Grace Presbyterian Church
November 19, 2017, Pentecost 24A
First of all, we have to define our term.
The term that is given as “talent” in your Bible is in Greek talanta, a term that doesn’t translate for us because it is a term for a specific amount of currency. Most scholars agree that one talanta or “talent” would be a sum of money equivalent to the accumulated wages that an average day laborer of the time could expect to earn over the course of fifteen to twenty years. Given the life expectancy rates of the time, you’re easily looking at a lifetime’s wages being entrusted to even the slave given only the one talanta. So, understand first that these three slaves in the story are being entrusted with very large sums of money. What they are asked to steward is extremely valuable.
Now also notice that this parable does not open in the same way as the first parable found in this chapter, the subject of last week’s sermon. In that case the parable is introduced with Jesus saying “For the kingdom of heaven is like this.” Straightforward. Seems simple. This parable, on the other hand, picks up from verse 13 – “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” – with a rather more ambiguous opening: “For it is as if a man, going on a journey …” with no reference to exactly what “it” is in this case. Given the parable and in particular its testy and accusatory final section, maybe this isn’t the “kingdom of heaven” we’re looking at here. It could, though, still be – like last week’s parable – about living in the time between, the waiting for the kingdom to be revealed in its fullness, perhaps. It’s not hard to argue that the two do have the same point – our waiting is not passive; we continue to work; we continue to serve; we continue to act.
But you can start a good argument in biblical scholarship circles by asking whether the wealthy traveler in this parable is actually meant to evoke God, or even Jesus. His interactions with the “one-talent slave” don’t look very Jesus-like to us, if we’re honest with ourselves. At least we hope we don’t encounter Jesus blasting us as a “wicked, lazy slave” and calling for us to be cast into the “outer darkenss, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” But I wonder… .
I wonder if perhaps the strongest “unlearning” we need to do with this parable is to ask ourselves these talents in the parable – these talantae – are really supposed to mean.
An allegory – defined by Merriam-Webster as “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures or actions of truths or generalizations about human existence” – can become less meaningful if we reduce it to something like a metaphor or simile – “this is that,” or “this is like that”. Once allegory is opened up, on the other hand, the potential meanings of the different symbols in the story can multiply and lead in directions we may not expect. So, what do those talents – the five, the two, the one – potentially stand for?
Over the centuries, sadly, Christian thought has tended to reduce the multiple possibilities of this allegory to only two: money – a reflection of the original meaning of the word – and talents – our English appropriation of the word to describe the natural intelligences, aptitudes, or capabilities of an individual.
On the surface there is nothing wrong with either of these representations. This passage is often enough appropriated for “stewardship sermons,” and that’s not necessarily a wrong reading of the text. It’s not as natural as it might seem, though. Note where Matthew has paced this parable in his account of Jesus’s ministry. For one, it’s right after that parable of the bridesmaids from last week, and before the famous parable of the sheep and goats (next week). Financial stewardship is certainly appropriate to think about as a part of how we live (and we certainly do talk about it that way plenty in September and October), but this series of parables still seems an odd context for Jesus to start talking about money. Furthermore, the next thing to happen after these parables in Matthew’s account is Jesus’s final journey to Jerusalem. The anointing of his feet at Bethany, the preparations for and sharing of that last meal together, the trial and crucifixion and what comes after – in other words, what happens next is Holy Week. Again, in this spot, it seems an odd time for a stewardship sermon.
As to talents, even if the original word has nothing to do with our modern usage, it seems unlikely to be an exhaustive thing for Jesus to talk about with what he knows is coming.
Again, neither possibility is necessarily wrong, but they don’t seem terribly exhaustive. Certainly these are not the only gifts God gives us “for the living of these days,” to borrow the words of an old hymn?
Maybe our reading of this parable is too limited. What if we think of all of the gifts and blessings with which God has gifted us? What are the other parts of our lives we are called to steward and invest and oversee and bring back a 100% return on God’s investment in us?
What about our time? How do we “invest” our time to bring about that return? Are we studying the scriptures? Are we in prayer, meditating on God’s call to us? Are we serving God by serving God’s children? Or are our hours getting choked away in pursuits that are, even if good and even helping the church, pursuits that are not bringing about God’s call in each of us and in all of us together?
What about our minds? How do we “invest” our minds to bring about that return? Are we again studying in God’s world? Are we paying attention to the world around us in order to hear how God calls us to work and serve our neighbors, or to work and serve with our neighbors? Are we opening ourselves to the truth that sets us free? Are we being “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” as the Apostle Paul wrote (Romans 12:2)?
What about our voices, or even our witness? How do we “invest” our witness to bring about that return? Do we bear the gospel with us readily? Are we ready to give “an account of the hope that is in you,” in the words of 1 Peter (3:15)? Are our voices heard when injustice is not only perpetuated, but tolerated and even winked at? Is our witness heard when hatred is not only tolerated, but is enshrined in the highest halls of power our land has to offer? Do we speak up with hope when the world teaches and preaches despair?
Here’s the thing: when we don’t “make these investments,” people are hurt. The body of Christ loses when we don’t invest our time together. The world loses when our minds are not renewed and transformed in service to God. People suffer and are oppressed and impoverished and even killed when our witness goes silent. And while it might be hard for us to imagine, it would not be that hard to imagine Jesus’s grief, Jesus’s anger even, when those things happen. Maybe even “weeping and gnashing of teeth” kind of anger.
How are we investing our money? How are we investing our abilities and talents? But also how are we investing our time and our minds and our witness and all of the gifts that God has given us, each according to our own ability?
For good return on God’s investment in us, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #612, We Praise You, O God; #716, God Whose Giving Knows No Ending; #719, Come, Labor On; #701, Take Thou Our Minds, Dear Lord
Grace Presbyterian Church
November 12, 2017, Pentecost 23A
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.
If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. 1 Corinthians 3:18-19
When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise too flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” Matthew 26:40
But at midnight there was a shout: “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”
A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench… Isaiah 42:3
But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us;
Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. Matthew 5:42
you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21
And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came.
And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp nor sun, for the Lord God will be their light… Revelation 22:5
and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet;
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first. Matthew 19:30
and the door was shut.
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 23:13
Later, the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard. Proverbs 21:3
Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I don’t think I am unduly telling tales out of school to observe that some scripture passages are more challenging for preachers than others. Not to say that any scripture is ever all that easy to preach, mind you; even a favorite like Psalm 23 presents a challenge to the preacher if only because it is so well-known and beloved that it can be hard to find something to say about it at all.
But there are passages that are challenging for different reasons. Some passages are challenging because of what they have to say. Sometimes it’s puzzling, sometimes it’s a hard word to hear, and sometimes (especially if you wander over to Revelation) its just flat difficult to make any sense of it.
And then there are passages like this parable from Matthew 25. This presents a different kind of struggle; the struggle to create a sermon on a passage when you can’t shake the memory of scriptures like the ones you’ve just heard, even some from this very gospel, that point to some very different conclusions than the scripture at hand today.[i]
It just feels…off.
The point here is not to dismiss this parable. For one thing, the Revised Common Lectionary insists on bringing it around at least once every three years, and who knows how much Christian education curriculum will also include this story. Besides, it’s not our place to toss out scripture that disturbs us. There is something to be learned from this parable. It might also be, though, that after decades or even centuries of reading and hearing it, there might also be some things the church needs to unlearn as well.
It’s perfectly appropriate to come away from this parable having learned that we don’t want to end up like the foolish bridesmaids, lacking oil for their lamps and hunting for a 24-hour Quik-E-Mart in first-century Israel. On the other hand, the wise bridesmaids are not necessarily objects for our emulation either. Nowadays that extra oil might qualify them more for an episode of Hoarders or Doomsday Preppers or some other “reality” show and less as examples for our emulation. At minimum, it’s one thing to be “in,” but there is simply too much weight of scripture against them to celebrate figures that play a role in keeping others “out.” The parable cannot become an excuse to turn into hoarders of the gifts of God, whether physically or spiritually.
We might also want to re-think what it means to wait for the Lord. Somehow it seems to have snuck into the collective subconscious on this parable for many decades or even centuries that the foolish bridesmaids were somehow at fault for falling asleep, and therefore not being ready for the coming of the bridegroom. Of course, the problem with this is that the parable explicitly tells us “all of them became drowsy and slept.” (25:5). The so-called “wise” bridesmaids were just as conked out as the foolish bridesmaids. Yes, we need to “keep awake” as Jesus says at the end, but that can’t be what brought shame to the foolish bridesmaids if the wise bridesmaids did it too.
We need to steer clear of any interpretations of this parable that foster or encourage an “us against them” mentality. There is no “insider” vs. “outsider” contrast here; no “Christian” or “un-Christian,” no “saved” vs. “lost” in the way we church folk tend to define things. All of the bridesmaids are part of the same wedding party; they all are invited guests. Only the lack of lamp oil causes the foolish bridesmaids to be left out. Now this ought to chill us a little bit, but Matthew has already cited Jesus as saying this same thing much more clearly and explicitly in chapter 7; “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 7:21) There are many who talk the talk, to put it in modern slang, who will find themselves on the outside looking in because they didn’t walk the walk.
So what do we learn from this? No matter how difficult or challenging the story might be, is there something we should be taking from this parable as a positive instruction for our lives?
The Australian theologian William Loader puts it this way:
It is about sustaining the life of faith. … Having had lamps in hand which burned well once is no guarantee they will burn in future. Having the status of being Christian, even being a light bearer, means nothing if it is not a continuing part of our being. Many who were first will be last (20:1-16). Matthew is interested in enabling people to live in a relationship with God which has continuing significance and continuing life.[ii]
Light bulbs have to be replaced (even the fancy new energy-efficient kind, eventually). Flashlights need new batteries. The oil in our lamps needs to be replenished, and regularly.
That oil, that fuel for a life lived in Christ, is not replenished by spiritualized words and lofty-sounding pronouncements. It is not replenished by calling ourselves “Christians” over and over again (or denouncing those we disagree with as un-Christian). It certainly is not replenished by checking off lists of do’s and don’ts, carefully drawing lines to make sure “we” are “in,” and “they” are “out.”
We refuel our lamps by plunging into the work of God. We refuel by entering into worship, not as an accommodation to our whims and tastes, but as a desperately needed encounter with the God who drives us out into the world to do God’s work. We refuel not by brandishing the Bible as a club with which to beat “outsiders,” but by diving into the scriptures to understand God’s call upon us, to seek in Jesus’s life and work our own life and work. We refuel by opening ourselves to the unpredictable and unsettling movement of the Holy Spirit, who calls us in ways we cannot expect or predict.
In the end we do wait, but not passively. We act because we are called by a merciful and gracious God who wants no one left out. We serve, because we know what is to be the foolish bridesmaids, fumbling in the dark with empty lamps, but also because we know what it is to be the “wise” bridesmaids, fearfully refusing our treasure to those who need it so much more, hoarding the very Spirit we were meant to share.
We wait by feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting, but we also wait by questioning why there are so many who need feeding and clothing and welcoming and visiting. We wait by offering our thoughts and prayers in times of tragedy, but we also wait by demanding action to prevent those preventable tragedies and taking action to prevent them from ever happening again. We wait by being the body of Christ, by walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Anything less is a robbery of the God who calls out of darkness into light, who calls us to love God with all we have and to love neighbor as self.
With lamps trimmed and burning, with lives fueled by God’s love moving through us into the world in word and deed, we wait.
For faithful, active waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #611, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee; #362, Rejoice! Rejoice, Believers; #771, What Is the World Like; #350, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning
[i] These examples and more from David Henson, “The Breaking of the Bridesmaids: Rethinking a Problematic Parable (Lectionary Reflection),” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/davidhenson/2014/11/the-breaking-of-the-bridesmaids-how-scripture-undermines-a-parable/ (Accessed November 9, 2017).
[ii] William Loader, “First Thoughts On Passages From Matthew In the Lectionary: Pentecost 22,” http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtPentecost22.htm
Grace Presbyterian Church
November 5, 2017, All Saints’ A
Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3
It is one of the quirks of the liturgical calendar that Reformation Day (which we marked last week) and All Saints’ Day fall on consecutive days, October 31 and November 1, respectively. They would seem in many ways to be quite different occasions, maybe even incompatible in the eyes of some. The Reformation of course marked, in the long term, a reaction against and ultimately departure from the larger church and many of its practices, and most (though not all) Protestant groups disposed of the practice of venerating saints in their attempts to distance themselves from the practices of that larger church. In other words, most Protestant church traditions don’t have “saints” in the formal sense.
But of course we do have “saints.” We may not use the title, but we most certainly do have “saints.” And you know of whom I am speaking.
We as a congregation have borne the departure of these souls from our fellowship since this time last year. Each played a different role in the life of this congregation, and yet each lingers on among us in memory, in the nurture and teaching and support we received from them, and in some cases in the tangible reminders of their presence among us, such as the pieces of art Ray Ferguson contributed to the worship and fellowship life of this church.
The word “saint,” still, is intimidating to us. We might, at our imagination’s most vivid moments, conjure up a scene something like that found in today’s reading from Revelation, the “great multitude … from every nation” found exulting in the salvation of God, rejoicing and praising and worshiping constantly. It’s a glorious scene to be sure, but not necessarily one in which we see ourselves; as the one elder describes them as having come through the “great ordeal” (likely a reference to early examples of persecution finding its way to the early church), we realize that, generally, that’s not us – we don’t know persecution for our faith. We just don’t.
But that’s where the account from 1 John comes in. Sometimes thought to be the by the same author, the epistle reading is rather different in its style (but then, very little in scripture is like Revelation in style). Written to a church that has apparently suffered not persecution but division, this letter focuses on getting through such trials as we do face, and doing so in a way that gives off visible evidence of being those who are “called children of God.”
This very short passage still makes that point we need to hear; we really are children of God, even if the world doesn’t see it. But then, if the world doesn’t know what God looks like, how would it know what a child of God looks like? What we will be, we don’t know; but what we know is that on that day, whenever it may be, that God is at long last visible and revealed to us … “we will be like [God], for we will see [God] as [God] is.” This is the hope we have in us.
Of course we don’t get there by our own superhuman will. All that goes into becoming whatever will become is a gift of God, as Paul would jump in to remind us at about this point.
So, we go forward. We “press on,” to borrow a phrase from the choir’s anthem today. One thing both of today’s readings remind us is that, to borrow another popular phrase, “the best is yet to come.”
The risk of an occasion like All Saints’ Day is that we get caught up in glorifying the past. That’s particularly a risk for a church like hours, where that list of those who died in the past year seems to become more painful and more devastating every year, and we are tempted to get caught in nostalgia for their days with us in this church.
But the “glory days” of the body of Christ are not back there. They’re not behind us; they are still ahead. Anything in this earthly life is not going to be “glory days,” folks. We may not know what the future of this congregation or any other congregation is going to be, but we know what the future – what the hope – of the body of Christ is.
And so, we press on. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #326, For All the Saints; #324, For All the Faithful Women; #369, Blessing and Honor; #295, Go to the World!
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 29, 2017, Reformation
The Church Under Repair
Today we are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.
Of course this is wrong. We are celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of one particular branch of the Reformation, or more precisely yet, one key event in one particular branch of the Reformation – an event which, to be sure, may not have happened quite precisely in the way it is often depicted, and which (if it happened that way) happened five hundred years ago Tuesday, not today. Still, five hundred is a big round number, and quite possible to ignore.
But, to keep things accurate: it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther, then a young-ish German monk assigned to teach classes on scripture at the University of Wittemburg, first promulgated his ninety-five theses, or arguments, on the corruptions of the church and the need for reform. The theses were definitely sent to his superiors at the Vatican; popular lore also says he nailed a copy of those ninety-five theses to the door of the church at Wittemburg, as depicted in a number of popular paintings, though more concrete documentation of that event is not so easy to come by.
It would not, contrary to some portrayals of the story, have necessarily been a scandalous thing to do to use the doors of the church for such a purpose; in a still-rather-medieval town like Wittemburg, those doors were quite possibly a virtual bulletin board for the town, and Luther’s biggest difficulty might have been clearing a space to post his own rather substantial document.
The corruptions charged by Luther included such practices (under the guise of raising funds for building projects) as the selling of indulgences, something that smelled way too much like buying forgiveness to Luther. His theses enumerated scriptural and moral arguments against that and other practices, and called for a sweeping reform of the church to eliminate such corruptions.
Luther was a pretty unlikely candidate to trigger such an upheaval; much of his adult life had been consumed with nearly crippling self-doubt, he being convinced that he could never be good enough for God. The supreme irony of Luther’s career is that the study of scripture his new teaching vocation demanded of him had the effect of convincing him, ultimately, that he was right; of his own efforts he never would be good enough; a passage like today’s reading from Romans (as well as several others from that book) showed him that he was saved not by any work or effort of his own, but only by the great gift of God’s grace. So liberated, Luther found the nerve to bear witness against the all-powerful church even at the cost of his own excommunication, and thousands of others found similar courage to follow into something new and unknown,
Luther does teach us a lesson, one applicable even to us modern Christians; things don’t change if we don’t speak up. Whether perpetrated by church, corporation (unknown to Luther, of course), or government (or by the thoroughly unholy alliance of all three), injustice and corruption aren’t simply going to go away by themselves. Followers of Christ are obliged to bear witness – to speak out – against those injustices, no matter how pervasive or powerful, and no matter how much it costs us our standing in our community.
Let me repeat: followers of Christ are obliged to bear witness – to speak out – against injustices, no matter how pervasive or powerful, and no matter how much it costs us our standing in our community. Otherwise we’re fooling ourselves. After all, the word “protest” is embedded in the name “Protestant.” It’s in our spiritual D.N.A., so to speak.
Of course, Luther’s “reformation” was not the only one that took root in the church during this period. John Calvin was all of eight years old when Luther promulgated those theses, but by 1536 (at age 27) he produced his monumental theological treatise Institutes of the Christian Religion, which became a bulwark of the branches of Protestantism that include those various traditions that bear the term “Reformed” in their names, as well as our own Presbyterian tradition via Calvin’s Scottish admirer John Knox. The work of Ulrich Zwingli and others also played a role in Reformed theology: the Second Helvetic Confession found in our own Book of Confessions is a Zwinglian document. The Anglican Reformation would take root some decades later, and Methodism would evolve out of that tradition about two centuries later under the leadership of John and Charles Wesley. So, in short, the Protestant Reformation was no one-time thing.
Sadly, no branch of the Reformation can claim any innocence of its own corruption. For many centuries Lutheranism drank far too deeply of Luther’s own anti-Semitism, which long outlived him and was, useful to the Nazis in their consolidation of power in Germany in the twentieth century. The theological extremes of Calvin and Zwingli (predestination comes to mind) were easily twisted into harsh and destructive theologies that we are only now coming to grips with.
Calvin might look at passages such as those from Jeremiah and John as evidences for the sovereignty of God – the absolute freedom of God to do as God wills, unbound by any theological or other bind. It is ironic that his descendants have preached some of the most oppressive theologies against that sovereignty, claiming God to be “bound” to send person X to hell or give you great riches if you just say the magic scripture and pray the magic prayer. (I exaggerate, but not as much as you think.) Where such preachers seek to bind, the scripture found in John points to quite the opposite – “if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” It resonates in such doctrinal ideas as the “priesthood of the believer”, the idea that every person is both free and responsible to minister to one another in the name of God and to, in the words of 2 Timothy, to present himself or herself to God as “a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.” It’s an idea that every Protestant tradition somehow manages to claim as unique to itself.
In fact, the history of pretty much every reformation is one of taking such words of scripture and, often after a good start, failing to live up to them. Hence Calvin’s famous instruction that the church was to be “reformata et semper reformanda” – “reformed and always being reformed.” To be brief, we are – or always need to be – under repair. Being composed of fallible human beings, churches will fail, and must be constantly challenged to return to the scriptures and to be under the charge of the Holy Spirit to reclaim our calling, in order to live into whatever challenge might await God’s church over, say, the next five hundred years or so.
If we take today’s psalm seriously, we have in our God a strong fortress, a “bulwark never failing” in the words of the famous him we will sing shortly. We are never abandoned by God no matter how much we abandon God.
If we take today’s reading from Jeremiah seriously, we are under the watchful care of an all-sovereign God, a God who yet in the midst of such sovereignty and power knows us, and places in each of us nothing less than knowledge of him, writing on our very hearts.
If we take today’s reading from Romans seriously, we know that despite our deep sinfulness, we are preserved and redeemed by Christ, who is faithful to be the mediator of divine grace even unto death on a cross – a death that could not in the end keep him.
If we take today’s reading from John seriously, we are free. Free, that is, in Christ – we are freed from sin, freed to continue in the words of our Savior, free to know the truth.
None of these were new at the time of all those reformations. All of them are as old as the scriptures those reformers fought to put in the hands of followers of Christ and to teach and preach. It’s fair to say, though, that perhaps those ideas had faded a bit from the church’s collective memory, and needed to be refreshed. It’s on us – all of us – to reclaim all of those legacies, as well as the legacy that give us our name “Protestant.” It’s time to speak up. After all, a little reformation now and then is a healthy thing.
For a legacy, and for repair of that legacy, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #624, “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art”; #451, “Open My Eyes, That I May See”; #275, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”; #305, “Come Sing, O Church, In Joy!”
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 22, 2017, Pentecost 20A
Uncertainty, Glory, Goodness
In the movie When Harry Met Sally, there are over the course of the film a number of scenes, separate from the plot, in which couples, mostly couples who have apparently been married for some time, tell the stories of how they came together and fell in love. One of the stories stands out from the others because this couple, unlike the others, was brought together in an arranged marriage.
In telling their story, he (she never spoke) described how he had never seen his future bride at the time their marriage was arranged. He did not complain about a marriage being forced upon him (it was part of his culture), but he was distressed at not knowing what his bride looked like. Finally he describes how he snuck out one evening and made his way to her village to see her; once he had, he was very happy to go through the wedding. But his earnest insistence – “I had to know;” “I had to see her” – stood out among those happy couples.
Silly as it might seem, that movie clip is a pretty good summation of how we human beings react in the face of uncertainty, the stressful and unpleasant business of not knowing. It’s the unknowability and unpredictability that gives a sporting event its particular tension; can my team score one more run, sink one more basket? In other situations it’s not such a benefit to our enjoyment of life.
It’s one thing in a movie. In real life, I have to admit I’d have been pretty stressed if I had never met Julia before our wedding day. There are situations, though, in which our human urgency to know, to be sure, leads us astray. We feel compelled – we feel entitled, even – to know exactly how things are, what they mean, or what comes next.
In today’s lesson from Exodus we see one example of how that urge for certainty works, and sometimes causes us humans to ask things of God that simply are not ours to have. The story at this point follows one of the lowest points of the whole Exodus narrative: when Moses took longer than expected to come down from the mountain, the people prevailed upon Aaron to gather up all the gold from among the Israelites and fashion a golden calf, a tangible image to stand in for the God who always remained just out of sight. You might remember that one of those commandments God had given to Moses forbade exactly that kind of thing – no graven images, remember?
The fearfulness of the people – their uncertainty in the absence of Moses and the unknowability of God – led them to demand an image they could see and touch – and control, to be honest. No longer able or willing to maintain faith in God, they resort to the kind of idols and statues they had no doubt seen many times back in Egypt.
Fear is a powerful force against faith. In fact, fear and faith, some say, don’t really coexist; the former tends to drive out the latter when it is left unchecked. In the case of the Israelites it certainly seems to have overcome their trust in God and Moses too.
Given the horrific sin of the golden calf, God (who does talk like this in Exodus) is ready to be done with the Israelites once and for all, to wipe them away and start over, making a new nation from Moses as God had done with Abraham many generations before. It is left to Moses to intercede for the Israelites, and he does so forcefully. First he demands to know that God will go with the Israelites, not only not wiping them out but continuing to be with them directly as God has done so far. Moses and God engage in some hair-splitting as to whether it is sufficient for God to be with Moses, or if God must be with all the Israelites. Even when God seems to acquiesce in Moses’s demands, Moses keeps pressing for more, and God keeps consenting more.
To be fair, Moses is in a difficult position. He can no longer trust the people. Not only have they committed the grave sin of idolatry, they have shown themselves to be profoundly unreliable and willing to turn against Moses at the drop of a hat. However, he also knows that if God disposes of the Israelites, or if God abandons them on their journey, they don’t stand a chance. Moses pleads with God, not just for his own sake, but also for the sake of the people. But again, there is fear involved. Moses fears for the people, but Moses also fears for himself and even for God.
And again, fear provokes Moses to go too far.
Earlier in Exodus Moses is described as speaking to God face-to-face, but this seems not to line up properly with how other parts of the book describe their encounters. In most cases, such as in the delivery of the Ten Commandments, God is described as speaking to Moses directly, but not visibly—God is usually obscured in clouds or otherwise somehow concealed from Moses. For Moses to ask God directly to “show me your glory” as in verse 18 is to ask for the obscuring to be wiped away, and to see God literally face-to-face.
God’s response to Moses is instructive, in a way that Christians of all times have tended to forget or ignore. Think of how one sees God portrayed in, say, paintings or movies. Dazzling, even blinding light, and all in white, of course, perhaps with a halo or aura of some sort. And in a movie, God is given a deep, commanding voice, like Morgan Freeman’s for example.
Now think of visual portrayals of Jesus. Paintings of Jesus’s earthly time tend to “glorify” him in some way. A halo again, or impossibly white robes despite being out on a dusty Judean highway. The oh-so-perfect face, dazzling hair, the bluest possible eyes (despite the fact that a citizen of that region of the Mediterranean is pretty severely unlikely to have blue eyes!); everything about the image is “glorified,” if not whitened.
Despite it being a basic tenet of our theology, we aren’t always comfortable with the idea of a human Jesus, doing human things. It’s as if we have this subconscious notion that a human Jesus is not a holy Jesus. A Jesus who eats or spits or scratches his head or any number of other peculiar human things somehow seems irreconcilable with the Son of God. We tend to want to keep Jesus obviously holy, even distantly holy, in our visualizations.
Moses is pushing for something similar here. By asking to see God’s glory (the word for “glory” is excruciatingly similar to the word for “face” in Hebrew, by the way), Moses is asking for the privilege of seeing God in the most God-like way possible. Dazzling, glorious, unmistakably God is what Moses wants, and God says no.
God will not show Moses glory; God will show Moses goodness; God will show Moses what it is to be merciful and gracious; but God will not show that elusive glory.
You would think we would have gotten the message somewhere along the way. What God wants us to see, what God wants to know of God, is goodness, mercy, grace. These are the things God wanted Moses to see; these are the traits Jesus showed in his ministry on earth; these are the traits we are meant to live out in following Christ.
And yet we keep asking for glory.
How best to put this? It is not our calling to bask in the glory of God, direct or reflected or any other way, and we certainly don’t get to hide from the world in seeking God’s glory. Our calling is to live out God’s goodness towards one another and to God’s good world. Our calling is to extend God’s mercy to those who – like us – fall short, who keep ending up in sin no matter how much we claim God’s redemption. Our calling is to abide in God’s grace, and to extend that grace to the people and the world around us.
And yet we keep asking for glory. While putting up roadblocks to God’s grace, and being as unmerciful as we can to those we dislike, while living as far away from God’s goodness as we can, we dare presume upon God’s glory.
At least the Israelites had the decency to be afraid after they built their golden calf. We prop up all manner of images and idols for our adoration and don’t even bat an eye about it. Wealth, fame, power, youth, for sure – but that just scratches the surface of the ways we practice forms of idolatry in routine, everyday ways.
Take what’s going to happen about an hour after this service ends, in six or seven or eight football stadiums across the country, just before the players go on the field and literally beat each other senseless, that flag over here will be presented, the anthem will be played, and those players will be expected to pay their obeisance to that flag, and if they don’t do so properly according to “the authorities,” they will be condemned. Folks, that’s idolatry, whether we like it or not.
Or take what happened here in our own town just this week. If you don’t think Richard Spencer has made an idol of whiteness, you’re not paying attention.
And even amidst our adoration of these graven images, we dare presume upon God’s glory.
What God wants from God’s people, primarily, has been framed many different ways. “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God,” says the prophet Micah. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” says Jesus himself in the gospels. “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” says Paul, “so that you may know the will of God.”
This is what God wants fearful, angry Moses to see. This is what God wants the mistrustful, weak Israelites to see. This is what God wants us to see: what it looks like to live in God, what it is to live in the way that God calls us to live. While we keep demanding glorious dazzling light and constant stroking of our fearful egos, God wants us out there living grace and mercy to one another and to the world.
For a God who shows us goodness when we ask for glory, Thanks be to God. Amen.
“God Blessing the Seventh Day,” watercolor, William Blake. Honestly, the more depictions of God one sees, the more that whole “no graven images” commandment sounds wholly intelligent and sane.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #81, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken; #438, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me; #582, Glory to God, Whose Goodness Shines on Me
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 8, 2017, Pentecost 18A (Stewardship)
How Not to Give (or Live)
It’s a curious story, and as is often the case, Matthew tells it particularly curiously.
It is told in the gospel of Mark, which was written before Matthew, but his author provides some details and wording that Mark does not, resulting in particular lessons for us that are emphasized to a degree that they are not in Mark (or in Luke, for that matter, which also tells this story; Luke is the only gospel that refers to this man as the “rich young ruler”).
I’m guessing the outlines of the story are familiar, “rich young ruler” or not. The young man comes to Jesus asking about eternal life; Jesus, after a sly remark about being called “good,” instructs the young man to “keep the commandments,” emphasizing the later commandments about interpersonal relations; the young man says he has kept those all his life, and Jesus instructs him to go an sell all he has and give it away to the poor, and to come follow him; the young man goes away sorrowing, because he has a lot of stuff (and presumably doesn’t want to sell it). The story is capped with some dialogue between Jesus and the disciples, dialogue that includes that famous line about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
The outline is indeed familiar, but Matthew does include some distinctive details. For example: while Mark and Luke merely depicting the man asking what he had to do to receive (or “inherit”) eternal life, Matthew phrases the question differently; “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” I suspect Matthew’s version might resonate even more strongly for us modern-day Christians; whether Christians admit it or not, so many times the practiced theology of so many, both churches and individuals, uncovers the secret, even unspoken conviction that we are just fine with Jesus, or Jesus is just fine with us, if we do a few prescribed “good deeds” for some poor unfortunate soul.
Both Paul’s letter to the Romans, where we’ve spent the past few months, and the forthcoming five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, much of which was inspired by Martin Luther’s intensive study of precisely that book, call out the lie inherent here. Our salvation is by grace – God’s grace – alone; no deed of ours will ever contribute one whit to our “being saved.” (The later letter of James will remind us that if indeed we are saved, our lives will show it in the deeds we do, but those deeds reflect our salvation; they do not procure it.)
While Jesus could easily have pursued that theological argument, he was far more interested in the soul of this young man asking this (evidently sincere, but still misguided) question. His return with the prescribed commandments (with his own formulation summary, “love your neighbor as yourself”) draws forth (again distinctive of Matthew’s account) the stark admission of emptiness from the young man – “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” All the rigorous rule-keeping and the hole in the soul is still there.
Jesus’s challenge to the young man is not a universal proclamation. It is not an order that every follower of Christ sell every possession. What it does instead is challenge our understanding of what we hold dear. For some it is indeed their “many possessions.” For others it might be a particular possession, or simply accumulation of wealth.
To be sure, there are certainly non-physical or tangible things that can possess us the way this man’s possessions possessed him, and on another week given the awful and horrific headlines that have besieged us every day, those things probably would have taken over this sermon.
For one thing, I know Dorothy has been waiting for a “stewardship sermon.” We are rapidly approaching that Sunday on which we ask of you a pledge of financial support for this coming year of the church’s life. At the beginning of services this month you have heard and will hear of the various outreaches supported by this church to some degree through your gifts, regular and planned or special and extraordinary.
Preachers hate, and I do not overstate – I mean hate – preaching stewardship sermons. (A preacher who claims otherwise is not to be trusted.) In no small part they are profoundly uncomfortable to preach because it’s impossible not to be aware that part of what you are seeking in preaching a “stewardship sermon” is … your own salary. And it’s impossible not to feel that your own salary is probably too large a portion of the church’s budget, if you have a conscience. So yeah, it’s uncomfortable. It’s also not terribly thrilling to acknowledge that much of that budget the stewardship campaign seeks goes toward decidedly mundane things: paying the electric bill, keeping the grass mowed, getting the copier fixed so these bulletins can be printed, and so forth. Not exactly the stuff of thrilling oratory, no matter how practical or necessary.
And yet, keeping those mundane things going, keeping our fiscal house in order and the bills paid, are utterly necessary, and doing so involves a pledge to keep our priorities in order, to avoid being so consumed by some possessions or other that we do not contribute to the upkeep of the body of Christ, that we avoid the “I” that so consumed this rich young man questioning Jesus and remember the “we” that gathers here in this space weekly, as well as those members of the “we” that can no longer be with us physically but most certainly remain part of “we” in spirit.
By no means do I encourage you to give in order to “save yourself.” That’s not Jesus’s message to the young man, and it’s not Jesus’s message to you. By no means do I encourage you to give in order to assuage any guilty conscience you might feel. That doesn’t work either, and that is no less guilty of being “works righteousness.” By no means do I encourage you to give for any reason that begins with “I” or “me.” Give for “we.” Give for the edifying of the body of Christ. Give for the work of ministry. Give for the proclamation of good news.
Honesty compels me to acknowledge that this time of year – this “stewardship campaign” season – will not be the only time we ask for money or other donations over the course of a year. You know this; why pretend otherwise? There are, for example, some particular needs and opportunities that this congregation will likely be asked to extend extra generosity towards in the upcoming weeks, beyond this “stewardship campaign.”
We found out this week that a couple, formerly part of this congregation, was severely impacted by Hurricane Irma’s passage through Gainesville. In short, they lost everything, and have very little recourse to recovery. They are in need, and what is not relevant is to worry how they came to leave this congregation; what is relevant is the call to take care of one another.
There’s a new mouth to feed in one of the families in this congregation, as you may have noticed or heard. It wasn’t something they were expecting, to say the least, but what is not relevant is the particular circumstances of how this infant came to be with them; what is relevant is the call to take care of one another.
There’s a young woman in this congregation (same family, even) who has a spectacular opportunity to spend a year in Europe as a part of her ongoing education, an opportunity to engage, besides straightforward book-learnin’, in growing into “maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ” to quote Ephesians 4:13. It’s not an opportunity that comes to everyone, and what is not relevant is that the pastor will be fully consumed with one of the Seven Deadly Sins (envy); what is relevant is the call to aid in the nurture and growth of this one of our own and to take care of one another.
I have no doubt that your well-demonstrated generosity will rise to these occasions, but first our generosity must rise to the call of taking care of the basics. Pledge cards aren’t fancy or thrilling, but pledging does call upon us to avoid the self-centered trap of the rich young man, and to pull together as the body of Christ, each contributing and giving and supporting to the best of her or his own ability.
For keeping the lights on, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #692, Spirit, Open My Heart; #706, Commit Your Way to God the Lord; #708, We Give Thee But Thine Own; #697, Take My Life
With hearts broken and uplifted, let us raise our prayers and requests before the Lord our God.
In hope, let us pray for the church, here in this place and everywhere it is planted…
Lord, teach us your church to pray always. Let us never capitulate or stoop to “thoughts and prayers” that are not immediately followed by deeds of love, to build up all those you claim as your children.
God of mercy, hear our prayer.
In hope, let us pray for this earth, the creation you made and called good…
Form in us, Lord, the will to be good guardians of what you have given us. Teach us what is yours, and how to care for it without destroying it and ourselves.
God of mercy, hear our prayer.
In hope, let us pray for the nations of the earth…
Raise up leaders among us, Lord, who do your will in spirit and truth, and do not merely invoke your name for their own selfish pursuits. Give us your people discernment in choosing leaders, in lifting our voices in the public sphere, and in bearing true witness to you in all we do and say.
God of mercy, hear our prayer.
In hope, let us pray for this community in which we are planted…
Show us, O God, this place as if for the first time. Teach us to live without fear in a community we may no longer recognize, and to see the face of Jesus in all we meet.
God of mercy, hear our prayer.
In hope, let us pray for those in need in our community and among our beloved…
We pray for those who have suffered loss of all they know; who suffer illness or injury of body or mind; who are lost and isolated and alone; who are cut off from you through their own doing; who cry out for love. Show us how, in this place and time, to put those prayers into action.
God of mercy, hear our prayer.
God of grace and glory, give us your wisdom to follow these prayers into the world and to be your witness to all we meet, in deed and word; we pray in the Spirit through your Son, Christ our Lord, who taught his disciples to pray like this: Our Father … Amen.
Grace Presbyterian Church
October 1, 2017, Pentecost 17A
(World Communion Sunday)
The Ragtag Banquet
(plays a few notes from mbira)
This instrument goes by different names, depending on what part of the world is playing it, but in my grad school days I learned the name mbira. In more vernacular or slang terminology you’ll also hear it called a “thumb piano.” I could also describe it as an idiophone, which means that the instrument itself vibrates to make sound, and also as a lamellaphone, referring to these small metal “tongues” that make sound when plucked. It most likely originated in eastern and southern Africa, and it or its variants can often be found in those regions or areas populated by migration from those regions.
I’ll also tell you this mbira isn’t particularly “authentic,” since I got it at Epcot.
I can’t really play the mbira. I can pluck at the metal tongues and get sound to come out, but I can’t really do so in any way that makes anything you’d call music, and I certainly couldn’t do so in any way that would work for making music with other musicians. You see, an instrument like this is best used with musicians playing other mbira, and not in unison; in fact, the mbira is at its most mesmerizing and fascinating when it is being played along with one or more others, playing at cross rhythms to one another – two or more rhythmic patterns that on the surface, to our Western ears, seem to have nothing to do with one another or even to be incompatible with one another, but when the players “lock in” and are playing their melodies and rhythms, become utterly hypnotic to hear unfold. With the addition of other rhythmic instruments, it is transfixing.
In short, mbira players need each other to make the best music they can.
[Ed. note: in case you’ve never heard such music, here’s a YouTube sampler of it.]
It’s hard not to think of this and find all sorts of truth from which the church can learn. I do think today’s reading points us to one of those truths of life in the faith that might not be as obvious to us sometimes.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’s parable presents us with a king who is bound and determined to throw this banquet, no matter what. The preparations have been made, all is ready, and … the subjects of the kingdom, the privileged ones invited to the feast, start making excuses and begging off. When the king reiterates the call to the banquet, those privileged ones become even more determined to refuse the invitation, some responding with violence to the king’s servants who deliver the call.
Still, the king won’t be deterred, opening up the banquet to what might generously be called “the least of these.” Matthew even informs us that those servants brought in “both good and bad” to fill the banquet hall. But when one of the guests turned out not to be wearing the prescribed wedding garment (a robe the king would have provided for all the guests in ancient Middle Eastern cultures), that guest was cast out in the harshest way possible.
And remember how Jesus introduces the parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king…”
That’s uncomfortable for us. We’re shocked by the violence. We’re shocked at the treatment of the one unexpected guest who wasn’t wearing the right clothes. But maybe we’re most shocked at being thrown together with such a ragtag jumble of folks, “good and bad.” We’re uncomfortable at such extravagant, even overindulgent inclusion on the part of a king (or The King) whom we are convinced chooses only the Right People to be part of the banquet. Instead we have to share the table with people who might offend us.
So it is at this table.
Despite the church’s best efforts, God calls people to this table with whom we don’t really want to share the table, don’t really want to share “the gifts of God for the people of God,” people we desperately want to think we are better than.
And yet the church needs all of those people. Rather like those mbiras that only really work when all of them are playing those tricky and difficult cross rhythms, the church only really works when all of us – a whole world of us – are playing our parts, sounding our rhythms, and the Spirit is weaving and locking those seemingly disjointed and incompatible rhythms into something divine, a thing of ultimate and heavenly beauty.
It is God who gives us those rhythms, those gifts of the Spirit, those individual places in the body of Christ that are all needed in order for the body to live and move and serve. I is God that gives the “wedding garment” – the Spirit living in us and through us to be what we are called to be, to be part of the ragtag banquet that is nothing less than life eternal, the banquet of which this table is but a tiny foretaste.
Come to the table, put on your robe, and join the feast.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #509, “All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly”; #508, “Come to the Table”; #506, “Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!”; #511, “Come, Behold! the Feast of Heaven”
An addendum from the table:
These t-shirts you see on Aidan and myself come from that Multicultural Youth Conference this summer, way out in Texas, and contain the theme of the event, “Strange? – Gospel,” and a reference from Acts 17, in which the intellectuals of Athens ask to hear Paul speak because he said some “strange things,” and they want to know what he means. It’s good for us to be in a place where not everybody looks like us, where maybe even nobody else looks like us. It’s good practice for the kingdom of heaven.
I think the term “Strange? – Gospel” also applies fairly well to this parable we’ve heard today. It is certainly strange – all those invited guests of the king turning away their invitation, bringing in all the riffraff for the banquet (including us), the one guest thrown out for refusing the king’s hospitality. Strange, yes, but also gospel; it is good news indeed for those who are brought in for the feast, for those who put on the robe and gather at the table and feast in the presence of the Lord.
This clearly is not a banquet table. Still, here it does hold good things: a world of good things, in a way. Corn and sweet potato and a pumpkin from the good ol’ USA, yes, but also bananas and a pineapple from Honduras, mango from Mexico, papaya from Brazil, and even a golden kiwi from New Zealand are here. A croissant, a lovely French delicacy, sits side-by-side with naan bread characteristic of India. This of course barely scratches the surface of what good foods might grace that heavenly table for which we long in the deepest corners of our souls. Some of everything, from some of everywhere; it sounds like a feast from a King who throws open the doors and calls all subjects to come. It’s a good thing to remember on World Communion Sunday.
You are invited, after the service, to come and “partake” of the feast; grab something and take it home. Sometime this week, when you eat what you take, remember that ragtag banquet, remember that crazy king who brings us all in, and give thanks.