Search This Blog

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November 9, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 25:1-13
1st Reading: Amos 5:18-24
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Are you one of those people who likes to be prepared, who is always ready well ahead of time and has everything organized? Or are you one of those people who always puts everything off until the last minute? Or maybe you fall somewhere in between. I remember being so frustrated with my fellow seminarians who would be up until 2 or 3 in the morning the night before a test studying, or finishing a paper because they put it off. That just seemed ridiculous to me. I almost always started papers well ahead of time and nowadays I always have a draft of my sermon on Thursday, or I can't enjoy my day off. I know several pastors who's sermons are bouncing around in their head all week. Then they come in early Sunday morning and put it all down on paper. I tweak mine on Sunday morning, but you're not going to see me sitting down to a blank page that day and starting then. That would make me anxious.

I could congratulate myself for being wise and put others down for being foolish, but maybe it is more that I am nervous and they are more relaxed. Or it could be that we each have our own style and process that works for us, so we are all wise. And even when I am well prepared, sometimes things happen to ruin all my preparations, and I have to think on my feet or scramble to get something together.

For the early Christians, they were expecting Jesus' return any day. They had been told that some of them would live to see it happen. Now, 40 or so years had passed and people were starting to die and others were getting anxious and others were forgetting about Jesus' teachings and going back to their old ways. They weren't acting like wise people prepared for Jesus' return. So Matthew tells this parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids and being prepared.

Being prepared for what? Is this ultimate salvation that these bridesmaids are getting in on or missing out on? What are these early Christians preparing for? What are they gaining or losing by being prepared or not? I have a hard time thinking of the bridegroom as Jesus, locking the foolish, wedding-crashing, latecomers out. We attend more than one wedding in a lifetime. I tend to think this is more about missing celebrating with Jesus. Sometimes we are unprepared to meet Jesus and go to his party. That doesn't mean we'll be unprepared for the next time he appears among us. And it certainly doesn't mean that he's locking all us foolish ones out of heaven. Hopefully we'll learn from our mistakes and either bring more oil or share our lamps or not let ourselves be distracted from the party to go off and get oil.

What does the oil represent? Is it faith? Is it a changed life? Does it matter? What do we need to have a lot of, in order to wait? I'm not sure we know. But I will say, if this is about Jesus coming again, and not having enough of something stored up to last until he did come again, since we're still waiting 2000 years later, it is hard to imagine having enough oil or food or anything to last that long. Not knowing how long of a wait we're talking about, how can anyone be completely prepared?
Now who here is really wise or foolish? Can you call someone wise who won't share her lamp with her sister? Can you call someone wise who sends her sister away to go get more oil, knowing that the Bridegroom could be coming at any moment? Can you call someone foolish for bringing enough but not packing extra? Can you call someone foolish for allowing herself to be shamed and distracted and convinced to leave the vicinity of the party to go off on this errand?--ok, maybe we can say yes to that one. The question for us is this, if we are prepared, are we willing to help others who might have been a little more foolish and share what we have, either the oil or the light? If we feel unprepared, are we willing to wait it out without our light, knowing that the light of the world is coming to illumine our way? Or might we be willing to ask for help, for someone to share their light with us so we don't have to wait in the dark? Can we keep a focus on our Savior Jesus, however he appears to us—as a groom, as a child, as a person with ebola, as a person who is hungry or filthy or weak or undocumented? Will we stick with keeping our watch, however prepared or unprepared we are? Or will we be distracted telling our unprepared sisters and brothers to go jump in a lake, shaming them and sending them on an unnecessary errand? Will we be distracted by those who would shame us, telling us we didn't bring enough and go off to find it instead of staying to find that very thing we are there for, the presence and joy of Christ?

Jesus Christ came to us, the most unprepared of all. He came as a baby. He had no language, no clothes, no defenses, no knowledge. He grew up with no royal title, no crown or throne, no status. As an adult, he had no place to lay his head, no armed forces to command, went long periods without food, was followed by foolish disciples and women no one had a kind word about and finally surrendered all that he had, even his very safety and his body over to death, no dignity, no privacy, no pardon, finally no breath. So completely unprepared. Yet, he had what mattered most—he knew who he was in God's eyes, and he lived and understood his calling to love others and to serve those who are rejected and hated.

In God's eyes, all our preparations must seem silly. We must seem quite foolish, whether we are under-prepared or over-prepared. And notice all the bridesmaids fell asleep. We all get tired. Yet, we are all invited to the party. We are all invited to be near Jesus. We all get another chance to try again and learn to share and not be distracted. We are children of God and guests at the wedding feast, and so are those around us, prepared or not. We get to extend the invitation by our words and actions so that others know they are invited and we are especially encouraged to share our light, or Christ's light, so that we can all enjoy the party, together.
So what is it that distracts us today from seeing Jesus in our midst? Funny to go back to the Old Testament reading this morning. Some things never change. The real point is seeing “justice roll down like waters and righteousness, or goodness like an ever-flowing stream.” But we get distracted by our solemn assemblies, and our noisy songs. We think that our worship is the place Jesus mostly is, and when we worship, we always hope that it isn't the actual hymns or musical instruments, or colors of the day, or pews or the pastor preaching from the pulpit or down in front. Actually, worship should strengthen us to meet Jesus in our everyday lives. It should renew us so that we use our time and energy to share all we have and bring justice to those who never get a fair shake.

I probably spend too much time on Facebook, but I had my latest chuckle on the ELCA Clergy page when one pastor suggested switching church buildings with another congregation for a season to get us out of the worship we all get caught up in, of our own spaces and buildings. I just love thinking like this, about the chaos, but not just all the confusion, but of meeting Christ there and what we would see about ourselves and how we get distracted by things that don't matter and miss Christ standing right in our midst. I love it, in theory. I would certainly be as discombobulated as the rest of you and have difficulty producing sermons and probably drive to the wrong place half the time and never know where such and such is kept. We don't actually have to go through the exercise to start to see a picture of ourselves among these wise and foolish bridesmaids. We are completely foolish and distracted and unprepared, yet Jesus comes to us anyway, gives us his light, keeps us from burning out, feeds us, and parties with us forever more. And in turn we get to be foolish like Jesus, completely unprepared from the world's standpoint, living simply, hanging out with all kinds of rough characters and misfits, welcoming, taking risks, being open to God's leading, and loving, so that more people might know the presence of God.

Maybe the oil is love. Left to our own foolishness, if the abundance and sharing of life is based on who deserves it or who didn't offend us, it runs out. But based in God's own generosity, it never runs out, and so we keep our lamps of love lit, so that others can see what we see, Jesus present with us and celebrating with us.

November 23, 2014

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
1st Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
2nd Reading: Epesians 1:15-23

“I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy.” This reminds me of the Magnificat, the part of the Bible where the Virgin Mary has just learned that she will carry the Son of God and she sings a song that we sing at Holden Evening Prayer, “You have filled the hungry with wondrous things and left the wealthy no part.”

When I was growing up, I would never sing this part because I was in the poorest family in my congregation, and I couldn't sing this about the wealthier people in my congregation. They were so kind to me. They gave me their hand-me-downs, gave me employment babysitting and picking blueberries. They served with me on committees. They were my Sunday School teachers and Confirmation Instructors. They were my fellow Christians and I loved them and they loved me.

Now I have stepped out of poverty. I find myself in a place of privilege. I can pay my bills without worrying where the money will come from. I have disposable income.

So who am I, in this story? I have been both the poor, and the wealthy. I have been hungry and fed. At times in our lives we have been all of these things. Some have said that these readings aren't about us. They are about who Jesus is. And on Christ the King Sunday it is a good idea to stop thinking of ourselves all the time and really celebrate Christ Jesus.

So what does this reading say about Jesus? As king, where is his throne? Where is his Kingdom and what is it like? Who is this King that we celebrate on Christ the King day and who we've even named our church after?

For a long time, God was the only ruler the Israelites knew. God led them out of Egypt and set them up in a new land, gave them laws to guide them, and gave them judges to help resolve disputes. But the people really wanted a king, like all the other nations around them. They begged for one. God told them they would regret it, that a king would never rule with the compassion and justice of God. The king would get wrapped up in getting more riches and impressing people. No matter how good the king, he would get off track and lose sight of the ideals and values of God. But the people still insisted. If you read the books of Kings in the Old Testament, you've got about 6 good kings total in a list of about 40 between the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In other words, having a king was a failure. The kingdom was divided into two. Kings kept taking the throne by coup. They didn't take care of their widows and orphans. They kept going back to worshiping Baal. If one king got the nation back in order, the next ruined all his good work. The kings were unreliable, and even those who were pretty faithful usually lost their way and made huge mistakes that hurt people and dishonored God.

Now enter, Christ the King. God is saying, “Human kings didn't work out very well. You want a ruler, a king. I will come in person and be your king.” Put aside everything you've ever thought about a king, because God is going to show us how it is done. This is a king who isn't concerned with amassing power, or conquering other lands, or being big and powerful the way we think of power. This is a king who gives power away and when necessary takes it away from those who are hoarding it, to pass it around.

To Christ the King, power is not something that you can run out of or is scarce. Jesus knows that power is something that can be shared between us and that can grow and increase as people are empowered. The other kings thought of land and money as power. Those things are finite. They are meaningless because they can be taken away. They aren't powerful at all.

Jesus thought of as power in a completely different way. To him it was powerful to share so that everyone had enough and could contribute. Sharing food and drink, sharing clothing, sharing stories, sharing our time. What Jesus thought of as powerful were relationships of care and love in which the poor and hungry and imprisoned were ministered to and valued as part of the whole, where everyone's well-being was considered and tended to. What Jesus thought of as powerful was thinking the best about another person and letting God be the judge, so that there weren't barriers or prejudices that keep us from helping people in need. When we see someone suffering, we want to tell ourselves that couldn't happen to me. We make up some story in our minds about how they deserve their fate of being lost or hurting—whether we blame a bad decision or drug abuse or whether a person got an education or not. And in the same breath, we worship ourselves and our actions and give ourselves credit for many accidents of life that give us wealth and stability.

When we are poor, we also believe in the stories we tell ourselves that someone must have done something to deserve that wealth, that opulent house, all those amazing vacations, all those nice clothes. That's the myth in our society—that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that if we're poor we deserve it and if we are rich we deserve it. These stories we tell ourselves keep us from reaching across to our neighbor who is different from us and getting to know them, to find out the real story and from building power between us that grows.

Jesus is turning that myth on its head. The creator of the universe deserved to have all the comforts and luxuries of life. Instead he had a pile of hay to be born in, fled for his life, had no possessions, was misunderstood by his family, didn't even have competent followers, and was executed as a young man in the prime of his life for standing up to this myth and spending time with the most rejected people of his time. Christ the King is a different kind of king, valuing the poor, redistributing resources, and subjecting the rich to judgment.

A congregation can be a beautiful place where people come together of all different socio-economic backgrounds and situations. It was in my home congregation and it is here. Where else do different kinds of people gather and make decisions together and build relationships and work and worship side by side? Christ has brought rich and poor together to destroy these myths we've been living with and replace them with real relationships, the stuff that really matters and builds power between people for good in the world.

I see before me, a lot of people who are wealthy. I also see people who struggle with finances. Some in this congregation are formerly homeless. Some are just squeaking by and some I would describe living in mansions. Some are rich in money, some rich in health, some rich in family relationships, some rich in friendship. Some are poor in health, some poor in possessions, some poor in self-esteem, some have experienced great losses in their lives, most have had their share of struggles, rich or poor. I would say to all, Jesus is with you. Jesus is the kind of King whose throne is in the midst of struggles and difficulties. And I would say, value one another and get to know one another. You are each a gift and you each have pieces of a puzzle can help other people, here and in the wider world, meet a need or find a connection. God has given us one another as a gift, so open this gift, invite one another to form deeper relationships, share your hopes and dreams and struggles and joys and frustrations. This will build power, it will build compassion, it will make this church stronger and richer in the ways that matter most and that will last.

Jesus is the kind of King who would lose it all to show us what power and glory are really about. I am reminded of the way they stripped Jesus of his clothes at his arrest in Jerusalem—how he stood naked. I am reminded of how he was charged with a crime and held as a criminal in prison. I a reminded of Jesus' words on the cross, “I thirst.” I am reminded of how Peter denied him and no one came to his aid. He was hungry, thirsty, imprisoned, a stranger, naked, and sick. He's been there. What a comfort for us when we are there to know that we are not alone. And he is there. Whenever we meet someone in any of these difficult situations, we remember Jesus and how he did not deserve it and how whatever life choices people have made, no one deserves to suffer like this. Human beings ought to be able to eat and drink, to be clothed, to be visited and cared for and to receive justice. We think of food and water and clothing and medicine as limited resources, but how many of us couldn't afford to feed one more person, or is in danger of running out of clothes with a dozen pairs of shoes and four or five coats in the closet. We aren't running out of anything! There is plenty to go around if we would let Christ be our King and remind us of the plenty we have been given. Because of Christ our King, we will never run out of the things that are most important, the things that grow by giving them away: compassion, relationship, sharing, and love.