Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Faith and Works

This week's scriptures are Matthew 22:34-46 and James 2:14-26.

Among many christians the tension between "faith" and "works" creates significant problems.

On the one hand, we believe that faith is what saves us; faith being the trust that God is going to do what God has promised. That promise is captured in what has become my favorite benediction (those of you who are at church on Sundays will spot it immediately) "go in the knowledge that in the goodness of God we were born, by the watchfulness of God we are kept all the day long, and in the love and mercy of God we are all being redeemed and made whole." God is about the process of drawing us all into the Great Celebration, the party to which we are all invited and all are welcome.

On the other hand, we hear calls to justice, care for the poor, and the equating of our response to those who are 'hungy, naked, homeless, sick and in prison' as being a response to Christ Himself.

I want to do something that I don't usually do: I want to throw a really big word out here. It's a word that I don't use, but it's the only one that I can find that helps with the issue at hand. The word is "antinomy." According to Webster's it is an 'apparent contradiction between to valid principles or conclusions that seem equally necessary and reasonable.' This 'apparent contradiction' has many christians who believe in "faith alone" struggling with the role of works; and others wrestling with how their view of behavior and free will knocks heads with their faith in salvation as an act of God's Grace.

Do I have an answer? No, not if you mean, by an answer some absolute final word on this tension. I, personally, live in that tension on a daily basis. I believe in salvation as the result of God's Grace which we accept through faith. I also encounter behaviors which are truly acts of horror. Not to mention my own sins which, to quote David, "are ever before me."

But I do have a response to this 'antinomy' that lets me sleep at night and do the work that I do as a pastor and a therapist.

I believe, first of all that God is 'sovereign.' By that I mean that 1) God will have the final word; 2) that God understands the twists and turns of our lives...knows the places that pain and fear take us.

Which leads to my belief that God is compassionate. This understanding, loving God is at work (Revelation tells us) from the foundation of the world to redeem all of creation. And since God is sovereign, I have to believe that God is-finally, in the end-going to bring all of creation home.

In the meantime, (and I frankly don't know how long "meantime" is) I believe that I can refuse to participate in all, or part of, the Great Celebration that God began at the foundation of the world, made manifest in the incarnation of God's Self in Christ Jesus, and calls us to on a daily basis. I can refuse to come to the party because I don't like the other people there....and God's not going to re-write God's party list just to suit me. I can block myself from parts of the Celebration by cutting myself off from the tasks that living as a 'family member' in this New World calls me to. It's hard for me to "inherit the kingdom" as Paul puts it...enjoy all the benefits of being in God's family....if I'm treating my brothers and sisters like garbage. Because it is in these very relationships that Christ comes to us in the here-and-now.

A final thought. These acts of relationship: love, mercy, care, openness, understanding, patience, etc. They are responses of love and joy to the gift that I recognize in my own invitation to the party...my own salvation. They are demands of love, not of law.

My salvation does not (nor does yours) depend on my behavior. I am not so powerful that I can finally shut down the power of God's love and longing for me. Neither are you. But I can make right now a living hell by my refusal to join the party, or participate in the celebration. And my refusal has consequences in the lives of others as well.

A lot of my counseling work, both as a pastor and a psychotherapist, is helping people remove the barriers to coming to the party. Sometimes those barriers are extreme guilt that blocks faith that God could really want them at the party. Sometimes it is pain so deep that the heart's ability to trust has been crushed. And sometimes it is behaviors which, by their very nature, erect a wall between the individual and God in their cruelty and victimization of Christ as He comes to them in other human beings.

I take sin very seriously. But I take God's Grace even more seriously.

This is not a "final answer." It is, for me, an "answer in process." Maybe it will trigger some thoughts for you. Maybe it will give you some comfort. Maybe you will totally disagree with me.

Maybe on Sunday you'll let me know what you think. I hope to see you then.


Monday, October 13, 2008

The God of History and the Nit-pickers

This week's scriptures are Isaiah 45:1-13 and Matthew 22:15-33.

In our passage from Matthew those who disagree with Jesus and are offended by the parable he uses to describe their refusal to come to the party try an different tack. If they cannot argue with his stance about God and God's open free invitation to the Eternal Party, they will catch him up in legal nit-picking about the Law. And they make a valiant effort. Laws about taxes, laws about marriage, laws about resurrection (this question came, by the way, from the Sadducees who didn't believe in the resurrection and who threw their favorite riddle about it at him).

Jesus isn't going to play. He swats away their arguments like Ali picking off a jab in his prime.

This response of the Pharisees and Sadducees is, of course, a response to Jesus' insistance that God loves ALL of God's children with a love that reaches past status and wealth and state of goodness. When you've spent your life chasing goodness like a hampster on an exercise wheel, this kind of preaching is bound to upset you. And if you've used your 'goodness' (read that as, for instance, "I have money and don't have to work at a job that makes me 'unclean' so I'm better than you") as a theo-political weapon to ensure your economic and social status; then the idea of all these hookers and cheats dancing into the Kingdom of God ahead of you is going to really upset you.

But before we get down on them too much, we need to admit that they sound a lot like us. You know the commercial that says "There's a little Captain Morgan in everyone"? Well, there's a little Pharisee/Sadducee in each of us. And it's not a pretty picture. Why do we do this? Because being out of control is a terrible feeling. And Jesus and all of scripture reminds us that when it comes to our salvation...we are soooooo not in control. It's all God, all the time. And God won't have it any other way. Our goodness cannot save us; and our badness cannot damn us. It's Grace all the way.

Isaiah has God saying, in fact, "you have no right to question me about my children or to tell me what I ought to do!" (Good News Bible). To prove it, God will use in Isaiah's time a king named Cyrus of Persia whose conquest of much of the known world will free Israel from their captivity. And what's more Cyrus won't know anything about how he's being used. He'll be off doing his conquering thing and there's God smiling as it sets God's people free; as God 'breaks down bronze gates and smashes their iron bars' (Isaiah 45:2) and claims the title "God of History."

I think this is one of the reasons that Jesus says to the Sadducees, "you're not reading scripture right." They'd gotten so caught up in the 'small stuff' that they were missing the sweeping brush of God in history that was transforming all of life.

In a time like ours; when financial systems falter (okay..they drop like hot rocks) and strong dividing lines are drawn on the basis of race, or social class, or money, (not to mention some of church people's favorite fights over the ordination of women and the marriage of gays) it is easy for us to get caught up in our version of the same nit-picking avoidance of the Eternal Party.

The door is open. The table is set. The food is really, really good; and the band is fantastic (and even I can dance there). All we have to do is trust. Faith. The great "Yes...oh Yes."

We'll be throwing a little bitty part of the party on Saturday at 10:00. Pumpkin Pancakes and Bible Study. I won't say that Jeremy and my cooking matches the food we're gonna have at Brunch in the Kingdom....but the door is open and everyone is invited. Hope we'll see you there.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

A Tale of Two Parables

This week's scriptures are Psalm 23 and Matthew 22:1-14.

The first thing that you will notice is that the passage from Matthew is a retelling of the parable we used from Luke 14:15-24 about the folks who refused to come to the banquet. Only this time, those who don't come are wiped out and their cities burned. In addition, even when the party is going on one of the guests in thrown out "into the dark, the place of wailing and grinding of teeth." WHEW!

Now the commentators are mixed in their view of what is going on here. Is this a parable that Jesus told that Luke tells one way and Matthew another, based on what they were trying to say to a particular audience? (In that case, as you'll see below, I have some issues with Matthew). Or, did Jesus tell a similar parable in two different ways in a different setting for different needs? (In which case I have to struggle with the question of what was Jesus trying to get across in the Matthew parable).

What I find interesting about this parable though as I write this blog is the way that my personal history affects the way I read scripture.

I grew up in a very conservative, Southern Baptist church where strong ideas of judgement, condemnation, and the need for salvation from hell were evident. I also grew up in a violent household where one of my parents often used God as an excuse for the violence directed at my siblings and myself. In light of that, this parable has always been terrifying.

What it says (to that part of me still influenced by that history) is you'd better not turn down God's loving invitation to salvation or God will kill you and burn your life down; AND NOT ONLY THAT but even if you accept the invitation, there's a good chance you won't be good enough and will get tossed into the 'outer darkness' anyway.

When viewed this way, this parable becomes truly terrifying. For read this way, there is no safety, there is no peace, there is no celebration. The party in the kingdom when the parable is read this way is like those old films from WWII of the citizens of Poland waving flags and cheering for the Nazi troops as they marched by while their true emotions showed in the tears streaming down their face.

As you can tell, I struggle with the message about God's intention that was given to me in early life. Though my beliefs are different now, every now and then this view of God as just waiting for the opportunity to snatch us up, smack us around, and throw us into hell rears its ugly head.

Then what do we do with this passage? How can we understand what Matthew was trying to do (you'll notice here the choice I made about the difference between the parables)? And how does this passage have anything to say to us today?

Now we're gonna talk more about this on Sunday...and I hope that you're gonna be there for the conversation....but here is what I think:

I think that the poor guy who got tossed is a lot like you and me. We come to the party....but we really can't celebrate (symbolized by the absence of the proper attire). We come still wearing our "I've got to earn it for myself" suit; or our "nobody could ever really love me" dress; or our "if they ever truly knew me and all that I've done/thought/fantasized, not even God could love and redeem me" ensemble outfit. And so, in the here-and-now (notice that I'm not talking about eternity...God's got that covered), we put our own selves outside the party. We're unable to enjoy the celebration that God wants to throw for us right now.

And there we stand...speechless, like the party guest; or like the Elder Brother in the story of the Prodigal Sons, standing outside the party trying to decide what to do.

Now let me tell you what I think we need to do....knowing what I know about God's love and desire for us. Imagine this:

We walk up to the door. We knock. The Host answers and we say, "I need your help. I don't have a party outfit...I never really thought I'd be invited...what's more, I can't seem to get this one off, no matter how hard I try. I don't think I can do this by myself...but I really, really want to come to Your party....and You're right, this outfit I'm wearing really stinks."

And the Host looks down at us, and smiles. Partying Love wraps huge warm arms around us, draws us back into the room and the Host says, "I thought you'd never ask."

Hope to see you Sunday.