Monday, November 20, 2017

One Sunday, Two Voices


This Sunday, whether we are Track 1 or Track 2, we will hear two very different voices on sheep and goats. First, Ezekiel speaks words of comfort to the lost sheep of Israel: "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice." If you've been wandering in the wilderness, this is good news for you. God will find you and bring you home. Unless you're one of the fat sheep who has preserved a luxurious life on the backs of God's people, these are words of hope.

The second voice belongs to Jesus, who speaks haunting words to his disciples: "Then [the Son of Man] will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels...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.” And those of us who consider ourselves among the already-rescued flock of God's sheep begin to wonder, "Should I have been nicer to that homeless guy who asked me for money last week?"

I don't like to preach multiple sermons at once. I'm not good at it. I've had several mentors advise me to stick to one message and one only when delivering a sermon. Others, like Tom Long, have said that we should always be prepared to preach multiple messages at once. Augustine did it all the time. Some of the people in the congregation haven't discovered the saving love of Jesus yet. Others know it well. Some have fallen away, and others need gentle encouragement. Why wouldn't we identify the different ways that the multifaceted biblical text speaks to a spiritually (not to mention socio-economically) diverse congregation?

This week, as I prepare to write a sermon in what is effectively a short week, I feel pulled toward the intersection of two seemingly disparate texts. (Trouble, I know.) How does Ezekiel's message to those who have forgotten that God is seeking them out relate to Jesus' message to those who have begun to take their found-ness for granted?

Yesterday, I began a sermon on the parable of the talents by reminding the congregation (and myself, too) that Jesus was speaking to his disciples. These three judgment parables are not spoken to the crowds or to Jesus' opponents but to Jesus' closest friends. They already know what it means to belong to God as God's beloved children. He's not telling them what it takes to get into the kingdom of God. He's inviting them to see what is required to live within that kingdom. Sunday's gospel lesson is Jesus words of sheep and goats to those who think they have already experienced the transformation that Jesus enables. It isn't a challenge to those who haven't discovered the kingdom. You can't get to heaven by giving cups of water to thirsty people. But, if you don't see Jesus in those who are in need, maybe you never knew him in the first place. Go back to step A--what it means to be rescued.

There's a flow-chart in the works here, and I'm thankful for that. Otherwise I have a tendency to lose the grace behind both texts. We're saved because God loves us. That salvation changes us. If not, we don't know what it means to be saved--what it means to be loved by God. Maybe our lifetime is spent in that cycle of grace, salvation, service, repeat. I'm not giving up on once-saved-always-saved (I'm a TULIPer, after all), but I do know that from time to time I need to be reminded what God's love has done for me.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Give Your Life to God


November 19, 2017 – The 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
What are you doing with the life that God has given you? Are you using it to help God’s kingdom come, or are you hiding it in the ground? Today, in the parable of the talents, Jesus lets us know that, if we’re hiding it in the ground, we might as well be dead and buried along with it.

These are Jesus’ words to his disciples—not to the crowds, not to his opponents, but to his closest followers. We’re in Matthew 25, right near the end of his earthly ministry. By the time you turn the page and get to Matthew 26, we’re dealing with the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus’ betrayal and arrest. That makes these some of Jesus’ last words to the disciples, and, in them, he’s not telling them how to get into the kingdom but how to live inside it. They already know what it means to belong to God. Jesus wants to be sure that they know how to live a life worthy of their calling.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven 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.” We know this parable. We know how it ends. But do we know why the story ends the way that it does? A talent represented a lot of money. It was a measure of silver that was worth about twenty years of hard work. What would you do if you were a first-century Palestinian slave and your master gave you more money than you had ever seen before?

A year or two after I was ordained, my boss and I went up to Sewanee for the seminary’s graduation. As the ceremony ended, that famous Sewanee fog began to creep in across the campus, wrapping us up in its damp blanket. We waded our way to lunch and then back to the car. After we said our goodbyes, my boss said to me, “Why don’t you drive back to Montgomery?” So I climbed behind the wheel of his car and eased my way down the mountain. Unable to see more than ten feet past the hood of the car, I gripped the steering-wheel so tightly with both of my hands that I strangled any residual life that was left in the cow that gave his hide to wrap it. I was so tight and jumpy that, when the remnants of a tractor-trailer tire came into view right in front of us, I jerked the wheel so sharply to the right that my boss thought we were going to go off the side of the mountain. “Maybe you should lighten up,” he said. “If you don’t, you’re going to kill us.”

What happens when fear grabs hold of our hearts and won’t let go? When the master in the parable returned, he called the slaves to come and settle accounts with him. The first had taken the five talents and used them to make five more. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave,” the master said. “You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.” Likewise, the second slave came and disclosed that he had achieved the same result. Again, the master said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave.” The third slave, however, was the least business-minded among them. He had only been given one talent because the master knew that he lacked the skills of his fellow slaves. “Here, master,” the slave said. “Here is what is yours. I knew that you were a harsh man, and I was afraid that I would disappoint you. So I took your talent and hid it in the ground for safekeeping. Here it is, exactly as you left it.”

We know what happens next, but what we might not know is that hiding money in the ground wasn’t necessarily a bad strategy for keeping it safe. Some of us grew up with parents who had lost everything during the Great Depression and who never trusted banks again for the rest of their lives. Some of us have had to clean out their houses when they died, opening every envelope, leafing through every book, looking under every mattress because of the money that might be stashed away. Back in Jesus’ day, every investment opportunity carried risk, and, to a slave with no business sense, nothing seemed safe enough—especially when he lived in fear of his master. The only danger with hiding the talent in the ground was forgetting where it was buried, and the slave had come through. “Here is what is yours,” he said. “Aren’t you proud of me for not losing your money?”

“You wicked and lazy slave,” the master said. “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.” Notice that the master does not judge him because he did not earn the same return as his fellow slaves. Notice that he is not judged because of his lack of ability to make a sound investment. No, he is stripped of everything he has and thrown out into the outer darkness because of his fear—because he was so worried that he might disappoint his master that he forgot what it means to honor him.

How do we learn to trust that God is a gracious master who does not punish us if we come up empty-handed but in whose kingdom we cannot take part if we are hiding our blessings out of fear?

When I went to seminary, my parish encouraged me to travel overseas and study in England. Once the bishop said it was ok with him, I didn’t ask twice. Who wouldn’t want to live in England for two years? But no one told me how expensive it would be. My parents helped out with part of it, and the rest I financed with student loans. For two years, I lived right on the edge, not sure whether I’d have enough money to buy a Subway sandwich on the weekend when the seminary cafeteria was closed. As I finished up my second year and prepared to come back to the States, I began the process of applying to American seminaries, and I had to complete the financial aid forms, which asked how much support my parish would give me in the coming year. They had send me a few sporadic checks, so I called and asked the priest who had shepherded me through the process what I should put down on the form.

From the outset, he was confused. “Why do you need to fill out a financial aid form?” he asked. “Because I’m hoping to get a scholarship,” I replied. “Why do you need a scholarship?” he asked. “Because I don’t want to take on any more student debt than necessary,” I responded. “More student debt? I thought you graduated from college debt-free,” he said bewilderedly. “I did,” I replied, “but seminary in England for an overseas student is especially expensive. I’ve needed to take out student loans to pay for it.”

“How much?” he asked. I held the phone to my ear but did not say a word. “How much?” he repeated. I didn’t know what to say. Did he mean what I thought he meant? After another moment or two of silence, I told him what the debt was. “Give me a week and call me back.” I hung up. A week later, I called him, and he let me know that he had spoken to a few generous parishioners and that they had decided to pay off my student loan. All of it. “Where should I send the check?” he asked.

In that moment, my sending parish gave me two gifts, one short-term and one long-term. First, right away, they set me free from a great worry. At the time, I was engaged to be married. My fiancĂ©e was finishing up nursing school, and, as we dreamed of what our life together might be like, we wondered how long it would take us to pay off enough of those student loans for us to feel like we could afford to have a child. I wondered how long it would take me to show Elizabeth’s family that I would be a financially responsible husband for their daughter. Without even knowing it, I had been carrying around a tremendous weight of fear on my shoulders, and with one check my sending parish had lifted that fear from me.

I couldn’t know it at the time, but the greater gift that they gave me took me a little longer to discover. Can you guess what I did with the first ten percent of every support check I received after that? Do you know where the first ten percent of every pay check that Elizabeth received as a nurse was sent? Overnight, I went from being a haphazard giver who placed a few dollars in the plate every time it went around to an intentional, proportional, sacrificial, first-fruits giver. And do you know what happened after that? I never worried about money again. I never wondered whether I was doing what God wanted me to do. I didn’t question whether a job I took would pay enough. I didn’t worry about whether I would have enough saved up for retirement. And I still don’t worry. I have four children to put through college, and I have no idea how we will afford it, but I don’t worry about how I will pay for it because, by becoming a God-led steward of what God has given me, I have learned what it means to say to God, “Here I am. Here is my whole life. Take and use me however you will.” And I know that whether I come up empty-handed or flush with resources, I will always have an abundance because I belong to God.

What about you? How are you using the life that God has given you? Do you feel the freedom that comes from knowing that you belong completely to God? Or do you feel like you are holding something back because you are afraid there will not be enough? God has given you a lifetime. How you use it is up to you. When the master comes, you will not be judged on how much you accomplished but on how fully you have lived for the kingdom’s sake. What does it take for you to know that your whole life is devoted to what God is doing in the world? How much is God calling you to give? Over the years, we have grown in our stewardship, and, this year, our family will give the first 14% of our income as a pledge to our church. For us, that’s the level that lets us know in our hearts that our whole lives belong to God. That’s the portion that it takes for us to know what it means to say to God, “We belong to you. Use us however you will.” What about you? What portion of your blessings is God calling you to give? What percentage of your income does it take for you to let go of fear and live completely for the kingdom?

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Talents


On Sunday, if the preacher tries to connect the talents of precious metal entrusted by the master to his servants in the parable in Matthew 25:14-30 with the talents you have been given by God, don't write it off as a stretch. Etymologically speaking, they are the same thing. But don't think that the application was retroactive. The English word "talent" comes from the ancient weight of silver or gold that we encounter in Jesus' words. Accordingly, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the "ancient weight" as the first definition and the "inclination" or "disposition" as the second. The talent of silver came first. Only later did it become a word that means an innate skill.

That tells us a great deal about the nature of the responsibility given by the master to his three servants in the parable of the talents. Jesus tells us that the master gave out the talents "to each according to his ability." So tremendous was the value of the talent that, throughout the years, the interpretation of the parable has led us to eliminate the distinction between the money and the ability. There is a pretty wide discrepancy in how much a talent actually was. It depends on the time and location and metal. Our best guess is that the master in the parable gave 300-500 pounds of silver to the first servant, 120-200 pounds of silver to the second, and 60-100 pounds of silver to the third. More importantly, a talent was understood to be about twenty years worth of labor. That means the first and second slave were entrusted with a lifetime or more of hard work. Given life expectancies in the first century, one could even argue that the third servant received a lifetime's wages. Doesn't that measurement have the power to shape the way we hear the parable? Jesus seems to be asking, "What will you do with your life's work?"

When hiring a new employee, managers consider a candidates knowledge, skills, and abilities. Knowledge has to do with an individuals education. Does he or she know what he or she needs to know to do the job? Skills are practiced. Can the person effectively use a paint brush? Is the person good at using a skill saw? Abilities are talents. They are not learned. They are not practiced. They just are. They are given by that great lottery of birth. Talents are gifts. How we use them, however, is up to us.

The parable Jesus tells to his disciples forces them (and us) to consider how they will use their lives. The amount entrusted to the servants is so great as to represent a life's work. How they use that gift is a reflection of their talents--also a gift. Two are willing to devote their talents to the master's invitation. They apply them for the sake of their master. The third is crippled by fear of the master, and, instead of using the talent, he hides it in the ground hoping not to lose anything. Hiding money in the ground may have been a reasonable way to safeguard one's money, but it is not a kingdom-focused way to manage our talents. Whether money or abilities, the talents we are given must be used for the coming of God's kingdom. That kingdom invites us to flourish for the sake of our master. Will we accept that invitation? Will we trust the master to accept our efforts regardless of the proceeds?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Where Faith Is Found


Although I'm sure it's an over-simplification, I feel like there are two related but sometimes competing questions that a preacher asks whenever he or she encounters a biblical text: what did the biblical author intend to say to his readers and what does the preacher intend to say to the congregation? I trust that a sermon is most effective when those are the same thing. When they are in complete conflict and the preacher tries to force a particular message onto an unwilling text, no one leaves satisfied. Occasionally, and here is the real peril for preachers, the text allows the preacher's message but does not exactly intend it.

Today's gospel lesson from the two-year daily Eucharistic lectionary (Luke 17:11-19) is a good example. It's the story of the ten lepers, only one of whom--a Samaritan--returns to give thanks to Jesus. If you've peeked ahead, you might know that this will be the gospel text for next Thursday, Thanksgiving Day in Year A of the lectionary. It fits, of course. It's a story of thanksgiving and the salvation ("your faith has made you well") that comes from it. Seth Olson is preaching on that text, and I'm sure he'll do a great job. Since everyone in church will be thinking about turkey and dressing and childhood hand-print Thanksgiving turkeys, on which each feather is labeled with a blessing for which the kindergarten-artist is thankful, it works to take the story of the ten lepers and preach a sermon about gratitude. But I don't think that's what Luke wanted us to think about when we read this story.

If you preached in October 2016, you might remember that this gospel lesson is also used on Proper 23C. That's prime time for preachers like me to preach about stewardship, and the one-in-ten leper who makes his way back to Jesus and discovers a promise of salvation is a pretty tempting opportunity for a preacher to invite the congregation to commit to the tithe. True faith is on display when one-tenth of the blessing is brought to the feet of Jesus in a gesture of gratitude. Again, the gospel text allows that, but I don't think that's what Luke had in mind when he wrote this text.

I'm thankful that today, an ordinary Wednesday in ordinary time, allows us to ask a question that may be impossible to ask on Thanksgiving Day or during the height of stewardship season: what does Luke say to us apart from whatever the preacher wants to tell us?

A few verses before today's gospel lesson, the disciples say to Jesus, "Lord, increase our faith!" and the Jesus replies, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you." Then, as if to explain himself, Jesus says, "Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, 'Come here at once and take your place at the table'? Would you not rather say to him, 'Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink'? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'" Faith, it seems, is as much about doing what we are called to do as about what we believe.

As soon as Luke writes these words about faithfulness, he recalls the encounter between Jesus and the ten lepers. "On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee." In other words, he was travelling in between his homeland and hostile territory. It's no accident that he was somewhere in the middle--neither safe nor in jeopardy yet also both at the same time. He was approached by ten lepers, who, knowing the religious customs of the day, kept their distance, yet they cried out, "Jesus, master, have mercy on us!" They were asking him for help. Although small, it was a sign of faith. They knew of Jesus, and they expected that he could provide the healing that they wanted. Jesus responded with the expected religious instruction that would be given to someone who was healed of leprosy: "Go and show yourselves to the priests" They were the ones who could authorize the formerly leprous individuals to reenter society. As they went on their way, all ten "were made clean," which is to say that they were healed of the disease. Then one of them, who was a Samaritan, turned around, praised God with a loud voice, and returned to Jesus and fell down at his feet. Jesus said, "Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"
 
In a way, this passage functions as a parable that has been presented to us as a narrative. The dramatic conclusion--the only one who comes back to Jesus is a Samaritan--is the kind of shocking ending that we would expect in one of Jesus' hyperbolic stories.  Luke is the only one that includes this encounter, and it is no coincidence that Luke is also the only gospel writer to tell the story of the good Samaritan, another story of faith with a surprising twist at the end. There is a message of gratitude and stewardship that is imbedded within the text, but the core story that is presented to us is one of genuine faith in an unexpected place. Those who were expected to identify Jesus as God's anointed one were the Jewish lepers who never turned around. The Samaritan, whose faith ignored the possibility of a saving messiah, should not have been the one to turn around and identify Jesus as the one through whom thanks to God should be given. Yet that's where faith is to be found.

If Jesus were to lift up an example of genuine faith in our community and culture, where would he turn? What story would he tell? What person would he point to? If we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could say to that crepe myrtle, "Be uprooted and planted in the sea!" and it would obey us. What does it mean to have faith like that? When you come in from working in the fields, don't expect to be asked to sit down at the table and enjoy a nice meal. You've got more work to do. Put an apron around your waist and get to serving. Where will those truly faithful servants be found? Not where we expect them. They are not the ones who practice Christianity--the religion that takes Jesus' name--but the ones who see Jesus as the one who brings salvation to the world and who fall at Jesus' feet in gratitude.

Is the church the place where true faith is to be found? Does the church exist as the presumed vehicle through which faith in God is transmitted? If so, we've missed the point. What does it take for the church to become the place where people throw themselves down at Jesus' feet--not the church's feet--because church is the place where Jesus' saving work has been revealed? What does it take? More people with aprons.

 

Pleasant Surprise


I'm preaching at this evening's Eucharist, so that sermon will be the full post for today, but I wanted to take a few minutes to post about judgment. I was rereading Sunday's reading from 1 Thessalonians, and I noticed how Paul contrasts the day of the Lord's coming for those who are followers of Jesus and for those who are opponents of the Way: "When they say, 'There is peace and security,' then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness." In other words, the complete reversal that the coming of Jesus represents may catch the enemies of God off-guard, but, for those who follow Jesus, it will be a sort of pleasant surprise--not as a thief in the night but as a daytime unveiling.

We are in the middle of a three-week stretch when Jesus offers his disciples some challenging parables about judgment in Matthew 25. Last week was the parable of the ten bridesmaids, five of whom did not have enough oil and were shut out in the outer darkness. This week, we hear the parable of the talents and cringe when we hear that the one who was afraid and did not invest his talent wisely is stripped of all he has and cast out into the outer darkness. Next week, we will encounter the separation of sheep and goats according to whether we have cared for one another as if we were caring for Jesus. In case you don't remember any of these stories, allow me to summarize the ending of all of them: righteous people are rewarded while wicked people are punished.

That's judgment. These are some of Jesus' last words to his disciples, and he uses them to warn them about the upcoming judgment. He wants his closest followers--and the church that they will found--to know what is coming. The faithful, the persistent, the loving, the courageous will be rewarded. The wicked, the faithless, the self-interested, the fearful will be punished. That's what the Bible says. We don't have to like it. I'm pretty sure God doesn't care. This isn't just an isolated passage that we can ignore. This is central to Jesus' identity as an eschatological (i.e. "end-times") prophet. The Jesus Movement with which we love to identify is fundamentally eschatological, and you can't have eschatology without judgment.

Two days ago, I used Facebook to post a comment about judgment on one of Steve Pankey's blog posts this week. Like me, he has been wrestling with judgment these last two weeks. Several weeks ago, he shared another post with some pointed criticisms of the new website for the Episcopal Church, one of which was a criticism that I picked up on. The website says that we are a church that is free from judgment. That's a sentiment I understand and share, but it is worded rather carelessly. We may not be judgmental, but surely we believe in judgment. We are, after all, pretty big on that "Jesus Movement" thing (yes, still, after these two years). Anyway, since Steve had already offered a criticism of the church's website, I thought I'd drop that dead possum on his Facebook page to see what I might stir up. It could have been worse.

The point is that we have forgotten how to talk about judgment. We've lost our eschatological edge. And that's not just the Episcopal Church, though we're leading the way. Do Christians believe that the world is exactly how God intends it to be? No. Surely not. Do Christians believe that one day God will make all things the way God intends them to be? Yes. Absolutely. That's judgment. Anytime we skip a conversation, sermon, or blog post about judgment because we don't want to sound judgmental, what we're really doing is denying our hope that one day all things will be made new. That's judgment.

To the persecuted Christians of the first century, who could not imagine a day when they would worship God and follow Jesus without fear, it was the promised thief in the night who would catch the powers of the world unawares. To the slaves of the nineteenth-century American south, it looked like a new Moses coming to lead God's captive people into a Promised Land. To the present-day victims of violence, it looks like a prophet who will come and do what seems to be the impossible task of getting us to give up our arms and embrace peace. That's judgment. That judgment doesn't happen on human terms. We don't get to sit in judgment. That's what these three parables in Matthew 25 are about. God is judge. God the Father has yielded the divine-only authority to judge to the Son. The world will be judged, and that is very, very good news.

Why are we afraid of judgment? Why do we confuse judgment for judgmentalism? Maybe it's because we've started to recognize that, when the last day comes, we may not like what happens when the rich are made poor, the strong are made weak, and the oppressors are bound up in chains. Maybe we've replaced the gospel's judgment with our own criteria of wealth = blessing and might = right. The gospel is clear: the great day of judgment is good news for those who are on Jesus' side. Are we doing the church, the world, or ourselves any service by ignoring that? Don't we ignore it to our own peril?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Who Will Go?


Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Have you ever stood before a task so great that you were not sure you could even begin? Perhaps a relative died and left a house so full of junk that it would be easier (although illegal) to set the place on fire and collect the insurance payment. Or maybe you opened a box to find a gargantuan ball of tangled Christmas tree lights so intertwined that you decided to pitch it in the bin and go to the store and pay for a new set. Today, in Matthew 9:35-38, Jesus looks out at the masses of people who need his healing touch and has compassion on them because their need is so great and the task is so big that it's even hard for Jesus to know where to start.

After seeing the crowd was helpless and harassed, like sheep without a shepherd, Jesus says to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few; therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest that he would send out laborers into his harvest." In other words, twelve isn't going to cut it. Whether measured by the need or the opportunity, the number of people who wait for salvation--direction, healing, comfort, security--is so great that Jesus asks his disciples to join him in prayer for backup.

A few years back, the wheat harvest in our area was delayed. It had been a great season for growing wheat--just enough rain when it was needed--and the fields were full, but then it started to rain. The fields were wet and muddy, and the harvesting equipment couldn't go out and bring in the wheat. So the farmers waited. And waited. And waited. And still the rains came. If you leave wheat in the field too long, it begins to sprout and spoil, and the quality of the harvest goes down. Farmers were worried that, if the rain didn't stop, the bountiful crop would be wasted. Finally, the rain subsided, and the fields dried out, and farmers sent harvesters into the fields to bring in the wheat. But there weren't enough combines to do all of the work.

A combine harvester is the piece of modern equipment that is used to harvest a variety of grains. It combines the three primary functions of harvesting--reaping, threshing, and winnowing--into a single operation. As you might expect, they are expensive. A quick Google search suggests that a new combine might cost $400,000 to $600,000. I can afford a $200 lawnmower that sits idle in my work shed 6 out of 7 days, but most small or mid-sized farmers cannot afford a half-million-dollar piece of equipment that is only used for a week or two out of the year. So they share. Combines move across the country as the harvest season progresses. Most of the time, when the weather cooperates, there's enough time to get everyone's harvest. But, when all of the farmers want their wheat harvested on the same day, there aren't nearly enough. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. That's how God sees the world. Is that how we see it, too?

Today, we celebrate the consecration of Samuel Seabury, the first bishop in the Episcopal Church. At the Revolution, the Church of England had given way to the Episcopal Church, but there were still no colonial bishops. For more than a century, would-be clergymen would get on a ship and sail back to England, where they were ordained by an English bishop before setting sail back to the colonies. Anglicans on this side of the pond had begged for a bishop, but they never got one. Sometimes ordinands who returned to the comforts of Mother England never came back. The process was long. Some refused to wait, which is where the Methodist Church came from--a splinter group from the Anglican church that began practicing presbyteral instead of episcopal ordination. Eventually, when the Revolution was complete, leaders in the Episcopal Church decided that it was time for a domestic bishop, so they sent Samuel Seabury (their second choice) over to England to be consecrated.

Seabury spent more than a year seeking ordination as a bishop. He couldn't convince English bishops (it takes three) to consecrate him because he refused to take the oath required at his ordination and swear allegiance to George III. So he went north to Scotland and convinced the Non-juring bishops of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, who also refused to swear allegiance to George III, to make him a bishop. In exchange for their consecration, he agreed to do his best to pattern the Eucharistic prayer after the Scottish Prayer Book, including its epiclesis (invocation of the Holy Spirit over the gifts). Seabury's story is a fascinating one, but perhaps more important is the fact that we do not celebrate him as a saint but commemorate his consecration as a bishop. In other words, Seabury isn't the emblem of holiness that we celebrate. What we celebrate is the raising up of a shepherd, a laborer, to help identify and raise up more laborers for the plentiful harvest.

God sees the world as a bountiful harvest of souls waiting to know the saving love of God. Is that what we see when we look out at our neighborhoods, our communities, our nation, and the world? The word "compassion" means "to suffer with." Jesus suffers along with the crowds because the need is so great and the laborers are so few. Do we suffer with those who need to know the freeing love of Jesus? If we let them into our hearts and allowed our hearts to break, would we spend less time fighting over property and liturgy, building fancy churches, celebrating Sunday-morning worship, and carrying out the business of the church and more time making disciples for Jesus? As we commemorate the consecration of Samuel Seabury, let us pray that God would send out more laborers into the harvest. Let us pray that God would use us to identify, equip, empower, and encourage more people to bring the good news of the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Monday, November 13, 2017

How Do We See God?


How do you see God? That's one of the questions I ask when I meet with someone for spiritual direction. Do you see God as a parent? As a king? As a friend? As a judge? What image captures most fully how you approach the Almighty? The answer--and its evolution over time--can say a lot about someone's spiritual life. The supplications we raise to God who is our friend are very different than the requests we make of God the king. The answers we hear from God the judge are very different from those we hear from God the parent. Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 25:14-30) presents the parable of the talents, and it gives us a chance to explore how our understanding of who God is affects our participation in God's kingdom.

You remember the story of the master who entrusted his wealth to three servants before he went away. To one he gave five talents, to another two talents, and to the last one talent. Remember that a talent was a measure of precious metal--a big hunk of silver--that represented a phenomenal amount of money. The point of the parable is exposed when such ridiculous sums are given to the servants. When he returns to collect his money plus profit, we discover that the first and second have doubled the master's money, while the third has simply buried it in the ground. As we would expect, the first two are rewarded, but the third is punished. Why?

The little details in the story are easy to skip over but shouldn't be missed. For starters, notice that the master gave to each servant according to his ability. The brightest, sharpest, most industrious servant got five talents. The steady, faithful performer got two talents. And the last servant, presumably the one in whom the master had little confidence, received one. What does that do to the outcome? When your ability is defined from the outset and reinforced by the allocation of resources (think public schools that are funded through property taxes), what is the real possibility for overcoming the system's expectations?

Another important detail comes on the lips of the third servant: "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." This servant knew that he was most likely to receive the ire of his master. He was the kid who walked into class on the first day of school only to hear the teacher say, "Hello, James. I've heard all about you. I know you're going to be the worst student in my class. Take your seat." His master was the same master that the other two servants had, yet he is trapped in his fearful impression of him. He missed the opportunity to flourish because he anticipated punishment from the beginning. Is that how we see God?

From our first parents, we see that our human instinct is to hide from God because we are naked. Our shortcomings are exposed. Our misdeeds come to light. We worry that our God is a harsh God, who punishes to the third generation. If that is our picture of who God is, if we imagine him saying to us, "I will be back to judge you harshly," how will we ever flourish?

Jesus has another story of God to tell. It is one of love and mercy and forgiveness. The judgment in this parable is real, but it belongs to those who do not trust in God's generosity. To those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. We are not judged on the returns we make for God. We are judged on whether we rely on God's mercy. There is an opportunity for godly risk bound up in that trust--that faith--that will be explored later this week. To start, however, I'm reexamining the way in which I see God. Do I trust in his mercy? Do I count on his love? Or am I still approaching God expecting condemnation? Those who know love and mercy live in love and mercy. Those who do not cannot.