Projecting Our Own Issues

This week’s meditation is a follow-up on an earlier one that had to do with “beaking up” with images of ourselves that we know no longer serve our highest good. The truth is that we all have “issues”, in other words, things about ourselves that we don’t like, or traits we find undesirable. Most of us realize that we are not perfect and that it is natural to have unpleasant thoughts, motivations, desires, or feelings. However, when we do not acknowledge these things, we might find ourselves ascribing these attributes to someone else, judging others as angry, jealous, or insecure. From what I recall of my psych class in college, this kind of fault-finding is called “projection.”
When we ourselves become the target of projections, it is frustrating and even annoying, especially when we know full well that we are not the cause of someone else’s distress. Even people who are well aware of their issues might find that certain subjects can bring up unexpected reactions or projections. For example, if I am feeling financially spread thin, seeing my friend in a new Lincoln might cause me to see him as extravagant. If I am feeling overweight or out of shape, I might take every opportunity with my friends to underscore the importance of eating right and getting adequate exercise. Or, if I am prone to being dissembling or opaque with others, I might wax eloquent on how I simply cannot tolerate dishonesty. It’s always easier to perceive our flaws and sins manifested outside ourselves!
When it comes to being mindful about what comes out of our own mouths (I am always telling my students, “Just because it’s in your garage, you don’t have to open the garage doors!”) it is quite another story when dealing with others. Yes, we can try to avoid the ones we know are projecting their issues onto us, but not always. We can, however, learn to lovingly deflect some projections through mindfulness and gentler language. I remember many occasions with my own family members, many of whom were not always nurturing, when I had to bite my tongue and simply maintain silence. Other times, I took a “time out” and considered that there are people who probably think that I have annoying flaws–and that allowed me a moment of gratitude for the friends who loved me regardless of my limitations. As Christians, we follow Jesus by picking up our cross every day and moving forward. We are never on our own, however, as the Light of God envelopes us at all times. That same Light of God surrounds all creation and all people, even the annoying ones trying to compel us to take some share of their issues. There is comfort and grace in realizing that we can gently remind someone when s/he is being unreasonable, and we can choose to remain calm in the face of criticism. We all know that it is never fun to have someone else’s issues dumped onto our laps; we should also remember that it feels the same when we are the ones doing the dumping. When we take ownership of our thoughts, motivations, and issues, we are less likely to project our issues or disowned qualities onto others. This is precisely why, since the earliest years of the worshiping Christian community, the calling to mind of our failings has always been the first order of business when coming together to worship.

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Past Lives, Present Life

I’ve always had an eclectic gaggle of friends no matter where I’ve lived: Christians, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, communists, Muslims, as well as New Age believers. Some of these believed wholeheartedly in the idea of reincarnation–that we have each lived past lives numerous times and that we are living this current life as a result of choices made in previous lifetimes. Like all religious teaching, this cannot be proved or disproved. What I AM certain of, however, is that the various “lives” each of us has lived in this lifetime have created the situation in which we now find ourselves.

Our phobia of spiders, for example, might stem from an early childhood encounter in the garden. The verbal put-downs we experienced from family members as a teen might be part of the reason we cling to self-limiting beliefs about not being pretty enough, smart enough, etc… Likewise, early training in sports may have given us a lifelong interest in maintaining our weight and physical health. Early praise for our art projects may have given rise to our creative endeavors later in life.

These “previous lives” have two faces, one positive and one negative. Violence, death, and abuse in life may show up as fear, uncontrollable anger, or low self-esteem later on. Positive experiences from an earlier lifetime may cause us to feel strongly drawn to certain people, places, or objects without understanding why.

For those who believe in literally having lived previous lifetimes, there are “regression therapists” who can assist in recalling memories and emotions from the past. For those of us who do not believe in a literal previous lifetime but who want to understand better why it is we are the way we are, we can use some of these same tools to explore our past.

There is an unfortunate tendency in North American culture to use the effects of one’s past as an excuse for poor choices made in the present. We hear this often in regard to sexual abuse victims who later become abusers themselves. While there might be a kernel of truth in this perspective, for me it is more appropriate to speak of our “past lives” as a key to be used to unlock the prison of the present. The past–with all its grace and sin–can hold the secret to getting rid of bad habits, limiting beliefs or a general lack of loving ourselves.

I am not a psychologist by any means, but I think it makes sense that the impact of earlier memories lies within our subconscious, and that both good and bad habits may well have their origin in those experiences. And if this is true, it makes sense to reconnect with past memories so we can understand them now as adults, and find a way to free ourselves.

How might we do this? Keeping a journal works well for some people: as they write about current situations and feelings, they discover things written earlier about similar situations that, had they not written them down, they might never have made the connection. Another idea is to think about the people we like and dislike, and why this is so. Perhaps someone we feel immediately connected to reminds us of a beloved family member who showed us unconditional love, while someone to whom we feel instant revulsion might be calling up subconscious memories of abuse or feeling taken advantage of.

The goal here is not to fan old hurts into flame, but to look calmly and without judgment at the things that have made us who we are today. If the past holds memories of grace and strength, our response should be one of profound gratitude. And if the past holds disappointments or hurts, then forgiveness is essential. Holding on to old injuries is its own kind of prison for us, never for the offending person. And the simple truth about forgiveness is this: until we forgive from the heart, we are harboring the illusion that our past could have been any different, that by holding our resentment, we can refashion the past into some other story. Clearly, we cannot. Accepting that simple truth can often be the key turning in the lock of our prison door.

There may be beliefs from our “past life” that we are still laboring under but feel a need to surrender because they do not serve our highest good. Remembering the past and finding connections to the present is useful even if we can’t find obvious connections at first. Sometimes that comes later. Regardless, we can make the most of our past by learning from those significant events the critical lessons of forgiveness, compassion, and gratitude. We will come to see that, ultimately, God is not found in our past. He is available to us only in the present. And it is precisely the present where God most needs us to be, to bring healing and miracles to a world that is so often trapped in past hurts, unable to forgive and move forward.

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The Next Step Is….??

Our two congregations are essentially on the same path of discerning what it is we are called next to accomplish for the Reign of God through our ministry. GSJ spent an entire calendar year in a formalized discernment process and HR begins a similar process in October. What strikes me as absolutely critical for both congregations is to move beyond the daydreaming into taking concrete steps toward the goals we come to perceive and embrace. Taking action, moving forward on our desires–these things act as fuel for our larger vision, propelling us toward new horizons. We need concrete, measurable things to strive for because without those things we stagnate and become stuck in ruts of habit. We often don’t know what to do next. Goals are the dreams that we are willing to work for and toward, and when we set goals, we take responsibility for our individual lives as well as the corporate life we share. God has planted visions and dreams in our hearts, so it’s important that we wholeheartedly devote ourselves to these aspirations. Even if we only take the smallest steps toward achieving our ambitions, it is vital that we actively engage in the pursuit of our goals, rather than just daydreaming about them. This is what having a purpose-driven church is all about!

When we pray and work to achieve clear and quantifiable goals, our choices and actions take on new significance. Consciously creating our goals based on the voice of God that is constantly speaking to each one of us can help ensure that the success we seek is attainable and that they serve God first and foremost. Our plan must be conceivable, tangible, and measurable. If we cannot visualize our goal in some detail or believe that we can realize them, we won’t really commit to the goals or the necessary steps needed to achieve them. That’s why as we develop a strong sense of mission and develop specific goals, they need to be clear and they need to make us feel emotionally attached to them. This is also the reason companies and other organizations write down and even publish their goals: putting them into words keeps the intentions fresh in our hearts and minds and reminds us of our moral purpose.

As we make progress toward realizing our goals we will find satisfaction in knowing we were simply doing our job as servants of Our God, as sisters and brothers of Jesus. And when we find ourselves stuck or uncertain how to proceed, we can together examine ways in which we can revise our strategies so our understanding of God’s vision can be made manifest.

In coming months, we will together begin creating goals for our church; we will begin creating a future by consciously engaging in the work of making our destiny come to life. When we choose our goals using our head and our heart, we take the first step in manifesting what God wants from us. In effect what we are saying to God is that we stand ready to work for the granting of our own wishes in line with God’s dream of who and what we are to become.

So, having said all that, what I need right now from each of you reading this is PRAYER. Pray for the unfolding of our future according to God’s design. Reach out to those who have fallen out of the habit of being part of our community of faith. Invite people to come share breakfast and worship with us. In all the surveys of church membership done in this country in the past decade, 90% of active church members say they became involved because of a personal connection to someone else in the congregation. That is significant! So, pray for the courage to be bold and talk to someone about who we are and how God is engaging us in the process of building the Kingdom.

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Choo Choo Theology

People are sometimes like trains, often making unscheduled stops along the way, but always arriving at the destination God always intended. In an era when the railroads were feverishly laying new track and linking the country together, people’s imaginations were stoked. The mere idea of taking a ride on a luxury train evoked a sense of freedom and adventure. One of my favorite authors, Miss Eudora Welty, writes that it just such a ride on a train that gave her an insight that changed her life forever. She was a young girl riding cross country, and as she looked out the window, she thought how delightful it was that the world was passing her by. And in an epiphany, she realized that the world wasn’t passing her by, it was she who was passing the world by. That flash of reality caused her to embrace a maturity as well as a choice to never take life for granted.

Trains are like people in that they must always arrive at their destinations. They make scheduled and unscheduled stops along the way and move at their different speeds. Some trains can travel for days on end, mindful of only one destination; others go from stop to stop seemingly without purpose. The route and purpose of either can change as the years go by.

We’ve been looking at the process of forgiveness in our Sunday messages, and that, too, is one of the destinations God wants each of us to reach. Our lives stretch out in front and behind us like train tracks, and the way we choose to live our life, the goals and principles we choose to believe in, the people we allow into our lives, our willingness to be agents of reconciliation–all these things are helping determine how we get to our ultimate destination. And because we are the engineer of our own train, we have the freedom to find new routes, to choose new places to make a stop, or even to choose to stop for refueling or to rest in the glow of a place where we find contentment. Some days we prefer to fly through our lives as if we were the high-speed TGV in France; other days we are like riding the L, taking the same routes over and over.

If we feel something is missing as we move from station to station, it might be the still, quiet voice of God trying to get us to explore other routes. Perhaps God is telling us to slow down and not be so “destination oriented.” Or maybe God is trying to get us to experience this life more as an adventure rather than a ride that merely gets us where we want to go. Changing our route–getting us off the typical beaten path of our life– can sometimes give us a chance to get back on the right track. Our God is full of surprises, and we may even discover that something new, the very thing we’ve been waiting for, is just around the bend.

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Forgiveness…again

I believe 100% that Jesus came to us to free us from everything that binds us, every one of our limitations so that we can live in the freedom of God’s children. To do that we first of all need to come to grips with the idea of forgiveness, because unless and until we learn to truly forgive, we will continue to drag those chains around our feet, unable to move forward.
The good news is that God always gives us a choice: we can either get caught up in the cycle of hurt or we can stand up and break the cycle of hurt. We can choose to learn how to deal with hurts and offenses in a constructive, healthy, Christian way. We all get offended, but there is a healthy way of dealing with it and then there are unhealthy ways of staying trapped in the offense. It’s like falling into a pit and choosing to stay there, or like losing electricity in the house and choosing to remain there even though the house next door has electricity and the neighbor has invited you in. There are people who are stuck in an offense that happened 10 or 20 years ago, and if you get them to talk about it, it’s like it happened just yesterday! These are the ones in need of embracing the grace that invites them to move forward instead of clinging to past hurts.
If we get stuck in hurt and woundedness, we can get to the point where we become bitter and that bitterness colors every part of our lives. Holding onto the hurt has the power to poison our relationships with God and others, but it also kills our passion to serve others as we are called to do. This is the resentment that can kill marriages, ministries, family relationships and whole congregations.

Today’s Gospel reading is all about dealing with offenses and offenders in positive ways before they evolve into the poison of woundedness and bitterness. Now, you and I know that wherever there are two or more people, there will always be issues, there will always be occasions where someone is offended by someone else. And when that happens, we have a choice. Will we allow our pride to dominate and withhold forgiveness? Will we allow some minor event to derail us and throw us into a frenzy? Or will we find a gracious and grace-filled way to forgive and move forward? What does Jesus expect us to do?

Before we delve into Jesus’ instructions on how to reconcile with others, we should take a look at his idea of forgiveness. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches the disciples about forgiveness: He says, if a person offends us and they come to us and apologize that we should forgive them—even if they offend us 7 times in a day, which is the Hebrew way of saying an unlimited amount of times. The disciples are dumbfounded: “Increase our faith, Lord,” they say, because they couldn’t imagine how that kind of forgiveness could even come about.

And so Jesus continued: if you have just a little faith you could tell a mulberry tree to transplant itself into the ocean and it would. If you’ve ever attempted to rid yourself of a mulberry tree, you know something of how tenaciously they dig their roots into the ground, so this saying of Jesus is even more profound once we realize what he’s trying to teach. In connection with the earlier teaching on forgiveness, what Jesus is saying that when we refuse to forgive, when we allow woundedness and bitterness to grow within us, they become an intricate part of our lives, twisting up inside our hearts so much so that they become inseparable from us and they eat away at our peace of soul and our lives.

But as frightening as that image is, the good news is that Jesus is saying with a little faith, it will be possible for us to actually forgive—even though it may appear difficult in the heat of the moment. With a tiny little bit of faith we can get rid of the bitterness and the woundedness because we always have a choice, and we can choose to stop the cycle of hurt. The first step is to forgive and once we have forgiven the offense then we can seek full reconciliation with the one who has hurt us. And since this Gospel reading is actually a practical lesson, it helps to review the steps Jesus recommends to us as we attempt to move forward in faith. What kind of faith are we called to have anyway?
First of all, Jesus asks that we have faith in our sister or brother. We aren’t to wait until she or he comes to us, we are to take the initiative. It is always possible that the offending person doesn’t even know they’ve offended us. So we are called to give them the benefit of the doubt, to have a little faith in them as human beings and realize that they, like us, may have hurt without intending to do so. Calmly and gently sharing our experience of hurt allows them the opportunity to see our feelings of injury and gives them a graceful opportunity to apologize.
If the offense does not stop; if the relationship becomes hostile, we need to take it one step further, Jesus suggests. We need to engage the wisdom of our Christian sisters and brothers as they act as mediators for the relationship. Think of this as a kind of “counseling” but it is not limited to individuals since it might be appropriate and applicable for entire church congregations. Of course, it would take all parties to agree on this method and if one party refuses to see a counselor or if they refuse to reconcile, then Jesus asks us to take the matter to the larger community.
Instead of allowing people to fall by the wayside and drift out of relationship, we are called as a congregation to keep reaching out to them in a reconciliatory manner. This is the third step and it is valid even if they refuse to reconcile as we continually reach out to them.
This is at least the spirit in which I understand Jesus’ words: “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In the past, we have been quick to excommunicate or ostracize or shun such people, but this is not what Jesus is saying. To let them be to us as a Gentile (non-believer) means that we need to reach out to them as we are called to reach out to all Gentiles (non-believers)—meaning we are not to give up on them. That’s the essence of the Great Commission (Mat 28:19ff).

Jesus reminds us in today’s reading that offenses will happen–even in church. But today He is asking us to have a little faith in the power of forgiveness to bring healing and reconciliation to our lives, our relationships, and our churches. Jesus believes in us; he believes that we can do this. That’s why he said that it takes the faith of a tiny mustard seed…literally it takes this much faith. (Show them a tiny seed.) I invite you to consider this invitation to forgive and to apply the three step approach recommended by Jesus, and if we do decide to accept His advice we can become powerful reconcilers in our churches and in our communities. And as we do, we will experience the power of God in our midst–the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.

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Crappy Parable

This is the gospel reading that I have always struggled with because it is ridiculously unfair and it makes me angry every time I read it or hear it proclaimed or even think about it! By anyone’s standards, this gospel reading isn’t fair and most of you are probably like me in having an issue with it.
Let’s face it, following Jesus isn’t necessarily fun. It’s certainly not easy very often either. There’s a lot expected of us, and just when we go that extra mile for the sake of God’s Reign, thinking that now we’ve earned a vacation in Tahiti, we find out that is not the case. We don’t even get to rest! We just have to keep going, and the more numerous our particular gifts are, the more God seems to want from us in each of those areas of giftedness. Sure, there are some rewards along the way, but by and large, it’s hard work. And we know that the absolute best we can hope for is to hear God say at the end of it all, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
If I’m honest, I have to confess that I’d frankly like more than that. A standing ovation from the hosts of Heaven would be nice. Heartfelt congratulations from all the Catholic priests who criticized and condemned me for trying to hold the Church accountable as a Servant of the People of God would be delightful. And would it kill God to just put his arm around me and fawn over me for a minute, thanking me for all I did to establish His Kingdom?? Maybe we don’t need all that, but I think many would appreciate a little extra acknowledgement, especially over and above those who weren’t as good Christians as us, like those who came to it later in life, or those who didn’t seem to take it as seriously as we did. My little daydream is God looking a lot like my grandfather, Jack who passed 35 years ago, with his thinning hair and that boyish twinkle in his blue eyes, and his gruff voice saying, “You did good, kid. You cultivated the garden just like I taught you.” And I would be able to take that accolade and know that it was meant for me alone, for what I did on my own without anyone else.
But apparently, that’s not how it’s going to be, at least, that’s not the picture today’s gospel gives us. Instead we’re told a story that basically boils down to “You did your job, nothing more, nothing less, and here’s the agreed-upon wage for it, and oh-by-the-way I’m giving the same wage to a bunch of people who didn’t work nearly as hard as you. See you tomorrow, bright and early, so we can do this again.”
No wonder this parable annoys me! It is so unfair….and that leaves me in a pickle because I wonder, how do I stand up today and preach on the grace of God in such a context?? Part of the answer is that grace is never fair, if it were, I wouldn’t have received more than my fair share of it. 
Today’s gospel reading is one of those lessons that is not to be taken as a literal way to do business: it’s a metaphor for the Kingdom of God. So what is the kingdom of heaven like?
The kingdom of heaven is like the landowner who personally gets up very early in the morning and goes into the marketplace to hire day laborers. He doesn’t consider this task beneath him; he doesn’t delegate it to a foreman. He personally picks those whom he believes can handle a hard day’s work in the scorching heat. These are the strong, the gifted, the skilled, and he gives them work according to their abilities, in exchange for a living wage. And he takes them back to his vineyard, and he puts them to work. But even with all their strength and vigor, the job is too big for them. So the landowner sees this and again goes personally into the marketplace three hours later. By now most of the strongest workers have already been hired, by him or by someone else, and those who are left aren’t quite as sturdy. Maybe a little older, or too young and untested, but still decent enough workers. So he hires them for the mysterious “whatever is right” wage. I imagine these folks figure it was the best offer they were bound to get, and even if it was less then optimal, it would probably be close to a living wage. Maybe if they prove themselves to this landowner today, he’ll hire them as first picks tomorrow and they can make up the difference. So they go.
They join the first workers in the vineyard. Those who have already been there for three hours are probably grateful for the help, and welcome the newcomers. But even still, the harvest is too much for them. So the landowner goes out again.
Now it’s noontime. No one is coming to the marketplace to hire workers; the day’s half gone. What’s left are those too old or infirm to be much good to anyone as laborers. Or maybe there’s something else about them that the other landowners didn’t like: the color of their skin or their accents. Maybe some of them had household duties that had to be seen to, and simply couldn’t get to the marketplace earlier, but were nonetheless considered lazy and no good, unhireable. But they’re clinging to the hope that someone, anyone, will hire them, and the landowner does just that. And these workers, so desperate for any lifeline to feed their families, probably figure half a day’s wage is better than nothing. It won’t keep them from starving, but it might delay the inevitable by a few days. So they go.
But even with these workers, the harvest is too big. Or maybe the landowner just knows too well the desperate straits of the people standing in the marketplace. So he does the unprecedented: he goes back at three o’clock (again, personally) and hires what’s there. These folks probably weren’t there at noon. I think now we’re past the honest, hard workers trapped by age, health, or circumstance and we’re beginning to see a more unsavory character. I imagine most of these guys had no good reason for not being there earlier; they just hadn’t bothered to show up. They were the completely down and out, believed by everyone—including themselves—to be worthless deadbeats, and they’re just going through the motions of trying to find work. But the landowner sees them and says, I believe you’re capable of honest labor. Come with me and I will pay you what is fair. He offers these people something no one else has ever offered them before: a chance. And they take it.
And two hours later, just an hour before the workday’s end, the landowner again personally seeks out workers for his vineyard. Surely he’s not expecting these folks to make much difference in the harvest; the fact that there’s only an hour left, and the fact that no one who is serious about working is still standing around idle at that time of day guarantee that these guys aren’t going to get much done. I wonder who these folks are. It’s hard to imagine a more unsavory lot than the three o’clock crowd. For all they claim that they’re still there because no one’s hired them, we know that had they been there earlier, they would have been hired by this landowner. I think these are the people who have given up. They don’t even bother to show up until they know they’re not going to get hired. They’re not even trying to survive. They’re so far gone that a single hour in the vineyard will probably exhaust them, and they wonder, why bother? After all, they’re just waiting to die. But the landowner believes in them, and gives them a task, and promises them a reward for it. The landowner sees a value in them that they don’t even recognize themselves, and he tells them to go. And probably not even understanding why, they do.
You already know the surprise ending: that the walking corpses of the five o’clock crowd are given equal compensation for their labor as the strong vigorous six a.m.’ers, as well as everyone in between. Because this is not a business model where a day’s wage is worth a day’s labor; this is the kingdom of heaven where God seeks out those who need him, which is everyone, calls them according to their ability, and rewards them according to their need. And when it comes right down to it, we all have the same need. We all need God’s mercy and grace, because no wage is a truly living wage without it.
Were you hired at six this morning? That’s great! Well done, good and faithful servant. But what about yesterday? What about tomorrow? Have you been and will you always be capable of a full day’s work? Are you really confident about this? If you can’t relate to the five o’clockers, then think about the nine o’clockers, or the three o’clockers, or the nooners. Remember that God’s not fair. He doesn’t give us what we deserve, but rather what we need for our highest good. And thank God for that.

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No More Excuses!!!

As a teacher, I hear all kinds of excuses on a regular basis. Excuses as to why a student didn’t do his homework, why a student failed her exam, and why it just wasn’t possible to study because of hectic work schedules. Parents are even worse than the kids. My son has allergies and that’s why he sleeps in your class. Our daughter has to have tests read to her because she can’t stay focused enough to read the test questions on her own. My kid thinks you’re picking on him and that’s why he’s failing school. This is part of school culture in recent years and it’s part of our larger North American culture as well.
In fact, blaming others for our problems is at epidemic proportions because people don’t want to feel responsible for anything anymore. Instead, they pass the buck and try to deflect the attention away from themselves by pointing at someone or something else. Human genetics makes a great scapegoat: “I’m overweight because my mother was overweight, and I inherited her slow metabolism.” “I have a drinking problem because my parents were alcoholics.” Then there’s our environment as the scapegoat. “I’m in a dead-end job because I never had the opportunity to get an education.” “I can’t worry about donating to the food bank because I can barely pay my own bills.” “I can steal office supplies from my company because everyone else is doing it, and they’re underpaying me anyway.” “I don’t have to correct the store clerk who forgot to ring up some merchandise but bagged it for me anyway, because they’re a big store with big markups, and they can afford to lose a little inventory.” “I’m unhappy in my life because people always take advantage of me.”
I’m not sure if we really believe these excuses or if we’re just trying to make someone else feel sorry for us—but either way, we hide behind them and blame them for our shortcomings, and we absolve ourselves from any responsibility for changing our situation, because after all, we’re only victims of our circumstances. I suspect that the reason we keep repeating these excuses is because we know deep down they are not true.
In our first reading today, God, through the prophet Ezekiel, attempts to restore Israel to its former glory. The people have suffered a tremendous blow—their land has been conquered and they have been carried off to the land of their conquerors to live as exiles. Their faith in God was challenged and they came to the conclusion that God was punishing them. But they also refused to believe that they had done anything bad enough to deserve this amount of suffering. So they remembered that when he gave them the ten commandments God had said that he would punish children for the iniquity of their parents to the third and fourth generation (Deuteronomy 5:9), and figured that that must be what was happening. They weren’t responsible for their own situation; it was their ancestors’ fault.
Through Ezekiel God shows them that this is not the case. Yes, their ancestors sinned; they made some poor decisions and intermingled with pagan neighbors, and now the descendants are dealing with the natural consequences of those choices. But that was not an excuse for continued resistance to God. And while it’s true that children often suffer for bad decisions made by their parents and that sometimes genetics and environment can contribute to disposing kids to certain behaviors, ultimately each of us makes our own choices. The choice to continue in the dysfunction is often the easier path; it’s what we know best. But we can learn other ways and other behaviors; we don’t have to continue living the patterns we were taught. But somehow the idea of blaming others is easier to grasp than actually facing the problem.
Another way of saying it is this: your past doesn’t own you; you do have choices. For good or for ill, what’s past is past, and what matters is what you do now. As Ezekiel declares in verse 31, “Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.”
That happens to be darned good advice for the sons in the parable we hear in Matthew today. Both of them made a statement about their future actions; one said no, I won’t do what you want, and the other said yes, of course I’ll obey. But when it came time to act, neither one allowed their past to dictate their present. The one who said ‘no’ actually said ‘yes,’ and the one who said ‘yes’ actually said ‘no’ by his actions. In both cases, even though their past didn’t dictate their present, their present did shape their future. The one who acted in obedience did the will of his father, and was rewarded for it. The one who acted in disobedience, even though he’d told his father what he’d wanted to hear, was made lower in God’s sight.
Our environment obviously has an influence on our thoughts and actions. But God tells us that we do have choices, and our choices matter. It doesn’t matter what’s popular and prevalent in our culture and society; what matters is what God is calling us to do, and how we respond to that call. Is an obedient response going to be unpopular? Possibly. Will it be difficult? Possibly. Are those legitimate excuses for acting in disobedience? Absolutely not. The bottom line, in Jesus’ explanation to the chief priests and elders—and probably to anyone else who will listen—is that we can no longer make excuses because of birth or background or culture. If you hear anything this morning hear this: all that matters is who we are and whose we are. We are free because we belong to Christ. We are no longer trapped in a predetermined life because our parents were in debt or drank or gave us everything we asked for or didn’t hug us enough as children. The bad news is that we can no longer use them or our culture or society or anything else as an excuse for our choices.
One of the things that often confounds us as Christians is whether what we believe is more important than what we do, or whether what we do is more important than what we believe. Both are important because what we believe actually changes who we are; the choices we make, the things we do naturally flow from the core of our identity. We are called to be in covenant with God. We are called to be held accountable to God’s standards. We are called to confess our willful sins and to “screw our heads on right”, the meaning of the Greek word for conversion.
The reality is that we sometimes have to accept the consequences of bad choices—our own and those of others. But those bad choices don’t define us. We live in an environment that is sometimes hostile to Christian discipleship and being a servant after the example of Jesus. But that environment doesn’t hold us back from doing what’s right. We’re called to follow the one who gave his life for us, a call that seems impossible to follow. But the one who calls us also is with us and helps us to meet that call. “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.” (Ezekiel 18::32)
So, NO MORE EXCUSES! Seriously, NO MORE!

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