Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Follow by Email

Sunday, November 26, 2017

YEAR A 2017 christ the king

Year A, 2017
Christ the King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, as you may know, Martin Luther was a monk in the 1500’s in Germany.  One day he decided to update his status.  So he posted 95 things on his wall, hoping that his friends would comment, or like, or maybe even share them.  Little did he know that the Church would unfriend him.  And this began the Protestant Reformation.

The reason I know about all this is because I grew up in the Lutheran Church.  Specifically, in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  And Lutherans have a certain way of viewing the world: where the Reformation was a way of righting a sinking ship.  For some Lutherans, in fact, the Reformation was the high point of Church history.  On the other hand, one of my Episcopalian professors in seminary always referred to the Reformation as, “The Great Mistake.”  As with most things—and as all good Anglicans know—the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

But for my money, the most important result of the Reformation was the recognition that salvation flows from the work of God in Jesus, and not the result of our works, whether good or bad.  This means, nothing we do can earn us a place in the kingdom, AND, nothing we do can get us kept out of the kingdom.  Salvation is in God’s hands, not ours.  Although it makes us uncomfortable on the days when we’re out there doing good things, knowing that salvation is not in our hands is the best news possible on many days, if we’re honest.  Oddly enough, the true message of the Good News can get covered up by our good deeds, is one way to think of it.

This Gospel reading we just heard, about the sheep and the goats, is one that needs to be read wearing our Reformation glasses, in order for it to still be good news.  Because the easy reading of this text goes like this: if we are nice to poor people, Jesus will welcome us into the kingdom.  And if we’re mean to poor people, Jesus will send us off to burn in hell.  So, if we open a soup kitchen, poor people get fed, and we spend eternity with God. The Gospel of the Lord.  That’s what it says to us, if we’re not careful.  Thankfully, the Reformation/Great Mistake declares that to be bad theology, and requires us to take a closer look at what Jesus is really saying.  Because the easy reading of this parable—that good people go to heaven, and bad people go to hell—contradicts everything Jesus says elsewhere.

In fact, when we look at how Jesus lived his life, it also contradicts everything he did.  Jesus hung out with the bad people.  Jesus sought out the goats.  He looked for the rule-breakers, and outcasts, and rejects, and outlaws.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, and Gentiles are certainly not earning their way into heaven in Jesus’ day.  They are the refuse of Jewish society, and good people did not hang around with “those kind of people.”

But Jesus did.  Not only did he hang out with them, he sought them out.  They were just living along their God-forsaken lives, and here comes Jesus—to Zacchaeus, to the woman caught in adultery, to the thief on the cross.  Over and over Jesus sends the message that bad behavior does not keep you out of the Kingdom.

AND, as Martin Luther and others realized, he also sends the message from the other side of the coin: being good does not get you into the Kingdom.  Nothing you do can make you worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  (That’s the bad news.)  And nothing you do can ever stop God from loving you.  (That’s the good news.)  We confess that we have sinned against God, in thought word and deed.  (Bad news.)  God forgives you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ.  (Good news.)  While we were yet sinners (bad news), Christ died for us (good news).  Though our sins be as scarlet (bad news), God has made them white as snow (good news).

So, now let’s talk to the animals . . . the sheep and the goats.  The first thing to notice about this story is that the sheep and the goats are both there.  This is not a case where only the sheep are standing before the King, and the goats are off in . . . Hayley’s backyard, or wherever goats go.  Everybody is there, whether sheep or goat.  (You may remember elsewhere in Matthew when the vineyard owner says let the wheat and weeds grow together.  Or the time the fisher’s net brought in every kind of fish.)  Sheep and goats stand together before the King.  All are welcome, no exceptions, we might say.  So far so good.

So, Jesus is sitting on the throne, with all the nations gathered before him.  So far so better.  Then he separates the sheep and the goats.  (Bad news.)  Then he says to the sheep, come and inherit the Kingdom.  (Good news.)  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat . . .

This is where the Reformation Red Flag comes out.  Hold on Jesus, we say . . . are you about to say that BECAUSE we gave you food when you were hungry that we can now enter the Kingdom?  Martin Luther will be very disappointed to hear this.  That sounds like the sheep are about to be rewarded for feeding the poor.  It sounds like they have earned salvation.  It sounds like the good people will be saved, and that makes us very concerned for the tax collectors and prostitutes and--well--those of us who have sinned against you in thought word and deed.  What about the people who have not been giving you food and drink and clothing, Jesus?  When have we ever given you these things, Lord?

You know what’s interesting here, in this passage we just heard from Matthew’s Gospel?  The sheep have no idea what they’re doing.  “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food?”  This is because, well, they’re sheep.  These particular sheep have been in a long-lasting relationship with Jesus, and they don’t even know it!  They have been feeding and clothing him, giving him water and a place to sleep, and they have no idea they’re doing it.  I mean, come on . . . that’s pretty oblivious, don’t you think?

The sheep have a relationship with Jesus, but they don’t know they have a relationship with Jesus.  Strange, wouldn’t you say?  They don’t go out looking for Jesus so they can serve him.  They’re just going through their lives, feeding the poor, collecting blankets for the needy, and so on, never even suspecting that they are feeding and comforting Jesus. 

It is important to note that what saves them is something—or someone—they are totally unaware of.  What saves them happens despite not knowing what they are doing.  What saves them, it turns out, is being in the presence of Jesus!  And, the sheep could have been doing something totally different . . . driving a bus, turning a wrench, teaching a class . . . it doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that Jesus was there with them.

They are just doing what they do.  And, as it turns out, they were serving Jesus.  They were just living their lives, when suddenly Jesus shows up and saves them.  They are not saved because of WHAT they are doing.  They are saved because WHO is with them: Jesus, the King of all Creation.  This is not a lesson about feeding the poor so that Jesus will love you.  Because you cannot make Jesus love you anymore than he already does.  You cannot earn God’s forgiveness.  You cannot work your way into the Kingdom.  The sheep do not know the importance of what they have been doing.  But the presence of Jesus in their actions makes everything different, everything new, everything forgiven.

So, now you’re thinking, “But what about the goats?”  Well, what about them?  It sounds like something really scary is in store for them, doesn’t it?  It sounds like being a goat is going to lead to everlasting suffering and torment with Satan and his angels, doesn’t it?  It sounds like there is no worse fate possible than being a goat, right?  It’s enough to scare you into getting out and feeding the poor, and visiting the sick, and clothing the naked.  Bring out that Reformation red flag again.
Let me point out a telling aside in this reading:  When you heard this story from Matthew, how many sheep do you picture?  And how many goats do you picture?  Do you imagine them as being equal in number?  More goats?  More sheep? 

Just play along with me for a moment and picture an endless procession of sheep on the right, and just a handful of goats on the left.  What if when the king talks to the goats he’s talking to just a pair of them?  What if there’s nobody there?  It’s possible, isn’t it?  We can’t tell from the text.  And why is it our natural urge to make that left side of the room so crowded, anyway?  Why do we so need for there to be any goats at all?  The answer may say more about us than it says about God, if you ask me.

For some reason, we naturally resist accepting that Jesus came to save the world.  We can’t believe that Jesus draws all people to himself, or that the Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world
So what’s the point of all this rambling about sheep and goats?  Well, first off, let’s forget about the goats, because there might not be any at all.  And, if we concentrate on the sheep, we’ll find what we need to know:  Jesus is present where we least expect him.  Remember, the sheep are completely unaware of having ever served Jesus at all. 

In baptism, God establishes an unbreakable bond with each of us.  You may not see Jesus in your daily life, but he is there.  You might not know why you do things like feed the poor, or donate blankets, but God is working in you when you do.  What matters is this: you can trust Jesus to show up where you least expect him.  In your neighbor.  In your family.  In your community.  And in a piece of bread and a sip of wine.  And anywhere that Jesus is, salvation surely follows.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017

Thanksgiving, 2017
Deuteronomy 8:7-18
Psalm 65
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Luke 17:11-19
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Massillon, OH

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, this is a very nice Gospel text for Thanksgiving, right?  The one leper comes back to thank Jesus, now go and do likewise.  However, we need to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that giving thanks is what heals that one guy.  But we’ll get to that.  First, let’s turn the clock back . . .

When I was a child, I was unfamiliar with the word leper.  But I was quite familiar with the word leopard.  The Jesus I learned about in Sunday school was an awesomely brave man who stared down leopards.  10 of them in this one story alone!  Everyone else was afraid of the leopards, but not Jesus.  No, he would reach his hand out, touch the leopards, and they would heel!  My father spent months trying to get our Brittany Spaniel to heel, and she never would.  Jesus could just reach out with his hand, and get TEN leopards to heal.  Just like that.  Leopards!

Of course, at some point, I learned that a leper is a person, and Jesus didn’t seem so tough anymore.  But then, eventually, I learned what leprosy was, and suddenly Jesus seemed even braver than he had, back when I thought he worked at the circus.

As you may know, leprosy is an awful disease, and was much scarier in Jesus’ time because there was no cure.  (Though, even then, leprosy didn’t make your limbs fall off.)  It was considered among the worst diseases, and also made you ritually unclean.  Anyone who touched a leper was considered unclean, and no God-fearing Jew would go anywhere near them, let alone touch them.  So, actually, for Jesus to be touching lepers and healing them was even braver than getting a leopard to heel.

And, as you heard, in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus encounters 10 lepers at one time.  Although in this case, he doesn’t lay hands on them.  They call to him from a distance (since lepers were forbidden to approach others, for fear of contaminating them with their unclean disease).  So, these lepers stand at a distance and call out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Ten unclean people, standing at a distance, pleading with Jesus for mercy.  Notice, that Jesus does not heal them in that moment.  Instead, Jesus says “Go and show yourselves to the priests.”  And as they went they were made clean.

Several things are significant here.  First, to a pious Jew (like Jesus), there were things to be done after being cured of leprosy.  At some point when you’re up to finding out, you can turn to the 14th chapter of Leviticus and read all about what a former leper has to go through.  32 verses involving birds and yarn and hyssop and fresh water and shaved eyebrows and a lamb and grain and fire and blood and an earlobe, a thumb, a big toe, and a log.  Unless the person is poor; then there’s a whole different set of things.  But the first step of all this is to present yourself before the priest . . . AFTER being cured of leprosy.  And given what the priest has to do to make you ritually clean, all that stuff with animals and big toes and fire and stuff, I would imagine that a priest would not be too excited to see a former leper show up on his doorstep.  They didn’t get paid overtime.

But, you’ll notice that Jesus sends them to the priests before they are cured.  Before there is any evidence that they need to turn to Leviticus 14, the lepers do as he says, still covered with horrible sores, and they head off toward the priests.  Jesus has not promised to heal them.  He has not done anything except to see them, and send them to the priests.  AND THEY GO!  Is this faith?  Is this stupidity?  I don’t know.  But they go.

And on the way, one of the lepers realizes he has been healed.  He praises God with a loud voice, and turns back to go to Jesus.  He falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks him.  It was his natural response of gratefulness for what God had done in his life.  When Martin Luther was asked to describe true worship, it is said that he pointed to this leper for his definition: Praising God, bowing down, and giving thanks to Jesus.  Our natural response to what God has done in our lives.  Praise, worship, and thanksgiving.

The one healed leper comes back to Jesus, and offers praise, worship, and thanksgiving.  The other nine we might say are being ungrateful.  Or rude.  They are showing what my grandmother might call, “bad breeding.”  The temptation is strong to turn this story into an object lesson on the importance of writing thank you notes.  And maybe you’ve heard that kind of lesson yourself.  You could read this gospel to your kids and say, “and the moral of the story is, remember to always say thank you when someone heals you of leprosy.”  Don’t be ungrateful.  Saying thank you is a sign of good breeding.  But the ONE person who returns to thank Jesus is a half-breed.  A Samaritan.  A mud-blood.  Samaritans do not have good breeding; in fact, they have wrong breeding.  Again I remind you that he returns because he can’t help it.  His worship of Jesus is a natural response to the joy he feels in being cleansed and redeemed.

This is not a lesson about good manners, writing thank you notes, or being kind to others.  If this kind of story were just a morality tale designed to remind us to say thank you . . . well, first of all, the 9 ingrates would not be healed, right?  I mean, you can’t make the point of the importance of being grateful if the people who aren’t grateful get the same reward, right?

So what do we make of this story then?  Jesus finishes by saying to the leper, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”  And the word used for “well” here could also mean  “whole,” or “healed”  Aha!  Maybe the point is that Jesus offers salvation to the people who are grateful.  Could that be the point?  Maybe Jesus only saves the people who are thankful that he saves them?  But not only is that kind of backward, it also doesn’t fit what the text says.  All ten lepers were healed on their way to see the priests.  One turned around because he could not help it.  The other 9 were doing as they were told.  But all ten were healed.  It is not the gratefulness that heals this one leper.  It is not the good deed of showing thankfulness that heals him either.  Jesus does not heal him because he is grateful.  Jesus heals him because of his faith.

And of course we WANT it to be his gratefulness that saves him, since we want our children to be grateful.  But it seems to me that his faith is shown in doing as Jesus says, despite all evidence to the contrary.  And faith is a gift from God.  Jesus says go, and faith makes us go.  Jesus says to ten lepers, who still have leprosy, go and show yourselves to the priests.  All ten lepers head off to see the priests, apparently sure enough, or desperate enough, or filled-with-faith enough that they start toward the temple.  Still lepers.  Still unclean.  Still outcasts, whom the priest will not even speak to, let alone perform sacrifices for.  They go off, given the gift of faith, trusting that Jesus will heal them, make them well, make them whole.  And Jesus does.

All are healed.  All are made whole.  One in ten comes back to worship.  One in ten responds with gratefulness to God’s unmerited healing.  And today, you could say, a small percentage gathers because of what God has done, and they sing songs of praise, they proclaim God’s love, they profess their faith, they pray together, and they share God’s peace with one another.  And then in gratefulness they come to the altar, where God feeds them with a life-giving meal.  And then they hear the reassuring words, Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.

Jesus loves the lepers and he makes them whole because of their faith.  Jesus loves you, and does the same in your life.  Whatever it is that makes you feel unworthy, or unloved, or unclean, leave it behind as you go on your way, and come back to worship Jesus.  Together, we cry out “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us!” Together, we bow down in praise, worship, and thanksgiving.  Together, we come to the Altar of Jesus to be made whole.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 24

Pentecost 24, 2017
Judges 4:1-7
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, I’ve been dreading this Gospel text for over a month now.  I knew it was coming, and I was trying to find a way to transfer some feast day with a safe little text like Jesus welcoming the children or something.  But for better or worse (and I personally think for the better), we do not get to choose the texts on a given Sunday.  The Episcopal Church follows the Revised Common Lectionary, and so, these are the texts we have before us today, like it or not. 

I have always been afraid of this Gospel text, to be honest.  Because it seems like such an outlier.  It goes against all the other things we hear from Jesus when it comes to money.  The rich seem to become richer, and the poor are cast off into darkness.  I’m leery of a story that sounds like a pyramid scheme, where greed is good, and responsible care-taking of someone else’s things is punished.  And this parable has been used over the centuries to explain why poor people become poor in the first place:  They’re just bad at banking, you see?  They can’t be trusted to invest in the stock market.

Now, before we jump in here, I want to caution you that we should never assume that God or Jesus is necessarily the king or master in the parables.  Sometimes that seems to be the case, and sometimes it doesn’t.  So we always want to be looking for the point of the story, without assuming God is the king or master.  That said, let’s talk about talents.

In Jesus’ time, a talent was a measurement of gold.  It wasn’t a bag of cash; rather it was a chunk of gold, formed into a thing with a handle, so you could carry it.  One talent weighed 75 pounds, and was worth about 16 years of work, or 19 years if you rested on the Sabbath.  Using the current median income in the United States, this means a talent is worth something like $1.1 million dollars.  And again, weighs 75 pounds!

So, in today’s parable, one servant gets $5.5 million, one gets $2.2 million, and the last gets $1.1 million.  Intuitively, which servant would you expect to be the most cautious with the gold he’s been entrusted with?  The one with 5 and half million right?  Like, if I handed someone else a piece of clear glass, and I handed you our Tiffany Annunciation window here, and said “Take care of these while I’m gone,” you’d probably be very careful with that Tiffany window, right?  I don’t expect you’d bury it in the ground, but I can’t imagine you’d take it to the flea market and try to get two more Tiffany windows in exchange, right?  Point being, we would expect the one who was entrusted with more to be more careful with it.

But the way we hear things in the parable is also a very natural response that grows out of the fear of scarcity.  So much of our behavior is driven by that very thing.  When we’re afraid we won’t have enough, it is natural for us to hold tighter onto what we do have.  Give me a raise and I’m more apt to feel secure in donating to charity, right?  And this is related to what economists call a zero-sum game.  That is, the pie is only so big, and if you get a slice, then that means there’s one less slice for me.  And I won’t even get started on what this means when it comes to politics.  Suffice it to say, a scarcity mentality makes us fearful for the future, more careful with what we have, and less apt to share with others.

Now . . . let’s leave the land of money for a minute, and talk about love.  When parents have their first child, one kid gets all the attention.  Plenty of love to go around, and everybody’s good.  When the time comes to adopt a second child or give birth to one, the doubts can start to set in.  Parents wonder, will there be enough love to go around?  “I can’t imagine I could ever love a baby as much as I love this first child.”  And the first child often has similar thoughts, though not quite as refined.  Usually more like, “I want you to send that baby back where it came from!”  And along comes the second child and, voila, somehow there is indeed enough love to go around.  And why?  Because love is not a zero-sum game.

But let’s look at what I think is the crucial piece of this little parable from Jesus.  The third servant comes to the master with his talent, having dug it up and washed it off, and says, “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.”  Wait.  What?  When did anyone say that about the master?  There is no indication whatsoever that the master is harsh, or that the servant had any reason to be afraid.  He’s totally making this up!

And here’s why that is important.  The other two servants, the ones who went out and doubled what was entrusted to them, they don’t seem to be afraid of the master, do they?  They don’t say, “because you are a harsh man, I will go invest what you have given me.”  No it seems that having a negative, frightening view of the master is what leads the so-called “wicked and lazy” servant to do the wrong thing in this parable.  His fear is what leads him to bury his talent (a convenient phrase, if ever there was one).  He is so paralyzed by fear that he is afraid to do anything with what he is given.

Now, again, I want to remind us not to assume that the master in the story is God.  However, the parable hints at a distorted view of God that can lead us into being so afraid of doing the wrong thing that we do nothing at all.  Back in the 1500s, Martin Luther struggled with this very thing.  He lived in such fear of displeasing God that he was afraid to do anything.  Eventually, he came to the point where he could offer this advice:  let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.  His point was, you will sin against God and your neighbor, and you should not pretend that you won’t.  However, you should trust that God’s forgiveness is more powerful than anything you can do.  You cannot make God love you, and you cannot make God stop loving you.

So back to our parable.  The third servant, the “wicked and lazy” one, I still think he did the responsible thing when entrusted with someone else’s money.  (Remember, the master is not necessarily God.)  But for purposes of the story, it is his failure to trust that leads him to disappoint.  He is so paralyzed by fear that he does nothing.  He has essentially created the master he was afraid of.  The other two servants went out and increased what they were given and they were able to do that because they lived without fear.  And, as a result, they were given more work and invited to “enter into the joy of your master.”

And the third servant?  Well, here is the hardest part about that.  He gets thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Well, that’s a fine how do you do, huh?  Again, if this were a true story, we’d all agree that he did the right thing, right?  I mean, people go to jail for gambling with other people’s money!  But this is not a newspaper story.  This is a parable.  And in parables we look for the point, not the facts.  And I think the point is this . . .

When we live in fear, whether out of perceived scarcity, or out of imaginary fear of punishment, we turn inward.  We circle the wagons and close the drapes and hide, as though some traveling salesman were heading for our door.  And a hyperbolic way to describe that fear is that we end up in darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Rather than coming into the master’s presence, we live in isolated fear.

“Fear not,” and “Do not be afraid.”  Those phrases appear over 100 times in the New Testament.  We could think of today’s parable as being an extended version of those two phrases.  Let’s go back for a moment and think of the parable using our current understanding of the word “talent” instead of the Biblical one.  Three people are given certain talents and abilities; two of them go out and develop more skills and use their talents to bring more joy to life.  The third one is afraid, and so he buries his talent and does nothing with it.

Or, perhaps more appropriately, think of  the three people as ones who have seen what God has done in their lives and in the world.  Two go out and share this good news, and the gospel spreads.  One lives in fear of sharing and buries this good news.

We don’t need for some traveling master to return and tell us what this means.  We have all been entrusted with gifts, mental, physical, financial—time, talents, treasure—and what we do with them is our gift to God.  I don’t expect God to swoop in and punish those of us who live in fear, because living in fear is its own punishment.  But in sharing what we have been given, we find true joy in life.  We need not be afraid, because we worship a generous God, who offers us more than we could ask or imagine.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 23

Pentecost 23, 2017
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Man.  Sometimes being the preacher is hard!  I know it’s bad form to complain about your job, but that Gospel text we just heard.  And the next two Sundays are just as challenging.  When these readings come up again in three years, I’m taking a November vacation!  But, okay, enough complaining out of me.  On the upside, this is one of those Sundays where all the lessons fit nicely together, frightening though they may be.  And the main theme running through these readings is Community.  Let’s start with the First Reading we heard today, from the book of Joshua.

It starts with Joshua gathering together all the people of Israel with a message from God.  There’s a section that we skipped though, from verses 4 to 14, where we would’ve heard the long history of God’s faithfulness to the people, bringing them out of Egypt and giving them a homeland.  Then it picks up with Joshua asking the people to choose which god they will serve, and he delivers that famous declaration, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord,” which you may have seen on bumper stickers, or cross-stitched onto throw pillows.

Then there is some back and forth, with the people saying “us too,” and Joshua saying, “I don’t believe you,” until at last the people say, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” And Joshua makes a covenant with the people that day.  A covenant.  An agreement to live in a relationship with God and one another.  It’s the renewed promise of community rooted in following the God of Abraham.

And there’s the Psalm we read together.  “That which we have heard and known, and what our forefathers have told us, we will not hide from their children. . . . that the generations to come might know,
and the children yet unborn; that they in their turn might tell it to their children; So that they might put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God, but keep his commandments.”

Beautifully put.  Here we see the community promising to continue the story by telling their children what God has done.  They promise to pass down the stories of God’s mighty deeds, so that the “horizontal” community will also be a “vertical” community, and will continue throughout the ages, continuing in the same covenant made with Joshua on that mountain.  Like the Baptismal Covenant and promises we renewed last week when little Gideon was baptized in this font.

And then we have that section of Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica.  Now it’s important to know the background in order to get it right.  Scholars pretty much agree this letter (probably Paul’s first) was written in about 52 AD, which is only like 20 years after the Resurrection.  Most Christians at that time believed Jesus would return in their lifetime.  But some members of the church in Thessolonica had passed away, which caused church members to doubt . . . well, everything.  If Paul was wrong about this, maybe he was wrong about all of it.  So Paul writes this letter to assure them that their hope is not in vain.

But you can see why they were distraught.  They’re living together in this Greek city, converts to Christianity, evangelized by Paul.  They had the impression Jesus would be back any minute, before any of them died.  It makes sense for them to be worried: what happens to those who have died?  Do they miss out on the promises to the faithful?  So Paul writes to them, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

And this is where I have to interrupt him.  (Sorry Paul.)  But it’s important to get what he’s saying here.   When Paul says, “so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope,” he is not saying that Christians aren’t supposed to grieve.  He is not saying that grief only belongs to people who have no hope.  No, Paul is talking about how they should grieve.  Don’t grieve the way others do.  It is entirely expected and appropriate that you and I should grieve for loved ones we have lost, but we are to grieve amid the hope of the Resurrection.  Our grief is different, because we know that death is not the end of the story.

And then we get the part where it’s about community:  “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  Paul makes the case that those who have died are safely in God’s hands, and then he tells us to comfort one another with that good news.  The ones we love who precede us in death are not lost to God.  Jesus will call them out of death into life, just as we will each be called into new life.  Encourage one another with these words, because we are a community, called into covenant with God.

And then . . . the Gospel.  Where to even begin?  We often call this parable “The Foolish Virgins,” which from the start focuses on the negative.  Fortunately, our translation uses the word Bridesmaids instead of virgins because, well, we just don’t talk that way.  And it is so different from most of the other parables we hear in the scriptures.  Usually, we have some connection to these stories.  Like we know what a farmer is, and we know what a fishing net is.  But this parable is completely disconnected from our culture and customs.

We don’t have 10 bridesmaids accompany the groom to his own wedding; we don’t use oil lamps; we teach our children to share with those who don’t have enough.  Plus, the groom shows up late to his own wedding.  Half the wedding party is told he never knew them after being sent on a wild goose chase to the stores everyone knew were closed.  And the “Keep awake therefore” at the end of the parable doesn’t fit with what happened, since all 10 bridesmaids fell asleep.  There is no fairness here; there is no love; there is no Gospel in today’s Gospel.  This parable is confusing, archaic, and scary.  There.  I said it.

But what really got me off track this week was this:  Over my lifetime, I’ve unconsciously bought into the notion that this parable has to be about that One Big Day when Jesus returns.  And maybe you have too.  You know, the One Big Day that the people in Thessolonica were waiting for when their loved ones died unexpectedly.  And Jesus’ finishing the parable with, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour,” plays right into that idea.  And there are plenty of televangelists and preachers who will tell you all about how that One Big Day is coming, and even give you predictions about when it is going to take place, and give you a list of the people who will be “left behind.”

There are complicated theological names for these beliefs, such as Pretribulation Dispensational Premillennialism.  (So much easier to say, “Anglican,” I think you’ll agree.)  We see these teachings and viewpoints in our popular culture too, especially with Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” in the 70’s, and Tim Lahaye’s “Left Behind” series more recently.   Basically, this approach to Christianity focuses on that One Big Day when Jesus will return, and then pulls in all sorts of verses from the Bible to explain how and when this One Big Day will occur.

For people who obsess over this stuff, today’s parable about the 10 Bridesmaids is one of the go-to stories from Jesus.  On the One Big Day, some people will be ready and welcomed into the kingdom of God, and some people—like bad Boy Scouts who were not prepared—will be told that Jesus never knew them.  “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him,” except those of you who weren’t ready.  And the only way to get any joy out of that reading of this parable is to work under the assumption that you are one of the oil-toting wise bridesmaids.  You know, one of the people who was always ready for Jesus to return.  Like the old joke, Jesus is coming . . . look busy.

But here’s what we lose by focusing on the One Big Day.  We miss out on today.  We miss out on right now.  To overemphasize the day when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, is to forget that Jesus is already here among us.  Everywhere.  All the time.  So focused on being prepared for some day that we miss this day.  So getting ready for the return that we miss the right now.

Here’s a thought: just before we take Communion together, the Book of Common Prayer says the priest is to turn to the people, holding up the bread and wine and say, “The gifts of God for the people of God.”  But another way to say it would be, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”  We don’t know the One Big Day when Jesus will return, but we do know that he is here today in our community, right where he has always promised to meet us, in the Bread of Heaven, and the Cup of Salvation.  Look!  Here too is the Bridegroom.  Come and meet him.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

YEAR A 2017 all saints

Year A, 2017
The Feast of All Saints
Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Has anyone ever told you that you are blessed?  You know, like, “You are blessed to have such a great family.”  Or, “You are blessed to have such good health.”  Maybe you’ve said that kind of thing yourself.  “We are blessed to live in a good neighborhood.”  Or, “I am blessed to have such good parents.”  (Hashtag Blessed.)

Why do we say that?  What do we mean by it?  Well, for one thing, it always seems to happen after the fact, right?  It’s an observation—and often an obvious observation.  Instead of saying, “Hey, lady, nice house,” we might substitute “You have been blessed with a comfortable home.”  You know, it’s really sort of a religious spin on a compliment.  But it would feel awkward to use the kind of phrasing Jesus uses in today’s gospel lesson.  If I said, “Blessed are you who drives a car that gets good gas mileage,” you’d think I was a bit crazy.  If someone says, “Blessed are you because you got a raise at work,” you’d probably hope that was the end of the conversation, right?  I mean, we just don’t talk that way.

Basically, though, we would say people are blessed when they are rich, and popular, and successful, and employed.  The times we would say people are blessed seem to be the opposite of what Jesus is saying in today’s gospel.  What we call blessed does not enter into the list Jesus goes through.

Jesus isn’t saying, the rich in spirit and happy are blessed.  That fits with how we view the world, sure, but Jesus is saying the opposite.  We would say the rich and happy are blessed, just like we’d say Bill Gates is blessed.

Jesus says, Blessed are the poor in spirit; Blessed are those who mourn; Blessed are the meek; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; Blessed are the merciful; Blessed are the pure in heart; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake; Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 

That’s nice, yes.  But it’s definitely not our list, is it?  I mean, come on, those people are definitely not blessed!  What’s going on here?  You hate to think Jesus is out of touch.  The poor?  The sad?  The meek?  These are not “blessed.”  So, how do we explain this?

One possible answer is simply this:  Jesus is blessing them.

Think about that for a moment.  What if Jesus isn’t looking around the room like we would, making nice observations about who’s already blessed?  What if, instead, Jesus is looking out at people who need a blessing, and delivering one?  What if Jesus is blessing them . . . blessing us?  It changes things doesn’t it?  In fact, it changes everything about what it means to be blessed.

We spend our lives thinking, if I could just get that great house down the street I would be blessed.  If I could just find the right partner, get my kids (or parents) to understand me, get my boss to appreciate me, ah . . . THEN I would be truly blessed.  If I could be rich and popular and healthy and happy, I would be blessed.  We see blessing as a result of other things.  We see blessing as the congratulations.  If we could only get that thing, well . . . THEN we’d be blessed.  To us, blessed are the rich, and happy, and strong, and well-adjusted people with good teeth.  You work hard, play by the rules, and one day you will end up blessed . . . God willing.  That is how life works.

But that isn’t what Jesus is saying today, is it?  Jesus is putting the cart before the horse, to say the least.  Jesus is saying, blessed are the very people that we would call cursed.  He is not observing their blessedness: he is blessing them

Are you poor in spirit?  Jesus is blessing you.  Are you mourning?  Jesus is blessing you.  Those are people who need blessing today.  But then Jesus expands the blessing outward, and the list becomes ever more surprising.   The merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers . . . they don’t necessarily need blessing, do they?  Or, at least not in the same way as the poor in spirit and those who mourn.  And then, finally, the outlier . . .

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

It’s an odd way to wrap up.  And, one thing about blessing the ones being persecuted: it doesn’t so much apply to us, does it?  I mean, how often do people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on Jesus’ account?  I mean, honestly?  Probably not very often . . . You and I don’t really need to know that we are blessed when we are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake because . . . well, it doesn’t really happen to us.

But you know who does need to hear that message?  The people Jesus is actually talking to, that’s who.  To the people standing there in that field on that day, this is the primary blessing they need to hear.  That in spite of all that persecution they would soon face for being followers of Jesus, in spite of torture and horrible deaths for the sake of their faith, Jesus is blessing them.  This was a blessing for their future, a reminder that God would be with them.  Maybe they didn’t need the blessing that moment, but they would need it soon enough. 

And we heard John’s vision of maybe those same people in the reading from Revelation today: These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  This “great ordeal” . . . despite what you may have heard from Tim LaHaye and Hal Lindsay . . . this great ordeal has already happened.  John is not writing about an event in our future.  No, John is writing about a persecution in Rome that has already come and gone.  Those who have come out of the great ordeal are the earliest saints of Christianity.  Those are people who lived and died for their faith.  They are some of the ones we mean when we say, the saints who have gone before.

But they are not the only saints who have gone before.  They’re a small—and rightly honored—group of the whole company of saints, in heaven and on earth.  Some of the blessed were persecuted for righteousness sake, yes.  But ALL of the saints mourned at one time or another.  ALL of the saints were poor in spirit, more than once, to be sure.  All of the saints were pure in heart sometimes, and merciful sometimes, and peacemakers sometimes, and meek sometimes too.  And in case it’s not obvious, that means ALL the saints are  just like you.  Sometimes one thing, and sometimes another.  But here’s the really good news about that:  Jesus ties promises to all these blessings, and that means there are promises for you and me as well.

Blessed are you, people of St. Timothy’s: for yours is the kingdom of heaven, and you will be comforted, and you will inherit the earth, and you will be filled, and you will receive mercy, and you will see God, and you will be called children of God.

And the best news of all is that this puts us in very good company.  Because when we come to this altar today, we celebrate with the saints of every time and every place, the saints we have known, and the saints we have only heard about.  And more than that, Jesus also blesses every medieval peasant farmer and 19th century factory worker, whose names will never be known, and they join us here as well . . . the poor, the meek, the peaceful, the persecuted, the living, and the dead.  All blessed by Jesus; all redeemed through his resurrection; all our robes washed and made clean, for we come out of the great ordeal, from death into life.  And that means that you are one of the “All Saints” we celebrate this day.  You are a saint in the Church of Jesus Christ.  Blessed are you.