Third Sunday in Advent (12/17): “Rejoice unto Sanctification”

A brief meditation to go along with our children’s Christmas pageant.  

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Joy is our theme today; it is the symbol of today’s special rose Advent candle. The other candles are purple, which marks this season, like Lent, as one of fasting. We fast because we recognize that Emmanuel, God with Us, is not yet truly with us. But Advent is also a season anticipating the Coming of Emmanuel. It is a time of pregnancy. Already we can senses the presence of this newborn. Like expectant parents, we are already imagining what this Coming One will be like, already delighting in the arrival, already preparing the nursery of our heart. We might be a little off in our expectations. We might be expecting a boy and it turns out to be a girl. We might have a name picked out, and when we see the baby we might find ourselves saying, “Oh you’re just not a Stan, are you?” (Ever hear of that happening to parents?) But we are certainly right to already feel the joy. So we switch from a purple candle to a rose candle, for the joy already promised to us.

There is joy in the fast. I’m not convinced that this is the same joy as the one called for by the Christmas frenzy all around us. Everyone knows you’re supposed to be joyful at Christmas. Can’t you hear Andy Williams singing it: “It’s the most wonderful time, of the year. With the kids jingle belling, And everyone telling you be of good cheer!” (I heard a lot of Andy Williams growing up.) It’s the hap-happiest season of all.  But often people can’t say why you should be so happy. It’s just Christmas. And that’s fine. We don’t need to begrudge people a chance for midwinter cheer with friends and family. It can be a problem when people are unable to summon the joy that is supposed to be lighting up our faces, perhaps because we are missing loved ones. Joy without any real reason behind it can easily fall flat.

So it might help to investigate this distinctly Christian, Advent joy, this rose-amid-purple joy, that we celebrate today. This joy is deeper than just the feeling of happiness, in many ways. So when we hear Paul say in our reading, “Rejoice always,” does he just mean, “Don’t worry, be happy?” (Remember that?) Because I think lots of people will hear the reading from today and will latch on to just that one phrase, “Rejoice always” and, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” We’ll immediately think that Paul’s telling us to count our blessings and be happy. So then how does Paul go from there to, “Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything.” Did you hear that also? And finally, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely.” There’s nothing wrong with rejoicing always, but there’s more going on in this passage.

To be brief, Paul’s message of rejoice, give thanks in all circumstances is about being happy in church. He’s writing this to “you all” in the church of Thessalonica. And he notes just before our passage that there are people in church who are idle, who are faint of heart, who are weak. (That’s true anywhere.) “Be patient with them all,” he says. Repay no one evil for evil, he says, but seek to do good to one another and to all. Then he says “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  So he means: community has its problems and its challenges. But give thanks for all the challenges, because they are part of your life in God. (He’s not saying give thanks for everything that happens to you personally, no matter how lousy it is. This is about the challenges specific to being a church.)

Such as the challenge of hearing and receiving the god-given wisdom that any of us can have. Thus Paul continues: “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets, but test everything.” We need to listen for God speaking in each one of us. And then not just say, “That’s nice, Fred,” but test everything, because we are taking each other’s words seriously. Your words about God make a claim on me, because we are trying to be one community before God together. How do we test? “Hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form (or idea) of evil.” That kind of listening, with critical testing—what we might call “dialogue” about God and God’s will—is critical to being “sanctified,” set apart as God’s people. It’s what I want to do with the adult (re-) confirmation class. It is not easy. Those of us closest to running this church know how challenging it can be, especially when it comes to listening to one another. We try not to repay evil for evil.  We need to be reminded in Advent to rejoice in the challenges, for these are the labor pains of the Christ being born in us.

And come Christmas Eve, we will be able to lay down our challenges and stresses for a time. We will be joined by many friends—call them C&E Christians if you like, but they will remind us that the church is not just about we who labor and struggle, but about good news to all. Then our joy shall be complete. “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”






Second in Advent (12/10): “Putting Love Back Together”

A sparse crowd on Sunday, so I’m glad to be able to post the sermon, which wasn’t a bad one–and it stayed within my new shorter format.  

Isaiah 64:1-9 ; Mark 13:24-37

Words of Assurance: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Our lives are so complicated, and even incomprehensible. Each one of us is a puzzle made of almost infinite pieces. In my house, the holidays were always a time to put together jigsaw puzzles—we always said “fixing a puzzle” in our local dialect; I have never liked jigsaw puzzles, but Jessica and now Silas are getting sucked into this family tradition. No thanks. Each of you, and me too, is enough of a puzzle for me. And so we try to ‘fix’ ourselves. We put together stories about ourselves that explain where we came from, where we are going, and why we are the way we are. Our stories about ourselves are insightful and mostly true, but incomplete. They pick out a few pieces of us that make a fairly clear picture. But there are still so many loose pieces that we can’t fit in or can’t even perceive. What is your story about yourself? First, do you have one? You should: writing your own story is a really good exercise for discerning your spiritual life.

But say you’ve got a story about who you are. What else would God see that you don’t? Plenty, I suspect, at least for myself (and I’m almost obsessively self-reflective). God alone sees the whole puzzle, how all the pieces of us fit together. We get glimpses of the loose pieces in our lives that only God sees, whenever we come up against things we do but don’t know why. Why does it annoy me so much when he clears his throat like that? Why do I like what that one commentator has to say, but I dislike the other one even though she seems equally smart and well informed? Why did I let my child become so distant? Why do I just sit here when I know what I should be doing? We could bring in a whole team of pyschologists and therapists to evaluate each one of you; and you would learn something about yourself, although you would feel very exposed, having lost control of your story. In their flawed way, they would tell a different but insightful story about who you are, and they would add some of the puzzle pieces that you had left out, too. That would give us some hint of what else God sees in us.

And God sees that our puzzles are both individual, but also all connected. We are also one big puzzle (now my sisters would be getting really excited—imagine a 7.6 billion piece puzzle!). None of us can see how the whole thing fits together, nor how to fix it. And so we find ourselves asking questions about the larger reality in which we are immersed: why is the world so out of control? Why can’t we come together and solve our problems? How did we get stuck in these collective ruts? Well, we could also invite in the historians, the sociologists, the gender theorists, the economists, the religion scholars, and let’s not forget the literature scholars; and they would first bicker amongst themselves a whole lot, because I know these folks and that’s what they do; but then they would start to show how each of our personal puzzles connects with those of others, and with scattered puzzles all over the world and back through time. And in their own flawed way, they would bring us a little closer to seeing us as God sees us: the whole world, in its naked truth, like an infinitely large and infinitely detailed puzzle.

God sees the good in this puzzle, and God sees the bad. And much that just is what it is. And were we to see what God sees, we would feel humbled, because we thought we knew who we were, but we don’t. And were we to turn our focus on the bad in this great puzzle, we would feel horrified and ashamed, for ourselves and for the whole world. That’s why our faith is so important, because when our eyes catch a glimpse of the bad—even when it’s ‘out there,’ because we deep down know that what’s out there is a part of me too—when we see the bad for what it is, as God sees it, we need to believe that God is merciful and loving, or else we will be undone. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

We are all one, infinitely complex puzzle which we barely can make out and hardly understand, even the little section of the puzzle that is framed by my body. We throw ourselves on God’s mercy, for God created us, as Isaiah says: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” We remember and confess that our origin and our future are in God’s hands. We are clay.

But by the light of Christ, Paul, in our Words of Assurance, sees something greater in us than just clay. God in Christ has called us to a much higher confidence:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind–just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

We might not always feel like we have been enriched in Christ Jesus, with speech and knowledge of every kind.   We may not feel so strengthened in Christ “that we may be blameless.” We might instead feel like a bunch of scattered puzzle pieces, out of which I have forced a few ill-fitting pieces together to make sense of myself, at least. How do we get to the cheery gratitude that Paul expresses for us, so that we really feel like those “called into the fellowship of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord?” That’s what we want to be feeling come Christmas Eve.

Well, I don’t think we just pretend everything is dandy. We can’t ignore this massive, broken puzzle that God sees. We know God sees with love and mercy, but we can’t imagine how God does it, when absolutely everything in the world is laid bare before God’s infinite vision. How do we deal with the infinite complexity that is the puzzle of our world and ourselves?

Here’s where we need a variety of seasons in the church year to help us deal with our own complexity. We need Lent to celebrate Easter truly. We all need Christmas and Epiphany, certainly, to reassure us that God has seen our world for what it is and has nonetheless entered it and joined with it by being born in Bethlehem. But we need another season, set apart, to deal with that “nonetheless.” It is no small thing for God to enter the world, to become in God’s very being one piece of our puzzle, but just so, the one piece in this puzzle that makes sense, and that promises to make sense of the whole thing and to reassemble it into the beautiful picture of the realm of God that was intended all along, before it all got so scattered. It’s easy for us to appreciate the beauty of this one piece which re-centers and re-orients the whole puzzle, placed just so, as when we place the baby Jesus figurine in the manger on Christmas Eve. But we only truly appreciate the beauty of that night when we take a hard look in these four weeks at this mess of a puzzle without Jesus in it. Otherwise Christmas becomes just a Kodak moment, a lovely season of make-believe which is like a dream (or nowadays, a shopping and logistical nightmare) from which we wake up on December 26 and go back to our hopeless world. Advent helps us connect our workaday world, the world of fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery, to the extraordinary time of God, the day of the Lord. It may be helpful to emphasize the contrast. And Advent is indeed a good time to confess that we and our world are not yet full of God; we are still awaiting our salvation. But that’s also the hope—we know what God has in store for us, and we can see signs of hope all around us, even amid the fleeting delights and repetitious drudgery.

So let us keep the fast of Advent. We don’t have to literally fast. But it is a season to keep watch, as our strange reading from the Gospel of Mark has it. Our lectionary brings us this weird reading in Advent, which is echoed by the longing in Isaiah –“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” I think I get it. Remember there is the first coming of Jesus in Bethlehem, but also a second coming, the return of Christ to judge the world and bring the Kingdom in its completeness. (We don’t talk about it much but it’s in Scripture.) Our lectionary connects the time of waiting to celebrate Christmas with the waiting for that Second Coming.

This is meant to disorient us a little. We are used to thinking about the star over Bethlehem, not “the stars will be falling from heaven, ” as Mark puts it. We think about that dark, silent, Holy Night, but not because “the powers in the heavens will be shaken,” and so the stars, sun, and moon will all fail to give their light. It’s all kind of ominous and unsettling. And we are used to watching for Santa on Christmas Eve, but Jesus is talking about watching for this mysterious Son of Man to come, who seems to be the Jesus we know, but we’re not sure. We know exactly when Christmas comes, but about this the hour when this Son of Man will return, no one knows—neither the angels, nor the son, but only the Father, who apparently is a God of secrets.

All of this is meant to be disorienting, so that we will open ourselves, amid all the dear old sentimental, child-centered traditions of Christmas, to receiving Jesus anew, as a stranger, as if for the first time. So we keep alert, and watch. This is part of the Advent fast—fasting from the easy familiarity that Christmas can breed. We fast by confessing our need, confessing that our salvation is not yet complete, our knowledge of God is still only fragmentary, that we still don’t know what Jesus means for us.

Our particular focus during Advent and then after will be on love. Jesus reveals the love of God, we all know that. What could be more obvious? We’ve heard so often that God loves us, that it passes right over us. We don’t have to think twice about it. Now’s the time to think twice. And then we can rediscover what the love of God is.

When we learn to watch for Jesus’ coming as if for the first time, Advent can both open us to the need of our world for Jesus and his love, and also prepare us for a new disclosure of what God’s love is by this Emmanuel. We learn a little more about this jigsaw puzzle that is us, about the holes in the puzzle where love should be, and so Jesus begins to put it all back together again. And then, after Epiphany, Jesus will call us as his disciples, and we will be ready to follow him and put ourselves and our world back together again.

Last Sunday in Ordinary/Reign of Christ: “Reigning as the Least”

Ephesians 1:15-23

Matthew 25:31-46

Today we celebrate the Reign of Christ. Christ the King of the Universe Sunday is the final Sunday in our liturgical year. This is our New Year’s Eve, liturgically speaking. Next Sunday our new liturgical year begins with Advent, and our whole sanctuary will be transformed into a festive scene of expectation and hope for the coming One, Jesus the Christ born in Bethlehem. /So how is it that we go from celebrating Christ as our king one Sunday, to waiting for him to arrive the next?

Well, we should note that celebrating the Reign of Christ on the final Sunday of the liturgical year is not an ancient tradition at all; the festival began in 1925 and only later was moved to the current Sunday. But it makes sense to me. Recall that we’ve been in ordinary time since June 4, Pentecost. For these five months we’ve been trying to be the living presence of Christ and Christ’s kingdom here and now, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Like the three slaves from last week’s parable, we have been entrusted with the possessions of the master. And we have been working hard to benefit God’s estate until the master returns. We are not laboring in vain. Our work as a church is not a pointless gesture, a Quixotic effort that we know will never succeed (“To Dream the Impossible Dream”). The world may think that our efforts are dreamy at best, pointless at worst. Reality is cold and brutal, they say; goodness shall never reign in human hearts. People are selfish. The reality is, is things will never change (That’s what people say, with their double ises). You Christians are just living a pipe dream.

Today we respond with a resounding: No! Our work is real work that we expect with real hope is going somewhere. Our work is based on God and God’s own power will complete and perfect our work. Capping off our efforts, including our recent commitment to another year of good stewardship, by lifting high the Reign of Christ is our way of saying: Christ will be King of all! Peace and justice shall reign on the earth. Indeed, today we recognize that already this is so. Christ reigns here and now!

Our reading from Ephesians speaks this truth beautifully. As always, Paul begins his letter by being thankful for the church at Ephesus. We also should begin by being thankful for the church at Granby. “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you…”   But Paul’s being thankful doesn’t at all mean the Ephesians were perfect and complete Christians (nor are we). He goes on to pray for God to give them a spirit of “wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that…you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” You see, they don’t know all of that yet. They have faith in Jesus and love for the saints, but there is still a lot for these Ephesians to learn.

Paul points that out so positively and without a trace of shaming them or taking back his great thankfulness for them. And likewise, you know what I love so much about this place is our ability to admit freely our puzzlement over and disagreement with some beliefs in the Christian faith. We don’t feel the need to piously pretend to be all orthodox. I was talking recently with two people here that I have always admired for the way they live such spiritually centered lives—indeed, models that I strive to follow. And they were both agreeing that they had come a long way in their spiritual journeys and were thankful for that, despite challenges that remain. And then one said: “But this Jesus, I don’t get what the big deal is.” And the other said, “Yeah, me neither.” I love it. A more uptight church and pastor would be scandalized. But obviously, like with the Ephesians, faith and love have become vessels of God’s power for us, even if some details remain hazy.

What shocked me (for real) was when I told this story to a friend who is an expert in Christianity and he said, Yeah, “I guess Jesus had to die for our sins, but I don’t really get it.” <Palm to forehead> Do you see what terrible straits the Christian faith is in? But I especially have to sigh a sigh of world weariness. <sigh> Because I really see, now—it took me a long time—and I appreciate (at least I’m beginning to) the glorious treasure we have in our faith in Jesus the Christ. With Paul I can say, “Blessed be the God and Father (or Mother) of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” (Ephesians 1:3).  I can’t claim with confidence that I’m a better person in any way for it, sadly, but I get what having faith in Jesus the Christ is all about. You won’t hear me say this often, but I have been given something precious. I did nothing to earn this gift, but it inspired the work I have done. And I give thanks. / It is perfectly understandable that most people struggle and fail to grasp the meaning of the reign of Christ. The Bible is far from easy to read; the church has done a pretty poor job grasping and passing on this faith, and we’ve often been distracted from, and maybe a little slothful about, pursuing it. But I get it. And I thought you should know, because I would love to be a resource for you. (Maybe you’ll think about that adult confirmation class.)

What faith in Christ is all about is simple in essence, but like a ray of light it can refract through the crystal of life into the most complex and multicolored patterns. Still the essence is still there. With all due respect to my friend to so many of our old hymns, forgiveness of sins is only one of those refracted colors and beams, it is not the essence. And you might say “love” but I don’t think that’s the essence either; love doesn’t require a king. The essence is this: Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple. That’s what the whole Bible is about. That’s what everything we do here is about, most simply at Christmas. Christ is the reality of God’s union with humanity. Simple, and yet humanity is both so near and so far from that union that we need the crystal of Jesus to illuminate the messy complexity of our many paths and challenges to that union with God.

Christ contains many facets. He is said to be a prophet; he is said to be a priest, and even our spouse. But another facet concerns the power of God which we have access to as human beings, and for this Christ is our king. Paul prays that the Ephesians will understand “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…God put this power to work in Christ when God raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Now the rules of power and authority in our world are generally very clear. Be loyal to friends; hate (or at least ignore) your enemy. The one who is on top is entitled to feel high and mighty; the one on the bottom is expected to feel small and resentful. If you are powerful you might be able to get away with stealing or trickery, but the closest we expect you to come to goodness is a square deal: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. All of that is what usually passes for power and its trappings—for reigning.

Jesus upended all of that. Our king turned kingship on its head. And because of that, the (powers that be) lifted him in mockery on a cross and called him “King of the Jews.” But God raised him from the dead, for our sakes, so we could know that his way was the true way of power. Paul continues: “And God made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We the church are his body, the fullness of Christthat word in Greek does not mean the way you felt after Thanksgiving, but “completeness.” We are the completeness of Christ, which might sound odd, as if Christ weren’t complete by himself. But Christ exists for others. He exists for his body, for his way of turning power on its head to become the way of life for a people, even for all people, for “all in all.” And so we as fullness of the Christ reign do not hate our enemies. We still love our friends, but we don’t affirm them when they do wrong; we desire for them what we desire for ourselves: to be transformed into the likeness of Christ. People among us who are powerful are to be servants to others; the one being served loves in turn and serves others. We would never think of trickery or selfish gain, but nor would we intone: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. No, we look out for the good of each other, rather than me thinking about your good only as a way to get mine.

Now, we’re not really that church yet, that fullness of Christ—right? The sinful marks of fallen and corrupt power are still to be found within us. But what I’ve described is what we are called to be, every time we invoke the one who is above every name that is named, the one who is the reality of God’s union with humanity. And we become the fullness of this one whenever we, in our way of life and our practice as a community, truly love one another.

But even then, would we really be the fullness of Christ? Or would we then just become a kind of self-enclosed love fest?   Our parable from Matthew reminds us that faithfulness to Christ our King means than just loving one another. Perhaps the most amazing beam of color and light to come out of this gem we know as Jesus is his particular identification with the downtrodden, the poor, the suffering, and the neglected. In this way, Jesus is God’s justice, God’s setting right of the most egregious inhumanity that people commit on one another—often by naively innocent neglect.   So Jesus, at the coming of his kingdom in fullness, mounts the throne of his glory, as the parable has it. And he, Christ the King of the Universe, judges all the nations of the world. This is the perfect image of absolute power. But what no one is able to see, even the righteous, is that this one seated on the throne in absolute power is really to be found in the face of lowliest need: I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I was naked, I was sick, I was in prison. And in this parable, each of us is judged according not to whether I did harm or not, it’s whether I went out of my way to help these poor ones, or ignored them. So if we’re saying and singing and praying: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus I love my Jesus, and we think we’ve got it all covered, we are going to surprised like the goats in this parable. Because Jesus went to the cross not just so our sins could be forgiven and we can go to heaven despite being sinners—if that is even true—he went to the cross to be truly united with human beings who suffer, who are cast out, who are oppressed. And if we are going to come to know Jesus, as Paul wants us to, in the immeasurable greatness of his power (to be all those who suffer), then we’d better do more than make a joyful noise. We’d better go feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger, and clothe the naked, and take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner. We’d better do some serious, hands-dirty, face to face mission work. We’d better get to know the reality of suffering in those most afflicted, and also in ourselves, for all of us know suffering. Otherwise we might find we don’t recognize this Jesus at all.

And perhaps that is why we go from acknowledging Christ as our King today, to waiting for him to come again next week. Because measured by our actions, maybe we’re not yet living up to the proclamation of Christ as our king. We do fine greeting Christ on the throne here in church, but are we more often neglecting the Christ in the lowly and the least, rather than coming to their aid? If so, then Paul’s desire that we come to know Christ better is still in our future, and perhaps it is time for us to once again admit that this Christ is a stranger to us. Or that we are strangers to him; and we shudder to imagine hearing those words: “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Or we shudder to imagine hearing Christ’s answer to the foolish bridesmaids knocking at the door: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” To that shudder, the fast of Advent, by which we take the humble posture of waiting for Christ to come, is the appropriate response. May Christ reign among you, and may he come.


Stewardship Sunday: “Enter into the Joy”

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

Matthew 25:14-30

I was not thrilled to see the parable of the Talents, as it’s called, in the lectionary for Stewardship Sunday. It goes against just about everything I’ve been preaching about recently. It makes Christianity sound like it’s all about handling money, or even being a shrewd investor. In the past I’ve never known what to make of the parable of the talents. I was tempted to skip it. (Don’t get me started on Zephaniah, which contains absolutely the worst possible verse for stewardship Sunday: “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.”) We’re all tempted to either skip or let our eyes glaze over Scripture when it doesn’t say what we want it to say. But I believe, when it comes to off-putting scriptures, we are called to be like Jacob wrestling the angel of the Lord: Sometimes we have to wrestle all night until we get our blessing.

Well, it wouldn’t take all night, but I could spend at least half an hour or more describing all the difficulties with interpreting this parable—the way it could have had a very different meaning when Jesus first said it; the questions surrounding the similar but different sayings in Mark 13 and Luke 19; the way the parable doesn’t correct the impression that the wealthy man, who seems to represent God, is called a “harsh man” who reaps what he does not sow—surely Jesus isn’t saying that’s how God is. And worst of all, at the climax of the parable is the epigram that perhaps was originally a separate saying of Jesus which Matthew has inserted into this parable, but either way is just troubling: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” That’s just awkward to say, for one thing (in the Greek also). But it sounds manifestly unfair, doesn’t it? Isn’t this the same Jesus who told his disciples to give to the poor? Now it sounds like God will give the wealthy even more, but will leave the poor completely destitute. / O God of the Lectionary, what are you doing to me? This is supposed to be a feel-good, go-rah Stewardship Sunday! And I mean that too: last week I told you that we can give more as a congregation, and in fact if the Spirit of God were really among us we’d have no problem with stewardship; it was a challenging if not chastising sermon. So I really want us to feel good about and believe in what we are doing as we dedicate ourselves and our gifts to another year of ministry in this church. But I was initially flummoxed by this unlikeable parable. Well, don’t count me out yet. Did you know, I was on the wrestling team in junior high? I was a gangly, 95 pound kid who looked like “a reed shaken by the wind,” to quote Jesus, but I wrestled, darn it.

To begin with, this parable has nothing to do with money. It’s not about investing money, and it’s not about being literally rich or poor. Nor is it about the talents or abilities we receive from God. A talent was originally a large unit of weight, and later the coin called a talent stood for a big sum of money–?1000 days wages. Our word talent, for someone’s inherent or cultivated abilities, apparently comes from this parable, but not for any good reason.

No, instead what this parable is about is the servants (or slaves) being entrusted with the master’s considerable property. The master is God. We are the slaves, but slaves who are also stewards. We are entrusted with the very possessions of God—which is everything. So our position as slaves may sound humble, but this parable in fact puts us in the noblest position. And though we are given stewardship of the things of God only temporarily until he returns, we are said at that time to be permanently united with God in God’s rule over everything: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave! You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.”

Now, we do not receive equal shares of the stewardship God or Jesus gives us: the master entrusted shares of his property “to each according to his ability.” That may seem troubling, especially in the way the parable quantifies these shares: 5 talents, 2 talents, or 1. Are you a 5, a 2, or a one? That doesn’t sound fair. But as a parent I know how easy it is to say, “That’s not fair.” We shouldn’t let simplistic ideas of fairness prevent us from recognizing that we are not all equally capable as stewards of God’s things. There are those of us whose faith is stronger, whose gifts are more fruitful in the church. There are youth in the church whose faith is more sincere and true than that of some of us who are older and whose passions have cooled. Or perhaps it won’t be until your later years that you acquire the wisdom to see what really matters in life, as well as the time to devote to living for God. We shouldn’t have to pretend that we are all, right now in this moment of our life, equally faithful and equally fruitful in the things of God. And in the end it hardly matters: whatever each of us makes of our faith goes back to God. The slave who makes 5 talents gets exactly the same praise and reward as the slave who makes two talents.

But, O that poor slave who only got one talent to begin with, and then buries it in the ground. He was just playing it safe, after all; but the master takes even his one talent away. Is this the God we recognize as our master? Is God really the way the third slave describes this master: “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” He’s accusing God of expecting much, or at least something, from soil to which God has given little, like this poor slave who received but one talent (note: that’s still a lot of money).

Well, let’s keep in mind that the master has already entrusted all his property to the three slaves. That’s us. To all of us in the church, God has entrusted the things of God: salvation and holiness, love and justice. Though we seem to be but slaves, we are in fact like adopted children of God. So God has already proven to us God’s love and generosity. But that’s not where Matthew’s attention is focused in this portion of the gospel. Matthew places this parable in a string of three others that emphasize the importance of being watchful, persistent, and fruitful until Jesus returns—during this era that last week’s parable described as the long night waiting for the bridegroom. Matthew is using this parable to help keep us sharp and prepared and active in this time between Jesus’ coming and the arrival of the kingdom in its fullness.

So God has already proven himself merciful and gracious and trusting by making us stewards. God has welcomed us wherever we are. But that doesn’t mean God wants us to remain exactly as we are. Indeed, it would be ungracious of God not to prompt us to grow in our faith and fruitfulness. Doesn’t our true joy lie in that growth? It’s not found in sitting back and saying, Yay! I can be the same old lame me and God will love me just the same. I don’t think God is the kind of parent who would think her child is just wonderful spending day in and day out on the couch (at age 25). God does want us to get out there and make something of this great gift of faith that we have been given.

So it makes sense that the way God appears in this parable will vary according to what each slave makes of his share of stewardship. To the 5 and 2 talent slaves, the master upon his return appears eminently fair and gracious. As I already noted, they both receive exactly the same commendation, including being now permanently entrusted with the master’s estate. While their abilities were unequal to begin with, and their fruits are unequal, now they both equally “enter into joy of your master;” “you will be placed over many things.”

But the one-talent slave is not able to trust God. Presumably, if he had made just one talent, or even interest on it, he’d be received just like the others. But he seems to blame the master (or God) for his lesser abilities—his lesser faith and fruitfulness. That’s why he accuses the master of “reaping what you did not sow.” You might say to yourself, well God didn’t give me great faith and abilities, so why should I be expected to do anything with them, like those holier than thou Christians over there? Remember, a talent is still a lot of money. Even just being baptized and calling on God’s holy name here, although it might not move you greatly and inspire you to do great things, is still something amazing. And God’s only expecting one talent from you, or even just some interest. But the third slave concludes that God must be harsh and unfair.

And so, in the parable, God is harsh to him, taking away even his one talent. I am not able to take the outer darkness he is thrown into literally, because believing in a literal hell just hardly makes any sense to me. But I do believe that sometimes the God we imagine for ourselves in our own mind is the God we get for real. If you believe God is generous and gracious for giving you even modest faith and membership in God’s family, you will joyfully go out and do great things. You will take up our shared effort to practice a mutual, selfless love in this community that wants nothing more than to share that love with others. But if you believe God is harsh and ungenerous because you blame God for the weaknesses and flaws that, wherever they came from, you are now stuck with—they are all yours now—then you will squander even what little God has given you. Above all, don’t be envious of the 5 and 2 talent Christians in our midst, and we know who they are. Be joyful that we all share in God’s estate and can all enter together into the joy of the master.

I take Matthew’s point about the “outer darkness” to be that what we do in this time of waiting for Christ is of the utmost seriousness, as serious as life and death or more. If you miss out on the chance to really exercise your share of God’s estate; if you chose to bury what little taste you have of God’s grace and love and righteousness in the ground, then what is there for you to do but weep and gnash your teeth. Literal hell aside, this image of an outer darkness is a fairly realistic portrait of human life that is not grounded in mutual, self-giving love. Apart from that love, human beings often make us weep with misery or gnash our teeth with anger. That should be obvious with every mass shooting we hear about; but if you look carefully at all the benign neglect out there, as people bury their gifts and out of fear just hold on to what is theirs, you’ll see a world of hurt and pain that doesn’t have to be there. Weep and gnash.

We should be frightened of what can become of us if we aren’t held within the bonds of God’s love. But the 5 and 2-talent slaves aren’t motivated by fear. They gratefully do God’s work, and in return enter into God’s kingdom. Now, our first thought of the “joy of the master” that they enter into will be a heavenly afterlife with God, and that is our hope beyond this life, but that is not clearly what is depicted here. Instead, they are told that they will be put in charge of many things. This is a working kingdom that they receive, and they are to be in charge of it, sharing the governing of it with the master. This kingdom doesn’t have to only be something that will happen one day, or only after we die. I think the kingdom is already present in our midst whenever the way of God, the way of self-giving mutual love, takes form among us. This kingdom suddenly appears whenever we break out of our sins and wounds, and break through all the impediments that the world sets up. Maybe it appears only briefly, but for that moment we really are the people of God. Whenever that happens here, whether in a committee meeting, or worship, or a mission project, we already become rulers of the world. Everyone who is in God’s kingdom is a fellow ruler with God, because God wants nothing more than to share his glory with humanity. And even though the world may not notice these small, brief moments of kingdom happening here, still we become rulers of the world, because we judge the world. Not finger-wagging; we set the standard for goodness in the world. We show what godly human community is really all about. You don’t want to miss these moments. Jesus tells us to watch. Watch for them. And invest yourself in expecting them, so that you too can enter into the joy of the master.


Second in Stewardship Month: “Trimming Our Lamps”

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Matthew 25:1-13

I wish I were better at focusing on money—for Jessica’s sake at least. In our house, I guess she gets stuck worrying more about money—not to mention making more of it.

But in this house, maybe it’s good to remember that stewardship is not really about money. Oh, I can try to do the money talk.

[I recited figures about how much we spend and what average pledge we count on to sustain this ministry.]

I know we as a congregation can give more money—many of us at least could set the church at a higher priority. If we did, we might even be able to go beyond just meeting our already pared-down budget, and start operating like a church that believes in its own future. We might be able to give our staff, whom we all love, a cost of living raise, minimally. We could also better fund and staff our missions work, which we lift up today, and fairly support the work of our denomination. We could do what we need to do to to be a strong and dependable presence in our community. In short we would be able to operate as if we really believe that the world needs this church. (I know it does—do you?)

I say this to rouse us to action. Sometimes we mean well, but we have become sluggish, drowsy like the bridesmaids in the parable. Wake up. Trim your lamps. Weigh your financial priorities carefully, and consider earnestly what supporting the house of God really means to you. Being a house of God is what all of us are trying really hard to do. I know there are other demands on your time and money—I’m in the same position. But how many of these other demands can claim to be about being a house of God?

And that is what makes stewardship not just a money matter, not just another fundraising scheme. Stewardship is a spiritual matter. If the Spirit of God were really moving among us in full power, we’d be doing more than fine. I should say, rather, when the Spirit of God comes upon us in full power, we will be more than fine, because I believe it will come—we already have a taste of it. We won’t need rousing and cajoling. We will have plenty of funding. The kind of volunteering done here by a few will be shared and amplified by many. And the kind of things that sidetrack us—personality differences, disagreements about what the church is for—will be overwhelmed by peace and unity of purpose.

Unfortunately, we can’t just make that Spirit of God reign among us in full power. I can’t will that to happen; you can’t will it. Joshua, in our first reading, is trying to prod the Israelites to do just that, to will themselves into being a faithful people: “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and faithfulness; put away the gods” of your ancestors. (If Joshua were to give a stewardship sermon, he’d explain: ‘You don’t need to spend all that money on other things, and waste your time on all those things that you do.’ Commit yourself, in your resources and your time and your passion, to serving the one true God. “As for me and my household,” he declares, throwing down the gauntlet, “we will serve the Lord.” Are you in?

And the people respond by insisting: Far be it for us to forsake God. (They sound almost tongue in cheek, don’t they?) They ante up. “We also will serve the Lord!” ‘We’re really going to do it this time, Joshua. We are so in. We got this.’

But Joshua doesn’t seem to believe them. He tells them, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sin.” (Weren’t you wondering about that? That’s the opposite of how we usually talk about God.) “If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you.”

Joshua sounds harsh. But I can explain why. The book of Joshua was finished hundreds of years after the events it portrays. It is looking back at these early, heady days of Israel, when things looked promising. But centuries later, the people who completed Joshua found themselves in exile, having lost the temple and the land they loved. And they blamed the people’s lack of faith. The exile, they believed, was God’s punishment for mixing their loyalty to God with other loyalties, other gods. (We do not have to agree with them about that.) Joshua’s cautionary words—You cannot serve the Lord—seem to predict that things are going to end badly.

Now stewardship month is our time to gather together and say: We will serve the Lord! But like the authors of Joshua looking back, we know it’s not so simple as just saying, Yes we can! with youthful exuberance. Our church founders probably felt that way. But we know that the road is long, and we are weak; and not just weak in our budget, but weak in our faith. Some of you are strong; I wish I were stronger in faith, and surely that’s where many of us are. And not just us; massive swaths of the Christian world are weak in faith. But it’s not because we have chosen to be unfaithful to God. It’s not like we stood up and said, “No, I’m not going to serve the Lord!” The weakness of our faith comes from a thousand reasons. Ask yourself: why isn’t the church closer to the center of my life? Why isn’t the church a greater source of sustenance for me, as well as the place I devote my greatest resources and energies? I mean, it shouldn’t sound too strange to think of putting the house of God as number one in your life! It sounds like an obvious choice. But think about all the reasons the church is not your clear number one, and pretty quickly they will start to pile up. There are so many other commitments and pleasures that vie for our attention, so many other little gods—career, family, friends, TV, fitness, good food and drink, travel, study. None of these little gods seems to ask for too much; they just ask for a little of our time, not a total commitment. But pretty soon they all add up to a lot. And these little gods seem so much closer and more real to us, sometimes, than the God of Israel, the God of Jesus. We believe; but as if in a kind of fog. God is there, in our lives, but in a kind of hazy, rather than a clear and commanding way. We didn’t choose that. And then there are our personal failings, separating us from God further; and last but certainly not least, the failings of the church itself, which so often does not seem to be a true and faithful house of God. Like I said, there are a thousand reasons why it’s hard for us, and for those who never step foot in a church, to take God absolutely seriously, to feel God that way, and to commit to God in that spirit. We are not alone in this problem; it’s completely common among churches like ours: middle class, mainline churches in the throes of modern life and all its uncertainties.

Joshua seems to know that putting God first won’t be as simple as just saying, “We will serve the Lord!” And I know we’re not going to completely turn this church around and be filled with Holy Spirit power, and so to conquer all our problems with money and with volunteering and drawing in new members, by having a <pledge drive>. But that’s ok. Joshua let the people make their pledge anyway. And we do well to stand here today and next week and not only state, “I will serve the Lord!” but back it up with a pledge of money and commitment to volunteering. This is a good and necessary first step, even if it’s not going to get us across the finish line.

But we’ve got something the Israelites and Joshua didn’t have. We have the witness of Jesus. That doesn’t mean we are more capable than they. It certainly doesn’t give us a free pass. If anything, we must own up to the fact that Jesus proved that our human flesh can be faithful to God, so faithful as to be without sin. We have no excuse for our failings, despite those thousand reasons I mentioned. At least we know what absolute faithfulness looks like, and it leads to a cross.

But with Jesus’ witness, we also know that being faithful to God isn’t just on us. We don’t have to just will ourselves, each one of us, to love God and follow God alone. That has never worked. We don’t need to just beat our chest and promise to give it 110%. I know I can’t really be godly by sheer will power, but only if we become godly together, by God’s grace moving in us, God’s Spirit being our power. For that we have to let ourselves be shaped as a people by listening once again to the story of Jesus, which tells us about how through Jesus the Holy Spirit first came to the church. So it’s a good thing that stewardship month is followed directly by Advent. If our stewardship pledge is a first step, the next step takes us back to Christmas. Because we don’t just need to decide about a pledge. We need to be united with God, to be one with God, and in that very oneness with God, one with each other. Jesus is our guide to union with God. Jesus shows us that union with God is possible because God is merciful and receives us in all our failings. And Jesus shows us that our true power is not in me and my little “I will serve the Lord!” Our true power, the power that overcomes death and failure, comes from God. We can become a people full of the Holy Spirit—at least close enough, as far as our merciful God is concerned. It will take more time than filling our a pledge card; it will take deeply imbibing the story of Jesus together.

Our story from Jesus for today—one of the stranger parables—is appropriately about persistence. The 10 bridesmaids are the Christians of the early church, chosen by God to be devoted to Christ and to await his return, at which time all things will be set right and there will be a beautiful wedding banquet. The early church never planned to go it alone; they assumed Jesus would return soon. But in this parable, the bridegroom is delayed. It doesn’t say why. The bridesmaids all fall asleep. But the wise among them were ready for this delay; they brought with them extra oil for their lamps. The foolish hadn’t brought enough oil, and apparently this oil can’t be shared. You yourself have to be prepared if Christ doesn’t come quickly; that much is on each of us.   We have all been invited to the banquet; we all know whom the banquet is for. Wherever you are on life’s journey, you are invited to the banquet. But living in this time of ours, this time of delay, this time of a thousand nattering reasons, is not easy. Each of us has to be wisely prepared. Because those who did not prepare for a delay, for the long night that lures us to sleep and to fail in our watchfulness, will find themselves shut out of the banquet.

As it turned out, that night has lasted 2000 years. We worship one very late bridegroom. (I’m always running late so I sympathize.) Anyone who thought waiting for the Kingdom of God to come was going to be quick and easy was long ago rudely awakened. This long night and 999 other reasons press us to find wisdom, to trim our lamps and be well stocked with extra oil to keep our light going in this long, but very exciting and festive night. Now, the bridesmaids are us Christians; the bridegroom is Jesus returning; what does the oil in this parable signify, you might ask? We talked about that in Bible study. There are many theories. I think the parable leaves it unexplained for a good reason. It is for we bridesmaids who want to be wise to figure out together what we are going to need—what is going to light our way—so we can make it through this long night and stay prepared for Jesus to come.