A Matter of Personalities

Here are my thoughts for the 5th Sunday in Lent.
Right off the bat let me say that I have not read the “Gospel of Judas” but only followed the discussion that has transpired. Like so much of the other stuff that has been published, discovered, or discussed recently, I tend to gloss over such items. It is not that I think they are frivolous or meaningless but rather that they are complicated attempts to explain the simplest of life’s explanation; that is to say, Christ died for us while we were sinners and because of his death we have gained the right to eternal life.

But it would be nice to know how Judas felt about John and the other disciples. For it is quite clear that John did not like Judas, as he points out in today’s Gospel reading (1) that Judas was stealing from the group’s funds. I think John’s comment comes from the outcome of Judas’ betrayal.

From what I understand, Judas was among those who sought to establish God’s kingdom here on earth. He was committed to a violent overthrow of the Roman government controlling Israel and he was probably just as opposed to the religious authorities who controlled the lives of the people and collaborated with the Roman authorities. As such, each day that Jesus spoke of the kingdom that was to come, Judas became more and more disenchanted with the ministry of which he was so much a part.

In today’s Gospel reading, Judas’ disenchantment is vocalized when he criticizes the use of the perfume used by Mary to wash Jesus’ feet. It is interesting that Judas argued that the money should be spent for the poor and the needy. His comments remind me of many radical groups today (both Eastern and Western) who gather support for their causes by developing programs that give food and assistance to the poor and the needy. If there was ever proof of the radical nature of Judas’ cause, this statement offers it.

The problem for us today is not that John and the other disciples mistrusted Judas. Each of the disciples had problems understanding the same ministry; it would not be until the culmination of what we call Holy Week that they would understand the true nature of the ministry of which they had also been a part.

I think the problem is that we are more like Judas than we realize. We may not be as committed to the revolution as Judas sought but we do not understand the revolution that Jesus sought. We would argue that money spent on the perfume should be spent on ourselves more than it should be spent on the poor and the needy.

We have a culture that is centered on our own needs, not the needs of others. We are not prepared for the coming kingdom that Jesus offers to us. We are like Paul when he was still Saul. As Saul, he was committed to the status quo and the protection of the present system. As he noted in his letter to the Philippians (2), he even sought to persecute the beginning of the Christian church.

But he noted in the same letter that whatever he might have gained as Saul was actually a loss. And, as Paul, through Christ, he gained everything. But he also noted that was much more that needed to be done.

No longer does Paul seek things for himself, as he would have done when he was Saul. Remember that as Saul, he went to the authorities in Jerusalem seeking permission to go to Damascus to find and persecute the Christians living there. We know of course that on that road, he encountered Christ and life changed in more ways than one.

Isaiah speaks of a new thing, a world in which the world changes. (3) The world of old, where power and might rule is to be replaced. What we have to do today is decide whether we want to live in that world or not. Are we going to be like Judas, seeking the rearrangement of the power structure in the present day? Or are we going to be like Paul, recognizing the new order found in Christ?

I will not be an apologist for Judas. Like the other disciples, he saw in Jesus an opportunity to change the world. But he allowed his personality to dominate his life; he allowed his personality to prevent him from seeing the outcome that was so much of what Jesus said and did.

As Saul, Paul was much like Judas, committed to a path which was limited in scope and outcome. But as Paul, with the new personality he found in Christ, the boundaries of his new mission became even greater than he could imagine and the outcome far beyond the limits of human imagination.

We all have a personality. It is a question of whether we will our personality to dominate our lives or shall we give up our personality and find a new one in Christ? Shall we focus on the present and the status quo? Or will we see beyond the present and seek what is to come?
Lent is almost over. But the call to repent, first begun in the wilderness by John the Baptist, has not ended. Shall we keep the personality that ties us to the present age and find discomfort in the nature of God’s kingdom? Or shall we give up this world and allow Christ to redefine our lives? It is simply of what personality we wish to have in the coming days.
(1) John 12: 1 – 8
(2) Philippians 3: 4 – 14
(3) Isaiah 43: 16 – 21

Which Brother Are You?

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Lent
A discussion last week led me to wonder what happened to the drive or the emphasis that lead us through the 60’s. It was during that time that we worked to remove inequality in various forms from our society. It was also a time when we sought to move beyond the boundaries of this world with our exploration of space and the oceans. It was also during this time that we became aware of what being a steward of this earth really meant.

Yet, as the decades progressed, the forces of inequality have again surfaced as if they never really left. We now longer seek excellence in the things that we do; rather, we accept mediocrity as the best that is possible and no longer push the boundaries of the envelope. Given a choice between taking care of this small blue planet that we call home and using up the resources without thought, we consume all that we have and seek more. Some how, we have allowed the promise of the 60’s and the early 70’s to disappear into a sea of self-interest, self-indulgence and self-promotion.

Unfortunately this transformation of society, from one where we cared about others to one of self-centeredness, has transformed the church. It dominates and shapes the character of religion today. No longer do we ask how we can serve Jesus but rather we demand that Jesus serve us. The public image of Christianity today is one where people are told that Jesus will make them happier, more self-satisfied, better adjusted, and more prosperous. Religion is presented as a way of uncovering our human potential, our potential for personal, social, and business success. No longer are we brought into Jesus’ life but rather we bring Jesus into our lives. (1)

As we read the story of the prodigal son, the Gospel reading for today (2), we suddenly realize that we have turned into the older brother. As a society, as a culture, we have become more concerned with our own personal needs and the accumulation of our personal wealth. We no longer care about our lost brothers or sisters. We assume that anyone whose life is like that of the younger son must be so consumed with sin that there is no hope for them. So we give them none.

But in doing this, we forget what the mission of the Christian church is. The historical mission of the church has always been the sign of new life given in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Its primary task has been to witness to the purpose of Christ in the world. But the church has failed in this task, in part because it no longer focuses on the presence of the Holy Spirit and in part because it tries to be a part of the community instead of being a new community.

There are some today who try to make the present community a community of Christ. They do so in ways that are reminiscent of the religious community of Jesus’ time. But to seek such a community is to stifle the creativity found in Christ. To seek such a community is to make life static and meaningless and all that will do is remove the future. And if you make life static and you remove creativity from life, then you remove the future. And if you remove the future, then you create a community that offers little hope or promise to those on the margin of society. (3)

Paul wrote to the Corinthians that our world in Christ is a new world, one not viewed from our viewpoint but rather from the viewpoint of Christ. (4) As long as we view Christ from our viewpoint of the world, then we can never see the opportunity and the possibilities that are found for all in Christ. When we encounter Christ, we find the true human existence that we lack.

The theme of the forty days of Lent will always be a call for repentance. It is a call to change the direction and nature of one’s life, to stop living a life found in this world and begin living a life found in Christ. When the Israelites celebrated the first Passover in the Promised Land (5), the manna from heaven that had nourished them through the days and months of the Exodus stopped. This was not a sign that God’s protection and support had ended and they were responsible for their own lives. Rather, it was a sign that they were in a new world, a world promised to them years before in the original covenant.

As we see the end of Lent, we prepare for the re-establishment of the covenant, the promise between each one of us and God. We have been in the wilderness, lost and without hope. We have forgotten that we are God’s children and we have begun to see all that is around us as ours and ours alone. We have become the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son.

Yet, our Heavenly Father has not forgotten us or where we are. If we stop, pause, and think as did the younger brother, we know that it is not too late to make the change that will brings us back to God. So, the question today must be “Which brother are you?”
(1) Adapted from Jim Wallis’ A Call to Conversion
(2) Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11b – 32
(3) Adapted from Colin Williams’ Faith in a Secular Age
(4) 2 Corinthians 5: 16 – 21
(5) Joshua 5: 9 – 12

The Wesley Ministry Survey

On 5 February 2007, I posted the following questions on The Methoblog and invited responses from the readers.

1) If you attended college or are presently attending college, were you aware of the Wesley Ministry on your campus?

2) If you were aware of the Wesley Ministry, did you take part in it?

3) What was the outcome of your involvement?
a) Found Christ
b) Knew Christ before coming, the ministry gave me a place to understand Him
c) Changed my decision about what I wanted to do in my life.
d) Affirmed my decision to enter into the ministry.

Now, I realize that this was not the best scientific inquiry (I used a questionnaire approach when I was doing the research on my doctorate). But if you are interested in scientific accuracy, there are better ways of collecting data. Still the responses gained from this survey give us information that we need to seriously consider.

There were twelve responses. Of the twelve responses, four indicated that they were not aware of the Wesley ministry on their campus at the time they started college.

We can assume that these four individuals, based on the fact that they knew of the Methoblog, later formed some sort of relationship with Christ. But this also means that it took those four individuals longer to come into relationship with Christ than it possibly took the other eight individuals. The question that must be asked is how many others never knew about the Wesley ministry on campus and never have formed a relationship with Christ..

We remember Jesus speaking of the shepherd who, after the flock has been put away for the evening, goes looking for the one sheep that did come into the pen with the rest of the flock. Is not the mission of the Wesley ministry on college campuses to offer the safe haven for those seeking Christ? Is not the mission of the Wesley ministry on college to seek that one lost individual who has not found Christ but is vainly trying?

Of the remaining eight individuals in this survey, four knew of the Wesley ministry but did not take part. No questions were asked to tell us why they did not take part. But four did take part and each one of the four indicated that their participation in the Wesley ministry had an impact on their relationship with Christ. The impact varied in terms of the ministry but it was a positive ministry.

There are some who think that money spent on the Wesley ministry is better spent elsewhere. But this relatively simple and very non-scientific survey tells us that four individuals in a group of twelve had their lives changed by the presence of the Wesley ministry. It also tells us that while the lives eight individuals out of twelve were ultimately changed, it was not necessarily done when they were in college.

College is time of learning, both in terms of the intellect and the spirit. For the first time, students are away from home and exposed to questions they often never were asked. The presence of the Wesley ministry is an opportunity to offer better answers and also offer those who need a haven a place that they can come.

If you are an alumnus of the Wesley ministry, make sure that you are supporting it and make sure that your conference is doing so as well. There will be at least one person who thirty-five years after they graduated from college who will be able to look back and know that their lives were changed or saved because the United Methodist Church cared to put a presence on their college campus.

The Fruits of Our Vineyard

Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Lent.
Whenever I read the Gospel reading for today (1) I wonder whatever happened to the fig tree of which Jesus spoke. I think this is because I have probably never seen a fig tree and I do not readily buy figs or eat them. But I understand the metaphor very easily.

When Clarence Jordan wrote his version of Luke for the Cotton Patch Gospels, he used a peach tree because that was the fruit that the people of Georgia were most familiar with. And I think of the grape arbor that was part of the property line of my grandmother’s house in St. Louis. For as long as I can remember, this grape arbor was simply part of the dividing line between my grandmother’s back yard and the next door neighbor. It yielded some grapes but never of the size or quantity that would provide the six grandchildren that played in the yard with any type of snack. But I have been told that my grandmother used to pick grapes from this arbor and make grape jam. So I knew that it once was a productive part of her garden. But, over the years the production declined and it simply became a part of the property, though still a place for children to play.

Jesus speaks of the owner of the garden telling the gardener to chop down the fig tree because it no longer produces any fruit. The gardener asks for one more year so that he may restore its productivity.

We know now that the owner of the garden is God; Jesus is the gardener; and we are the fig tree. We are being given one more year in which to regain our productivity. So, we might ask today, “What are the fruits of our vineyard?”

What are the fruits that we produce? What do people see today when they see the church? How do people react when they hear the word Christian? Unfortunately, I do not think that the answers to those questions are very positive.

People see a church that is closed and exclusive. They hear the word Christian and think of closed-minded people. They read where Jesus welcomed all but see churches that exclude people. They hear of people willing to face down an oppressive empire but see modern day preachers building their own political empires. They see people who claim allegiance to God through Christ but seek political gain for their own well-being. They see people who claim Jesus Christ as the Prince of Peace but are willing to engage in destructive wars. They hear of a gentle soul who wandered Galilee two thousand years ago and spoke of taking care of the less fortunate but see ministers with salaries well beyond what most people earn in a lifetime and churches with operating budgets approaching the level of some nations.

They read of the first Christians and hear stories about how communities were formed for the betterment of all people, of people sharing their wealth with others so that all may prosper. But they see churches where the message is one of greed and selfishness, of keeping the gifts from God for one’s self and not sharing.

And most people will tell you that they are Christians, yet they cannot tell you what the first five books of the Old Testament are. They cannot identify the writers of the four Gospels. They think that the statement “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible and do not know that it was first coined by Benjamin Franklin. Is it any wonder that church membership is decreasing today?

The message of many churches today is hypocrisy and self-centeredness. The fruits of the church’s vineyard are sour tasting and almost inedible. Now, there are some churches today that are growing but they are growing because the people are so hungry for the nourishment of the Living Word that they will eat almost anything, no matter how bitter or sour or foul-tasting it is.

Like the Israelites wandering in the desert, we know what it means to follow God but we are not always willing to make the choices that are required. Paul reminds us, as he reminded the Corinthians that when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, the people reverted to their old ways of idol worship and immoral activity. (2) We are not, as Paul points out, supposed to test God with regards to His promises to us. Rather, as Isaiah spoke to the Israelites, we are to forsake our evil ways, forgo the thoughts of the unrighteous and return to God. (3)

Jesus tells us in the Gospel message today that sin is sin and death is death, no matter the cause or the form. Whoever dies simply dies; there is no gradient in death. But, Jesus also repeats the calls that were given by the Old Testament prophets and then by John the Baptist, repent of your old ways and choose a new path to walk.

To repent is to change, not merely to say you are sorry. To repent is to walk away from the old life and begin a new life. Repentance is the first step in a conversion. Repentance turns us away from sin, selfishness, darkness, idols, habits, bondage and demons. It turns us away from everything that binds and oppresses us and others, from the violence and evil in which we are so complacent, for the false worship that controls and corrupts us.

And with our repentance, we begin turning to faith. Faith is turning to belief, hope, and trust. Faith opens our future by restoring our sight, softening our hearts and bringing light into our darkness. (4)

What are the fruits of your vineyard? Has your vineyard become overgrown with weeds and neglect? The days of Lent are a time of preparation and a time to repent. If we heed the call that is given today by Christ to repent, we begin the process that will enable us to be restored. The fruits of our vineyard may not be very good today but we know that they will be restored if we heed the call of Christ. How shall you tend your garden?

(1) Luke 13: 1 – 9
(2) 1 Corinthians 10: 1 – 13
(3) Isaiah 55: 1 – 9
(4) Adapted from The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis

What Would You Do?

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Lent.
A number of years ago there was a “movement” within the church asking “What would Jesus do?” There were bracelets, t-shirts, and other paraphernalia emblazoned with “WWJD.” I looked at this movement with something of a skeptic’s eye. It’s not that I was against such a movement but rather I always thought that the question should be “What would we do?”

Part of my skepticism/opposition arises because there was an attitude among some of its proponents (or so it seemed to me) that unless you bought into this attitude, you were not a true Christian. It is an attitude that is still somewhat prevalent today.

There are many today who have set requirements for salvation. You must be “born again.” You must be baptized at a certain age, under certain conditions and in a certain state of belief. You must be a member in good standing of a particular church. You must accept the authority of a doctrinal system without reference to one’s one knowledge or comprehension. You must avail yourself of the benefits of salvation that are only at the disposal of a given church through its prayers and sacraments. In others words, salvation depends on conditions and culture more so than your own decision and I have a hard time with that.

I have no doubts that I am a sinner for we are all sinners. But salvation is not based on what others say I should do but rather on what I do in relationship to Christ.

I do not recall any instance where Jesus told someone that they were doomed if they did not do what He said. Yes, He did say tell quite a few people that they should go and sin no more. But He did not tell those whom He encountered that they were doomed unless they explicitly followed His instructions.

What then makes us true Christians? Are the things that we do each day overt acts that reflect what others feel are the acts of Christians or are they, as Paul commands the Philippians (1), a reflection of what Jesus did and how He lived?

What did Jesus do? In the Gospel reading for today (2), Jesus was warned about the threats to His ministry and His life. His response was that He would be where He had been and He would be doing what He had been doing. He would be healing, teaching, and preaching the Good News. If those who opposed Him wanted Him, they knew where He would be.

Paul’s words today tell us that we should be imitating Christ. So what does that mean? It means that we should be out in the world, not condemning people but offering our aid, healing people, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and giving hope to the oppressed.

We have become a culture of self-interest and in such a culture it is far easier to condemn others rather than help them. We hear God’s promise to Abram (3) and we think that such we are granted earthly riches. There is not doubt that God promised much to the Israelites but it was not simply a promise but the fulfillment of the covenant. And we have been raised to believe that hard work and sacrifice on our part will result in many rewards. In fact, this is the promise that many preachers today provide.

But that is not what Jesus said or even promised. Jesus, through His ministry, changed the covenant from the present to the future. Nowhere does Jesus offer us a promise that would be fulfilled in this time and age. His promise is one that will be fulfilled in Heaven.

Similarly, Paul tells us that those who live and work in the present will die. Only those who live with Christ in them and as Christ lived will gain the promise of the heavenly kingdom.

So, should we worry about what Jesus would do? I think not. We know what He did and what He would do if he were here. The question must be, should be, and will always be, “What Would You Do?”
(1) Philippians 3: 17 – 4: 1
(2) Luke 13: 31 – 35
(3) Genesis 15: 1 – 12, 17 – 18

Supporting Our Troops – The Tragedy of Building 18

In today’s political vocabulary, to support our troops is to support the war and the present administration’s efforts in Iraq. Any discussion of ending the war is met with cries that such critics are seeking to abandon our troops. What then are we to think of an administration, or any administration, that cuts the budget for the Veteran’s Administration and the care of our wounded soldiers?

The problem is that we have transformed war into some sort of non-human endeavor. Our weapons are smart weapons, able to distinguish between people and targets. Many years ago, war was terrible because there was the human factor, the wounded soldiers and, unfortunately, civilians. Now, anyone wounded or injured in the consequence of a battle is listed as collateral damage.

From Viet Nam on, we have sought to somehow dehumanize the enemy, so as to remove the human factor from the equation of war. Calling the enemy by any number of derogatory names makes it easier to make them seem less human and thus easier to fight and kill.

As I have written before, we have forgotten Robert E. Lee’s comment about that it is fortunate that war is so deadly and costly because we could easily grow quite fond of it. By making war seem so easy to fight, we make it quite easy.

But we began this adventure in Iraq by sending in troops that were not equipped for what would transpire. We began this adventure in Iraq by thinking that we would be welcomed with roses, not bullets. And we are paying the price for this lack of forward thinking.

It has been admitted that the military medical services here at home have been overwhelmed by the number and types of injuries encountered by our service personnel in Iraq. The lack of foresight and concern is not new. Over the past fifty years, our support for the Veterans’ Administration has decreased over the years. Each year, as we spend more and more money on weapons systems and defense spending, we cut the spending for our veterans.

We teach young people to kill without thinking and then we cast them aside. It is so much easier to think of a young soldier, sailor, or marine as a cog in a machine which is thrown away when it is broken than it is as a human whose service and sacrifice demand our support long after their service has ended.

The tragedy of Building 18 at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington is not that it happened now but that it has been happening for a long, long time. It is just that someone found out about and the “powers that be” could not cover it up. The tragedy is also that we have allowed our support for the Veterans’ Administration to decline over the years. We thank our soldiers, sailors, and marines for their service and their sacrifice and then tell them to go away and leave us alone.

If we support our troops, then we have to recognize that this support goes beyond simple service. If someone is willing to give up their youth for our freedom, then we must be willing to support long after their youth is gone and sacrificed.