Thursday, October 9, 2014

Kingdom-of-Heaven Life -- RSVP

The gospel appointed for this Sunday starts out reminding us that the life which God intends for us is Kingdom-of-Heaven life, a "God-love life."

Living a Kingdom-of-Heaven life does NOT mean having faith, while we live, in some future thing or place or experience called "heaven" that awaits us only after we die. It does NOT mean doing the best job we can while "down here," and only experiencing the qualities of heaven after our years here on earth are over.

Rather, living a Kingdom-of-Heaven life means having faith that the thing or place or experience called the Kingdom of Heaven is coming, God's will is being done, on earth (in our lives, here and now) as it is in heaven.

Modern-day puritans always seem to want to make God less over-the-top generous and joyful than God really is. But again, if we read the Bible ourselves and not just rely on what other people tell us about it, we'd find, as in Sunday's gospel, some rather astonishing things. Things like Jesus comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet. A marriage feast.

(Now when you hear "wedding banquet" don't think of some stuffy, dry, contrived formal wedding reception in a rented hotel ballroom. Think of the best party you've ever attended (or, if you are one of those modern-day puritans, think about the best party you've heard about). If parties aren't your thing, think of the happiest time you've ever had. Picture it lasting three days.)

As the 23rd Psalm reminds us, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death - even though there are places of deep darkness, in Kingdom-of-Heaven life, we fear no evil. God's rod and staff - God's means of discipline, God's commandments and sacraments - comfort us. Again, God is compared to a gracious host, preparing a table for us, filling our cups not with a conservative pour as if we were at some wine-tasting, but to overflowing.

Taking nothing away from the fact that there are, in life, places of deep darkness, and taking nothing away from the fact that there is in fact evil all around us, life is meant to be - life is designed to be - such a feast: while walking through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear nothing and we lack nothing. We feel guided and guarded and shepherded, by God.

God really does intend that kind of life for us. Not just on some exception basis, not just to get glimpses of it, but as a rule.

So what keeps it from happening, other than just occasionally? If Kingdom of Heaven life is how life is supposed to be lived, what keeps us from living it that way?

We do. You and I do.

This Kingdom of Heaven way of life is God's intention and invitation, but it is not automatic.

That's because God has given us the terrible and wonderful gift of freedom.

God has prepared a wonderful banquet called Kingdom of Heaven life, and God does invite us to come join it. But it's an invitation...not a command.

The Lord God of all History
Requests the Pleasure of your Company
Sunday October 12, 2014 and Thereafter

And what's at the bottom of that invitation?

It's not, as I used to see from invitations from the (previous) Bishop to serve on various committees, "Please indicate your acceptance of this appointment by phone or return mail." That kind of "invitation" was simple to deal with: you pretty much know your response, and it is one of obedience. You do what you're told. (And that's fine.)

But that's not what's at the bottom of God's invitation. The invitation to Kingdom of Heaven life, the King's banquet, is not a command performance.

It's not even the "regrets only" that you sometimes you see that at the bottom of an invitation. "Regrets only" is a subtle form of coercion, because it presumes you are coming unless you let the host or hostess know otherwise.

No...what's at the bottom of God's invitation is R.S.V.P.

R├ępondez s'il vous plait.

"Respond, please."

No command performance. No presumption of acceptance. And even though -- as Sunday's parable illustrates - we human beings don't have a great track record on how we've responded to that invitation, the invitation is still there, still ours. Still yours.

A beautiful invitation to an even more beautiful Kingdom-of-Heaven, wedding banquet, God-love life.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Ever Notice that the Ten Commandments Begin with a Self-Introduction?

I ended my last message by saying there are two ways we can avoid religious hypocrisy, two ways to be our truest selves:

First, we need to come to an understanding of ourselves as having been created in the image of an "over-the-top gestures-of-love" God who is forever-forgiving, abundant, joy-filled, and creative.  If that is not God you believe in, then start by repenting -- changing your mind -- about the false god you've been believing in. If you perceive yourself as being made in the image of the god you believe in,  then you  must pay very careful attention to the characteristics of that god you believe in. Because it all starts there.  So let me ask you again: is the god you believe in the "over-the-top-gestures-of-love" God who is forever-forgiving, abundant, joy-filled, and creative? If not, start re-reading (or reading for the first time) the Bible on a daily basis, because that's the God who is revealed in those books.   If you don't know what kind of Bible to get, or you don't know where to start reading, or how to read it, then ask here.

Second,  building from that understanding, in order to avoid religious hypocrisy, we need to put our divinely-received love, spirit-of-forgiveness, abundance, joy-filled nature, and creative spirit into concrete, tangible, visible deeds.

But how?

Well, the Ten Commandments are a pretty good place to start. And the timing is good for a review of them, because they are the assigned Old Testament reading for this Sunday.

The two major points I've made before about the Ten Commandments are:

1)      if we can follow the First Commandment, the other nine come easily, and
2)      the first Commandment begins NOT with a commandment but -- here we go again! -- with a reminder of who God is, what God's character is like:  "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."
Notice how we get a little self-introduction before we get a commandment?
It is only after God reminds us of who God is (namely, one who not only desires our freedom, but acts in history to bring our freedom about ) does God tell us what, and what not to do. "I'm a god of freedom, God says, "so why in the world would you have (worship, bow down before, put at the center of your life) anything or any other god than me? Can't you see that all the other gods you are so fond of are only limiting your freedom, and slowly enslaving you?"

God knows it is part of our human nature to try to fill our God-shaped hole with people, work, causes, or other small-g-gods.

And God knows because those small-g-gods over time become idols or even masters, eventually robbing us of our power and freedom, we do lose our freedom and find ourselves (to some degree or another) enslaved...figuratively back in the land of Egypt, back in the house of bondage.

God gives us the other nine commandments not so much as restrictions on our freedom but as things that make truer freedom possible.  So as we'll see in Sunday's "Ten Commandments in Ten Minutes" sermon, I want to show how the Ten Commandments can be thought of as Ten Freedoms. To the degree we can follow the first, and then the other nine commandments, we are more likely to be free from all the idolatries and small-g-gods that would, otherwise, entrap and enslave us, and more likely to be free to live into the image of the God in whose image we were created.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Simple Way to Avoid Religious Hypocrisy

In Sunday’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ story, or parable, about a man who has two sons. The man approaches his first son and says, “Go work in the vineyard today.” That son rudely tells his father “no” – he’s not going to do it. Says he won’t work. Refuses.

But later, he changes his mind and goes. He actually does go work in the vineyard.

The father goes to his second son and says the same thing: “Go work in the vineyard today.” The second son is very polite, and agreeable. He says “yes, sir!” But he doesn’t do what he’d been told to do. 

He doesn’t actually go do anything.  

Then Jesus – the one telling the story, asks – “so, what do you think? Which of these two did the will of the father?”

The answer, of course is the son who actually did what he’d been told to do. The person who is obedient is not the one who says all the right things, believes all the right things, or has all the right intentions. According to Jesus, the person who is obedient to God the Father is the one who you know, actually does what God tells us to do.  At the very least, the parable is making the point that actions speak louder than words. And so it’s a guard against religious hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is usually thought of as simply "saying one thing and doing another." But hypocrisy is about more than that. 

“Hypocrisy” is from the Greek word for “actor,” one who wears a mask. 

Hypocrisy, thought of this way, is about not being our true self.

People of faith may disagree on the specific solutions to the various social problems that beset us, but here's a simple way to avoid religious hypocrisy: 

First, we should understand that we are people created in the image of, and are saved by, an “over-the-top gestures of love” God. We should understand that we are people created in the image of, and saved by, a forever-forgiving God. We should understand that we are people created in the image of, and saved by, an abundant, joy-filled, creative God.

With that understanding of ourselves, we avoid hypocrisy (we are being our truest selves) when we are engaging in over-the-top gestures of love. When we are forever-forgiving others. When we are being abundant, joy-filled, and creative.

That understanding of ourselves is necessary, but not sufficient. 
That’s because second, we must move beyond understanding, words, intellectual or spiritual agreement, intentions, creeds, and promises, and you know, actually go out and do stuff.  

In other words, Jesus wants us to focus less on what we say, or believe, or intend, and more on what we actually end up going out and doing: putting our divinely-received love, spirit-of-forgiveness, abundance, joy-filled nature, and creative spirit into concrete, tangible, visible deeds.