If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Unexpected Advent: Isaiah 64:1-9

*This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2011 at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down! (Isaiah 64:1). I can understand the feeling of the prophet Isaiah. And maybe you can as well. There have been those times in my life when I wished God would rip the paper sky open and come down, do something dramatic, speak in a clear voice. There have been periods in my life when there was a stark silence, a deafening absence of God.

Church historian Martin Marty has given voice to my experience in his book A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart. Upon the death of his first wife Elsa, Marty turned to the Psalms in his grief. I have often turned to Marty’s reflections and to the Psalms in the frigid seasons of my soul. The psalms of lamentation cry out from the winter of the soul for God “to tear open the heavens and come down!”

The prophet Isaiah gives voice to the cry of absence from Judah in Babylonian captivity. He speaks a lamentation for the winter of Judah’s heart. The elite of Judah had been taken captive into exile in Babylon around 587 B.C. They were dragged off to a foreign land with its foreign gods and foreign customs, strange neighbors and strange foods. Judah felt defeated, displaced, and disoriented.

The prophet interprets the exile to Babylon in terms of God’s anger against Judah. He confesses to God on behalf of the people, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have all become like one who is unclean, and our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away…you have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (Isaiah 5b-6, 7b).

The captives in Babylon also feel like God has hidden his face from them (vs 7b). Where is God in our captivity? Have we left God behind in our homeland? Where is the God who with a powerful arm led us out of their bondage in Egypt? Where is the God who came down in fire and shook Mt. Sinai like a baby’s rattle and spoke with a clear and powerful voice through Moses? Where is the God who once defeated our enemies, Pharaoh and Egypt? Where is the God who miraculously fed us with bread from heaven and quail in the desert? Where is our God in Babylon? It was if the gods of Babylon had defeated and sent the God of Israel into exile away from them.

Isaiah gives voice to the cry of their heart in an anguished prayer to God: O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down. Show yourself, God. Make the mountains quake and let the nations shake before your presence! Reveal yourself to those who would scoff at us. Judah was longing for an advent of God

Where is God? Why doesn’t God do something earthshaking? Why doesn’t God come to our rescue? We have all been in life situations that give rise to those kinds of questions that are turned into prayers of anguish. In the struggles of a divided church someone cries out, “Lord, if only you would split the sky open and come down into the midst of this mess and heal us!” In a marriage teetering over the abyss of divorce a prayer goes out, “O God, why have you allowed this to happen?” In continued sickness and the increasing limitations of old age a wife prays, “Merciful God, where are you now that my husband needs you most?” In the persistent financial crisis, an unemployed man prays, “I haven’t had steady work for a year now. Where are you God? Give me a sign that you’re still there.” O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

Here is an important spiritual truth to remember. We only have a sense of God’s absence if at one time we have experienced God’s presence. We can talk about the silence of God only because we have, in some sense, heard God speak. The prophet Isaiah reminds God, “You did awesome deeds we did not expect.” He remembers when God was powerfully present and at work in Israel’s history. He points back to the wondrous works God performed in the Exodus, Sinai, and their wilderness wanderings.

Isaiah can only speak of Judah’s present experience of God’s absence and inaction because his people have experienced the awesome and unexpected deeds of God in the past. As so often is the case, in our experience of God’s absence and inaction within our lives, we often forget God’s awesome deeds we did not expect in the past. God’s movement in our lives comes to us as moments of grace, deliverance, and provision; unearned and unexpected. But, then we expect God to act and be present in the very same way and according to our timetable this time, in this situation. And if God does not act in the same ways, we experience God as absent, silent, or inactive. God may be present and acting, but not in the ways we expect.

I can testify to this truth. My call into Christian ministry was an unexpected and powerful experience; so powerful that I gave up my dreams of becoming an illustrator to enter pastoral ministry. Along that journey of being a pastor and a human being, I had periods of anguish when I cried out, “Where are you, God?” I would look at the difficulties I faced in life or in my ministry and God seemed to be silent, an absentee landlord. And I would pray something like the prayer of Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”

Right after seminary I resigned from a position as an associate pastor at my home congregation due to staff conflicts. After languishing for three years outside pastoral ministry, though I searched and searched for a position, I ended up doing odd jobs, and I do mean “odd” for someone trained as a minister. I literally shook an angry fist at the heavens and cried out, “Where are you, God?” Unexpectedly a chance meeting with a Hollywood actor-turned-pastor landed me in on the stage of a creative church ministry position in Burbank, California.

A dying congregation struggling to survive puts the future of my pastoral work in jeopardy and causes me to cry out, “Lord, where are you?” Unexpectedly I get a phone call from a friend of Iris, who I briefly met at a conference, asking if I would consider the position of Minister of Peace and Justice for Mennonite Mission Network. His name is John Powell and he is on the cover of the most recent Mennonite magazine. My ministry of peace and justice and drumming for peace flourishes for seven years.

An economic recession impacts church giving, my whole department at Mennonite Mission Network is cut. At the same time Iris gets the Pacific Northwest Mennonite conference minister job and we move to Portland. I spend two years feeling like I am in exile. No ministry opening. There were few opportunities to use my gifts, calling, and training. I struggle against depression (with the added weight of Oregon’s dreary winter weather). Many times I cry out, “Where are you, God? Why don’t you rip open the sky and come down. Do something, anything!” At moments I wonder, “Have my sins brought this upon me?” Then, I get an unexpected call from a congregation and you know the rest of the story.

Get the pattern? During each crisis period I forgot something from my previous experiences of God’s absence. God had already done awesome deeds in my life. God had come to me when I least expected it. So, I just needed to wait upon the Lord.

You know what I mean, don’t you? The boss calls you in to his office and in a somber tone tells you, “We’re going to have to lay you off.” Your world is turned upside down. You pray to an empty sky. Your words don’t seem to make it past the ceiling. Then, sometime later a call comes unexpectedly over the phone, “Can you come in for an interview?”

A congregation is going through some intense struggles. They can’t seem find their way out. Old negative patterns just seem to repeat themselves over and over. During a Sunday morning service a member dares to pray out loud during the prayer time, “Lord, where are you? Why don’t you just come down from the sky and help us!” Several months pass. Some estranged members meet and offer each other forgiveness. Others let go of old grudges and confess their lack of trust. In their open sharing a new spirit begins to spring up, like a flower growing up through a crack in the cement sidewalk! Lord, you did awesome deeds we did not expect!

Now, I don’t want to negate experiences of anguish and the real sense of God’s silence and absence. The Bible doesn’t censor those feelings and experiences, but allows God’s people to express the cry of absence and to even throw jagged, anguished questions in the face of God. Just read the Psalms.

But, I do want to remind myself, and all of you, to remember that those experiences of anguish and absence are real because we have previously experienced God’s presence, God’s spontaneous grace, God’s awesome deeds, God’s unexpected advent in our lives.

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father….who works for those who wait for you. There is that divine “yet.” In spite of our sense of absence and our sin…yet, God is our divine Parent, still responding to us in love. In spite of our lack of trust, our impatience, our wanting to control the shape of our life experience, yet “we are the clay, and God is the potter” molding and shaping us.

The prophet Isaiah may begin with pleading in anguish for God to rip open the heavens and do some awesome deeds, like in Israel’s past. But, he soon moves back to a position of faith, trust, and hope that God will work for those who wait. Waiting calls for patience, faith, stick-to-it-iveness, hope, anticipation, and attentiveness to the subtle moments and movements of our lives.

Isn’t this what Advent is all about? Waiting? Eager anticipation? Isn’t that why we light a somber purple candle each week until we finally light the white Christ candle symbolizing Christ’s coming. Isn’t Advent about waiting upon God who comes into our lives gracefully, unexpectedly and works for us, for our good?

Advent is about waiting and hoping for the one who comes to our world of exile with good news of great joy. Through hopeful waiting Isaiah’s anguished cry of absence can be turned into an Advent cry of longing expectation: O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hospitable Sheep: Matthew 25:31-46

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon, Reign of Christ Sunday, November 20, 2011

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer

As a preacher of peace and justice I have always liked Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats. It gave me a chance to stick it to those people who didn’t care about the prisoner, the hungry, the poor, and the stranger. It’s a good parable to shove in the face of those evangelical types who think that right beliefs get you into heaven. You can show them how the final test for heaven, at least in this parable, has to do with whether or not you cared for the poor. In the end those unconcerned about “the least of these” will have hell to pay. That reading of the parable has given me some amount of self-satisfaction. But, is that the right way to read this parable?

Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats is the last of three parable of three concerning the End Time in Matthew 25. In the parable of the ten bridesmaids we checked our preparedness for the coming of Christ. In the parable of the talents we examined how we use the cash of the kingdom while the master is away. In the parable of the sheep and goats we come before the final judgment of Christ, the king.

As the parable goes, when the Son of Humanity comes in glory, with all those glittery, flittery angels, he will take a seat on his golden throne to reign over his kingdom. All the nations of the earth, all tribes and tongues, races and religions will be rounded up like animals in a herd. Yeeehaw! The Shepherd king will separate the sheep from the goats, as the saying goes. That’s necessary because if they stayed together they might have kids (get it? kids?). Their offspring would eat metal cans and grow steel wool! Or they might grow little goatees!

The blessed sheep are placed on the king’s right hand, the righteous hand (Yeah, right handers!), and the damned goats are placed on his left hand, the evil hand (Boo, left handers!). Just kidding! Then the king says to those on his right side, “Come, sheepy dudes and wooly sistahs, join my partaaaay!” No. He says (in a deep religious tone with British accent), “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Why? Because you said the “Sinners’ Prayer”? Because you checked off all the right things on that official laundry list of orthodox beliefs? No. Because when I was hungry, you fed me (maybe some tacos from Taco Bell); when I was thirsty, you offered me a Dr. Pepper, I mean a drink; when I was a stranger, you…. Good morning, Sir. I haven’t seen you at our church before. Welcome. We would love for you to join us at our meal after the service today….you welcomed me. I was naked and you bought me some duds, some threads, translation: some clothes. When I had the cramps, you came over and gave me some Pepto. When I was up the river at the big house making personalized license plates, you dropped in for a spell. “Spell,” license plates,” get it? Translation: you visited me in prison.

Then all the sheepy dudes spoke in unison, “Bu-u-u-u-ut, Lord when did we offer you a taco, or a Dr. Pepper, or shake your hand, or buy you some threads, or bring you some Pepto, or say “Hi” at the hoosegow? (That was from my Gnarly Dude Revised Unstandardized Version.) And the king said, “This is the gospel truth. Just as you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Then, the Shepherd king will say to those goats on the lousy left (with words censored for young ears), “Darn you, get the heck out of here and hop on the devil’s grill. For you gave me no taco, or Dr. Pepper, didn’t shake my hand, bring me any duds, offer me a sip of Alka Selzer, or visit me in the slammer. And the oblivious goats came back, “Bu-u-u-t Lord, when did all of this go down? Please excuse the goatish expression, but we haven’t seen hide nor hair of you.” Then, the Shepherd king will say, “Here’s the God’s honest truth. Just as you didn’t do a dad-blamed thing for my brothers and sisters, you didn’t do it for me. Off to the barbeque pit you go. But, my groovy sheep they’re gonna be…”grazin’ in the grass. It’s a gas. Baby, can you dig it?”

What is this parable all about? Well, some have interpreted this parable as being about social ethics. As one with a passion for peace and justice, I have leaned toward this interpretation. In this interpretation of the parable all the nations (panta ta ethne) represent the whole world, including the Gentiles, Israel, and the church. The least of these represent the poor and vulnerable of the world. We are all those who will be divided into sheep and goats. The world will be judged by whether or not we had compassion on the world’s poor. Did we feed the hungry, provide for the impoverished, care for the sick, visit the prisoner? That’s the litmus test we will have to pass, not what we believed. Acts of compassion are what make the grade.

If I were to build a sermon on the foundation of this interpretation, I could easily point my long finger of prophetic justice at passive pew warmers, goats in sheep’s clothing, and castigate them for their lack of engagement in the critical social issues of the day. Maybe I would entitle the sermon A Parable to Get Your Goat. At the end of the sermon I could scold some of you for not being involved in Bridging Cultures, Canby Center, Peace and Justice Support Network (which I proudly led), Bread for the World, or Amnesty International. And some sheepy peace and justice lovers among us would probably clap their tiny little hooves. Yea-a-a-h for us! Sorry flock, but that’s not going to be my sermon.

There are a number of problems with this approach to the parable. First, there’s the problem of that little phrase the least of these my brothers (and sisters). It would appear that this phrase is describing disciples of Jesus. Then, all the nations would represent the Gentiles, the world, possibly including Israel. All the nations represent all of those outside the Christian community. If that is the case, then the parable would be about the world’s response to disciples of Jesus as missionaries to the nations.

What reinforces this interpretation is its context within the whole Gospel of Matthew, and particularly the parallels between Matthew 10 and Matthew 25. Matthew 25should probably be interpreted in light of Matthew 10, as a story visualizing Jesus words about his disciples’ mission. You see, Matthew 10 is about mission and evangelism. I can just see some evangelical sheep ears perking up. Matthew 10 is about Jesus’ mission mandate for the twelve disciples to take the good news to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sends them out without money or payment for their work, no change of clothes (Pee-you!), no bag for food, as sheep in the midst of…not goats, but ravenous wolves. These poor disciples will need to depend upon the hospitality of the people they encounter in their missionary travels. Matthew states that the End will not come until the gospel is proclaimed to all nations. Then, Matthew concludes with the Great Commission sending Jesus’ followers, that’s us folks, to evangelize all the nations.

Now, here are a few of the parallels that would justify interpreting Matthew 25 in light of Matthew 10: 1) In both texts Jesus speaks of his identification with the disciples: Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me/ Whoever welcomes a prophet receives a prophet’s reward/In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me 2) In both passages water is to be shared with the disciples: whoever gives a cup of cold water/when did we see you thirsty? 3) And the one who shares will not lose their reward; 4) In both Matthew 25 and Matthew 10 the vulnerability of the disciples is emphasized. They are called these little ones/ the least of these my brethren. The twelve disciples have no money for food or drink. They are strangers among the people, facing the possibility of prison and persecution for their missionary work.

So, in the light of Matthew 25’s context within the whole of the Gospel, and most particularly Matthew 10, the parable’s judgment has to do with whether or not the world welcomes the messenger and the message the disciples bring, like the jailer who showed hospitality to Paul and Silas by washing their wounds and inviting them over for a meal (Acts 16:30-34) Does the world welcome the missionary disciples and the good news they bring? That is the basis of the last judgment.

If I created a sermon around this interpretation, it might make some passive, quiet, introverted sheep tuck their tails and run. I could entitle my sermon Evangelizing the World! I could point my long evangelical finger at the goats among us, shake it, and ask why you are not sharing your faith with their friends and neighbors? Hey, the disciples had to witness without money, food, or drink, and faced persecution and prison. More personally speaking, I had to go door to door and share with people the Four Spiritual Laws. I had to ask strangers, “If you were to die today, do you know for sure you would go to heaven. Are you a sheep or a goat, man!” So, why shouldn’t you have to evangelize the world? Wake up, people, the souls of the world hang in the balance. Their eternal destiny depends upon their hearing and responding to the missionary message from you. At the end of the sermon I could make you wiggle in your wool as I asked if you help provide for the needs of our missionaries or, better yet, ask if you are being an evangelist and missionary for Christ within our pagan world. The evangelical sheep in our flock would probably clap their tiny, little hooves and cheer, “Ha-a-a-llelujah, brother!” But, that sermon just might make others of you grow a goatee! Sorry, flock, I’m not going to preach that sermon.

There’s one little problem with this last interpretation. Jesus sent his disciples out saying, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” In other words, don’t go to the nations! Then, why would Jesus tell a parable about how all the nations will be judged by whether or not they welcomed his missionary disciples? Did he just universalize his earlier words to apply to the whole world? Mmmm. Maybe.

How about this. Matthew, the writer of the Gospel, universalized Jesus words to include the whole world. Is that possible? Maybe. He seems to have done that type of thing throughout his Gospel, as do the other Gospel writers, that is, they shaped Jesus words for his own particular audience. Consider this possibility; under the influence (of the Spirit of the Risen Christ), Matthew added his own twist to the earthly Jesus’ words about the disciples’ mission to Israel by making it more universal in his shaping of Jesus’ parable.

Well, whether or not Matthew added his own twist to Jesus’ parable, I am going to add my own twist. More than that, I’m going to flip this parable around backwards. If this parable is about hospitality practiced or not practiced by the world toward Jesus’ missionary disciples, then I want to flip it around and have us consider how we welcome or don’t welcome the stranger among us. However we interpret this parable, welcoming and caring for the stranger in your midst is central to its message. I’ll leave any question related to judgment and upon what basis to God, but I do want us to consider the utter significance of hospitality.

Welcoming the stranger was a significant part of the culture and faith of God’s people. Remember the story of Abraham and Sarah and the three heavenly visitors who showed up at their tent? These angelic visitors were openly welcomed in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup, the sharing of a communion meal, as it were. The book of Hebrews talks about this story as welcoming angels unaware. Lord, when did we see you hungry?

In contrast to Abraham’s hospitality to angels, when heavenly visitors came to Sodom the people did not show hospitality. Like Abraham, Lot and his family showed hospitality to the angels with the bread and cup of communion. But, like some prisoners or soldiers at war the men of Sodom wanted to gang rape the strangers in a form of domination. This is not a story about homosexuality, any more than Lot’s counter offer of his daughters to abuse is about heterosexuality! This story is about hospitality shown and not shown to strangers. Lord, when did see you as a stranger and not welcome you?

The widow of Zarephath welcomed the stranger in the prophet Elijah. She offered him her last grains and a few drops of oil to make bread, which she planned to share with her son and then die. The widow and her son received the reward of an endless supply of bread and oil from the prophet. How holy and compelling was her desire to show hospitality! Whoever receives a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.

Two disciples walking on the dusty road to Emmaus meet a stranger. They talk to him about Jesus and all that happened to him over the past days. The sun starts to go down and paints the hills purple. As the two near their village the stranger keeps on walking ahead. The two disciples tell the stranger it’s getting too late for him to go home alone, so they invite him to an evening meal at their home. As they break the bread their eyes are opened and they recognize it is the Lord. Lord, when did we see you a stranger and welcome you?

A visitor comes to Christ, the King Church for the first time. She doesn’t have a last name that anyone would recognize or a demeanor that would invite anyone close. Her Goodwill dress and weathered face tell a story. It’s the season of Advent, when Christians welcome Christ among us. The church has a lot of drop-in visitors during the season. She’s just another anonymous face. Like many visitors, she’s a stranger.

The lonely-looking woman sits next to a young, hip-looking couple on her left side that’s involved in the local food pantry and the church’s peace committee. They quickly glance over at her with questioning eyes. She fumbles with the bulletin, looks for which hymnal to sing from, and scratches her head while trying to figure out where in the world to find the Bible passage. The evangelical man in a gray suit on her right slips her a Bible tract and goes on singing. Oddly enough, the people on both sides of this stranger, the peace couple and the evangelical, have never themselves broken bread together. They might as well be strangers.

Everyone around her is singing with such longing in their voices: O come, O come Immanuel. After the service she walks out the front door without a greeting, a welcome, or a handshake. Even though she looks homeless and pregnant, no one questions if she has a place to stay or if she’s had anything to eat. She cradles the bulge of her stomach as she walks out under the gray afternoon sky and the red and gold leaves. Her name is….Mary. Lord, when did we see you a stranger and not welcome you?

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Risky Business: Matthew 25:14-30

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubard, Oregon on Sunday, November 13, 2010.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and redeemer.

Use 'em or lose 'em. That would make a nice title for a sermon based on the traditional interpretation of the Parable of the Talents. God has given each of us talents, like singing, teaching, or juggling. We should use these talents and not hide or hoard them. If we don’t use and develop our talents, we will lose them. The theme of this sermon might be: Don’t waste your talents. That would make a great sermon. But, that interpretation is based upon a misconception of the word "talents" in the biblical text.

In our parable a talent or talanta was a weight measurement that came to designate a monetary unit of gold or silver, like five bucks or a thousand smackeroos. But, the confusion is understandable in that our word “talent,” meaning special abilities, is actually derived from this word for a measurement of money! So, to clear up this confusion we should understand that in Jesus’ parable the master's slaves were given particular amounts of money not the ability to play piano or wiggle their ears. It's what they did with their amount of money, not their gifts or skills, which is the heart of the story. But, we will still need to figure out what the money represents.

Jesus' parable of the talents is nestled among a group of texts about the end of the age. This parable is told right before Jesus walks head on into the cross. It's a word to those who stand in that time before the end and count the cost of following Christ. The end of the age may not be breathing down our necks, but we seek to stand true to Jesus in the apocalyptic times of a worldwide economic crisis, housing market collapse, bank failures, the Occupy Wall Street movement, a staggering 14 trillion dollar deficit, and calls for fiscal conservatism. Standing where we are, the parable of the talents may be heard with new ears.

Listen. Jesus compares the coming reign of God with a well-to-do man who goes off on a journey. Maybe he's going on a long vacation in the Bahamas. With bags packed and ticket in hand, he calls his servants together near the spiral staircase. He opens a briefcase filled with crisp new bills and says to his servants, "I don't trust anyone with my money, except you." So, he gives one servant five million bucks, another servant two million, and the third servant one million in cold, hard cash. The boss says "goodbye," grabs his bags, steps inside his limo, and heads off for the airport.

The servant with the five million hops in his sports car and zooms off to Vegas. With a showgirl on each arm and a big toothy grin on his kisser, he puts five million worth of chips down on number twelve at the roulette wheel. Beads of sweat form on his brow as the ball is dropped in the spinning roulette. Clickety-clack, the ball spins around the numbers. "Number 12!" the caller shots. Five million more is added to his boss' money.

The servant with the two million invests it in the stock market. I think he bought stock in that novelty company which makes whoopee cushions and plastic barf. I'm not sure. Surprise, surprise, she makes another two million smackers.

The third servant immediately runs out, rents a safety deposit box with his own money, bolts it to the floor, tosses in the one mill, shuts the door, twirls the combination, sits on his bed and wipes his brow with a "Whew!"

Sometime later the boss returns from the Bahamas. He kicks his feet up on his large wood desk, lights a fat Cuban cigar, and calls his servants into his office over the intercom. He asks them for an accounting of his money. The guy entrusted with the five million plops down ten million on the hand carved coffee table. His boss says, "Well done, my good servant. I knew I could trust you with my money. So, now I trust you to be in charge of all my investments. Join me at my party later. Dude, we gonna get down tonight!"

The second servant hands over four million, double what she had been given. "Well done, my good servant. You have proven yourself more than trustworthy. You can be in charge of my estate. See you at the partaaay! Booyah!"

The third servant steps forward, hangs his head, and nervously squeeks, "Boss, I knew you were a hard-nosed businessman, a penny-pincher who expects to profit without doing any work. I was scared stiff. So, I went out and rented a sturdy safe, bolted it to the floor, and kept your money safe and sound. Here it is, every last cent." The boss slaps the money out of his hand and growls, "You lazy-good-for-nothin'-so-and-so, if you knew I was a penny pincher, who wants profit without perspiration, then why, in heaven's name, didn't you at least invest my money so it would have gotten some interest? Give your million to my first servant. I guess, the rich are just gonna get richer and the poor are gonna get poorer. You worthless you-know-what, you can get the blankety-blank out of here! You're fired! Throw the bum out in the alley with the other rats, so they can grind their teeth together! No party chance, Mr. Smarty pants!"

Now, ain't that an uplifting parable?! Maybe if you're a free market capitalist, a CEO of a large bank, a Wall Street investor, or a 1 percenter. Then, this parable might be understood to be about the cutthroat world of economics and the virtue of investing over saving. Jesus saves. But, his disciples….they invest! Is that what this parable is all about?

On the surface this parable is a bit troubling. First, the story is drawn from an unjust, exploitive, oppressive socio-economic system. It is a patron-client system that keeps the patron wealthy and the client impoverished. The patron controls the goods and its profits. The client is a steward of the patron’s property and makes money for him, enough money to extract a small wage for their services. This exploitive economic system was not only the system of ancient agrarian societies in the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day, but is still practiced throughout so-called Third World countries today. It is a system whereby the minority rich get richer off the backs of the majority poor, who get poorer. Why in this world would Jesus use this kind of economic system to speak about kingdom values? I’ll let you answer that one for yourselves.

Second, if the parable is an allegory and the wealthy patron in this parable represents God or Jesus, then he is not a very honorable character, to say the least. As a matter of fact, he is downright nasty. In most early Jewish parables references to an authority figure like a master, king, or father represent God. If the wealthy master in this parable is God or Jesus, then we can do without that kind of master. Is this a caricature of the way some Pharisees viewed God, as a harsh taskmaster? Is it the way some of us view God? Why would Jesus tell a parable about a God who not only benefits from an exploitive economic system, but treats his servants unjustly, unequally, and with a nasty demeanor? I’ll also let you answer that one for yourselves.

Even with these difficulties with the parable, we should realize that this parable isn't about money any more than it is about special abilities. What is the wealth God has placed in our hands? What do the talents represent? The talents represent the “cash of the kingdom”----the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, the truths of God’s reign, possibly the teachings of Jesus, the good news of liberation and hope, the message of God's love for all humanity, grace and forgiveness, healing and hope. These are the talents Jesus left with us before going on a long journey. We have been left with his goods. Here we are today, while the master is away, with our different portions of the kingdom's cash in our hands. The crucial question for us to ask ourselves is: What are we going to do with the divine dough we have been entrusted with?

Traditionally in these types of ancient stories with three characters, the last character is the hero, like in the story of the Good Samaritan. Let’s see if this pattern repeats itself. In the parable the third servant went out, dug a hole, and buried his talent, which was not a bad thing to do. It was the same as putting it in a safety deposit box at the bank. There were no banks in the ancient world. Treasures were often buried in clay pots in the ground. The cash was safe and secure, as snug as a bug in a rug. This servant was protecting his master's money from being lost or stolen. It wasn't his money. To lose it would be a crying shame. So, it's better to be safe than sorry. “Safe,” get it?

The last servant, who seemed to have done the right thing with his money, probably represents the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They saw their role as preservers and protectors of the Torah or Law safeguarding Israel’s faith. They were preoccupied with securing and conserving its truths, but forgot to practice grace and mercy. In their inflexibility with the Law they shut others out of the kingdom of heaven.
Even if the last servant represents the Pharisees, don’t you wonder why he earned the label "worthless" and was given such hell by his master? I mean, give the guy a break. He kept his master’s money safe. At least give him that much! I'll bet this guy was dependable and trustworthy. When it came to money he was probably thrifty, prudent, a penny-pincher, a real spend-thrift, a real…. Mennonite. If you loaned him anything you got it back just like you gave it to him. You could have him hold your money and he wouldn't be tempted to buy lottery tickets, that's for sure. The third servant was nothing like the third servant in the Gospel of the Hebrews who squandered his master’s money on “harlots and flute girls.” He must have been very cautious about his life. No going out on a limb. No risk taking, especially with somebody else’s money!

I imagine this third servant was a regular churchgoer. A chairman of the “bored” at the First United Safe and Doctrinally Sound Haven of Rest Church of the Secure Saints. The church of the third servant sees God as a hard-nosed Judge, who will lay down the law on judgment day. So, they're keeping the faith safe and secure for when Jesus comes back. That means burying it within the four walls of the church building. They wouldn't want to share their faith with their neighbors. They might risk embarrassment, being taken for religious kooks, or worse yet, be labeled a…a…Christian!

Missions and outreach ministries are too risky. You take a chance when you invest the cash of the kingdom in the marketplace of the world. Everything out there in the world isn't black and white. If you take your faith into the public arena, it's always a gamble. You risk compromising the faith, diluting it, or getting it mixed up with all those pagan cultures out there and losing it all together. And at First church they're a bit leery of newcomers, particularly those who don't have the right upbringing, family background, or last name. "We wouldn't want to risk our heritage with those outsiders," chant the members of First Church of the Safe and Secure.
"We believe the faith ought to be kept safe and sound," confess the members of the church of the third servant. Their crusade is to conserve and preserve. "Caution" is branded on their wallets and purses. Use your resources only on a sure thing. "Let's do things the way we've always done them," is their motto. They all have bumper stickers that say, “But, we’ve never done it that way before.” There’s is the safe approach. "Take no risks with the treasures God has given us," is engraved on a dusty old plaque hanging in the foyer.

At First Church of the Safe and Secure they're as traditional as a savings account and as orthodox as the day is long. They dot the "i's" and cross the "t's" on their confession of faith. They hold in their hands the faith once and for all times delivered to the saints and will hand it back to God just as they received it. The teachings of Jesus, the treasures of the kingdom are locked up in the safe of their memories with little risk of being spent, invested, or gambled on within this slot machine world. They don’t try anything risky or what might stir up the scrupulous, fault-finding members the Church of the Safe and Secure. For that they should be commended. Right?

We definitely shouldn't commend the first two servants. Should we? Of course not. They gambled with the master's money. There were no guarantees that the investment of their talents in the marketplace was going to double. They could have lost it all. I'll bet those two servants were risk takers, the kind of people who make us feel uneasy. They're always ready to try something new, take a dare, go on some crazy new adventure. Don't they know their foolhardy, devil-may-care approach to life may put them at risk?

I can just imagine the kind of church the first two servants attend; the Church of Risky Business. They recklessly try new ways to communicate the gospel to a new generation. Forms of worship, styles of music, their language about God and faith are viewed as flexible as bungee cords. To them preserving the faith sounds like pickling it, jarring it, freeze-drying it, and putting it on a shelf to collect dust. Their confession is simple: "Love God with everything you are. And while you're at it, love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. Everything else will fall in place."

They're willing to drop the ball of their faith into the roulette wheel of a spinning world. Go where the action is. Live where the living is. And let the dead bury their own dead. At this church the members invest themselves and their faith without the surety of reward. Who knows if living faithfully will pay off? They're not out for stars in their crowns. They invest the master’s bucks for the master's benefit.

At this church they avoid investing their resources and energies in the safety and security of their own banks and buildings. Neither do they bury the divine dough in the deep hole of their own personal needs. For some people that can be a mighty deep hole. At the Church of Risky Business, where the first two servants attend, the cash of the kingdom is invested in the uncertain stock market of the world. Joyfully welcoming the outsider. Chancing redemptive resources on those who can't pay back one red cent. Visiting prisoners, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, without requiring a sermon for soup. Forgiving people when they haven’t done a single thing to earn their forgiveness. Banking on the message of a Crucified Criminal. A bright banner hangs in the sanctuary of the Church of Risky Business. Gold letters underneath a rough cross shout, "Those who save their lives will lose them. Those who give their lives away will save them."

So, when the Master returns from a long journey, which servants do you think will be commended? Let's dare a guess. Those who bury the divine dough? Or those who take a chance and bank on the risky business of investing the kingdom's cash in the messy marketplace of the world? Can't you just see the Master behind the banquet table inviting all his dicey disciples to grab a chair and drink a toast. And can't you just hear him saying, "Let’s drink to all my good and faithful servants. Well done. Now, it’s time to partaaaaay!"

There is more light and truth and joy yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

You've Given Me Time: Matthew 25:1-13

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on Sunday, November 6, 2011

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.

What would you do if you had only six months to live? Some of us might go into a deep depression, withdraw into ourselves, and do nothing. Others might methodically set out to make arrangements for their funeral, buy their casket, make out their will, and say their last farewells totally denying their inner feelings. Some of us might dare to take some risks and do some of those wild and crazy things we only dreamed of doing all of our lives; do our “bucket list.” Still others might not do anything different from what they have been doing all along. What would you do if you only had six months to live?

You know what? This is the God’s honest truth. All of us do have only six months left to live. We just don't know which six months. So, the real question becomes, "How are we going to live in the days before the end?"
The early church lived in eager anticipation of the End. But for the early Christians the End was conceived not so much in terms of the end of life, but rather the end of the present age. They viewed the End in terms of the return of Christ. They saw themselves as living "between the ages", between Christ's first coming in humanity and his second coming in glory. They believed that Christ was coming very soon, possibly even tomorrow. And they eagerly awaited Christ's immanent return. They saw Christ as waiting, as if just around the corner, ready to come back and receive unto himself the church as his virgin bride. Then, the door of time would be shut and the final judgment would take place. Believers would then be ushered in to sit at God's heavenly banquet table of blessing. The End.

But their expectation of Christ's immanent return was disappointed, as disappointed as Harold Camping’s followers after his two failed attempts at predicting the end of the world. Christ did not return. There were some early believers who were disturbed by the fact that some among them had already died. What would happen to them when Christ returned? Soon the church had to deal with how they were to going to continue to live, and possibly die, within the present world in light of the delay of Christ's future coming. They still expected Christ to return. But the more pressing question for them became, "How are we going to live in the days before the End?"

Today's parable of the Ten bridesmaids asks this same question in the form of a story. It is written in the language of the End Time. This parable is set within a section of Matthew's gospel dealing with the End Time. The parable likens the coming of kingdom of heaven to ten bridesmaids in a wedding party who went out in the evening, under the starry sky, to escort the bridegroom with their lighted lamps. The golden glow of their lamps lit their way. Five of them did not take along any flasks of oil to replenish their lamps, while the other five did. The bridegroom was delayed in his coming to meet them. All ten bridesmaids grew drowsy while waiting and laid down to sleep. All was still and quiet, except for the gentle chirping of the crickets. Ten sets of eyelids softly closed without a care in the world. Then, at the stroke of midnight there came a shout ... "THE BRIDEGROOM IS COMING!"

All ten startled bridesmaids jumped to their feet and began hurriedly preparing their lamps, which had been burning while they slept. Five of them were not prepared for the moment. They had not brought along extra oil for their lamps. So they turned to the other bridesmaids and said, "Please give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out." But the prepared bridesmaids said, "No!•Then there will not be enough for anyone of us. You better head to an all-night 7-11 and get some oil for yourselves!" Five lit lamps are better than ten unlit ones.

While the five unprepared bridesmaids were out buying oil the bridegroom finally came. Those who were prepared followed him into the wedding banquet. Then there came a loud bang as the wedding door was shut tight. A little later the other bridesmaids finally made it to the wedding hall and saw that the door had been shut. So they hammered on the door pleading, "Lord, lord, open the door!" Then they heard a voice say from within, "I'm telling you the truth. I do not know you." And they all did not live happily ever after. The end.

Believe it or not, we are the waiting bridesmaids. You and I. The Christian community. We too live "between the times" of Christ's first and final coming. But, unlike the early church we live in an age in which the long delay of Christ's coming has dulled the once sharpened edge of anticipation. Waiting for over 2,000 years does not compel one to tiptoe in expectancy! If there is anything in these present days that threatens us with a sense of the end it is moments of ultimate crisis: The shuffling feet of the doctor with steel clipboard coming into the hospital room saying, "I'm sorry. But, it's malignant" or the nightmare of the button being pushed which launches the war to end all wars, and all life. But, until some voice shouts in our ear that we are near the end of our opportunities, our life, our world, we grow drowsy in the sleepy assurance that regardless of God's plans and intentions, these moments will go on forever.

Unlike the ten bridesmaids, we have come to expect delay. We live as if tomorrow never comes. Our priorities, our concerns, our use of time, our ways of living and acting, are molded by this mindset. We think that we will always have time to act, to decide, to believe, and to live our lives in service to God. And yet, the truth is that we are the ten bridesmaids who live in the shadow and the light, the promise and the threat of the End of the age, the coming of the kingdom, and Christ's return. Whether we think of the in breaking of the end in existential terms, as those critical moments of life's decisions or as the finality of death or whether we think of the End in the truthful language of the impending return of Christ, we all live our present lives before these finalities. And depending on our state of heart and soul, these decisive moments stand before us either as a welcoming bridegroom or a shut door.

The question that confronts us today is, "How are we going to live in the days before the end?" How are we going to live our present lives in the light of the finalities of life in our present world and the world to come. Right now the bridegroom's coming is delayed and the door is still open. We live "in between the times." In the light of God's coming kingdom, which presses in upon the present, how are we to live our lives here and now?

We can live in the present either foolishly or wisely. To live foolishly is to be caught unprepared, with no oil for our lamps. The foolish depend upon others to provide them with oil to replenish their burned out lamps. They trust the merchants to be up at all hours. And they believe that if they are late, the door will always be open to them. To live foolishly in the present is to believe that there will always be enough of life’s resources and there will always be time to act. It is foolish to believe that we will be guaranteed life's fullness, here and now or in the age to come, no matter what we do or do not do.

We find ourselves in the company of the foolish when we act as if someone else will take responsibility when our lamps run out. Others will be a lamp to our feet and light for our path. Others will provide us with the oil that fills our spiritual lives. Others will take the responsibility of being the light of the world. Others will share the oil of generosity. Others will fill those blanks on the church nomination ballot. Others will share their gifts, so I can relax, rest, and be unprepared. Others will cover for my lack of financial stewardship. Others will contribute to the health of the congregation. Others will share the oil of forgiveness, even when mine runs out. Others will teach that Sunday School class. Others will reach out to their neighbors. Others will be ready to invite friends to church. The good deeds of others, our family, our friends, our fellow Christians, our pastor will somehow make up for our lack. So, why should we worry or be prepared for the end? There is plenty of time. To live foolishly is to expect others to foot the bill of responsibility for our lives before God and the coming kingdom.

Even in the light of the kingdom that is coming, we may squander our present on foolish pursuits and fleeting activities that do not serve the eternal purposes of God. We can burn up our lives on that which does not last. But finally, there comes that moment, that hour, that day, that time when the opportunity to make a difference is gone forever. There is no more time to forgive and to reconcile with that person with whom we are estranged and bitter. There is no more time to do those things we promised God we would do “when we have the time.” There is no more time to change those old destructive habits. There is no more time to share our gifts and serve God in the church and community. There is no more time. The present is lost, the bridegroom comes, and the door is shut. The end.

But the story has not ended. There is time to change. There are opportunities to make a difference. We are still alive. We still have the present in which to act. The final kingdom has not yet come. We can be prepared, with lamps burning. We have been given time. Surely the delay of Christ's final coming is the most dramatic symbol of God's grace to our world and our personal lives. The image of the waiting bridegrooms visualizes for us the grace of an open door of opportunity to be ready to meet God in the here and the hereafter.

The present is therefore a gift. To live wisely is to always have our lamps full. It is to live our lives fully in the grace of the present moment with a kind of urgency. Living wisely is not sitting around speculating when the final whistle will blow, but rather becoming actively engaged in life in the present for the sake of the God who has already come to us in Christ and continues to come to us in our ordinary, everyday moments.

Last Friday evening Iris and I went to see the futuristic action movie “In Time” (not End Time). It reminds us that we all have been given a limited amount of time. In this future world everyone’s internal clock starts ticking at 25 years old marking one year left to live. The amount of time a person has left to live is digitally embedded in their arm. Time is money. Seconds, minutes, hours, days are bought, sold, stolen, and given away. Time can run out. Time is a precious commodity. Minutemen steal time from the poor. Timekeepers are like police who monitor the flow of time. The rich have more time, like money, than the poor. Time is not evenly distributed. Time can be wasted away.

One character, Sylvia realizes she has been given an infinite amount of time by her rich father. And yet, she has not really lived a day of her life. She joins Will and they become two Robin Hoods who steal time from the rich and give it to the poor.
The movie’s metaphors can remind us that God has given us all time. It is a precious commodity, a gift. Like oil in a lamp, time is limited. It is unevenly distributed. When we run out of time, that’s the end. But, unlike the movie, in real life the time we have been given is all that we have to use. So, we can use time wisely or foolishly.

To live wisely is to be a responsible disciple in the present. It is to take personal responsibility for the nurturing and fullness of our own inner lives, and to make sure we do not burn out. And a wise disciple will be prepared when called upon to burn their lamps on behalf of Christ. They will be ready to let their lights shine before others, so that they may see their good deeds and glorify their Father who is in heaven. The lamps of the wise will be filled up with the oil of being present to the lonely and hurting, sharing our food with the hungry, and using our gifts in service to Christ.

The wise see the present as both a gift and a demand. A gift in that we have been given time to respond to God's kingdom. A demand in that we are being called upon to respond and act here and now.

Wise persons live their lives fully in the present and are prepared for any kind of finality. There is a story that reminds me of those old threats the pious once used on Christians who enjoyed playing cards. The question that was designed to produce godly fear in the godless card players was; "What if the Lord were to come back at this moment?" Well, this story is a little different! Some Christian people were playing cards. And they were discussing what they would do if they knew for certain that death would come to visit them in the next hour. What would they do? One said that he'd go to church and begin praying; another suggested confession. But then one wise woman said that she would just go on playing cards, doing what she was doing in the present, and dealing, if it were her turn. It sounds like that woman's lamp was already full. She was prepared. Are you?

"You've given me time." These poignant words were heard from the lips of a dying father in a 1977 television Christmas special entitled The Gathering. In the opening scene the father, played by Ed Asner, is talking with his doctor. He discovers how few days he still has left to live. So, the father realizes that the time he has left is a gift. He says to the doctor, "You've given me time!" Suddenly, in the light of the end, it was not a matter of how much time he had but how he was going to use it. He spent his time healing, mending, and reconciling family relationships, which prior to the impending end of his personal life he had postponed or avoided. With the time he had, he chose to live wisely and fully in the present, because he saw himself as having been given time.

As Christians, who believe in Christ's coming kingdom, we can thank God that we have all been given time. The present time is our gift to respond, to act, to heal, to mend, to reconcile, to share, to love, to live each day in the light of God's kingdom. Those who are foolish will burn up their time and present opportunities rehashing the past, licking old wounds, wasting away their moments and days, burning up the little oil they have. Those who are wise will be prepared to meet the bridegroom, at whatever hour he may come. They will be ready when the celebration begins and the door of opportunity slams shut. The End.

There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.