Life is all about choices

There is an inherent flaw in the version of Christianity that is focused entirely on grace.  Well, there are probably multiple inherent flaws in it, but the one I am thinking of this morning comes out of Sunday’s Old Testament lesson in which Moses is clear that even for God’s chosen people, those whom God had rescued from slavery in Egypt and to whom God had promised a land of prosperity through their ancestor Abraham, life was still about choices.

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Despite the hard line often taken by strongly reformed traditions on whichever sin they’ve decided God cares more about than anything else, in a theological worldview that is only concerned with the grace of God, there is actually little, if any, room for consequences.  The same sort of theology that created sola gratis underlies Your Best Life Now.  It assumes that because one has been washed clean in the blood, there is no room for sin, even though everybody knows that can’t possibly be true.

Moses lays before the Hebrews a choice between life and death, blessing and curses, and God continues to do the same for each of us; especially those of us who claim to follow Jesus.  As committed disciples, the assumption shouldn’t be that we can “sin boldly” or “go on sinning” as people have been trying to argue from the very beginning (see James, the Letter of and Romans, the Letter to), but instead that we are called to live by an even higher standard.  Our lives are testimony of the Gospel of Christ, and when we make bad choices, we bring curses upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.  Alternatively, when we choose love: of neighbor, of creation, of enemy, we bring blessing upon ourselves and the entire body of Christ.

Grace forgives us our sins, but it doesn’t excuse our bad behavior.  As Lent rapidly approaches, it might behoove us to give some thought to how our lives reflect the Gospel of love.  The benefit of grace is that we have one more opportunity, in a long life of opportunities, to repent of our misdeeds, to acknowledge the times we have chosen curses over blessings, and to once again choose blessing and life.

Facebook is for Murderers

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If we are really honest with ourselves, every disciple of Jesus subscribes to a smorgasbord theology of holy Scripture.   That is, we pick and choose what we like, and leave behind that which we don’t.  Both sides, if there is such a thing, accuse the other of this all the time.  The right says that the left chooses to ignore Scripture’s moral code.  The left says the right forgets about the love stuff.  The truth of the matter is that both are true.  None of us is perfect, and so all of us fall short of the ideal of living out God’s will in every facet of our lives.  This is playing out with blatant obviousness when one reads Jesus’ difficult words in Sunday’s third installment of the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

Compare these words with what you see on your social media news feed and it quickly becomes clear that there has been a whole lot of murdering by anger and insult of late.  This is not me be all judgey either.  This is something of a confession of my own behavior, even as I see many of my sisters and brothers doing the same thing.  There is something all together too safe and too easy about hurling insults on social media.  Yet, if we were taking Jesus’ words seriously, we would take pause.

Is what I’m about to say true?  Is it up-building?  Is it judgmental or angry or insulting?  Because if it is, I probably shouldn’t say it.  Is it something that I would say to my brother or sister’s face?  Because if it isn’t, I probably shouldn’t post it.  Maybe we should all take a breath, re-read this section of Matthew 5, and slow down a bit.  The world is already a pretty angry and hate-filled place, perhaps we shouldn’t add to it.  These words from Jesus are difficult to swallow, and I’m sure we’d all rather leave them on the buffet, but the truth of the matter is that we don’t get to choose what we want to leave behind.  The commandment to love is a call to moral impeccability.  We can’t accomplish it on our own, but through  Christ, perhaps we have a chance to stop being murders on social media. 

Thank God I’m not like those people

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If ever the Christians in this country needed to hear a parable from Jesus it is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector during the waning days of the 2016 Presidential Election.  While it seems clear to me that one candidate is clearly more qualified to run this country for the next four years, both candidates, their parties, and their supporters have engaged in a form of dehumanizing rhetoric about which we as a nation should be ashamed.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, the 24 hour news cycle, or even my Junior High Youth Group this afternoon, it is impossible to find a safe place, free from anger, fear, and a whole lot of Pharisees praying about themselves, “Thank you Lord that I’m not like those people.”  Here’s the thing, as soon as we start to think that about someone else, we’ve been sucked in to sin.  As soon as we look down at another human being whether it be over their opinion on gun rights, their opinion on double predestination, or their opinion on mild or spicy chicken at Popeye’s, we are no better than the “deplorables” who rabidly attack “Crooked Hillary” or “Racist Donald.”

As we butter our popcorn, ready our bingo cards, and open our Crown Royal bottles in preparation for tonight’s “dumpster fire” of a Presidential Debate, we should pause for a moment and take stock of where we have allowed ourselves to be taken as the body of Christ in the United States of America.  Maybe we’d be better off turning off the TV, pulling out a rosary, and saying the Jesus Prayer five hundred or a thousand times.

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

This prayer, which is not unlike the prayer of the tax collector, has worked to calm the minds and hearts of Christians for more than 1,400 years.  It reminds us of our dependence on God alone.  It focuses us not on the other who stands outside of us, but the Lord Jesus who makes his home deep in our hearts.  Most of all, it brings to mind the one fact that every human has in common: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God; all of us are in need of forgiveness; and it is God’s desire to restore us all to right relationship with him and with one another.  Resist the temptation to be like the Pharisee tonight and for the next three weeks and instead, focus on God who takes delight in our prayers, who longs to be at the center of our lives, and causes those who exalt themselves to be humbled and those who humble themselves to be exalted.

Mutually Exclusive Behaviors

It has been a good long while since I’ve had the pleasure of engaging in some blogging banter with my good friend Evan Garner, but he went to the Greek in his post yesterday, and that’s just an invitation for me to nerd out for a minute.  In his post, “Rather Than or Alongside?” which I encourage you to read in its entirety, Evan played with an idea posited by the Rev. Dr. Bill Brosend, Professor of Homiletics and New Testament at the University of the South, that the Greek phrase that is translated in Sunday’s Gospel as “rather than” in the sentence “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” could just as easily been translated “alongside” as in, “This man [the tax collector] went down to his dome justified alongside the [Pharisee].”  The argument, for those who might care about the Greek, is that the preposition para plus the accusative case “can mean ‘rather than’ but far more often means ‘alongside.'”

With all due respect to Dr. Brosend, “can mean” and “far more often means” does not an ironclad argument make.  While I am certain that this phrase could be translated as “alongside,” I’m also certain that it should be rendered “rather than” because of two very important factors: math and context.

First, the math.  In the study of probabilities and statistics, we find the idea of mutually exclusive events.  That is to say, there are things which can not overlap; they simply cannot happen at the same time.  Take, for a very simplified example, flipping a coin.  It can land on heads or tails, but never both.  These are mutually exclusive events.

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Now we turn to context.  Luke tells us that Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to a group of people who trusted in themselves “that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”  These two things are mutually exclusive.  To be righteous is to be in perfect relationship with God and neighbor.  One cannot treat others with contempt and be righteous.  It is impossible.

Jesus has taught this parable in order to make the point that righteousness does not belong to those who treat others with contempt, and as long as we engage in such behavior, we remain outside of the perfect relationship that God longs for.  Sure, God could forgive the sins of the Pharisee, but it seems far more likely that God would demand some sort of repentance from him.  To be unrighteous in one’s prayers may be the most damning unrighteousness of all.

I agree with Dr. Brosend that it could be that the both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector went home justified, i.e. made righteous, but math and context seem to argue that only one was made righteous.

[Don’t] Trust your gut

I’ve been on the road most of the last two weeks.  New Orleans for some R&R, Beckwith for Clergy Conference, and Charleston for my brother’s Air Force retirement ceremony.  This means that I’ve been eating things that I normally wouldn’t eat in quantities I normally wouldn’t eat them.  There was the cheeseburger covered in grilled onions and bacon at 10pm, the several dozen oysters, and the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast, just to name a few.  The worst idea came last night, however.  I was stopped for the night somewhere between here and there at one of those chain steak restaurants when the waitress gave me a choice I should have refused.

“Do you want a 12 or 16 ounce New York Strip?”

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This is terrible advice

I went with the 16, and I’ve regretted it ever since.  In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Luke tells us that Jesus told a parable to those who “trusted in themselves.”  This too is a terrible idea.  When we try to trust in ourselves, we are bound to make all sorts of powerful missteps.

In the real life Draughting Theology, we are studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, which has at its core this idea that the primary sin of humanity is idolatry.  Not that we worship other gods, but that we put ourselves in the place of God.  When we trust ourselves to know what is right and to do it, we, more often than not, put our own desires in front of God’s.  We put ourselves at the center, do what’s best for us, and like me trusting my gut, must life to pay the consequences.

I’m eating Tums like they are candy, but in the spiritual realm, the only way out of trusting ourselves, is, as Jesus points out in the parable, to trust only in God’s mercy.  When we confess our tendency to make idols of ourselves, ask God to return to God’s rightful place in our lives, and put our trust in God alone, we will find life to be much more abundant.

Take it from me dear reader, don’t trust your gut.

Who and What Do You See

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My first year of undergrad was spent at the University of Pittsburgh.  Pitt is located in an urban neighborhood called Oakland, and, like many densely populated areas where people travel by foot, was home to several panhandlers.  By the time Christmas rolled around, I had already figured out how to be like the rich man in Sunday’s Gospel lesson and not see the beggars who sat at the proverbial gate of campus.  They were passive annoyances, easy to pass right on by as if they never existed.

There were a few who were more engaged in their craft. One guy stood at the door in front of the Rite Aid store in such a manner that only he could open it.  Whether you were coming or going, you were at this man’s leisure to let you in or out.  He had a white Styrofoam cup in hand.  It would jingle with a few coins as he reached to open the door.  it was clear that he expected to be paid for the service he rendered, whether you asked for it or not.  He wasn’t as easy to ignore.  You saw this man, but what I saw was simply an annoyance I had to get past.  I never saw him as a human being upon which I should have compassion.

It isn’t hard to be like the rich man.  Whether our ignorance of someone is active or passive; or if we see them, judge them, and cast them aside, we are no better than the rich man, no matter how poor we might be relative to his purple robes, linen suits, fatted calves, and fine wines.  And while it suits Luke’s theological narrative to have this be about rich and poor, I don’t think it is only about that.  Our inability to see another as beloved of God happens again and again, everyday, in every aspect of life.  We see the Republican is a xenophobic rube.  We see the Democrat as a bleeding heart sap.  We see the Terence Crutcher and other big black men as “bad dudes.”  We see police officers as trigger happy symptoms of systemic racism.

Every time we fail to see another human being as beloved of God, we sin in the same way the rich man did.  As his siblings still on earth, we have a chance to repent.  We have Moses.  We have the prophets.  We even have someone who rose from the dead.  We have eyes to see. We have hearts to love.  Who and what do you see?

The Purse Seine of Sin

Let’s get this out of the way early on.  Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a doozy. It’ll take a good preacher a lot of time to deal with the harsh words of Jesus in this eschatological passage.  It’s Monday, it’s cloudy, and I’m just not up for it yet.  I promise I’ll get there, but at least for today (and maybe tomorrow too), the Hebrew’s lesson seems much more appealing.

For the first time in a while, I found myself drawn to a word as I read the long passage on faith from Hebrews 11-12.  Skipping past the stories of Old Testament heroes of faith who trusted in God, even when God wasn’t their God, I find myself focusing on those famous words about the Great Cloud of Witnesses.  I’m especially keen on what that Great Cloud motivates us to do.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…”

Those saints who have gone before show us what a life of faith looks like.  Whether they’ve done it heroically like Dietrich Bonhoeffer or been symbols of God’s ongoing forgiveness like King David, the Great Cloud invites us to follow their example of constantly laying down those things that would hold us back from pursuing the life of the kingdom.  Metaphorically, Paul calls those things weight that should be set aside, but more realistically, it is sin that the NRSV says “clings so closely;” a turn of phrase I found myself drawn to this morning.  The Greek for “clings so closely” is probably better rendered by the NIV as “so easily entangles.”  Sin is kind of like a Purse Seine fishing net.  It surrounds us on all sides, such that we might not even notice its presence, until all of a sudden, we are tangled up in a mess, fighting for our lives.  Unlike the fishing net, the entanglement of sin is often of our own doing, and Paul rightly invites us to lay it aside for our own protection.

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As I read that line, I can’t help but think of Dory and Nemo, caught in a Purse Seine of their own at the tail end of Finding Nemo.  Dory’s longstanding advice to “just keep swimming” proves salvific for Dory, Nemo, and the school of whatever fish that are equally tangled up in the fisher’s net.  Paul suggests a plan better suited for us bipeds, “run with endurance the race that his been set before you.”  Either way, the message is the same.  Just keep moving forward in faith and the sin that so easily entangles you will have a hard time keeping you ensnared.  So, the next time you feel like your sin is all around you, listen or the voice of God, who maybe sounds a lot like Ellen DeGeneres and just keep swimming.