Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jesus' bottom line

Proper 29-A;Nov. 23, 2008

St. Paul’s

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24;Psalm 95:1-7a

Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Next Sunday is the First Sunday in Advent. This is Thanksgiving week. Christmas decorations are being hawked – rather frenetically – in the stores. No matter how old we are or how many times we pass through the seasons, it is always a surprise and a mark of how time itself seems to accelerate year by year. We close down yet another year in the church cycle. This is the Sunday of Christ the King. This is a Sunday of apocalypse, of mystery, of judgment.

Jesus completes his big trilogy today. Two weeks ago, with the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, we were warned to be ready, to keep alert, to keep our wicks trimmed and our lamps full. Last week we were warned to invest – that the master would come to us demanding an accounting of what we had done with what we had been given. Both of those stories took us off guard a bit – ready for what? Invest – how? What an appropriate story last week’s was for today’s economic market: just what is a prudent investment in volatile times? Just what does the master expect from us? Today we find out.

Today we complete our year’s readings of the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus tells of the final judgment. This is Jesus’ last teaching story before he is crucified. This is the story of the King, Christ the King returning to earth. This Shepherd divides the sheep from the goats, the ones who got it from the ones who didn’t, the ones who invested wisely from the ones who just buried their treasure, and their hearts and their heads, in the sand. This is Jesus’ story of the Last Judgment, and we are held accountable.

So what is it that Jesus wants us, his followers, to do? Are we supposed to say the Lord's Prayer every morning when we get up? Read the Bible cover to cover every three years? Go to church every week, take communion, teach, preach, evangelize? Bring people to church? Increase our faith or increase our pledge? What does it mean to act like Jesus? To set ourselves up as the judge of what is Christian and what is not Christian for other people?

I was told a story about a group of Christians who had come to the final judgment, they were gathered as a great crowd outside the gates of Heaven. They were joyful in their praise of the mighty God they serve. The air was full of loud alleluias, shouts of praise, Praise the Lord! The joy was intoxicating and growing louder and louder as the gatekeeper came down to the gate directed by the King of Heaven himself, King Jesus. As the Gate keeper approached in one direction a group of known sinners came in from behind and were first to come through the gate and then the shouts of joy suddenly and joltingly stopped and from somewhere within the crowd of the joyous good and pious alleluia-shouting people came a loud protest. "Who do they think they are? Coming in here like that!" The Gate of Heaven slammed shut with a mighty crash leaving the crowd on the outside.

That is what this last and final story that Jesus tells is about. Have you fed the hungry? Have you given water to the thirsty? Have you given shelter to the homeless, clothing to the needy? Have you visited the sick? the prisoner? Just what have you done?

This is what the story of the bridesmaids is pointing to – we are supposed to be ready when someone comes to us needing something important. This is how we are to invest – and not merely to invest in a modest way – giving a little here, a little there, skimming off the top so our own pot is not diminished. The master expects us to take all the abundance we have been given and to take big risks: to give profusely, abundantly, extravagantly to those in need.

The king who comes on this day isn’t interested in the niceties of social behavior, is not interested in how well we provide for ourselves, take care of ourselves, feel sorry for ourselves. The king cares only about the bottom line, and this is it: the hungry, the thirsty, the needy, the imprisoned, the sick. What have we done for them, with what we have been given?

Look: God has been good to us. We have blessings in abundance, and at the last judgment we will be called to account for how we have invested these blessings. Were you ready, Jesus will ask. What risks have you taken?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Risk-taking in; prudence out

Proper 28 A; Nov. 16, 2008

St. Paul’s

Judges 4:1-7; Psalm 123

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Times are bad.

Times are bad in ancient Israel. The people are living in the Promised Land, delivered there by Moses and Joshua, brought there by God, but the people are not living up to the promise. They can’t get it together. Enemies are attacking. Leaders falter and fail. The people live in hardship and difficulty.

Sound familiar? Times are bad these days, too, even for us living in our own nation blessed with abundant resources – our own “Promised Land.” With mortgages failing, banks closing, jobs ending, drug deals and shootings outside our homes – times are bad. We have elected leaders, who we hope will get us out of this morass – I was thrilled to hear the cheer go up in the dining room the day after the election. By all measures, everyone who comes to eat at St. Paul’s Table is at the bottom of society, working hard in a difficult world just to make ends meet, and for the cheer to erupt there – terrific! That is a sign of real hope.

But you know what? Times are still bad. When will they ever end? What is the way out?

I’m going to let you in on a secret: God has other ideas about how the world is supposed to work. That is a secret, because it gets so covered up by so much other stuff: by greed, violence, power, exploitation, lies, jealousy, selfishness. Deep down in yourself, you know this secret, and you know what covers it up in your life, too. You know what darkness prevents you from seeing what God intends for you and for our world.

Paul does not have to remind the people in Thessalonica that times are bad. “You do not need to have anything written to you,” he writes. The people in Thessalonica know the precariousness of existence, how they delude themselves that they live in peace and security, when the all too real fear is of sudden destruction, of a thief in the night, of no escape. The people of Thessalonica know that the world they live in is dark indeed.

So what do we make of this parable from the 25th chapter of Matthew? This strange and difficult parable where God seems to be playing the part of a cruel and dictatorial tyrant, seemingly as unforgiving of poor financial management as any banker coming down hard on someone who cannot pay her mortgage?

As we try to make sense of this complicated and weird story, let us remember that the gospels, although accounts of the life of Jesus, were written down by people some time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. They were written down by people living in the joy and knowledge and reality of Easter – they are people of the resurrection, for sure. But they were living in bad times. The community who put together the Gospel of Matthew were city dwellers, probably from Antioch, a densely populated city, full of poor people; a cosmopolitan and diverse city, full of people from across the world – people of different cultures and languages, people crowded into a city where there is not enough good housing, not enough work to keep enough food on the table. The current reality of the world does NOT work for them. Why, then, do they still believe in Jesus? In the resurrection? In the Good News? Why do the people Paul writes to in Thessalonica, whom he rightly describes as knowing they have darkness all around them, believe him when he calls them children of the light, children of the day, people who are encouraged and hopeful and alert?

The Bible is written by and for people for whom times are as bad as can be imagined; why, then, are they people of hope?

The Bible is written by and for people who know that if they play the game by the rules the world sets down, they will lose, big time. That’s what this strange parable is about. The slaves do the bidding of the master, and they invest his money by the ways of the world. Some of the slaves are better investors than others; one is extraordinarily prudent, and just buries the money, keeps it just safe enough to return it to the master in tact. This cautious slave even has the courage to confront the master, to call this cruel system for the harsh and fear-mongering system it is. Yet the prudent slave, the one we think did safe thing with the master’s money, the one who took no risks, is called worthless and thrown into the outer darkness. What did the prudent slave forget? What did the prudent slave do wrong?

The prudent slave believed the world. The prudent slave believed he had to hide the money, to hoard it in darkness. The prudent slave believed there was no risk worth taking, that the best he could do was come out even. The prudent slave got caught up in the status quo; the prudent slave followed the rules of the world of scarcity and fear. The prudent slave forgot that God was the God of abundance. Like the bridesmaids in last week’s reading, who forgot to get the oil from the overflowing, never-ending source, the prudent slave thought there was only so much and no more. The prudent slave didn’t get the memo. Wake up. Come out of the darkness. Be alert.

This church, this tiny community, is a place of light. Just by being here we resist the darkness around us, protected, like St. Paul says, by the breastplate of faith and love. We wear our helmet of hope proudly. God has given us a treasure that we are investing boldly, in contrast to the rest of the world that tells us we should move. We should not be here, they say. We should forget the corner of Warren and Pleasant. We should have a church where the nice people live in a nice neighborhood.

But no: like the people who first heard the Gospel of Matthew, here we are, in the only place where that Gospel makes sense. It is only when we risk all that we have, when we invest all that we have, when we become who God truly wants us to be, that we know God’s abundance. This place, which the “powers that be” have abandoned and buried and forgotten, is where God’s light shines. Well done, God says, to us; well done. Now, do more.

Watching for the Word and Wisdom of God

Proper 27-A; Nov. 9, 2008
St. Paul’s
Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16; Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

When Jesus tells us a parable, it is upsetting. When Jesus tells us a parable, he is shaking up the order of the story. We’re in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, for crying out loud. The real story is the Easter story, or rather the march to Jerusalem, the passion, the cross, the death, the resurrection. That is the Jesus story, the big narrative of Christianity. When Jesus throws us these curve balls of parables, it shakes us all up. Gets us off track, off balance, off message.


Unless we’re not really paying attention to what the story is really about.

You have to admit that today’s parable of 10 bridesmaids is a little odd. It says nothing about wedding customs of 1st century Palestine, or of the ancient Near East – this is not a story drawn from fact.
Yet. This story does come from the end of Jesus’ ministry. This 25th chapter of Matthew contains three important, big stories. They are full of urgency – Jesus is pulling out all the stops to get our attention – to pull what he is doing down to our level. God is acting in history, yes – but God is also acting in history down here, among the ordinary people of this world.

So there are three important, career-topping parables Jesus tells – this one today, and the next two over the next two weeks – and the message for this one is … what?

Be prepared. Be watchful. Keep awake. Open your eyes. Figure out what is going on. Be wise.
Wisdom: it’s been around a long time – Wisdom was present at the creation. Wisdom is a characteristic of the Word of God, of the power of creation. The creation is full of Wisdom; it’s been there from the beginning. But we have to pay attention to find this Wisdom. We have to rise early. We have to be vigilant. We have to focus our minds and our hearts. That’s discernment. We have to be prepared, if we are to find the Wisdom of God.

There is a lot going on in the world, and it is easy to be distracted. Televisions, radios, Ipods, billboards, train whistles, sirens, telephones, chatter, bells, whistles – not to mention falling stock markets, collapsing housing values, foreclosures, jobs lost, bills unpaid – the whole litany of anxieties and worries. This is the world of business as usual, where the business of business tries to rule our lives. Where the dominant powers of greed and fear and violence try to fill our every waking hour.

It wasn’t all that different for the people Jesus was trying to reach, the people to whom Jesus first told this parable of the bridesmaids. Keep awake! He said. Be watchful. Be vigilant. The world will lull you to sleep, and now, right now, you need to pay attention to what is going on. You need to discern the movement of God in these times. You need to seek that ancient Wisdom of God, and it cannot be found if you doze off, or if you’re distracted by all this other stuff.

It’s kind of easy to read these parables of Jesus as being about some far off distant time, about God coming to reign in the by-and-by. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians describes the “rapture,” the archangels’ call, the sound of the trumpet, meeting the Lord in the clouds. Is that what we are to be prepared for? Something terrible and mighty, but something far, far off?

I think when Jesus tells a parable, he is talking about something right close to home, right close to the here and now. Be watchful, bridesmaids, not for some far off, distant event, but for something that is happening right now. Keep awake, right now, for God is doing a new thing, right now. The world you live in – the world of 1st century Palestine – might be bad, you might be suffering under the Roman Empire, taxes outrageous, work unending – you might think those rich and powerful guys have the upper hand in your life – but think again: God is working here and now. God is doing a new thing, here and now. This is how you’re supposed to live in the here and now, Jesus says. Be vigilant. Stay awake. Pay attention. You don’t want to miss it. God is coming. God is here.

Occasionally, even in the world of politics, big things break through. I think the drone of politics can lull us to sleep, and cause us to think nothing will ever change. But occasionally, a big thing breaks through even there, and the election of Barack Obama is such a big thing. And in the context of this big thing, this parable of Jesus’ is for us. It forces us to ask: what is going on here? Where can we find the Wisdom of God in this great movement of the body politic? Be awake. Be vigilant. Where can we find the Wisdom of God in the movement of our lives?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea

Proper 26-A/All Saints

Nov. 2, 2008

St. Paul’s

Revelation 7:9-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Good morning, Saints!

Years ago, when Tim was sharing his church with a Pentecostal Holiness congregation, I was struck by the simplicity and directness of this way of greeting the congregation: Good morning, Saints!

It gets right to the point. And today, on this day when we remember All the Saints, we are making a new one: in a few minutes, Marilyn will be baptized.

All Saints Day is a time to look back: who are the saints in our lives? In our world? The first lesson asks, and answers that question for us:

"Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" … "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

It is this great chain of being, Marilyn, that you enter today. Saints who witness, to God’s great glory, and to great human tragedy. Saints who struggle for justice and for the freedom and dignity of every human being. Saints who resist Satan and all the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Saints who sing and dance, who weep and mourn. Saints who trust and love, who follow and obey, who pray and serve. Welcome, Marilyn. All the saints of God rejoice that you are with us here today.

Marilyn lives here in Brockton, but she comes to us from Nigeria. And soon she will be going back to Nigeria, for a little while, for a great celebration: Marilyn is about to be married – to an Anglican pastor. During coffee hour you can find out more of Marilyn’s story. But the important thing is that today, we are standing here for all of Marilyn’s beloved family. We are standing here for all the saints in Nigeria, who are cheering her on, and waiting for her to come to their congregation.

Another phrase popped into my mind reading these lessons: Word. Have you heard young people say that? It’s another way of saying, Yes! Sure! Right! Right on! Ain’t that the truth! Word!

St. Paul, in his letter to the brothers and sisters in Thessalonica, talks about the Word, and gives the saints kind of a blueprint for what this Word means for Christian living.

“You received the Word of God,” Paul says. The Word is not something you have to work to get. It is the freely given gift of God. And, Paul says, “You heard it from us.” We receive that gift of God’s Word from the lips of other people, people who have heard it before we have, people who have come into our lives in all sorts of ways – people, like the hymn says, who come to us in school, or in lanes or at sea, or in church or on trains or in shops or at tea. The Word always comes to us from others, from people who have been saints to us, and Word! We are the ones to give it to those who need to hear it. That’s what Paul means when he says that God’s Word is at work in us believers. No matter who we are, or what work we do, or how far we travel, or how simply we lead our lives, the Word is at work through us.

But: the Word of God can work through us only if we let it. The Word of God can’t be heard by others unless we proclaim it. The Word of God can’t be seen by others if we keep our doors closed. The Word of God can’t be felt by others if we think we have to pick and choose who we will tell it to, or who we will invite in – or if we don’t invite anybody in.

Saints! We are the Word we have received. Now, let us act like we believe it.

How much can we do? How much do we need?

Proper 25-A Oct. 26, 2008

St. Paul’s Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Psalm 90 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Matthew 22:34-46

In these recent days, with unimaginable sums of money being discussed, bandied about, lost, traded, borrowed, given, pledged – 700 billion dollars here, 250 million dollars there – I find myself frequently turning to the person next to me and asking, what IS money after all? Where does all this money come from? Is money real? Or is it all a shell game? Who can keep your eye on the ball?

The newspapers are full of stories of the anxieties of the times. Pieces of this huge financial puzzle seem to be crashing down around us – people are being thrown out of their homes, even if they pay their rent, because the people who own the houses are too much in debt to pay for their upkeep, or their taxes, or their mortgages. Far too many people, it seems, thought they could play the angles, rob Peter to pay Paul, keep this plate spinning while putting several others in motion at the same time, and now it is all crashing down like those jugglers we used to see on TV – when I was young, on shows like Ed Sullivan or Captain Kangaroo, back in the dark ages when simple things like that on TV amused us for hours.

This multi-tasking culture seems to have gotten a little out of hand, and people are beginning to notice the toll it is taking on us as individuals, and on us as a society. I’ve noticed several times recently, in the press, mention of studies that say people just can’t do more than one thing at a time. There are those terrible stories of young people sending text messages – this requires using two hands to type and look at the words you are typing on a tiny phone keyboard – while driving – and then losing control of their cars and crashing. Yet even talking on the phone while driving is distracting and dangerous. How often do people answer e-mail while talking on the phone, or students do homework while watching TV, downloading music, checking multiple facebook pages? Really, the scientists are telling us, it cannot be done. With all this stuff, this stimulation, these constant demands and interruptions, we lose concentration. Our brains and our bodies are not designed to work well with this frenzy of speed and stress. The way we are made, we can only focus on one or two things at a time. Multi-tasking does not make us more efficient: just the opposite. We are fragmented and unable to do what we are doing well. “As our minds fill with noise,” one scientist wrote, “the brain gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and gradually to anything,” inducing in us “a constant low level of panic and guilt.”[i]

The big international financial managers feel this; we feel this, even in our ordinary daily lives. Multi-tasking and its discontents are in the air we breathe.

Today’s gospel is for us:

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"

That question cuts through all the noise, doesn’t it? In the face of all that is around us, Teacher, all the confusion and crashing that affects even us little people here, what does God want us to do?

The Gospels present us with the picture of a changing world. The old understanding of faith in God – follow all the many laws, listen to the authorities like scribes and Pharisees – the ones who symbolically sat in Moses’ seat – is being challenged by this one particular teacher, this Jesus, who seems to embody in his person all the hope and good news and promise of God, the God who has been made known through the law and the prophets. Whom do we follow? We can hear the concern in the voices of the people: if we follow Jesus, do we have to abandon everything we have known about God up to now?

From the midst of all these questions and confusions and options and interpretations, Jesus breaks through with remarkable simplicity:

"`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

What Jesus is saying is, Keep your faith where it has always been: with God. As he spars with those religious leaders trying to entrap him into making some big mistake, he makes it clear that his faith is with God, and with the essentials that God has always, always, always been trying to get across to us. This is the big thing that everything hangs from. This is the start, the first, the banner headline screaming across the top of the newspaper:

Love God.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

Everything starts with this. Anything else is distraction, multi-tasking with no result, mere interruptions that take us away from giving ourselves fully to the God who loves us and wants us to love back, and wants us to love all these other people whom God loves, too. In this ever-widening circle of care and concern lies our treasure, our heart, our true home.

The newspaper article I read on the high cost of multi-tasking ends with this:

So the next time the phone rings and a good friend is on the line, try this trick: Sit on the couch. Focus on the conversation. Don’t jump up, no matter how much you feel the need to clean the kitchen. It seems weird, but stick with it. You, too, can learn the art of single-tasking.[ii]

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. You, too, can learn the art of single-tasking.

[i] “Multitasking can make you lose … um … focus” by Alina Tugend, The New York Times, Oct. 25, 2008, p. B7.

[ii] Ibid.