Monday, February 24, 2014

Hymn: A Charge To Keep

I was raised in the Wesleyan-holiness tradition. There are a number of things I cherish from my early formation. One is the emphasis on holy living and its antithesis that selfishness is sin. Another is that this stream of Evangelical Protestantism does not teach unconditional assurance of salvation ("once saved always saved"). Salvation is not a static judicial state but rather a dynamic relationship. One of the "real hymns" that was in our little country church's gospel hymnal was a sober reflection coming out of foundational Methodism written by Charles Wesley. Each verse is a call to the serious nature of having an eternal soul and the high stakes of salvation. The closing lines are a burning reminder to remain faithful.

Charles Wesley

A charge to keep I have,
A God to glorify,
A never-dying soul to save,
And fit it for the sky.

To serve the present age,
My calling to fulfill:
O may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will!

Arm me with jealous care,
As in Thy sight to live;
And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
A strict account to give!

Help me to watch and pray,
And on Thyself rely,
Assured, if I my trust betray,
I shall for ever die.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Say Either "Yes" or "No"

16 February, 2014 ––6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Matthew 5:33-37

The Sermon on the Mount is a picture of what people do who live in this world while giving allegiance to the kingdom––the rule––of God. In this reading Jesus addresses several issues where the Pharisees had built rules around God's laws to make themselves look good. Jesus then shows what these laws truly mean as God's kingdom invades this sinful world. Jesus speaks to murder, adultery, divorce, oaths and revenge. In all of these, the point is that it’s possible to use God’s laws as more of an exercise in self-justification than having a true understanding of God's concerns.

It is possible to look at each of these issues individually and do just what the Pharisees did all those years ago. We can make fine distinctions and legislate, and in so doing make ourselves appear wise and pious. Yet by ourselves we cannot obey this Sermon on the Mount. Admitting this is a great first step of spiritual obedience. God has to work these things out in our lives through his Holy Spirit.

It is in that context we need to consider what Jesus says about our speech. After such topics as murder, adultery and divorce, we might wonder why and how something so common as human speech patterns gets so much attention. Why do the words we use carry the same level of concern with Jesus as the big, bad sins?

The Bible has a lot to say about human speech. James comments on the way the tongue––such a small part of the body––is able to create such enormous havoc. In another place, Jesus said that our speech––every idle word––would be one of the standards by which we are judged. The Commandments warn against using God's name in any casual or dismissive way. We regularly pray hallowed be Thy name.

Consider what Jesus was saying about oaths. The obvious meaning should be “keep the promises you have made.” But there was a loophole for the Pharisees––it made a difference what one swore by. If you made an oath to the Lord, than by all means keep it. But if you swore by something lesser, then breaking your word was an option. The motivation was rationalization and permissiveness because human nature wants an easy way out.

Let's think more about that in the context of our speech. It is not necessarily wrong to take an oath. There are various examples of oaths (or vows) in the Scriptures. Abraham had his servant vow to find the right wife for Isaac. Jacob had Joseph give an oath that he would not leave Jacob's bones in Egypt. David and Jonathan had a vow of friendship between them. 

Why do people need to supplement their speech with “I swear it's true” or “I swear to God....”? Too often it’s because our own word is not likely to be trusted or we think we need to enhance our image by verbal braggadocio. Swearing is usually a poor expression of our own dishonesty and personal weakness. The reason Jesus says “don't swear” is because he calls us to be like him. When we are living unto Jesus there's nothing to cause others to question our truthfulness or our worth. Simply let your “yes” be yes and your “no” be no.

As I was preparing this sermon, one of this week’s readings in the Liturgy was from Ephesians. It’s one way St Paul applies today’s Gospel: Never let evil talk pass your lips; say only the good things men need to hear, things that will really help them.... Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander and malice of every kind. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving, just as God has forgiven you in Christ (4:29–32).

Let's take these words to heart. Allow honesty to have full effect in your life because you belong to Jesus and because you want to be like God, whose character is Truth. You will not need to say, "I swear to God" or "cross my heart" or "with my hand on the Bible." You can be a person who says “yes” and people will know it is yes; you can say “no” and people will know it's no. Your speech can be seasoned with grace. It will be because Jesus Christ is Lord in your life. Nothing is greater.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Human Heart

Wednesday: 12 February, 2014 ––5th Week of Ordinary Time
Mark 7:14–23
The Human Heart

It is a common assumption and we often hear it stated: People are basically good

Here is what God says through the prophet Jeremiah: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? (Jer 17:9).

In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus expanding what this means: What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.  (Mk 7:20–23).

So often we try to fix the “outside.” This is what Jesus said many of the scribes and Pharisees were doing. In our own day we are inundated with an obsession of image. “Image” is a veneer. Image is what we present to the public. Image is marketed as the thing that can give us fulfillment. Even a “good” image, if that is all it is, is vacuous.

What is the desire of our hearts? Someone has said A man is what he does when he is alone.

Lord of the Flies is a 1954 novel about a group of British boys stuck on an inhibited island who try to govern themselves with disastrous results. As the imposed structures of civilization dissipate, the boys become increasingly selfish and cruel. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt....

We see this is our own culture. As common civility goes in reverse––as disrespect and violence increase in our once-stable communities––it is because people are increasingly dismissive of God and truth.

The one thing that rescues our hearts is grace. When we find ourselves desiring the good.... when we restrain from being selfish and nasty.... we are under the effect of grace. What would this world be without the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Church? It would be hell.

How do we combat the evil of the human heart and the presence of original sin? We stay open to grace. We pray for grace. We do what St Paul told the Philippians: whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phlp 4:8).

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