Thursday, December 14, 2006

And So This is Christmas...

In October 1971, John Lennon wrote and recorded (with Yoko Ono, the Plastic Ono Band, and the Harlem Community Choir) "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)", which is perhaps the best modern Christmas song. The secondary refrain of the song features the phrase, "War is over if you want it", a phrase most people of my generation didn't fully appreciate until recent years.

The song begins with the now classic phrase, "And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?"

Christmas is, among other things, an opportunity to review our lives and our ministries in the waning year, and to evaluate how faithful and effective we have been. It's an opportunity to celebrate the successes...whether strong spiritual growth, increased worship attendance, or facility improvements (all of which Jefferson church can celebrate this year).

It's also an opportunity to be honest about the imperative Jesus gave to us. That imperative is often summed up by many in Matthew 28:16-20, a wonderful passage which, frankly, needs to be "fleshed out" a bit in order to fully graps its meaning.

For me, this is where Matthew 25:31-46 comes into play. How do we make disciples? It's the mission of the Church, after all, and rightly so. How do we do it? What does it mean to make disciples?

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25.
"Truly, I say to you,
as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren,
you did it to me."

Faithfully making disciples (which is synonomous with faithfully being disciples) means, in some way, serving those to whom Jesus referred as "the least of these".

Who are "the least of these"? According to Jesus in Matthew 25, these are folks who are are hungry, who are thirsty, who need clothed, who are strangers and outcasts, who are in prison, who are poor. What are we doing for "the least of these"?

It seems to me that if we are not doing enough to meet their needs, which communicates to them the love God has for them, then we are failures. In the big picture...the "Kingdom picture" simply doesn't matter if strong spiritual growth, increased worship attendance, or facility improvements are present. These things don't matter to God; what matters is how we have communicated the love of God to "the least of these", because Jesus relates not to the affluent or the comfortable (as Matthew 25 makes clear), but to the outcast, the poor, the disinherited (to borrow Howard Thurman's wonderful terminology).

If we fail? Jesus says we get "eternal punishment". If we are faithful? "Eternal life". In fact, Jesus is pretty clear on this point, and doesn't leave us very much wiggle room. It's not just a matter of not doing evil; it's also a matter of actively doing good.

As commentators Ralph Earle and Walter Wessel state, "The judgment of the righteous is based not on an intellectual faith but on a faith that demands loving action toward others." Let me risk heresy: it may well be that despite our traditional evangelical appeals to salvation by grace through faith, that how faithful we are in serving "the least of these" determines our eternal destiny, at least in part.

I get so tired of American materialism, which absolutely infects the Church, especially in white suburbia (I don't know who coined the phrase "affluenza", but it's spot on correct). It infects the Church Universal, the United Methodist Church and Western PA Conference (I'm still waiting for that new church start in downtown Pittsburgh or rural Appalachia, as opposed to a wealthy white suburb...). We are just too comfortable.

I am tired of Charge Conference forms and statistical reports which ask for terribly mundane and ultimately meaningless details such as the amount congregations collected in loose change offering. That's silly. Even recording the number of people in Sunday School is ultimately pointless (with all due respect to my well-meaning colleagues who value that sort of information). What we should be held accountable for...particularly those of us in affluent the number of hungry people we fed...the number of children who recieved winter clothing...the number of inmates we visited at the county prison or the regional hospital or the local personal care home...and what we did to stand with those who suffer from racism, AIDS, or hate.

The Church has misplaced its priorities, and the world is suffering for it. May God have mercy upon us.

Thankfully, in this season of new life, miracles can still happen. Led by the Spirit, we can reclaim the mission, and begin to take Matthew 25 seriously. We can know penitence, forgiveness, and second chances...or third...or fourth. It's not too late to seek faithfulness. It's not too late for us to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" (as was said about Eleanor Roosevelt).

"And So This is Christmas, and what have we done?" John Lennon sang in 1971. May we search our hearts this holiday season and promise our Lord that at Christmas 2007, we will have a more faithful answer to that question.

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