Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Oh, Yeah, That IS What He Said...

Preached in the Center Moreland Charge on Nov. 20, 2011

Matthew 25: 31-46

This morning’s gospel reading may seem familiar to some of us. But it may also be new to some of us.

This scripture is traditionally read on this Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, the Sunday before the first Sunday of Advent. It is the last teaching he gives to the people, to his disciples. Matthew’s version has it happening two days before the Passover, and the authorities have started plotting, He goes to Bethany, and is anointed by “a woman”, who is unnamed in Mathew’s version. He calls it his anointing for burial. Judas makes his agreement. The Passover with his disciples occurs, within which he institutes the Lord’s Supper. He goes to the garden of Gethsemane, and then is arrested.

These words today are, in Matthew, the last things he teaches to his people. And what does he teach? God’s judgment is coming, and you won’t know what you’re going to be judged by. The righteous won’t make it, and the rich will have plenty of problems, no matter how much they donate to the faith.

You won’t know, because you judge on the wrong things. Your synagogue attendance doesn’t matter. The volume of your prayers is irrelevant. How loud you wail at a funeral isn’t going to change the balance.

Instead, you will be judged on your generosity, rich or poor, and not just your material generosity. You will be judged on your generosity of heart. Your patience with people, your conduct when you disagree with someone, whether you stay engaged and mature of huff off when you don’t get your way.

What he is saying, as his last statement is this: if you want to know about my Kingdom, the one that is coming, listen to how the path to salvation is to be structured; by helping, be assisting; by serving. You’ll never know when you might run across someone who will actually be Jesus, so you must treat everyone like Jesus. Everyone.

And here is the irony, or the design: if you treat everyone like Jesus, then everyone will see Jesus in your actions.

Your way to the Lord has been mapped out- it is not in power accrued, but in power given away. Not in accumulation, but in generosity.

According to Toys R Us, it was Christmas A week before Thanksgiving. Joe and I went into the store up on Kidder Street this week to buy a birthday present for his cousin, my nephew. And the music we walked in on was that song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono called War is Over, which is a song you ONLY hear at Christmas.

So, since it is Christmas, let me remind you about the story by Charles Dickens. The point of the story, the visits of all the ghosts, and Scrooge’s change of heart on Christmas morning is to move him to a greater heart, a more generous spirit. The Grinch learns the same lesson.

It’s an enlightenment that these characters achieve, a realization, an a-ha moment. In Ephesians, Paul writes about an enlightenment of the eyes of the heart. With an enlightened heart, we understand that the riches are in the inheritance we have received, to become one of the saints of God. That inheritance gives us the hope that God wishes on us all, the awareness of God’s power. Scrooge and the Grinch, it might be said, both become enlightened when they realize that true power lies not in money and the keeping and hoarding of it, not (in the Grinch’s case) the baubles, the trees, the tinsel, and the roast beast, but instead in the generosity and the spirit. The kids playing in the street in front of Scrooge’s house, the Whos in Whoville standing around the last tree, the one in the square, singing.

There’s a power in having the enlightenment of knowing your place in this world, your inheritance as one of God’s children, the hope that comes from knowing you are a child of God. You are not so important that you must solve all the problems of society- your money will only go so far, your physical energy will only keep you working for so many hours, and then you need rest. Then you need to recharge. Then you need to move over and let someone else work. We are just not important in that way. We are not indispensable.

But neither are we irrelevant.

T many of the people of Jerusalem, This is the last public thing that Jesus says. The next time they see him in public, two or three days later, he is being beaten and being prepared for crucifixion. Maybe a privileged few would see him on trial, but all he says there is that “from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

When most people see him again, they are screaming for his blood.

They are shouting for his death because of his preaching the kingdom of God, and threatening the powers of earth. For teaching love and generosity. In Matthew, Jesus’ last words to them are that they will be judged by God for their spirit and their generosity.

Do you think they might have had the words “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me…” ringing in their ears as they call out of his crucifixion?

May those words ring in your ears this week, and this season of Christmas. And may you heed them better than the first people who heard it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Matthew 25: 14-30

Speaking literally, a talent is 15 years’ worth of a laborers’ daily wage, according to several sources. So, let’s begin with a little math. Imagine your current monthly income from work, or your monthly social Security check. Lert’s choose a nice round number: $2500 a month. Multiply that by 12, giving you your year’s income: that’s $30,000, and then multiply that by 15. $450,000. That’s one talent.

It’s a pretty big chunk of money, no matter what you start with.

This is the amount of money that the third servant starts with. The second servant starts with twice that amount, or $900,000, and the first servant starts with five times that amount, or $2,250,000. Jesus is making a point here, in his way of telling parables that get your attention: his hearers would be blown away with the amounts of money he’s using, and what’s really interesting, is that the audience is thinking that the third guy is the prudent one.

Think about it-if you were given fifteen times your yearly income in one check, what would you do with it?

Pay bills, right? Maybe buy a treat or two for the ones you love? Get a decent piece of land and build a house? Buy a new car, or pay for your kids or grandkids to go to college, if they’re so inclined? And of course, invest most of it.

Problem is, at the end of the parable, this money isn’t given to the servants to be used for their own needs. Apparently this huge amount was given to them so that they would be useful with it.

What is true about all of that is that you would be taking that money and exposing it to some sort of risk, wouldn’t you?

Which is why it is so fantastic that the first and second servants both double the amount of money they are given. Imagine thirty times your yearly wage. That’s how much they give back. But that involved quite a bit of risk, and as they are returning the money they were given, the implication is that they were not to keep it.

So, that being true, this is why the third servant may have been seen as the prudent one. He did not submit that money to any risk at all, and returned it whole to the master.

Shockingly, however, he’s the one who failed.

Speaking literally, then, Jesus is saying that the talents we are given are not to be kept safe, but to be used for the glory of the kingdom.

Now, we all have talents. I know that there are some of you who say that you really don’t have anything to give to the kingdom, you just want to live your simple life, keep things uncomplicated, come to church, go to work, see family and friends, volunteer, and not get involved in the pain of the world.

Speaking metaphorically, however, Jesus tells this story in order that we might now just how highly the Kingdom of God values our talents. Not the money we make, not just that. But God sees what he has given us as talents, gifts, and graces, the things we do well, as equal to the wealth of fifteen years of wages in one check.

And in the story, the one guy who plays it safe with his talents is the one who is punished.

So, frankly, the lesson is this; not giving of yourself to the church and the world is a punishable offense. Gently put, it is a sin.

This is what Jesus is teaching. We are put onto this earth to risk. We are put onto this earth to find out what we do well, to nurture it so we can then do it better, then put it in service to the world. Staying home with our talents is how we find out what weeping and gnashing of teeth means.

Sometimes we don’t even know what it is that we are good at. We’ve spent lives of comfort and fear, not venturing out of our comfortable houses, relationships, things we’ve always known, people we’ve always known. Perhaps for some of us the last risk we took was the person we married. Perhaps the last risk we took was the house we bought.

As the people of God, we are called to risk more. We are called to risk everything. We are called to be, as Martin Luther called us, little Christs.

Thomas Merton said that often, what the desire of our hearts is, the thing that we idly daydream about when we think of serving God, when we think about the world’s needs, that thing we see ourselves doing is what we are really called to do. God has placed his call on our hearts before we have even begun to think of it.

What is that idle daydream for you?

Go and invest your talents, as God has sent you to do.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Undiscovered Country

1 John 3: 1-3

It has been a struggle to formulate this message, this week. An All Saints’ sermon is never easy, because so much of what we want to talk about is unknown. Most weeks, we can talk about a parable, or a story from the Hebrew testament, and it’s often true that what happened to them in the story is relatable to us in our time and place. But how do we relate our lives to death and loss? We are, some of us, able to reach into feelings of loss, but none of us truly know what death feels like. It is unrelatable. It is, to quote Shakespeare by way of Star Trek, “The Undiscovered Country”.

I have to think that the author of 1 John does not know what death feels like, either, and what happens after we die, not from a first hand account. His or her writings might be inspired, but they are still suppositions, they are still approximations, they are still guesses. They are honest about that, too. “What we will be has not yet been revealed.”

But I’d like to think they are good guesses. They are based solidly in the faith they were building about 60 years after Jesus’ death, and our belief now, 2000 years later, are informed and built on what they wrote.

I want to believe what they wrote because what they say is that after we die, we become like Jesus. A lifetime of seeking after Jesus’ image, a lifetime of imitating Christ, becomes fulfilled in death. “We will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”

For those of us who have suffered the loss of a loved one in death, this is comforting, because this means that the people we have lost have gone on to greater things-they have indeed finished the race.

I have a friend who just ran a marathon two weeks ago, and it brought back to me the goals of running, which I am trying to get back to myself. Those people who run marathons, the vast majority of them anyway, find that the challenge of the marathon is not to come in first, but to finish. They also hope to finish well, in form, and with a decent personal time. It is a personal challenge, a test of strength and discipline, but it is hardly ever a race in which the goal is to finish faster than everyone else.

A life disciplined in God, is the same-we want to be able to run well, we do not need to be the best. We do not need to run perfectly. We can see perfection, we know the goal, but we forgive ourselves for not reaching that goal, and push on doing the best we can. We just want to finish.
We all can remember aspects of our loved ones that approximated Jesus while they lived: caring, kindness, hospitality, self-sacrifice, courage, bravery, wisdom, strength. These aspects of Christ are the ways they ran the race of life with good form. We have our own aspects of Jesus, too. They are harder to see sometimes, because we are still running the race. We are still living.

1 John tells us that in death, our loved ones have become like Christ because they are able to see Christ. Whatever else heaven may be, cherubs playing harps on clouds, or some sort of pearly gate with a lectern out front, or whatever, heaven is the place where we see Jesus clearly. We see God “not through a glass darkly”, but clearly. And the aspects of those people that we miss that resembled Jesus now are highlighted, and the rest have grown. They have become even better images of themselves than they were here. Their beauty is magnified. The pain they felt on earth is taken from them, and though they may still carry scars, though Jesus may still carry his scars, their internal beauty, their physical beauty has become perfect in God’s love.

Once a year, we take the time to remember and recognize as a congregation the ones among us who have died during the past year. We also take the time to remember all of those people who have died in past year in our lives, and we naturally wonder where they are now, what it looks like, what they’re doing. We wonder if they are, now. We don’t know. But our faith tells us that they are in God, and with Christ. That, in the end, has to be enough. We have that hope, and as the author of 1 John says, all who have this hope purify themselves, just as Jesus is pure. Our hope of being with God after death purifies us, and in living life in that hope, we become more like Christ while living.

We begin to wear the clothes and sing the songs of that undiscovered country, even though we’ve never seen it. And this makes us more like Christ.

May we always seek the things of that undiscovered country.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Yeah, But...

Matthew 22:34-46

Preached Sunday, October 23, 2011 in Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow United Methodist Churches

Sometimes I distrust the lectionary designers. I will grant that it must be quite a task to be able to fit four gospels, all of the epistles and the rest of the new testament, the Psalms, and about 60% of the Old testament into three years worth of Sundays, say about 156 Sundays, and have some set aside for 3 Christmases, 3 Advent seasons, 3 Lenten seasons, and 3 Easters. Frankly, they have done an excellent job of providing access to the breadth and depth of the Biblical witness, but…

Some Sundays I do wonder what they were thinking. Like this Sunday-what do these two stories possibly have in common? They seem like two completely different ideas, and somehow Matthew or the later editors have decided that they need to be put next to each other. Perhaps it would be better to just preach one of them.

And then I started reading the commentaries, and realized that there was a reason; there was an idea.

The first chunk is verses 34-40, and what has happened just before is that Jesus has answered the Sadducees’ questions so succinctly and cleverly that they are now silent. So, here come the Pharisees, looking both the get at Jesus, and show up their theological rivals. The representative guy asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest. He might be thinking about the Decalogue, the first ten laws that Moses brought down from the mountain, what we know as the Ten Commandments, or they may be asking him which of the 613 laws that are listed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy are the most important.

Jesus’ response doesn’t actually even come from the Ten Commandments, or the 613 laws; he answers them from the central prayer of belief for their culture, time and place, the one that Pharisees, Sadducees, Jesus and his followers, John the Baptist and his followers, and everybody up to Herod himself agrees to; The first and strongest thing we believe is that you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Then he adds to it, And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

He has answered the question, and has even used the texts, Deuteronomy and Leviticus, that the Pharisees would have expected. But he has not chosen his favorite-he has summarized the whole law in a way that reminds them that they have perhaps missed the boat on the laws.

Next, he has a question for them. It’s a funny little puzzle, but gets to the point of the issue that both the Pharisees and the Sadducees have with this guy.
“Whose son is the messiah?” that’s easy for these guys. It’s like asking a Christian what the name of the Book is that we read from every week. They probably even hesitate a minute, thinking it is some sort of trick question. But here is only one right answer, that the messiah comes out of the line of one of their most heroic Kings, David.

“so,” he says, “in Psalm 110, which we all believe were written by King David” ( which he doesn’t say, but everybody listening knows), “ how come it says that our Lord God says to the Lord, the Messiah, come sit at my right hand? Why is the author of the Psalm calling one of his descendants, a great grand child maybe, his Lord. Why does he subordinate himself?

Now, Jesus could be making several points here, but what I think might be happening is that the Pharisees and Sadducees are feeling a little high and mighty in their time and place, and Jesus has reminded them that the guy they all say is coming is going to be a guy with the lineage they want, but even David acknowledges that the messiah will be greater than he. It must be that he is seeing these religious leaders looking to themselves for their spiritual leadership, to their interpretations of Scripture, to their own ideas as normative for their culture.

And Jesus is telling them, hard on the heels of synthesizing the whole of the law and the prophets through the prism of God’s love, that the messiah will be the best of them all, and will unify them in a way that their beliefs cannot maintain their divisions against.

He doesn’t explicitly claim that he is that Messiah. He doesn’t have to. This is Jerusalem during Passover week, it’s already in the air, these leaders are already aware, and they also know that he’s a Bethlehem boy, born in David’s line.

What is the lesson here for us? We Methodists who sit here on Sunday mornings, instead of down at the Baptists, or back in the woods in someone's barn, at some other church, find something in what we find here to keep us coming. But does that something get in the waqy of seeing God as for us all? Does that something block us from being able to see Jesus for Jesus’ sake, and everything else a matter of taste and style?

It’s a matter of cutting through the “yeah, buts.” I do not believe that Jesus saves us for all time merely by us being baptized once, and we can do no wrong after that. I don’t believe that salvation for God’s people lies in membership in the right group, having said the right words. But I can acknowledge that when the perspective is proper, these are both ways of discussion how we respond to God’s love, which is the point of church, I think. And we all respond to love in different ways, don’t we?

So, what are the “Yeah, buts” that keep you from truly, clearly, and simply saying that prayer from Deuteronomy? I will love the Lord with all my heart soul mind and strength? And what about the prayer from Leviticus: I will love my neighbor as myself?” As one commentator says, “Jesus is a faithful Jew, yet he bursts the bonds of custom that limited God’s concern to faithful Jews.” “Those who Love God must love all God’s creatures, even at great cost to themselves and their own privileges.”

What privileges, either earthly or spiritually, do you hold more dear than the love of God? These are your stumbling blocks. These are your “yeah, buts”.

May you learn some day to get rid of them all, and simply be in the love of God for all of the world.