Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Christ Rules!

Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15

     Today, we celebrate Christ the King and Thanksgiving. Christ the King is the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar. It is the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. It is the day set aside to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the ruler of all nations, all the earth, and all the universe. Christ is also the ruler of our individual hearts. In Christ the King, we are once again reminded who and whose we are.

     Thanksgiving is, of course, the national holiday set aside for celebration of the abundance we enjoy as Americans. Thanksgiving is also deeply rooted in Christian faith. Each time we receive communion we give thanks for all that God has done for us in history, in Jesus Christ, and through the gift of our baptism and place in the church. In worship each Sunday, we remember and give thanks to God for God's abundant, extravagant, amazing grace. As U.S. citizens, we enjoy an abundance of food, clothes, home and health. When we give thanks, we remember who and whose we are.

     Who are we? We are forgiven, loved and free: sinners who, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are forgiven and made right with God. We are loved freely, unconditionally, and extravagantly by God in Jesus Christ. Because of what God did for us in Christ, crucified and risen, we are chosen and loved as God's own daughters and sons. And, in Christ, God has set us free from the powers of sin and death. Christ has set us free for life and love in abundance.

     Whose are we? In creation, God creates us in God's own image. In baptism, God claims us as God's own children. As human beings, we belong to God and God alone.

     We give thanks because of all that God has done for us and all the world in Jesus Christ. We give thanks because Christ has given the world the gifts of forgiveness, self-giving love, and genuine freedom.

     I think Thanksgiving and Christ the King are woven together by the common threads of gratitude and generosity. When Christ rules in your heart, gratitude and generosity become second nature. Who rules your life? Who rules your heart?

     A common expression among young people today goes something like, "LeBron James rules!" or "The Simpsons rules!" or "Green Day rules!" Meaning they admire and idolize the person or thing named. Which is another way of saying that the values espoused by the person, movie, band, video game, or t.v. show are values to which they aspire or want to emulate.

     How many of us can say "Christ rules!"? If we say to our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family "Christ rules!" we affirm Christ and Christ's values as our own; or at least we aspire to make them our own.

     As we accept Christ's rule in us and with us, we become more aware of Christ in the world and in ourselves. When Christ rules in us, we give thanks. We understand that all we have in this life is grace. It's source is God and we are stewards of God's gifts. When Christ rules in us, we give more freely of ourselves to and for others.

     If you want to experience Jesus, if you want to meet him face to face, give of yourself. Give freely of the gifts God has given to you: your time, your talent, your presence, your money, and your prayers. There is a story about St. Francis of Assisi that helps illustrate how God wants us to give.

Francis lived in Italy in the 13th century. In those days lepers, people suffering from the degenerative skin disease leprosy, were treated a lot like people living with AIDS are treated today; only worse. Lepers were outcasts. They were forced to live in colonies or wander from town to town with no real home. They were also required to wear a bell around their neck to warn people they were near by. People so feared the disease they thought they could get it by simply being near a leper. Certainly they would never touch a leper.

     St. Francis was a man from a wealthy family who dedicated his life to serving Christ by giving up all his wealth and privilege to live among and serve the poor. He became an itinerant preacher who eventually had a number of followers. His followers continue living among and serving the poor today as Franciscan monks and sisters.

     One day, as Francis was about to enter a village, he saw a wretched figure approaching him. As the figure got closer, he could hear the ringing of a bell. It was a leper's bell. As he got closer to the bent over person, Francis could see it was a woman and that she was a leper. She was dressed in rags. The closer Francis got to her, the louder she tried to ring her bell to warn him. She waved her arms, as best she could to tell him to get away. Francis stopped for a moment. But something drew him to the woman.

     It was a cold day in late autumn. Francis could she the woman was dressed in rags and was grasping them to herself in a futile effort to keep herself warm. He moved closer to her. She rang her bell and tried to wave him off. Francis moved closer until he was an arms length away.

     At this point the woman was in fear for her life. She was cowering in front of him, trying to hide her face from this strange man. Francis then removed his cloak from his shoulders and wrapped it around the shoulders of the bent over leper. As he wrapped it around her shoulders, Francis pulled her close and embraced her. It was the touch of another human being that she had not known for a very long time. As Francis held the leper in his arms, he kissed her leprous cheek.

     With that kiss, to Francis' surprise and wonder, something amazing happened. The bent over woman was transformed. Francis dropped his arms and stood back to behold the risen, living Jesus Christ standing before him. Jesus said, "As you did it to one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me."

     In his act of self-giving love, Francis discovered the presence of Christ among the most feared and most vulnerable people of his time. He refused to ignore the suffering, the humiliation, the smell, and the ugliness of the leper. He, instead, chose to act with compassion. Francis opened up his arms and gave himself away. In the process he was transformed along with the one he helped. That's what generosity does, you know. It changes things like lives and communities and nations.

     Then there is Oseola McCarty. Miss McCarty has lived all of her 88 years in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She has spent all of her adult life working as a washer-woman for people in her town.

She lived alone in the house given to her by uncle when he died in 1947 surrounded by hanging laundry. She worked and worked and worked cleaning other people's laundry year after year. As she worked, she saved. She faithfully put as much as she could aside in a savings account month after month. Until she had built her savings account up to an amazing sum of $150,000.

     In July of 1995, Miss McCarty told her bank to give nearly all of it away to the local college, the University of Southern Mississippi. The money would be used to allow poor, black women and men get a college education; an education she never had an opportunity to get.

     Today, Miss McCarty is something of a celebrity to the people in Hattiesburg where she still lives. She has been the recipient of many honors and awards for her generosity. She has been to the White House twice and made many television appearances. People flock to her, to simply be near her. One of them says of Miss McCarty, "She's just different... When you're around her, you just feel better. You feel cleaner. The humility that little lady has's beyond description." "Pat Reed, an administrative secretary at the university, knows why so many people are drawn to McCarty. They share in what everyone wants but so few have. 'Peace,' Reed said. 'She just makes you feel good.'" (Star-Tribune, Nov. 17, 1996)

     Does Christ rule in your heart? When compassion and gratitude are rules of life, Christ is there. When they are absent, we exclude ourselves from the true meaning and richness of the life Christ wants to give us. Look into your heart today, into your life today, and see who really is in charge. Christ rules! the universe. Let him rule your heart.  Amen.

Steven Manskar

Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Diving Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Is the Church a Place You "Go To"?

     We need to think more carefully about the way we talk about our relationship with the church. Commonly heard phrases such as “going to church”, “attending church”, “when church is over” are problematic. They reveal a detachment from the church. The church is a place we go, like a school or a shop. It is a place we go to have our needs met. The church is just another commodity to be used and consumed. It is separate and not part of the person.
     When we understand church as something to “go to” or “attend” we keep it at a distance. It is not part of me, not am I every really part of church. This church is not the “body of Christ” Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 12. It is not the “household of God” described in Ephesians 2:19-22.
     Such a church is a collection of individuals rather than a community centered in the crucified and risen Christ. Feelings about Jesus and one another are more important than obedience Jesus and “watching over one another in love” doing all in our power to increase faith, confirm hope and perfect one another in love.
     A church that I “go to” or “attend” is more interested in making me a good, paying member than it is in making me into a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Such churches welcome people into relationship with themselves. They do not know how to introduce people to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The problem is that they often mistake inviting others to church with inviting them into relationship with Jesus. New member recruitment is confused with evangelism.
     If such churches ever want to become true outposts of the body of Christ they will need to begin by embracing and living the sacraments. They must begin to take seriously the Baptismal Covenant and take steps to equip their members to grow into and keep their baptismal promises. To begin, the church will need to re-examine and take steps to keep the baptismal promises it makes to God and to the baptized.
     Another important step to take is to shift the focus of Sunday worship from making people feel good about themselves to preparing them to come to the Lord’s table. Every Sunday should be Communion Sunday. How can the church expect its people to live sacramental lives if it starves itself from week to week?
     I am convinced that congregations that take the Baptismal Covenant seriously and celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, will move from being simply another place to go on Sunday morning to Christ-centered community of grace, hope, and love.

Steve Manskar