Sunday, September 24, 2017

What is Most Important?

PROPERS:          PROPER 20, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 20:1-16

ONE SENTENCE:        Christianity is profoundly countercultural and it calls for a changed life and perspective.

            Being a Christian for the first three centuries of the church was not easy.

            Because of persecution at the hands of the Roman government, the Christian faith could be quite perilous.

            Small groups of worshipers would gather in individual homes – hence the name, house churches.  Nevertheless, it was a time of growth – a time in which solid Christian foundations were built.

            The persecutions at the hands of Roman authorities had been brutal.  The persecutions came in waves – some much more bloody that others. But it was never easy.


            In the year 313 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine desired to placate the Christian God.  It was his hope that his prospective action would have benefits for his empire.

            Constantine issued what was known as the Edict of Milan.  It did not make Christianity the official religion of Rome – that would come 67 years later – but it did call for tolerance of Christianity.

            It was a turning point for Christianity – both for better and for worse.  It marked the beginning of unprecedented growth of the church.  But it also marked the melding of the church with governmental and political institutions.

            For sure, there would be many more Christians. But there would be an obfuscation of Christian teachings. Secular motivations and government policies would be confused with Christian principles.

            It was not a one-time thing.  As you know, the Roman Emperor became the Holy Roman Emperor.  Pogroms and persecutions, sponsored by the church, took place in Spain and Italy. Jews were persecuted and “heretics” were readily identified and “dealt with.”

            The great protestant John Calvin’s theology became a foundation an oppressive government in Switzerland. Martin Luther’s rebellion against Rome impacted the lives of many in the Germanic kingdoms.  Of course, as heirs to a tradition, we know of the chaos which followed Henry VIII’s claim to his power over the church in England. Bloody Mary and others.

            And who could justify – in Christian terms -- what transpired in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1930s and 40s?

            Politics and theology do not mix.  The one which is diminished in that exchange is normally theology.  It gets watered-down. It gets muddled.  It loses its prophetic witness. It loses its power to transform lives. It loses its ability to confront and challenge culture.

            I want you to hear my words to come not as an indictment of this congregation, but as shade cast on the larger forces at movement within the greater church and in our body politic.  And if it is appropriate, take my message in, and reflect on it.

            Today, we have lost so much.  We need to be reminded.  The best way to do that is to read scripture and reflect on its meaning.  Look at its overriding themes – what I call its metanarrative. We need to have our suppositions challenged. We are to worship as people of God – with that title as our primary identification, with every other identifier being secondary.

            In the exchange we have experienced between theology and politics, we have lost our call to righteousness.  We have abdicated our role as moral witnesses.  We have betrayed justice… servanthood… concern for the least among us… and our willingness to offer our lives to God’s greater purposes. We have seen and heard the calls for those ideals, and we have said, “Yes, but…”

            We have chosen power, position, and influence over Jesus’ call to take up your cross daily.  Christ’s call to us is to wash one another’s feet and to love each other, not to Lord over others, as Jesus says, as the Gentiles do.

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            In gospel lessons over the last several weeks, we have heard Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness… about taking up our crosses… about resolution of conflict.  Today, we have his word-portrait of the Kingdom of God.

            All of these tell us of the truly radical nature of the Kingdom for which we pray.  Imagine for a moment the standard of the last being first and the first being last being reality in our culture.  How would we be different?  What would our world look like?

            What if we followed Jesus’ teachings about forgiveness?  Would our relationships be transformed?

            What if we took up our crosses daily and followed Jesus – even if it meant the via dolorosa, the way of sorrows.

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            These teachings… and others from our Lord… are difficult.  John’s gospel tells us that, after some of Jesus’ lessons, certain followers said, “This is a hard teaching.  Who can listen to it?”  And they chose to no longer follow him.

            However, those who remained with him, said “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

            As one who used to be fully immersed and placed great faith in politics… As one who is imperfect and needs transformation… Credo… I believe… that Jesus offers us the way, the truth, and the life.  It is through his example and teachings that our world will be transformed. We are reconciled to God through his life and teachings.  It is onto those we should cling.

            The movements of a political moment may scratch an itch or give us some sense of satisfaction for a particular viewpoint we hold.  But it should never be confused with the eternal vision found in our Lord’s words.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Two Principles... Held Together

PROPERS:          PROPER 19, YEAR A 
TEXT:                 MATTHEW 18:21-35

ONE SENTENCE:        The Christian ideal is to forgive generously, but not to subject oneself to abuse.    

            The great writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, once said, The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

            I guess a good, contemporary test of that principle would be if someone would be able to cheer for Auburn at the same time they cheer for Alabama.

            Or, more personally for me, if I could cheer for LSU at the same time I cheer for Ole Miss. 

It’s a pretty tall order.

            But, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s principle is a sound one.  And it poses a challenge.

            So much of political discourse today is based on binary choices – either this way, or that.  That tendency to see either/or as opposed to both/and has led to the political tension we experience in society today.  It plays out, with terrible consequences, on so many levels.

            It is not just a matter of compromise, though it is certainly that.  But it is more a matter of being able to see the value in both approaches and adapting one’s behavior to reflect that insight.

            Nowhere is that tendency more used than in looking at scripture.  People of various persuasions tend to use intellectual sleight-of-hand called proof-texting to bolster their arguments.  They will pick one verse which supports their argument and use that as conclusive evidence that their position is the position of scripture. 

            By doing so, they may ignore the overall arch of scripture or additional verses which would counter their argument.

            That was not the mindset of the Semitic people who bequeathed us the Bible.  They were able to see the complexity of the issues they confronted. The rabbis who wrote extensively in early days were willing to debate and argue the balance of conflicting perspectives. And they would value each.

            Seeking the mind of God may be much like looking at the world through a kaleidoscope than through a telescope.

            Perhaps nowhere is that tension more in evidence than today’s gospel lesson.  And perhaps no lesson is more misapplied.

            The tension is between our Lord’s call for generous forgiveness and well-grounded need to protect oneself from injurious behavior.  How do we do both?

            It is possible.

            How does an abused wife both forgive her spouse and protect herself?

            How does a victim of crime forgive the perpetrator while expecting consequences from the state?

            How does a spouse who has been betrayed let go of the betrayal while not allowing additional disloyalty?

            You can write your own script.  In fact, in your mind, you probably have.

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            It has to do with the nature of forgiveness – what it means and what it does not mean.

            As you know, for many years I was Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Mississippi.  Both during those years and even before, I had to deal with situations involving clergy who had done grossly inappropriate things.

            As the acts became public and the Bishop was prepared to sanction the priest, we were always reminded of the gospel passage from today – no matter how grievous or inappropriate the act.  “Just forgive and move on,” was the frequent request. I called it “forgiveness lite.”

            As you likely know, forgiveness is not that simple.  Forgiveness is not about enabling the person to repeat the behavior.  Forgiveness is not about letting bygones be bygones.  Forgiveness is not about acting like nothing ever happened. Forgiveness is not about allowing the person to have the same authority or power that he or she had once before.

            In each of those cases that I dealt with, the Bishop sanctioned the priest – sometimes quite significantly.  And, at the same time, he may have forgiven the priest. They are not mutually exclusive.

            Divine forgiveness comes from God – and it is God’s nature, we know from scripture, to be ready to forgive.  We do not control that profound movement of the spirit.

            However, we do determine what we do.

            Forgiveness, from the human perspective, is about letting go and moving forward, as individuals who have been offended or injured.  It is about finding new life.  It is about letting go of the burdens of the past and their ability to control or affect us.

            Forgiveness, I have experienced, is a gift of grace.  As the old saying goes about grace, forgiveness is like grits – you don’t order it, it just comes. It may come when you least expect it.  It may wash over you like the tide.  It may be a sense that you have suddenly become unburdened from the past.

            Jesus says today that we are to forgive seventy-seven times.  Other translations make that seventy times seven – or 490 times!  A way to interpret that, I think, is to recognize that you may need to forgive a single offense many, many times before it has no more power over you.

            A way to look at this is found in a meditation I read many years ago.  It tells the story of a man who was betrayed.  He took the offense very seriously.  His resentment – which can be defined as anger with dust on it – grew deeper and deeper.

Over a period of years, that bitterness was transformed into rocks in his heart.  The weight of those rocks of resentment caused him to stoop over – and he became a bent, bitter old man.

An angel appeared to him and told him that if he would forgive the offense, the stones in his heart would begin to disappear.  He protested – he still felt righteous indignation!  “Nothing can change the past,” he said. “What was done has been done.”

The angel responded, “Yes, that is true.  But you can change the future.”

Day-by-day, the man practiced forgiveness.  And as time went by, the stones disappeared from his heart.  He became light-hearted and stood erect.  He had let go of the past.  He found new life.

Forgiveness is about letting go of the past, and not allowing it to control your future.  It is not about letting bygones be bygones or acting as if what happened never really happened.

A faithful Christian can both forgive and protect oneself from further harm. Both are good and right.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald might have observed, they are opposed ideas which we can hold onto and still function.e to