Coerced Faith?

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,               but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.  On that day many will       say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in     your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’  Then I will declare to them,      ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’”                                                       Matthew 7:21-23

I read a news article this week about a mother in Phoenix, AZ, who used a taser to get her son to church on Easter morning.  The 17 year old boy wanted to stay home with his friends who were freed by their parents from mandatory church attendance.  His mother had a different idea.  When the boy refused to go with her, she ran to get her taser and, coming back into his room, tased him according to the boy, his brother and cousins.  Despite the mother’s denial, the taser marks could be seen on the boy’s leg by the police.

What kind of faith comes from coercion?  What kind of faith grows from enforcement?  I’ve counseled people who are struggling with their faith, and helped people discover ways to “fake it till they make it”, but it’s one thing to voluntarily go through the motions hoping to prime the pump of faith, and quite a different thing to be forced at the risk of bodily harm to act faithfully.  Coercion in the realm of faith is oxymoronic.  If I am forced to confess faith, then almost by definition, I have no faith.  If I only believe in order to avoid harm to myself or others, is that real faith?

This past Sunday we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We are asked to have faith in Christ and his resurrection.  This isn’t faith as a proposition we believe in intellectually, like 1 plus 1 equals 2. No, this is a call to put our trust in Jesus, to make his example and God’s will the guiding principles of our life.  Going to church is not faith – I’ve long said that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in McDonald’s will make you a hamburger.  No, the Christian is the one who chooses to follow the lead of Jesus in their every day life.  While corporate worship, reading Scripture and praying are all important, the most critical element of our faith is the choice to act in a certain way, according to God’s will.  But if we are coerced, then there is no choice, and thus there is no faith.

So as we go through this Easter season, let us be reminded that no one can force another to believe.  Nothing we say or do can force faith on another.  It is our lives, the example of loving words and actions that may attract people to faith, never a taser.

Prayer:  O Risen Christ, you could have called down angel armies to coerce our faith; you could have engaged in splashy miracles far and wide to make us believe in you.  Instead, you invited our faith by your love and sacrifice.  Teach me by your example so that I, too, may lead others to you through loving words and deeds, and recognize that coerced faith is no faith at all.  Amen.

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The Wonder of Space

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
  what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals that you care for them?         Psalm 8:3-4

We just returned from a cruise to the Bahamas.  We had a wonderful time, but the highlight of the trip wasn’t the pink sands and aqua waters of the Caribbean.  No, the highlight for me was the stop on the way south at Port Canaveral and the day trip to the Kennedy Space Center.  I was awed as I stood underneath a Saturn 5 rocket; I was overwhelmed looking at the space shuttle Atlantis, and I was moved nearly to tears as I walked past the rows of pictures of those who died in the course of our space exploration.

Looking at the pictures of space and seeing the tiny space station on the magnificent canvas of infinite outer space, I was reminded of the words of Psalm 8, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them…”  The wonder of space and its billions of stars and billions more planets, the beauty of the universe in images from the Hubble telescope, the size of what is out there, all combined to make me feel small and insignificant.  And yet Scripture tells us that God loves us and gave Jesus Christ for our salvation.  What an awesome thought, that in this infinite universe, the God who is even greater than that cares for us.

It is the nature of our faith to combine things that seemingly cannot go together – a God who is infinite and yet came in the person of Jesus, a God who is transcendent and yet is present to us in every moment, a God who orders stars and suns but who also gives meaning and purpose to my daily life.  That in itself is cause for wonder and awe.

When you go outside tonight, look up at the heavens and consider the vastness of space and our faith in a God who is even bigger, even greater than that.  Open your mind to the reality that we worship the God who created all that.  And give thanks for the abiding presence and love of the master of the universe.

Prayer:  Infinite God, you have created a universe of awesome size and diversity, setting stars in the black velvet of outer space, twirling planets in a soundless dance, and mixing a palette of planet-hued colors.  And yet you care for us, seemingly insignificant in the vastness of space but given meaning and consequence by your love.  Help me to honor your greatness even as I give thanks for your abiding love.  Amen.

Lording It Over Them

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“But Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.'”

                                                                                                      Luke 22:25-6

“Na-na-na-nah-nah!”  The old schoolyard taunt has been echoing in my ears this week, as the new US administrtion produced a record number of first week executive orders.  A friend of mine from the Order of St. Luke, a religious organization to which I belong, emailed me this week.  He is from Canada, and he asked with some degree of disbelief if this was all legal.  “Can the US president make laws without going through Congress?” he asked.

TV commentators from the pro-Trump side reminded listeners that these were all things Trump said during the campaign that he would do if elected.  And now he has been elected, and he is following through on camapaign promises.  But I have to admit, the speed with which he is turning out executive orders – a new record for the number of orders signed during the first week, almost feels like the schoolyard taunt.  “Na-na, look what I can do!”  He’s got the power and he’s gonna use it!

The Gospel lesson from Luke reminds us that the purpose of power is not to “lord it over” others, but to serve them.  Thomas R. Hawkins, a contemporary writer on Christian leadership, distinguishes between “power over” and “power with.”  Jesus certainly exercised power, but it was not power over; for him, power was exercised with and for, not over.  He mentored and taught his disciples, not lording it over them, not demanding.  He chose humility over pride and self-sacrifice over self-aggrandizement.

In the Gospel of John, Pilate is considering whether or not to order Jesus’ crucifixion.  He warns Jesus that he, Pilate, has power over Jesus.  But Jesus responds, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”  (John 19:11)  That warning reaches much farther than ancient Palestine. It suggests that power, political or otherwise, is not an excuse acceptable to God for actions that contradict God’s mission.  Time and agian the Bible tells us what is expected of us: to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8); to witness by our lives to Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8); to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and care for the sick and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46).  The Bible is adamant in its call for leaders to exercise justice with mercy, to seek righteousness with compassion, and to care for the least.  This is the purpose of power – to do God’s work of love and justice, to work with God for the good of the people.  In both Old and New Testaments, God calls for leaders who will care for the people – all of the people, not just those who are well off or fromthe right party or belief set.

As we move forward with a new administration, let us offer our prayers for our nation and its leaders, but let’s also demand accountability, and direct our leaders to exercise power with not power over, power that supports not power that undermines, and power that seeks to work for the good of all the people.

Prayer:  Almighty God, from whom comes all power and authority, I pray today that you will work in the hearts of leaders everywhere to teach them to use their power in ways that build up, not tear down.  May they exercise power for the good of all the people they govern, not just the few, not just those who agree with them.  Help leaders to care for the sick, to lift up the downtrodden, to bind up wounds caused by intemperate campaign language.  Let those who hold power use it to serve and to support as Christ taught his followers to use the power you granted them.  All for the sake of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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Scylla and Charybdis

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“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”                                                                     Matthew 11:18-19

 

My little dog is afraid of storm sewers.  We go out for a walk every morning, and when we get near a storm sewer, he sits down in the street and looks up at me, as if to say, ‘How are we getting around this one?’.  If I’m lucky, he’ll let me walk him out to the middle of the street (if no cars are coming) to pass by the storm sewer and then return to the side of the road.  Sometimes, there is only a sewer on one side of the street. But often there are sewers across from each other.  When we come to them, the dog simply will not go any further; I have to pick him up and carry him past the storm sewers before he’ll proceed.  Like Odysseus sailing past Scylla and Charybdis on his way home from the Trojan War, dangerous sea monsters who lured sailors  from the left and the right, my puppy and I navigate the way between dangers to the left and the right!

In the passage from Matthew, Jesus reminds us that it is very easy to fall into the same trap.  We may condemn something only to sail so far in the other direction that we are ensnared in an equally dangerous position.  Whether it is condemning Jesus or John, criticizing a political figure, starting a diet or anything else, there is always the possibility that by swinging too far one way or the other, we may end up in danger.  Years ago I watched a friend who had struggled with her weight for years go on a diet.  She lost weight, and then she lost more, until she began to look like a walking cadaver.  Overeating wasn’t good for her, but neither was anorexia.

Today we inaugurated a new president.  Some love him, some claim to hate him.  But whatever your opinion, let’s be careful not to swing so far to extremes that we end up losing our humanity.  All of us have good and bad.  Let’s applaud the good and challenge the bad.  We will probably disagree on what is good or bad, but we need to avoid the extremes between which we sail.  We should never idolize a political figure as if they could save us – only Jesus can do that.  And we should never demonize a person, forgetting that Christ died for them and they, too, bear the image of God.  Let’s sail carefully between idolatry and demonization and find our way safely through the coming years.

Prayer:  Almighty and everlasting God, who alone has the power to save us, and whose love is what gives value to our lives, help me this day to see this world as you do.  Let me stand for justice, but not by becoming unjust myself.  Let me call for love, but not with hate towards anothern my heart.  May I walk between righteousness and mercy in ways that reflect your grace.  When I am tempted to condemn, remind me of my own sin and show me the path that veers neither to the right nor the left, but follows your way of salvation.  This I pray through Christ, my Lord.  Amen.

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