Saturday, April 30, 2011

Oregon Associates Retreat 2011 #2

It's difficult to be a Christian. Looking up, down, out, in, looking at those we love and especially at those we don’t, looking at things ending and things beginning.

Nothing will get better for us until we embrace that difficulty and do the hard work of following Jesus through the specifics. To look for God in daily life, is to open the door, to step into the flood, to see what God sees, and then to decide whether to care. That decision to care or not is a defining moment of faith.

Take Morality For example: It’s sad: we live in immoral times. Not one of the Ten Commandments is widely in force. Graven images are common, especially in church. The Sabbath, no matter if yours is Saturday or Sunday… the Sabbath is the prime shopping day. Murder is carefully defined so we can allow for all kinds of ways to kill each other and still get away with it. And Coveting—well, that’s the heartbeat of advertising. Stealing and dishonoring are common. Bearing false witness is an Internet art form.

It would be funny except immorality hurts real people. At the level of an actual marriage among regular people, adultery can be devastating. Most marriages won't survive it.

And then there's money. We live some no-man’s land between grace and greed. No wonder Jesus told us to “love one another.” We can do it. I know Jesus' commandment – “love one another” – is within our power. We just aren’t very consistent.

Our Creed may encourage generalization, but the way Jesus taught suggests that "I believe in God" isn't enough. It needs to be, "I believe in God enough to submit my will to God today and to make this next decision with God in mind." Or, "I believe in Jesus and will follow his teachings and his model as I greet my family this morning, as I take my part in the workplace today and as I walk home tonight." I keep saying it. Faith is about specifics. It isn't enough to declare a general intention to be faithful. Faith manifests in specific decisions: Decisions about allocating time, managing money, responding to people, dealing with needs, monitoring our own personal morality.

Shallow religion is easy. Go to church, enjoy what you can, make a token commitment, keep your motor running. See God as a friend, Jesus as a kindly shepherd. Buy a cross, put a Bible on your desk.

Going deep in faith… changes everything.

Not only is it uncomfortable because A: we don’t like change, but B: because it takes way more effort and time. As God's fullness comes into view, the old ways of doing religion don’t work. Going deep in faith means that all those rich, deep and troubling nuances of Jesus become pretty disturbing. The real Jesus challenges us, holds us accountable, sets an impossibly high standard for ethical behavior. He demands openness and giving up of control. I don’t know about you, but that strikes terror in my heart.

Deep is dangerous. Shallow may be dull and lifeless, but it’s a whole lot safer. It takes trust to go deeper in faith.

Deep water happens everywhere, and our ability to swim in it comes and goes. We can be capable one minute and incapable the next. We make wise decisions, then dumb decisions. Not even the most perfect, seamless resume can hide the painful reality that we are flawed creatures. We hurt the ones we love, we squander opportunities, we fail.

Jesus told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.” (Luke 13.6)

This is our relationship with God. Few of us, not even nuns, spend our days in fervent prayer. Even the most diligent Christians have jobs, families, duties as citizens. Most of us also treasure “down-time.” God knows we are distracted.

God waits in patience for us to remember who we are as children of God or, to use Luke's metaphor, as fig trees called to bear fruit. At some point, push comes to shove. We either live into our true identity or we slip into delusion and spiritual amnesia. We give or we take. We love or ignore. We serve others or serve ourselves. We bear the fruit that God created us to bear, or we take up space and yield nothing that is worthy.

At this point, to follow Jesus' parable, God makes one more attempt to get our attention. If that fails, God moves on. God doesn’t smite us, but God may lose hope in us. We have tried God's patience, and now God will turn to others. It would be a bleak moment when we realize God has finally stopped looking for us to bear fruit.

Jesus said, “So the owner said to the gardener, 'See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?'” (Luke 13.7)

Christian leaders were reshaping the reality of Jesus within years of his death, adapting his teachings to their own agenda, concocting words for him to have said, portraying God as whatever they wanted God to be. In their hands, Jesus went from anti-establishment prophet to ultra-establishment figurehead, from peacemaker to warrior, from subtle teacher of disconcerting parables to a partisan judge vowing death to the Church's enemies. The Jesus who loved everyone became filled with hatred, and his open circle became a closed hierarchy.

What, then, are we to make of a parable that portrays God as indignant and determined to hold creation accountable and Jesus as an advocate for patience – not infinite patience, but “one more year”?
If you visit ten different churches, you’ll hear ten different takes on this parable, each one tailored to its congregation. They will range from God's determination to hold us accountable to gentle images of an ever-patient friend.

On the one hand, Jesus' parables deliberately leave room for many different understandings.On the other, we need to hear what Jesus actually said. The distracted shouldn't listen for a God who waits patiently for them to pay attention. The prosperous shouldn't seek a God who rewards the elect. The oppressed need more than a God who is on their side.

At the center is the Jesus who actually was. When we find his authentic words, they sound like “tough love” in Luke's parable. God expects us to bear fruit. Jesus bargains for us, but only for another chance, not for a permanent exemption from accountability.

There is life in that reality. Only you can know where you stand in that cycle of patience and testing. But Jesus' parable assures us all that the moment of reckoning does happen. God comes “looking for fruit,” and either finds it or doesn't find it.

These may be harsh words this morning, but I think we need to be pushed and stretched. (Take exercise. I hate to exercise. I quit at the first sensation of "the burn," and as a result I just get flabbier.) If we consider the pain of growth wrong and blame and punish those who caused it, we make no difference.

If our faith makes no difference, what's the point?


Chris said...


Mary Ellen said...

"Graven images are common, especially in church."

I don't understand what you mean by that, would you please explain?

Claire Joy said...

Crucifixes, paintings, statues... all technically considered graven images