories, I can share the many things I DO protest, namely doctrines that exclude ANY of God’s people and eschew the “grace upon grace” preached by the Apostle Paul and the “love of neighbor and stranger” taught by Jesus, Judaism, and Islam.

 

In the midst of his criticism of the Scribes, Jesus notices the “poor widow” who puts her sacrificial offering into the community chest. Beyond noting that her gift is “more” than the “great gifts” offered by the well-off, Jesus is signaling his attention to those who measure their faith by sacrifice and acceptance, over those who seek attention by dollars, cents, and “right doctrine.” Some have observed that Jesus has a “bias” toward the poor, but I would say, further, that Jesus shows a decided bias toward anyone others denigrate or exclude, especially if they are doing so on religious grounds. 

 

One may ask, is Jesus really saying that to be “faithful,” we should literally give everything we have to “live on” to the community chest to help the poor? Wouldn’t this just lower us to the level of the poor? On one hand he may indeed be suggesting that if our giving is not sacrificial--meaning we are “giving UP” something to GIVE—it is not adequate. On the other hand, he may be signaling that those who fully trust in God rather than our balance sheet have a freedom in stewardship and benevolence than those who don’t. One of the challenges my wife and I have in retirement is maintaining our “Protestant” generosity. We have always given much more than the 10% tithe to church and charity, but now that we are among those proverbial “fixed income” folk, how do we measure this. One of the things we have done is build in a monthly automatic gift to our church, and then “don’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing” when it comes to other offerings. If a cause grabs our heart, and is a responsible one, we just make a gift, and worry later if we can “afford” it. Honestly, we feel blessed in so many ways, I would not want to let up on being cheerful givers.

 

Note that Jesus calls the disciples over to see what he saw when the “poor widow” put in her two mites. This, too, is something we have tried to do throughout our ministry—let others know how we strived to be generous, cheerful givers, not to boast about it, but to encourage others to find the same blessedness and purpose in giving that we have. As Jesus was teaching his disciples with this human object lesson, so we tried to be one, ourselves. I know that some church members didn’t always “see” the lesson, but we did our best.

I know that this following verse is not directly connected with today’s lectionary passage in Mark, but it, too, has always haunted me. I hope it pokes at you, as well:

 

Luke 12:48: …From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

 

As American Protestants (Christians?) we have all been given much, and I sincerely believe that God will require much of us. God has given us our relationship with Jesus, and the gift of redemption, freeing us to live as Christ followers, according to the teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, and the parables. Or from the human “object lessons” such as the sacrificing widow in today’s passage. 

 

What is the “much” God will require? I believe this “much” is really loaded, for those who would seek to be true Christ followers. This would include generous living and generous giving. This would include not turning the other way when we see populations in need, and “turning away” would mean excluding these people, voting at the voting booth in such a way that our own personal desires are served, eschewing the great needs of others in our community. Turning away would mean defining our religion by “scriptural” doctrines and dogmas, instead of with grace, acts of mercy, and acceptance. Turning away would mean kicking out the sojourner and building a wall behind them as they are forced out. Turning away would mean writing ourselves on the heavens and calling it God, which is, incidentally, one of the most toxic criticisms against Christianity leveled a couple of centuries ago by philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. 

 

Christ followers are sacrificially generous. Christ followers are inclusive. Christ followers are neighbor-lovers, and stranger-welcomers. Christ followers are beggars helping other beggars find bread. And Christ followers, even if they aren’t willing to “hang out” with the “least of these,” as did Jesus, darned sure organize to make “haves” out of the “have nots.” And we Protestants are willing to receive all of these mantles!

 

So, the challenge is before us, Dear Ones. Much shall be required. MUCH shall be required, for if you are reading this, already you are part of the ones to whom MUCH has been given! Grace and peace to you, in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer of us all, and as my good friend Chad Bogdewic says, “Mother of us all,” as well. Amen.

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