Thursday, November 30, 2017

God is Coming: Are We Scared or Relieved?

Lately, I have been studying Micah. It seemed like a fitting topic for a weekly Bible study that began a few weeks ago and will take us through Advent. There are, of course, the references to Bethlehem that make it feel like a timely text, but it also speaks to the beating of swords into plowshares and of a vision of justice and righteousness that made it feel particularly appropriate for this moment in our society. I didn't know that it would help me get a different glimpse at this week's reading from Isaiah 64 and the season of Advent more generally.

As Micah opens, the prophet speaks of the Lord's coming down from heaven to "tread upon the high places of the earth." The image of the Lord's arrival and the melting mountains and splitting valleys that accompany it is familiar to Micah's audience. That's what happens when God shows up--his power is manifest in the world. But what happens next threw everyone for a loop: "All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel...Therefore I will make Samaria a heap in the open country, a place for planting vineyards...For her wound is incurable, and it has come to Judah; it has reached to the gate of my people, to Jerusalem."

Before this, when a prophet announced the Lord's arrival, it meant victory for God's people. After years of struggle, Yahweh would arrive and rescue his people, delivering them with his might arm. At first, when Micah announced that the Lord was near, people got their hopes up. They were already under threat from the Assyrian Empire. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had either fallen or was close to falling. Micah's words gave them hope...until the other shoe dropped. What he disclosed was that the day of the Lord's coming was to be a day of vengeance upon the people of God for their sins. The destruction ahead of them--the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians and, eventually, the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians--was what happened when God showed up in power.

Nowadays, that's the image of the Lord's coming that we hear and expect. Not necessarily Samaria or Jerusalem's destruction, but the destruction of those who have not been faithful to God. On Sunday, when Isaiah calls to the Lord and says, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence," we get nervous. The so-called prophets of our era have scared God's people into thinking that God's arrival will be terrible, but that's not what Isaiah or Jesus or Paul have in mind. Isaiah speaks of God hiding his face from God's people because of their faithlessness. His arrival represents a time of renewal. The judgment was already enacted as God's people fell victim to the nations that surround them. The predicted arrival of God is a message of hope. The warfare is over. The struggle is finished. Yahweh will tear open the sky and swoop in to deliver God's people from their trouble.

How are we hearing the Advent message of the Lord's coming? When Jesus tells his disciples to "Keep awake" because no one knows when the master is coming, he isn't trying to scare them. He's giving them hope that at any minute the Lord will show up and rescue his people--in this case Jesus' followers--from the persecutions they face. Do we hear his words as a message of hope?

The Lord is coming. That seems clear. If we are on the side of God and God's people, that comes to us as a message of hope. If we are enemies of God and have been oppressing God's people, that comes to us as a deep and terrible threat. How are we hearing it? I don't know about you, but I want to be on God's side. If Jesus' words fill me with fear, maybe, instead of participating in the kingdom that he has inaugurated, I am working against it. It's not too late to switch sides.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Your Life's Call

The Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle - November 29, 2017 (transferred)

Usually, when I call my father, it is early in the evening as I am leaving the office or just getting home from work. I figure that he's finished with his day, and it's a good time for both of us to check in. Sometimes, though, I have an opportunity to call him in the middle of a work day, and those calls often catch him by surprise. "Hey!" he says warmly as soon as he picks up. But he almost always follows those words with an immediate "Is everything ok?"

Do you know that sinking feeling that comes when your phone rings at an odd time or the caller-ID displays the name of a distant family member and your mind right away begins to imagine what terrible thing has happened? Usually, they turn out to be nothing, but the power of fear in that moment is profound. Sometimes, when I'm at work or out of town, I get little glimpses of what it would take for me to drop everything and leave. If I were preparing to preach on a Sunday morning, what sort of phone call would it take for me to abandon my post, ask Seth to do his best at the last minute, and get in my car to go?  If I were on a Disney cruise with my family or in Europe with Elizabeth, whose funeral would have me booking a one-way flight to hurry back?

Today, as we remember St. Andrew the Apostle, whom the Orthodox call "Πρωτόκλητος," which means "first-called," I want to take that image of dropping everything to answer a call and flip it on its head from a moment of tragedy to a moment of pure joy. What would it take for you to drop everything in your life--your job, your house, your family--to answer the Lord when he calls?

In Matthew 4, we hear of Andrew and his brother Simon, fishing in their boat in the shallows of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus walked up to them and called out, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people." As the Contemporary English Version puts it, "I will teach you how to bring in people instead of fish!" And, as soon as they heard it, they dropped their nets and went with him. There's something dramatic and final about literally, physically dropping the net that represents your livelihood to follow Jesus. What was it about that call? What was it about Jesus? What was it about Andrew that gave him the courage and the confidence and the faith he needed to leave everything behind and follow this itinerant preacher?

Come and I will teach you how to bring in people instead of fish. What happens when God himself reveals to us that we are the one he has chosen to do God's work--not our neighbor, not our spouse, not that really committed churchgoer who always seems to volunteer for everything, but us? What happens when we discover that every day of our life, like a thread that stretches all the way back to our birth, has led us to this moment when God opens our eyes and lets us see where that divine thread stretches out ahead of us? What happens when Jesus walks along beside us, shows us that he has good news of God's uncontainable, saving love to share with the world, and tells us that we are the one he is asking to help him share it? What happens when we feel deep in our bones that answering that call is the only way our life will ever find its true meaning? Can we afford not to drop everything and say yes?

But first we have to hear that call. We have to see it. We have to know it as more than an invitation but as the very calling that God has placed upon our life. How do we know that? How do we, like Andrew, recognize it when it finds us? We pray. We make ourselves available to God every day of our lives through prayer. How will we hear our Lord's call if we do not spend time in his presence? How will we recognize the one who speaks to us if our hearts are not looking for him? Jesus is not waiting somewhere far away for us to go and find him. The Word of God is very near to us, even on our lips and in our heart. He has come beside us. He is calling us--not simply to do the work of ministry but to complete the deepest longing of our lives. May God give us the grace to hear that call, to recognize the one who calls us, and to follow him wherever he leads us.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Truly Musical Season

This post is also in today's parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. You can find that newsletter and more about what God is doing in and through the people of St. John's here.
Although we may prefer to skip over the message of judgment and apocalypse and jump straight to the road that leads to Bethlehem, Advent is a season of preparation for both Christmas and the second coming of Christ. How are you getting ready? There’s the tree to pick out or unbox. Decorations to pull out of the attic. Presents to buy or order online. A wreath to make and a menu to plan. But what about the second advent, the return of the Son of Man? How are you getting ready for that?

Clergypeople in our tradition often lament society’s tendency to overlook this season of anticipation by fast-forwarding to the savior’s birth or, worse, the supposed arrival of the chimney-sliding present-giver who bears little resemblance to his fourth-century namesake. Some of us are so fixed in our no-Christmas-until-Christmas mentality that, in response to a well-meant but perhaps premature “Merry Christmas!” our body language communicates an unspoken “Bah, humbug!” Although I bristle at the thought of dispensing with the inherent expectancy of Advent altogether, the music of this season has given me some space to let my guard down.

Music has immense power. With the right score, a film’s dramatic conclusion can bring tears to the eyes of even the least emotive movie-goer. A classic tune on the radio can transport us back to our senior prom or to our wedding. The right background music brings a celebratory note to a dinner party just as the wrong music can bring it screeching to a halt. During December, every store and every station seems to play Christmas music, but churches like ours play music of a different season.

While you can get a full dose of your favorite Christmas tunes in any number of places, if you want to hear “Joy to the World” in church, you will need to come on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or December 31. We will hear no angels heralding, “Hark!” and see no little towns lying still until we have arrived at the manger on the evening of December 24. This year, that distinction will feel even more pronounced as the Fourth Sunday of Advent falls on the same day as Christmas Eve. That morning, therefore, with the altar still bedecked in purple, we will hear the angel Gabriel tell Mary that she will give birth to God’s own child, and that evening, with the church transformed into Christmas splendor, we will gather at the manger as if nine months had passed in a single afternoon. It is enough to set spinning the heads of the Flower Guild, the Altar Guild, the clergy, and the congregation!

In the meantime, however, we are treated to some of the best music the church has to offer. We kick off the Advent season with “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,” and remind ourselves of God’s promised salvation by singing, “The King shall come when morning dawns.” Instead of angel voices, we hark to the thrilling voice of John the Baptist, who announces from Jordan’s banks that Christ is nigh. Throughout the season, we pine for the Lord who is God with us in the familiar words, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.” During this month, the music I hear on the radio fills my heart with pre-Christmas joy, but the music we share in worship prepares me for the joy that is still unfolding and that is yet to unfold, the joy of the promised fulfillment of all God’s promises.

In our parish, that countercultural celebration is not for us alone. This Sunday evening at 5:00 p.m., we join with many from this community in that spirit of anticipation as we bring our hearts and minds to God in our annual Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols. We hear eight readings from scripture, none of which complete the nativity but all of which anticipate the Lord’s coming. The choirs of St. John’s and Good Shepherd will be joined by the choir of Ascension in Birmingham as they sing of God’s promises. In that service, our prayers beg God to make right all that has gone amiss in our hearts, in our community, and throughout the world. If ever there was a time when God’s people needed to gather in anticipation of God’s salvation, it is now. So, come. Wait and watch with us. Let the music of Advent lift your soul into heaven’s courts, where you remember all that God has promised. Let this music make space in your heart not only for the savior’s birth but also for his longed-for return.

Monday, November 27, 2017

New Year, Same Story

This Sunday marks the transition from Year A to Year B in our lectionary. We've spent most of the last liturgical year (Advent through the Season after Pentecost) in Matthew's gospel account. I make it no secret that his is not my favorite. In part, that's because Matthew is harsher, rougher, than his other three counterparts, but mainly it's because the other three have charming qualities about them that Matthew seems to lack. Mark is direct and sparse, leaving the biggest conclusions up to the reader. Luke is compassionate and poetic, offering some of our favorite underdog stories that are found no where else. John is...John, far-reaching and perhaps overstated. Matthew is none of those things. Matthew is just Matthew.

After three weeks of judgment parables from Matthew 25, I'm ready for a change. I'm ready for a different tone. I'm ready for Mark, which is my favorite account. I'm ready for Advent. I'm ready for...

More judgment? Sigh. Yes, of course. The last three weeks have featured parables about the coming of the Son of Man, who will judge the world, and this Sunday's lesson from Mark 13 is largely more of the same. Go back and read Matthew 24 and then compare it with Mark 13. Both are private words spoken only to the disciples. Both begin with a foreboding description of destruction. Both end with parables that urge the disciples to be prepared for the coming judgment. I'm starting to wonder whether we've changed anything at all. Instead of going forward, we've actually gone back.

Keep watch. Be on your guard. You do not know when the time will come. These are the words of Advent. They have also undergirded the gospel readings we have heard over the last several weeks. Are we supposed to hear them any differently during Advent? Does the season change the ability of our hearts and minds to hear them? As we await both the coming of the Son of Man and the commemoration of the coming of the Son of God in Bethlehem, do we encounter these words of judgment from a different perspective?

While it's a mistake to ignore Advent and make these next four Sundays merely Christmas-prep, I also think it's a mistake to think that the changing season doesn't shift how we hear the announcement of the judge's coming. This is a season of joyful expectancy--not fearful waiting. No matter how hard the preacher tries to help a congregation hear Jesus' words of sheep and goats with joy, that can be an impossible task. Advent, however, opens up new possibility. I'm reading the words of Isaiah 64 as a timely and desperate plea for God's intervention. That helps me hear Mark 13 as a promise of salvation. The biblical context might be the same, but the liturgical setting has shifted. May we hear the announcement of judgment with joy and not fear. Perhaps the proper preface says it best:
Because you sent your beloved Son to redeem us from sin and death, and to make us heirs in him of everlasting life; that when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, we may without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing.

Let Love Make You God's Sheep

November 26, 2017 – The Last Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

As a student at the University of Cambridge, your entire degree depends on how you perform on your final exams. There are no grades for essays. There are no grades for midterms. And there are no grades for attendance. It’s all or nothing right at the end. You are allowed to go to any lecture you want if you think that it will help you get ready for your finals. So, as a seminarian, when I saw that the University’s Veterinary School was offering an entire lecture series entitled “Sheep and Goats,” I gave a passing thought to showing up.

There are few distinctions as clear in the mind of the casual Christian as the one between sheep and goats, yet, as both a veterinary lecture and today’s gospel lesson would remind us, the differences aren’t all that obvious. The picture books we read as children suggest that sheep are fluffy white cotton balls while goats are slick, lean, bearded creatures, but, in fact, without a careful look at the ears or lips or tails, they can be very difficult to tell apart. A few years ago, the NPR series “Goats and Soda,” which features stories from the developing world, published a story with a picture of what the photographer, photo editor, and creator of the series all thought was a goat, but, when NPR’s lead Africa correspondent, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, saw it, she sent the creator an e-mail to say, “That’s a pic of a sheep, not a goat!”[1] Apparently, it’s an ancient problem, too. Jesus tells us that, when the Son of Man comes to judge the nations of the earth, even the sheep and goats themselves will be surprised to discover who is who.

In these parable-like words to his disciples, Jesus makes it clear that, although the criteria for judgment is obvious, no one is prepared to hear what the judge will say. Those at the king’s right hand, when invited to enter the kingdom prepared for them, are confused. “When did we see you hungry and give you food or thirsty and give you drink?” they ask the king. “Whenever you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” the king replies. In the same way, those who are at the king’s left hand, when they learn that they are being cast into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” are shocked to discover that they neglected to care for the king by neglecting to care for others in need. If only Jesus would tell us which needy people are members of his family and which ones we can ignore! But it’s not that easy. The really scary part of this passage about judgment is that no one seems to know whether he or she is a sheep or a goat until it’s too late.

Before you lose any sleep, however, remember to whom Jesus is speaking when he says these words. He’s not talking to the crowds or to his opponents. He’s speaking exclusively to his disciples—to his closest followers, to those who know better than anyone else what it means to give their lives to the service of the king. I think that changes the way we’re supposed to hear these words. They aren’t delivered as a challenge to those who want to get into the kingdom but as an identity check for those who think that they’re already inside. Jesus isn’t telling us that, if we want to go to heaven, we had better offer a glass of tea and a turkey sandwich to every needy person we come across in case one of them happens to represent Jesus. As noble as it may be, you can’t get to heaven by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or visiting those who are sick or in prison. But, if you think you already belong to that kingdom yet do not know what it means to have a heart that seeks to serve others in Jesus’ name, there’s a disappointing surprise waiting for you when the king comes.

There’s a dangerous apathy that lurks near those who believe in God’s unconditional love. The controversial message that Jesus brought to the world was that all people belonged in God’s sheepfold. His words to outsiders and outcasts was the fulfillment of the prophet’s promise: “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.” It doesn’t matter whether you are a paragon of righteousness or a symbol of sin, Jesus shows us all that God is searching for us because God wants to welcome us into his kingdom. Belonging to God isn’t something we make happen. It’s God’s work—God’s choice of us. But, when we take that choice for granted and lose sight of what it was that brought us into the kingdom in the first place, we cut ourselves off from the transformation that God offers us in Jesus, and that is the transformation that the kingdom demands.

In the story of the sheep and goats, Jesus asks his disciples to search their hearts to see whether they know what it means to belong to God’s kingdom. Have their lives been changed by the call that God has placed upon them? Have their hearts been transformed by God’s unconditional love? That is the question before us today. It’s not to ask whether we have done enough good to belong in God’s kingdom but to ask whether our lives have been so transformed by God’s love that they have become worthy of it. If we believe that we have been chosen by God regardless of who we are and what we have and how we have lived our lives—if that becomes the basis of our hope for our everlasting future—then we will show the fruit of that faith in how we care for those in need. In the eyes of those who believe in unconditional love, every person in need demands our full response. The hearts of those who have been transformed by that limitless love are already poured out for the sake of others just as God’s own heart has been.

Today, I invite you to examine your life. Don’t ask yourself what you believe with your brain. Instead, ask yourself what your life says about where your heart belongs. If you do not know what it means to care about the needs of the world as fully as you care about your relationship with God, this might be an important wake-up call for you. But don’t make the mistake of trying harder to do good. You cannot know the transformational love of God by trying to work your way into receiving it. God’s love and acceptance of you is a free gift. Don’t undermine that gift by trying to pay for it. Instead, let the magnitude of that gift take root in your heart. Give yourself over to the reality that you are loved not because you deserve it but simply because God chooses to love you. Let that truth work in your heart until your heart is remade. Let God transform you from the goat you so often are into the sheep God calls you to be. Ruminate upon the mystery of God’s unconditional love until all the distinctions between who belongs to God and who doesn’t fall away. Believe in the power of that love until you cannot tell the difference between serving God and serving the least of the members of God’s family. Then you will know what it means to follow Jesus into his kingdom.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Transformative Gratitude

This post is also an article from The View, the weekly newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, Alabama. To read the rest of the article and learn about St. John's, click here.
At a hospital bedside, I watch the fear that family members hold melt away when the person whom they love responds to their expressions of anxiety with words of gratitude. In my office, I hear someone struggling with grief make a small but significant breakthrough when they discover again what it means to be thankful for each day that God has given them. In my own heart, I see deeply held resentment and the intractable relationships that it has infected soften when my prayers shift from petitions for a change to thanksgiving for a reality.

Gratitude has the power to change us and our circumstances. Even though it is at its core an acceptance of a situation, a spirit of thanksgiving may be the most effective way to transform an otherwise hopeless condition into an opportunity for new life. In fact, as the first of the twelve steps of recovery reminds us, it is acceptance that is the first step toward change. Before an addict can turn his or her will and life over to God (step three), ask God to remove his or her shortcomings (step seven), or make amends (step nine), that person must first admit a fundamental powerlessness over a situation. Such an admission is not the same thing as gratitude, of course, but the same acceptance underpins both of them.

As the word implies, thanksgiving is a transaction of sorts. In return for the thing of value that I have received (a meal, a hug, a compliment), I respond by giving gratitude. The word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratus, which means pleasing. In other words, when you give me something nice, I acknowledge the pleasure I have gained from your gift and return some of it to you. I might say thank you with words, or I might return your casserole dish with a few homemade cookies in it, or I could make a donation to a local charity in your name, but, whatever the medium, giving thanks is about acknowledging the receipt of something that did not originate with me and offering a sign of appreciation in return.

In grade school, we made hand-print turkeys and decorated the finger-traced tail feathers with objects of gratitude. Family, food, freedom, and friendship were likely choices for the feathers. This Thanksgiving, what if, instead of four feathers of thanksgiving, we filled a whole turkey with markers of gratitude. A Google search suggests that a mature turkey may have as many as 3,500 feathers.[1] Can you name even a hundred things for which you are grateful? What happens when that list grows from the dozen or so easy answers to more subtle statements of gratitude? What happens when we run out of things we like and have to start listing the things we usually take for granted? What happens when we exhaust that list as well? Might we even mention the objects, names, or circumstances that we would rather forget?

Near the back of the Book of Common Prayer, there is A General Thanksgiving, which begins to embrace this wider concept of gratitude: “We thank you for the blessing of family and friends…We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts…We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone” (p. 836). What happens when we begin to approach God with gratitude for the disappointments and failures that we would just as soon forget? What happens when, instead of slapping away the hand that has dealt us those frustrating moments, we search for ways to respond to them with appreciation?
Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. Many of us will celebrate with family and friends and too much food. Some of us, however, will not. Whatever our situation, how might true thankfulness open up new pathways for blessing? How might we use the power of gratitude as a vehicle for the transformation that God is enacting in our lives, in our community, and in the world?

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 fiancée 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


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.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Wait Upon The Lord

November 12, 2017 – The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 27A
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
Occasionally, one or two of you will come out of church and tell me that the sermon I have preached was written just for you. That’s nice to hear, of course, but we both know that it isn’t true. “That’s the Holy Spirit’s work,” I often say, and I trust that if you feel that kind of direct connection with the sermon it’s because God is moving powerfully through both of us in ways that neither of us could anticipate. I don’t craft a sermon for anyone in particular, and you don’t come to church so that your individual needs can be addressed. Instead each of us offers ourselves to God and, in so doing, asks God to speak to us and through us. If the preacher makes you squirm, maybe it’s because you needed to squirm a little bit. If the preacher gives you hope, you probably needed some hope.

In today’s gospel lesson, however, Jesus isn’t speaking to anyone. He’s speaking to you. And he’s speaking to me. During the last six weeks of readings, Jesus has addressed his words mostly to those outside his inner circle—to Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and elders—but today he tells a parable of the kingdom directly to his disciples. He isn’t challenging those who questioned his authority. He isn’t pointing out the flaws of the hypocrites. He’s asking his committed followers to consider whether they have what it takes to enter the kingdom of heaven. He’s asking us, “Do you have the faith necessary to follow me into my Father’s kingdom?”

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five of them were wise.” Notice how Jesus makes the distinction between them from the beginning of the parable—not as a judgment on their actions but as a defining characteristic that explains how the two groups will behave. And what distinguishes the wise from the foolish bridesmaids? The wise took extra oil for their lamps, but the foolish took none. Then, when the bridegroom was delayed, all of them slept. Both the wise and the foolish, they all became drowsy and dozed off. The test of kingdom-worthiness, therefore, is not one of whether they could stay awake but whether they were prepared for a delay.

When the bridegroom came, the call went out, and all of the bridesmaids awoke and trimmed their lamps in preparation for the feast. In horror, the fools discovered that they did not have enough oil to last through the festivities, and they begged their wise counterparts to share with them, but this wasn’t a Hanukah miracle. There wasn’t enough oil to go around. So, at the urging of the wise bridesmaids, the foolish ones went out into the marketplace to buy some for themselves, but, by the time they had returned, the wedding feast had begun. The doors were already shut. It was too late.

It is easy to conclude that the moral of this story is a first-century equivalent of the Boy and Girl Scout motto: be prepared. But being a faithful disciple of Jesus isn’t about carrying an extra flask of oil, bringing an umbrella on a cloudy day, or having an emergency kit in case a tornado hits. The issue that Jesus raises in this parable isn’t one of preparedness but of relationship. When the foolish bridesmaids knock on the door and request entry, they were not turned away because they were late. Instead, the bridegroom says, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” The fools found themselves excluded from the wedding feast not because they were poor planners but because they never knew and loved the bridegroom in the first place.

What makes a good bridesmaid or groomsman? Well, what are the responsibilities entrusted to a wedding attendant? You have to buy the terrible dress or rent the matching tux. You might be expected to coordinate the bachelor or bachelorette party. There is a good chance you’ll need to make a speech when you toast the happy couple. And you certainly need to show up on time—on time to the shower and the luncheon and the rehearsal and the ceremony. But what else? A truly faithful bridesmaid or groomsman is one who is devoted to the bride or groom. When something goes wrong, the faithful groomsman is there to fix it. When something goes missing, the loyal bridesmaid is there to find it or get another one. When the rehearsal starts late, the faithful attendant doesn’t sneak out the back door to take a phone call. When the sermon goes on too long, the devoted attendant doesn’t pull his cell phone out to check the football score. The bridesmaid or groomsman who truly loves the bride or groom is one who, for the span of a wedding weekend, puts everything else aside and spends those days focused only on the needs of the bridal couple.

How are we waiting on Jesus? The kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five of them were wise. The wise ones didn’t want anything to get in the way of their duties, so they brought extra oil just in case. I have never been to a wedding that didn’t start on time, but, to these bridesmaids, it didn’t matter how unlikely a delay was. Their wisdom is a product of the love that they have for the bridegroom. It never occurred to the foolish bridesmaids that they would need to bring provisions. They bought their dresses. They brought their lamps. They showed up on time. What else did they need to do? With them, something was missing. They came to the wedding feast expecting to enter on their own terms. Their folly was thinking that all they had to do was show up.

Jesus has brought all of us to the threshold of the kingdom. God has prepared a place for us at that great messianic wedding feast. But we cannot simply show up. We cannot participate on our own terms. We must be utterly and unequivocally devoted to the one who has called us to the banquet. A fool is someone who has built his or her life around nonsense, who lives each day without any bearing on the truth. It is folly to think that we can follow Jesus into the kingdom when and where and how it suits us. This is not our wedding. It belongs to God. But we are the ones who have been invited and entrusted with the sacred responsibility of serving as God’s chosen bridesmaids and groomsmen. Will we be faithful to that calling?

Do not forget what it means to be faithful. Thanks be to God that we are not judged on whether we get it right all the time. Sometimes we lose our focus and fall asleep, and, still, we have a place in God’s kingdom. But those who do not know the bridegroom—those who do not know what it means to love our Lord so completely that their whole lives revolve around him and his invitation—cannot know what it means to live in the kingdom of God.

When the fulfillment of the kingdom and the arrival of the bridegroom are delayed, it is easy to forget that we owe our lives to the one who has promised to return and bring us into God’s celebration. It is easy to think that we get to choose our own priorities and set our own schedule. “Keep awake,” Jesus says. “Be vigilant.” Not because Jesus might return at any minute but because he might be delayed a long time. We must keep watch for the one who is coming. We must let our every day, our every night, our every word, our every action be one of availability for God. We have been called to wait upon the Lord. Only those who truly know the bridegroom and honor the one who calls them by devoting their whole lives to that call are found worthy of the kingdom of God.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Whom Will You Serve?

Monday through Thursday, I usually post a reflection on either the Sunday lectionary or the text of a midweek sermon, but I have been out of town for the first part of this week. It seems like I'll only have one chance to reflect on the difficult gospel text on which I am scheduled to preach this week. The good news, however, is that I had a long car ride with Jack Alvey, a clergy colleague, and we spent a good bit of that time discussing the parable of the ten bridesmaids.

I am drawn to the way in which Matthew introduces this parable: "Jesus said, 'Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.'" He doesn't wait for us to see what happens before labeling the bridesmaids as foolish or wise. He let's us know from the beginning that whatever unfolds will revolve around this distinction. We know nothing of the wedding, the bride, or the bridegroom. We don't know where they come from or where they're going. All we know is that the insight into the kingdom of heaven that we are to be given will be displayed in the distinction between five foolish bridesmaids and their five wise counterparts.

As the story unfolds, we discover what makes them foolish or wise. The foolish took their lamps but did not bring any extra oil with them. The wise thought ahead and brought extra oil along just in case. The bridegroom tarried (see the KJV and the Greek text for this deliberate delay on the part of the bridegroom), and all ten slept. Note that the distinction between the wise and foolish is not presented as a consequence of the nature of their alertness. As much as Matthew 24 is full of Jesus' warning to keep watch and the reward of the kingdom is given to the "wise and faithful" servant who anticipated his master's return at any minute, this parable presents all ten as falling asleep. Sometimes the kingdom is delayed so long that even the wise and faithful doze off.

When the bridegroom arrives and the bridesmaids are aroused, the foolish ones find that their lamps are out of oil and that they have no extra fuel with them. There is not enough to go around, and the wise virgins send their counterparts out to procure some more, but, while they are gone, the feast begins, and the foolish maids are left out in the dark. "I do not know you," the Lord says to them.

So what is the difference? What makes the wise bridesmaids wise and the foolish ones foolish? Is this as simple as being prepared? The universal slumber suggests to me that they aren't rewarded or punished for their urgency. Historically, the oil has been regarded by theologians as faith--that the wise virgins are those whose faith sustains them during the long delay--but I'm looking for a way to put that distinction back toward the beginning of the story where Matthew and Jesus put it. Faith isn't just something that some people have when hard times hit. Faith is something that changes the way we begin the story--our story.

Although the paring is not thematic, the Track 1 lesson from Joshua 24 helps me understand more fully the distinction between wise and foolish. "Choose this day whom you will serve," Joshua says to the people of Israel. Will your lives revolve around the gods of your pre-Abraham ancestors, the gods of the Amorites who live in the land we are entering or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? To whom will you owe your allegiance?

Faith isn't merely persistence through difficult times. Faith is having a trust-relationship with God that changes our life. The foolish are those to whom it never occurs that the bridegroom might be delayed. The wise are those who not only prepare for that possibility but are thus shown to be completely attuned to the bridegroom's arrival. Like a faithful twenty-first-century bridesmaid, the wise are those who serve the bride and groom by making themselves completely and totally available to them and the celebration that has been entrusted to them. They don't schedule a conference call for an hour before the ceremony. They don't have car trouble on the way to the church. They don't pull their cell phones out to check the football score during the reception. A faithful attendant is 100% committed to serving (attending) the bride and groom. That's the life of faith. The question Jesus is asking is whether we have faith like that.

It is foolish to let the wisdom of the world govern your life. The world's false wisdom says that we are in control of our lives, that we serve our own schedule and priorities. God's truth is different, and the truly wise are those who make God's truth the focal point of their lives. They are the ones whose service, life, and direction belong to God no matter how delayed the kingdom may be. What will the organizing principle of our lives be--ourselves or God? That's wisdom the wisdom of faith and the folly of self-reliance.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Love Makes Us Children of God

One of the refrains to which I return frequently in my sermons is to remind us that we are children of God. Even though the parental metaphor brings some baggage with it, it seems to resonate with most of us. When we hear someone say, "You are God's daughter," or "You are God's son," it opens up to us the possibility that we are loved by our Creator in a real, relational way. And, as we see in the reading from 1 John 3 on All Saints' Day/Sunday, it is God's love that has made us God's children: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are."

This is a different sort of childhood. When I meet with godparents for some instruction before a baptism, I borrow from my boss in Montgomery and remind them that, while most children grow up expecting their parents to love them, a godparent has the opportunity to remind the baptismal candidate of God's unconditional love by being another non-parental adult in his/her life who loves for no reason except love's sake. That's how God loves us--not because he has to or because of some societal expectations but because God does, because it's God's nature. God does not love us because we are God's children. We are God's children because God loves us.

John reminds us, "The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know [God]." Those who know what it means be children of God know what it means to be loved beyond one's lovability. The world, by which John means everyone else, has a hard time seeing that. It's hard to believe that one can be loved like a child by one who is not a parent. It's hard to know a love like that when such a love makes no sense.

I love my children because they are my children, but we are God's children because he loves us. The love comes before the relationship. The love invites the relationship. Our belonging to God is not a product of our birth or of our behavior. We are God's children because God loves us. That means our relationship with God doesn't depend on us. It depends on God. There's nothing we can do to get more of God's love, and there's nothing we can do to lose the love he has for us.

We should be called children of God, for that is what we are. Why? Because of the love that God has given us. We have been chosen by God as God's children, and God has chosen us out of love.