Saturday, November 22, 2008
"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When someone found it, they hid it again, and then in their joy went and sold all they had and bought that field."
The season of Advent marks the beginning of a new church year. Our Scripture passage for this past year has been about discovering what we value in our lives. During this season of hope and anticipation, we will prayerfully and thoughtfully make a choice about our giving for the coming year. I would like to offer some thoughts on the spiritual values of giving that I hope you will consider.
When I was a child growing up in the Episcopal Church, I was taught about giving money to the church. The kids were given pledge envelopes just like the adults, only a bit smaller. I was 8 years old and selling newspapers on the street corners of Hermosa Beach, so my giving to the church was taken out of my earnings for the week. I am not sure how I arrived at the amount that I gave, but giving seemed to be an act of freedom for me.
You may ask why an 8 year old would experience freedom by placing a quarter in the plate at church each week. I have thought about this question a good deal over my life time and I have come to a place where I can offer a few observations.
I earned $1.00 to $2.50 per week selling the Daily Breeze, the L.A. Mirror, Examiner, and Times. I got a penny for the Daily Breeze and two pennies for the other papers. You can well imagine how long it took me to earn my weekly wage. I decided that no matter how much I earned, I would give $.25 per week to the church. This amount usually came out to be at least 10% of my earnings.
What I gave each Sunday was not much compared to what most of the adults in the congregation were pledging, but for me it was an act of freedom that brought me unspeakable joy. In giving money to God through the church that I could have spent on toys, candy, cookies, or ice cream, I experienced freedom from these things that might have otherwise claimed every penny I made.
My money represented time and effort and so I also committed myself to worshipping each Sunday, attending church school and singing in the choir which required a mid-week rehearsal. As I got older, I joined with other young people my age on Sunday evenings for fellowship and service. I learned that giving is about making choices and being faithful to the choices I make.
What I experienced and learned as a child has stayed with me throughout my life. There is a powerful spiritual freedom in offering ourselves in service to God. Making a commitment to pledge to our faith community is a sign of our devotion to God and God’s purpose.
But giving is about more than money. It is also about offering ourselves to regular worship each Sunday and finding ways to be of service. It is making choices about how we spend our time, talent, and resources for the spread of the Gospel that gives us joy and freedom.
Let us celebrate and embrace the freedom of Christ in the joyful giving of our selves, our souls and bodies, to the loving mission of God in the world.
God’s Peace, Freedom, and Joy in Giving,
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
This Sunday we will celebrate our parish feast day. Other churches are named after other saints like, Peter, Paul, and Mary (not the folk singing group), but we are named after the one whom we call God in the flesh, the Christ. We celebrate Christ as King on this special Sunday, but when we use the word, king, it is hard to imagine anything else, but the sort of royalty that sits or sat on the thrones of Spain, England, France and other European kingdoms.
A king is considered to be powerful with an army and navy and other military power at his command. The kings of old also claimed divine right as their source of authority, power, and rule. God was definitely on the side of the kings. If we go way back to the beginnings of human culture, kings were actually chosen and given authority by those they ruled in a ritual that seems rather strange to our modern eyes.
These early kings were chosen with the understanding that they would be sacrificed at some time in the future. Israel did not start out with kings, but were ruled by judges who were raised up by God to provide leadership for a given time and place, but were not considered to be kings.
The prophet Samuel warned the people of Israel against having a king. He said that, like the Gentiles, Israel’s kings would tax them and go take their sons to war. Israel’s decision to disregard Samuel resulted in their first of many kings, Saul. Saul was a warrior king and did rule like the Gentile kings.
What sort of King is Christ? Was his death at our hands simply the carrying out of this human ritual of making kings and queens and maybe even heads of state, the sacrificial victims of the people, the mob? Is Christ like all human royalty, exercising violence to keep the people he rules and the people he would conquer in check? How we answer this question is critical to our understanding God and God’s Christ.
The collect prayer for this week speaks to this question of the character of Christ the King.
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Christ as King is about restoring humanity and all creation according to the gracious, merciful, loving, forgiving will of God. The description of our current state of existence is powerful. We are divided and enslaved by sin. Sin, in fact, describes how we are divided and enslaved. Sin is about refusing God’s will and entering into a fatal attraction with others that is filled with envy, strife, and violence. We are divided and enslaved by our resentments and our rivalries with others and we don’t seem to be able to get out of the mess in which we find ourselves.
Many kings and nations have fought wars to “liberate” a captive people, but Christ the King rules with graciousness that frees us and unifies us without anyone being left out and without the use of violence. Violence to stop violence does not address the cause of our divisions and slavery, it only reminds us of how desperate we truly are for a new sort of king.
Our Gospel for this Sunday is a parable told by Jesus about the judgment of the nations during which people of these nations are separated into two categories: sheep and goats. The sheep are the ones who unknowingly render assistance to those who are afflicted by hunger, thirst, imprisonment, being a stranger in need of welcome, and nakedness. The goats are the ones who unknowingly miss every opportunity to assist those in such dire straits.
The goats and the sheep basically respond to the character Jesus calls “the Son of Man” and “the King” in the same way. It seems that this judging figure of a King/Son of Man has been residing in the humanity of those who were either helped or ignored. Even after being told that the King/Son of Man before whom they stood was in each and every one of the people they ignored, the goats claimed ignorance without any sense of regret. They simply did not see the King/Son of Man in the wretches around them.
This parable is not so much about a future historical judgment that ends in a clean and simple reward and punishment scene. Goats go to hell. Sheep go to heaven. It is Jesus’ way of stretching our imaginations to see God in each and every person. This belief is an important part of what is often called incarnational theology. The Incarnation or Christmas celebrates the coming of God in the flesh and blood of Jesus, but it also announces that all along God has been and will continue to be in the flesh and blood of humanity.
Jesus chose the term “Son of Man” for a good reason. It has several meanings including the judge of humanity, but it also says most clearly that the Son of Man is a generic for all created humanity. The ending of the parable goes like this:
“Then they (goats) also will answer, `Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' Then he will answer them, `Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."
Neither the sheep nor the goats recognized God’s presence in humanity, but the sheep, for some unknown reason, responded with compassion to those in need. This parable offers us an opportunity to change our way of looking at one another.
When did we forget that all human beings bear a burning bit of God within them? When did we forget that even our enemies are Christ-bearers. The old bumper sticker that reminds us to be careful driving near a young family’s car “Caution: Baby on Board” could be re-written to reflect God’s presence in all of us: “Caution: Christ on board!”
If we truly believe that God is incarnated (made flesh and blood) in creation, would we treat other people with more respect and dignity? Would we see the needs of others, especially our enemies, as an opportunity to serve God?
This parable is not a prediction of a future judgment, but of a very present judgment before the throne of Christ our King. Where is Christ’s throne? Jesus died on a cross that was his throne. He was put on the cross by the kings of this world who did what kings and heads of nations do—maintain the peace.
But the throne of the Christ is the cross and we come like the sheep and goats for judgment each and every day.
Since God is in each of us, especially those whom we believe to be the least of God’s family members—the poor, the hungry, the naked, the stranger, the imprisoned, and the thirsty we find his throne in each of them. God is not hiding from us. The King is at work as a servant to the goats who continue to miss God in themselves and others.
Finally, this parable invites us to the freedom of Christ the King. The liberation from the stuff that divides us into goats and sheep; rich and poor; hungry and satiated; thirsty and refreshed; naked and well-appointed; guards and prisoners; friends and enemies is an inside job as well as an outside job.
What God announced and accomplished in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus does not require one more human life to be lost. We are invited to unite without exception around the throne of Christ the King and finally see in each other the charity and compassion of God. That day will be the final Day of the Lord when the good shepherd calls us by name and gathers us together in peace.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Jesus said, "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability.
The “it” that Jesus is talking about is the Kingdom of Heaven, but for those of us who have invested money in the stock market through 401 K programs, we may quickly identify with the man going on a journey and leaving money for his slaves to manage.
We have certainly witnessed a great deal of anger and frustration being directed towards those in whose trust we placed our money.
For many of us, our investments are part of our retirement planning. Perhaps our parable might be seen differently if the slaves who did well in the investment strategies had not doubled their master’s money, but lost it all, save what the third slave buried for fear of losing it all and suffering the wrath of his master.
Then he went away.
I am like this guy. I put some of my money in an investment vehicle and have basically forgotten all about it—almost. Every year I do get a letter showing me how my investment is doing. In the beginning, I made very modest gains, but these were followed by several years of near zero growth or losses. I could say that my “slaves” have not done well by me.
The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, `Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, `Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, `Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
Now if my investment team had doubled my money, I would have to honestly report that I would be ecstatic. I would probably not ask too many questions about how they did it, but I would certainly do what the man in the parable did and give my investment team that doubled money to invest for even greater gains.
These successful traders were praised by their master for being “good and trustworthy slaves” and then were rewarded with the opportunity to make more money for their master. Being in charge of the wealth of the master was the reward and was called “the joy of your master.”
The story does not end here with a happy investor and joyful slaves going forth to double the fortune of the master. The unfinished business of the master is to deal with one of his slaves who did not even try to increase his master’s money.
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'
But his master replied, `You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.
So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' "
Do you think the master is unfair? Should the master have given this slave even more of his money to invest in hope that a second chance after a severe chastisement would result in a different outcome?
I am sure there may be some whose life’s savings and retirements have been adversely impacted by the actions of the complex realities of our economic system who would like to do what the master in this story did to the third slave.
The master is Jesus’ story some might suggest is God or Jesus who expects us to double God’s investment of wealth. Such an interpretation seems to only work if we get into some fairly complicated metaphorical gymnastics. We also might do well to consider that in most of Jesus’ parables, the people who come out as winners do not necessarily act in ways that are consistent with the values Jesus expressed in his teachings or demonstrated in his life and death.
The Kingdom of Heaven is what this parable is about, but it is the Kingdom as it is experienced in this age amidst the powerful and successful traders and the people whom they serve. The kingdom of heaven is cast out, like Jesus was cast out, by violent and wrathful human beings in service of a different god.
Without too much imagination, we might consider a different outcome to this parable. What if the successful traders were not so successful? What if instead of doubling the master’s money, they lost it all. How would the master deal with such slaves? Would the third slave who simply buried the master’s money be the hero in this parable?
In Matthew 11:12, we read a very interesting observation made by Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”
In the context of the parable of the talents this cryptic comment seems to suggest that the kingdom is the suffering victim of violence, not the successful traders in the wealth of the world.
The third slave demonstrates a knowledge of the master’s true character and speaks it even as the master condemns him to the outer darkness. If you recall from my previous reflections on the parables of the kingdom in Matthew, the outer darkness is reserved for Jesus and all of those who fail to live by the standards and ethics of this world.
This third slave says of the master: `Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.'
Where else would you hide something of value? The third slave renders unto his master what belongs to his master. The slave is motivated by fear, but it is fear that does not lead him to avoid the harsh treatment of his master. There seems to be a bit of a rebellious quality about this slave’s behavior. In the face of his great fear, the slave opts out of the threatening and violent world of the master and buries his wealth in the ground.
The third slave represents the Kingdom of Heaven as it is judged by the world. The master calls him a wicked, lazy, and worthless slave.
Do you really think God renders that judgment on anyone?
Consider the world of the master in the parable. Is this the world in which we live?
Is your value as a person tied to your ability and luck to create value for others?
Is failure to meet the demands of the world the final verdict of your value as a person?
Is our value subject to the shifting financial sands of the world wide economic system and its rules?
How are you like this third slave?
Could you defend this third slave before his master?
Why isn’t the Kingdom of Heaven embraced by the world as the answer to our prayers for peace, unity, and grace?
Will the Kingdom of Heaven continue to suffer violence at the hands of the violent?
The Kingdom comes back to us from the place to which it was cast, the outer darkness, from the cross and the tomb in the garden. St. Paul suggests that it comes like a “thief in the night.” Does the thief come to condemn or to bless; to give or to take away; to create or to destroy?
If you answer these questions, you may just have a sermon to preach on Sunday.
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Today is Tuesday November 4, 2008 at 11:00 AM.
I am getting ready to meet Madelyn for lunch and then we are both going to our polling place and cast our ballots. This is a very special day. By the time you receive this UPDATE, we will have a new president and vice-president elect and our nation will be called together to begin the work of love in service to our neighbors at home and abroad.
We have much to be thankful for and I pray that our gratitude for our life in this wonderful nation will issue in a renewed sense of commitment to the values of Jesus' Kingdom. I will be preaching at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in San Pedro this Sunday. It is their annual pledge Sunday. The Gospel text for preaching on stewardship may seem at first reading to require a real stretch of the text, but before I begin to reflect on these two questions of stewardship and the 5 wise and 5 foolish bridesmaids please read this text. In my reflection on the text I will be suggesting that the parable serves as a spiritual Rorschach Test. See if you can see how this might be true as you read.
Jesus said, "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, `Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, `No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, `Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, `Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
So how is the Kingdom of Heaven known in the telling of this parable?
Let me suggest that this parable is about how the Kingdom of Heaven was experienced by Jesus, Matthew’s community, and if we are open to Scripture, is how the Kingdom continues to be experienced today.
The Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus proclaimed was considered foolishness by the world into which he came and the ways of world were considered wise. The powerful and influential in this world were the wise ones. Caesar ruled, a kind of peace reigned, and learning this wisdom was required to fit into the party that Rome was throwing.
Paul speaks about this contrast between God’s wisdom and power in his letter to the church at Corinth (1:17-31):
17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart." 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength. 26 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
While our initial reading of Jesus parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids might suggest that those who prepared in advance for a delay in the coming of the bridegroom were the ones Jesus was commending to us as role models of watchfulness, I would invite you to consider the alternate view.
The foolish ones lived as if the bridegroom was coming immediately. There was a high expectation of the immediate return of Jesus after his resurrection, so the foolish Christians kept their lamps lit in heightened hope. The bridegroom who is described in the parable rejects these foolish ones and the wise bridesmaids refuse to share from their extra oil reserves leaving the foolish ones outside the party. The bridegroom hears them crying to be allowed into the party, but denies this request with this damning line: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
As Paul reminds us, the wise and powerful were unable to recognize God when God came to the world in the flesh and blood of Jesus. The bridegroom of Jesus’ story seems to represent the world that in wisdom and power rejects the Kingdom of Heaven.
As we consider stewardship, what are we to make of the symbol of oil and lamps contained in this parable? The oil allows the lamp to bring light into the world.
The light allows us to see a reality to which we may have previously been blind. Love is often connected to light. It is love that gives us a way of seeing God in our world and each other. Jesus reminds us that we will never really know when the Kingdom of Heaven will arrive. We are to watch by the light of God’s love and keep our lamps burning. In the Kingdom of Heaven there is no shortage of oil, or love, or life, or peace.
We are stewards of this unlimited foolish, powerless love of God. How will be share this love with others? What is the spiritual connection between this unlimited resource and our limited human resources? We are called by the love of God to be watchful and expectant. We are called to perhaps appear foolish and powerless by the standards of the world as we await the coming of God’s great marriage feast. The bridegroom will come.Let your light shine so that at his coming we will all know the love and grace of God.