Saturday, March 14, 2015

What Does It Mean to Believe?

Thanks to the writing of D. Mark Davis and the resources provided by Gil Bailie at "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary," where I got even more help from Sarah Dylan Breuer and Tom Truby.

JOHN 3:14-21
“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

What does it mean to believe? Is it a simple process of mentally agreeing to a set of doctrinal statements, does it involve training ourselves to think and act differently? Is “belief” something more – or something wholly different?

Our passage this morning starts out with Jesus making reference to a frankly troubling passage in the Book of Numbers: the Children of Israel, making their journey to the Promised Land, are complaining that there isn't anything to eat or drink, and what there is to eat – manna – is terrible. God responds to the complaints by sending a plague of poisonous snakes.

And even though one of the things the Jewish people were never ever supposed to do was to make graven images, when the people repent and ask Moses to ask God to save them, what does God tell Moses to do?

Yep. A graven image. Of a snake, on a pole. God doesn't take the snakes away, but when someone is bitten, all they have to do is look at the snake on the pole, and they won't die.

By the way, many years later, one of the Kings of Israel, Hezekiah, destroyed the bronze snake that Moses made, because people had started worshiping it – which was why God had said not to make graven images in the first place. But I digress, sort of.

Jesus is referring to this incident in the life of the Jewish people to draw a parallel between the lifting of the snake on the pole as a means of saving the people from death, and his own lifting up on the cross as a means of salvation to the world. We know this because the very next sentence Jesus utters in today's passage is possibly the most well-known Bible passage in the universe: John 3:16. “For God so loved the world – a better translation might be “God loved the world in this way:” – that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Now, I would argue first that we do a disservice by quoting John 3:16 by itself. It is an incomplete thought, made whole by the next verse: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

And it's my inclination to stop there, honestly. As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of God sending poisonous snakes because a bunch of people are tired of eating manna for every meal – manna sausage for breakfast, manna sandwiches for lunch, manna pot roast for dinner, bamanna bread for dessert... I see 'way too much condemnation in popular Christianity today as it is, so all the talk about nonbelievers being condemned in the next verses feels like overkill. It frankly sounds a little like God sent Jesus as a reason to condemn people... turn or burn, agree with my set of doctrinal statements (because that's what the word “believe” has come to mean) or go to Hell...

And I don't think it's that simple. I don't think God can be distilled down to a choice between a benevolent Grandparent or a heavenly vending machine or an angry, vengeful deity with his hand poised over the “smite” button.

And I do not think we are using the word “believe” in the right way. Yes, “believe” does mean “to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so,” that is technically correct... but I do not think it is theologically correct.

As I understand it, the Greek word group pistos tends to be shaded less as “belief” and more as “faithfulness” and “trust” – because in doing so, it denotes more of a relationship than a state of thinking – so why, when we see its verb form, pisteuo, should we satisfied with the word “believe?” Is faith in the risen Christ, the One who was lifted up for us, a simple matter of intellectual assent? Is Christianity a mental exercise, is it just a way of thinking?

What does it mean to “believe?” It means to trust.

And while we're on the subject of Greek... I am not a Greek scholar, but more than one scholar and commentator that I have read this week brings up a very important point about krino and krisis, the words translated “condemn” and “condemned,” respectively. Both Gil Bailie and Mark Davis, for example, make a very compelling argument for krino and krisis to be translated rather as “judge” and “judgment,” respectively.

And make no mistake, this is not a matter of rewriting Scripture, but of making a choice in translating Scripture – it's a question of, if I may quote Paul from the epistle to Timothy, “rightly dividing the Word of Truth.”

The word “krino” doesn't, in and of itself, have a negative connotation. It's more ambiguous, like our English word “judge.” We can judge things in positive and negative ways, but the word “condemn” just means “condemn.”

So here's the way the verses might read: “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have the life of God's new age. For God loved the world in this way: he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have the life of God's new age. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who trust in him are not judged; but those who do not trust are judged already, because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Do you see the difference? To say God condemns isn't wrong, necessarily. God condemns a lot of things – idolatry and injustice, for example. But is God in the business of condemnation? Is there a divine game of whack-a-mole going on, with you and I playing the moles?

It's interesting to note that, when the snakes came on the Hebrews in the wilderness, they didn't go to Moses talking about the evil that God had visited upon them, they said, “We have sinned...” Whoever sent the serpents, they understood them to be the product of their own actions, their own choice to complain. Theirs was the active role, not God's.

“Those who trust in him are not judged; but those who do not trust are judged already, because they have not trusted in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Who or what we trust has consequences, doesn't it? If we trust in money, or power, or politicians, or drugs, or alcohol, or food, or fame, or security, what are we in fact placing our faith in? One more dollar, one more rich old man who might vote our way this time, one more buzz, one more bite, one more FaceBook like, one more lock on the door? Because in the end, when they close the lid and lower the casket, what are any of those things worth?

Putting our trust in the risen Christ saves us from the cesspool of self-absorption, rescues us from the idolatry of things, and releases us from the certainty that this life, this existence, this here-and-now is all that there is and ever will be. When we put our trust in Christ, we enter into relationship with the eternal.

Make no mistake about it: following Jesus is not a program for self-improvement; it's an invitation to a relationship; it is inclusion in a community. It's dislocation from a worldview that perpetuates injustice, death, and alienation, knitting us into a network of relationships that bring healing, reconciliation, and abundant life rooted in the eternal.

Think about how many things are set by our birth in this world: We are born in a geographical location that can accustom one person to unjust privilege and prevent another person from access to clean water, education, the chance to live to adulthood. One person is born to a family that instills a sense that he or she is loved, while another person's family leaves them with a sense that he or she is deeply inadequate. We are born with a skin color that will also condition our sense of who we are, what we deserve, whom we may love or fear. This world is set up in ways that try to lock us into patterns of relationship based on our birth -- patterns that separate us from one another and from God.

How might the world be different if those patterns were disrupted, if you and I could be sisters and brothers in healthy relationship? ... Let me put it this way:

What would our relationships look like if we shared one birth and were raised in one loving, supportive family? What would the economy look like if we took seriously the fact that we live and work in a world that is our common inheritance, instead of a set of disconnected chunks of land and resources to be conquered like a board game? What would the world look like if we saw every child as our own little sister or brother, if "family first" included them all as our own flesh and blood?

That's what it means to put our trust in Jesus. Jesus offers us freedom from relationships that ensnare, and the choice to relate to one another as beloved children of one loving God. It's a choice not just for a new name, it's a new world of new relationships, of new and abundant life.

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life.”

The serpent in the wilderness represented more than just a poisonous snake. The Hebrew people had become poisoned with doubt, with fear, they had become disgusted by the gift that God sent them every morning with the dew – manna. Looking at the serpent meant looking directly at the worst of themselves, it meant facing what they were and trusting enough to turn away from it.

God did not nail Jesus to the cross. We did. Think about it: it was the rage of the scribes and Pharisees against a man challenging the religious status quo, it was the greed of Judas, it was the fear that the chief priests and the Sanhedrin had of upsetting the Roman occupiers, it was the fear of the crowd that turned Pilate's resolve to capitulation, and it was the bloodlust of that crowd shrieking “Crucify him!” that killed Jesus.

When Jesus is lifted up on the cross, we see what happens when we put our trust in our pedigree, our won wealth, our own theological and doctrinal purity, like the scribes and Pharisees. We see what happens when we put our trust in cold hard cash, like Judas. We see what happens when we put our trust in political systems and corporate power structures, like the chief priests and the Sanhedrin. We see what happens when we bow to the whim of popular opinion, like Pilate. We see what happens when we give ourselves over to sensationalism and the thrill of immediate gratification, like the crowd.

This is the Good News: God's love is so complete, so irrevocable, so egregiously immense that it survived the worst that we could do to God's only begotten son! We look at the cross, and we see the worst in ourselves, the product of the idols and the temporal things we put our trust in, but we do not see our end in those things. Rather, in moving our trust from the temporary, the self-serving, the idolatrous, to the risen and living Christ, we find the light of God's eternal love, and the truth that indeed sets us free.


This is what it means to believe.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Transfiguration and Transformation...

Thanks to the writings of Lawrence Moore, Matt Skinner, and D. Mark Davis for their insights into today's reading.

MARK 9:2-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

This is the Word of the Lord.

How many times have you heard sermons and lessons on the Transfiguration? I mean, Transfiguration Sunday happens every year, the last Sunday before Lent begins. And while not every preacher follows the church calendar, I would think that it's a pretty safe bet that a preacher can't resist telling a cool story like this at least once a year...

So if you come to church regularly, you've heard about the Transfiguration a whole lot. So have I. I've preached a sermon on the Transfiguration every year I've been here, obviously, but if you were to back me in a figurative corner and ask me to state, definitively, what the transfiguration of Jesus means... well, I couldn't give you one answer, and honestly, I think that if we were to package this event into one specific, over-arching explanation, we'd be selling the narrative short. God always speaks to us where we are, individually and as a church.

And God speaks to us directly in the Transfiguration: “This is my Son, the Beloved...” One translation of this phrase reads, “This is my beloved son in whom I take delight.” Far from an event that invokes sober reverence and awe, for God, Transfiguration is an opportunity to declare love, to be delighted with Jesus the Son.

And it is a shared delight – Jesus is not alone, after all, Peter and James and John, not to mention Moses and Elijah, are there in the presence of God, enjoying the delight that God feels! Delight is an aspect of the holy – and this holiness is a participatory, shared holiness. God loves, so God interacts. God gives of God's self, because self-giving is just what happens when someone adores and celebrates someone else.

So Transfiguration is an opportunity to simply enjoy the presence of God in Jesus Christ, to be ourselves transformed by the light of his grace and love.

Because, make no mistake, we cannot stand long in the presence of God without being transformed. The word for “transfiguration” and for “transformation” is the same one: “metemorphothei,” the word we get “metamorphosis” from. Romans 12:2 tells us “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Which is all well and good, but I like being told the “what” without the “how” just about as much as I like paying sales tax. The good news is that God tells us the “how.” In 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

The light of Transfiguration lives within us in God the Holy Spirit, bringing us into the image and presence of our loving Creator! That's something to delight in, isn't it?

So yes, the Transfiguration is for us. It is, perhaps, Mark's Resurrection account, a picture of the risen and glorified Christ in a Gospel which, in its original form, doesn't really have one – it ends like it begins, with a sentence fragment, and empty tomb and some terrified women.

On this mountain, we have Jesus, the Christ, as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, robed in the blinding glory of God, attended by Moses, who represents the Law, and Elijah, who represents the Prophets. This is the Jesus of the Final Judgment, prepared to separate the sheep from the goats.

From this perspective alone, it makes sense that Peter and James and John were terrified (in fact, a literal translation might be that they were “freaked out”). After all, it's all well and good to talk about the Final Judgment, especially when we're talking about all those other people who'll get judged for their sins. Face to face with the reality of the Judge Himself, we might not be so quick to point at others... just sayin'.

On the other hand, the promise of a resurrected Christ is, after all, why we believe in the first place, isn't it? Without the real and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, we might as well just sleep in on Sunday, we might as well live our lives as if this is all there is, and once we are dead we are dust.

But God identifies Jesus as the beloved, in whom God is delighted! The resurrection is God's seal of approval on the completed work of Jesus the Son, and the promise of our faith is that in the same way that Jesus rose and lives eternally, we will rise, and we will live.

But yet again, I think if we leave it at this, settle for the triumphalism, we may well be missing something that God is saying to us.

After all, it is no small matter that, in order for Jesus to rise, he must die. And not a simple death, what Rush Limbaugh might refer to as “assuming room temperature.” Yes, I just quoted Rush Limbaugh in a sermon, and no, I am not proud of it.

There is one path down from that mountaintop for Jesus. One path that leads to Jerusalem, one path to the Garden of Gethsemane, one path to the Pavement and the whip and the crown of thorns, one path to Golgotha and the nails, one path to the cold, cold tomb.

It's easy, far too easy, to simply view the crucifixion of Jesus in the light of the Resurrection, and what I mean by that is to too easily dismiss the fear Jesus felt, the mortal terror that caused him to sweat blood at Gethsemane, the hopelessness of his cry, “My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?”

Our passage today begins with the words, “six days later.” That's how long it had been since Peter had declared that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus had begun trying to prepare his disciples for what was to come: “...that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.”

But the disciples don't get it – they either can't or won't understand. Peter and the rest continue to impose their own terms on what following Jesus means. Before and after the Transfiguration, the disciples refuse to accept Jesus' political fate, they discuss who will be greatest among them when Jesus takes over and imposes Empire upon the face of the earth; James and John try to do an end-run around the rest to get the best seats in the house.

So on the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah meet with Jesus to talk about what's to come – I think that this was for Jesus, reassurance that the path down from the mountaintop was the right one; and when God speaks from the cloud, he says something to Peter and James and John – and to us – “...listen to him!”

For Peter, James, and John, this means to stop trying to frame the Kingdom of God in their own template. Yes, life under the boot of Rome was tiresome and unjust, and yes it would be nice to overpower, overthrow, destroy the Romans, grind them to dust, and establish David's throne on earth by force. But the Kingdom of God is more than mere earthly empire. There is more to the Messiah than who gets to sit next to him in the throne room.

And – this was for the disciples and it is for us, today – we will never transform the world, we will not change people, by force. It simply cannot be done, not in the name of Christ, and Christ knows we've tried. Kings and emperors and Presidents and prime ministers too numerous to count have conquered and ruled and have claimed to do so within the will of God. One after another over the millenia, each on the ashes of the one before, and what do we have to show for it?

Poverty is still rampant. Government is rife with corruption. People the world over die every day from a lack of food and clean water, people die of easily preventable diseases, and even more despicable, far more shameful: children in our own city go to bed hungry, and far too many without a roof over their heads, every night. I will disagree with the governor and with the chief justice and with the senator and the attorney general in that it is this above all else which is the greatest sin in our state, that if Alabama is to incur the wrath of God it is for our inattention to the least of these in our midst, and the fact that we do it in the name of God.

Jesus was transfigured by the love of his Father, who delighted in him. We are transformed through the love of God in the risen Christ, through the renewing of the Holy Spirit.

It is love – not power, not weapons, not empire, which will ultimately transform this state, this country, and this world into one where all are fed and can drink clean water, where all are healthy and freed of poverty, where every child and every veteran has a home, a world where men and women and children from all walks of life enter the Kingdom of God not from fear of damnation or promise of prosperity, but because of what God's people have done to demonstrate the love of God in their lives, a world where God truly is glorified not just with our lips, but with our lives.


What does the Transfiguration mean to you, today? By that I mean, how is God speaking to you? How are you being transformed by the renewing of your mind? Which path is yours, off the mountaintop of your transfiguration? How will you, in turn transform your world?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

"Come and See..."

Many thanks today to D. Mark Davis, Mick Bradley, and Michael Rogness for their insights into today's reading.

The quote from Aaron Weiss comes from "Linear," by his group mewithoutYou.



JOHN 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you come to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I can't help but identify with Nathanael right off the bat: He has some pretty strong opinions, and you know that filter that most people have, that little voice in their heads kind of helps keep them from blurting out stuff they shouldn't? He doesn't have that. Most of the time I don't have one, either.

Nathanael only appears by that name in the Gospel of John. Most of the commentators I've read think that he's Bartholomew in the other Gospels. Why John didn't remember his name correctly is beyond me; it may have some symbolic significance, since Bartholomew means “son of Tolomei,” and Nathanael means “gift of God,” but that's just a guess.

And make no mistake, that's only one of the things about this passage that leaves me guessing. I don't know, for example, why, so many times in the Gospels, just like here with Philip, the disciples just drop whatever they're doing and follow Jesus. I don't know why it is important for John to note that Philip is from Bethsaida. It is translated like a toss-off comment, but I don't think there are any of those in Scripture. I don't know why Nathanael thinks nothing good exists in Nazareth, or why his reaction to Jesus having already seen him is so strong.

At its core, this reading is a passage about evangelism, but I don't know if it can be so easily categorized. I've struggled to find a word for what's going on here – intentionality, maybe? After all, in addition to the fact that Philip specifically sought out Nathanael, Jesus found Philip in the first place. Oh, Philip and Nathanael had been looking, in their own way, too – looking for the Messiah, the Hope of Israel. Something in Jesus convinced Philip, apparently on sight, that his search was over. And though, this side of the Resurrection, I'd like to think I'd react that same way to Jesus, I think it's more honest to say that I am more familiar with Nathanael's first reaction to news of the Messiah.

After all, what do we most associate this kind of evangelism with? “Come and see” usually translates to “come to church,” “come to this or that meeting,” “let me tell you about Amway,” that kind of thing. There is an entire industry built around evangelism – marketing tools, how-to-guides, videos and websites and tracts and training programs... you can use the Five Spiritual Laws or the Romans Road or any more of dozens of mnemonics and other catchy devices, all built around the idea that any time we mention Jesus or Christianity, whoever we are speaking to will react in the same way Nathaneal did: “Nazareth? Yeah, right.” And we are to react with well-thought-out rebuttals and systematic theological arguments.

All Philip said was, “Come see for yourself.” Period.

If it had been me, getting invited to someone's church meeting or some such, I probably wouldn't have gone. Or maybe...

I guess it would have to do with who invited me. If it was some random stranger, or a FaceBook invitation, or someone at work? Not likely. One of you, or a family member, on the other hand, I would be more likely to go, and I'm not just saying that because you're here and it sounds good. What I mean is that I am more likely to respond positively to someone I have a relationship with – friends and family trump strangers and FaceBook notices any day.

If Nathanael in John's Gospel is the same disciple as Bartholomew in the other three, then we have an idea of the relationship between Philip and Nathanael. Every time we read Bartholomew's name in the other Gospels, it is in association with Philip. Those two were inseparable friends, like they were joined at the hip. Jesus found Philip and the first thing he thought was, “I gotta tell Nathanael, he'll love this!”

Yes, there are times when people come to a church meeting or a revival and whatever they see or hear causes them to respond to Christ. There are times when a stranger's word can bring a person to faith in Jesus. There are examples in the New Testament of this: Peter preaches in Acts and five thousand people become Christians, before they even had a word for it. Philip – the same Philip we meet today – comes across an Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah and ends up baptizing him into the faith.

But there are so many more times, in Scripture and in day-to-day life, where it isn't a chance meeting or a preacher that makes the difference in whether or not someone chooses to follow the risen Christ. It's personal. Friends and family. It's relationships.

Words only do so much, after all. Philip seems to have known this, and when Nathanael scoffed at the idea of a Messiah coming out of Nazareth (since nothing in Scripture said anything about that), he didn't try to beat him down with superior logic, or by yelling louder. He just said, “Come and see.”

But let's just wait a second. When you think about it, however much I've tried to frame it as personal, as relationship, up until the point Jesus greets Nathanael, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” the whole passage reads like an advertiser or marketer's dream: “come to church, come to my meeting, come try this new-and-improved cheese spread, come see my movie, come try this more comfortable bed.”

In response to Nathanael’s skepticism Philip replies, “Come and see,” an invitation akin to offering a ‘money back guarantee’ or a “Don’t take my word for it, try it on for yourself!” Nathanael approaches Jesus as one who is in the position of power to judge, to test, to evaluate whether this one whom Philip has found is indeed the Messiah.

But is God like a garment, hanging on display, subject to our choosing? Are we even capable of looking at God, trying God on, or deciding if God fits our criteria? Is the Messiah an exhibition at which one comes to gawk and make judgments? Are we really able, on our own, in our power of vision, to decide whether or not Jesus is “good enough?”

It's what we're comfortable believing, after all. We've bought into the myth of the market, where something’s worth lies solely in the eyes of the beholder.

Jesus turns that idea on its head when he says to Nathanael: “Before Philip called you … I saw you.” Suddenly, Nathanael is no longer in the position of power, to question, to doubt, to press Philip for convincing proof. Before we see, we are seen; before we know, we are known; before we choose, we are chosen.

In our Reformed theology, we believe that we don't save ourselves, after all, and if it weren't for God's grace, we wouldn't give a first or a second thought to faith. We believe that God seeks us out, God in Jesus Christ calls us to faith, we love because he first loved us.

It is not that humans have no free will, no capacity to see, no power to evaluate, judge, or choose. It is, rather, that human will has been contextualized, human capacity has been circumscribed, and the human power of vision has been dethroned as the ultimate power of the universe.

In God's vision, things have value, even if we treat them like nothing; in God's vision, some are worthless, even if we would choose to kill for them; in God's vision, some things are necessary, even if we would not buy into them in a million years. Our estimation of utility is not the final arbiter of value; the customer is not always right; and what something costs may have nothing to do with what it is worth.

Maybe... maybe this is why Nathanael reacts so strongly? The fact that Jesus saw him before he even knew Jesus existed, that he had value in Jesus' eyes before he approached, he was known and had worth before Nathanael decided one way or the other about Jesus...

Arguments and theologies and doctrines are fine, as far as they go. But in the end, they are words, and nothing more. Poet and vocalist Aaron Weiss puts it like this: “However much you talk, however well you talk, you make a certain sense, but it's still only stupid talk.”

In the end, all we can do – all we must do – is, like Philip, invite people to “come and see” - but not come to church, not come see this preacher or that musician, not come hear this convincing argument or that flawless doctrine...

We have to show them Jesus. And the scary part is that all we have that can and should show Jesus... is us. Our lives. Our actions. Our selves.


“Come and see.”

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Who Are You?

Many thanks to D. Mark Davis of "Left Behind and Loving It" for his insights on Biblical translation and interpretation.


JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Who are you?”

It sounds like a simple enough question, but make no mistake: these priests and Levites are no mere emissaries on a fact-finding mission. This man, this John, he is upsetting the “natural order” of things. He is a danger. This is one ladder-backed chair and bare hanging light bulb away from an interrogation.

Who are you?”

Judea was not a great place to live in those days, at least not for most people. It was a province of the Roman Empire, and not a terribly important one. As long as the taxes were collected and the peace was kept, Rome was content to garrison some troops and send a prefect, and divide the nominal rulership of the province among the three sons of Herod the Great. The prefect, Pontius Pilate, was an administrator, but he exercised a strange kind of control over the religious hierarchy of Judea – the prefect could appoint and dismiss a High Priest at will, and he kept their holy vestments under lock and key... they could do nothing, religious or political, without Pilate's permission.

Even with these kinds of restrictions in place, the priests were the most powerful men in Judea in many ways. After all, they oversaw aspects of Temple worship – the gifts and tithes, the sacrifices; they alone decided what was and was not an acceptable offering to the Most High God. Oh, and if you didn't have a proper offering, or happened to be fresh out of the particular coins the Temple accepted as currency, no worries. There were merchants and money-changers nearby who would sell you what you needed.

And even though John never encouraged rebellion against Rome, never once spoke of insurrection against the powerful rulers of Jewish religious life, he was dangerous, because he offered people a way to worship God, hope for salvation apart from the Temple system.

Of course, John wasn't the first person to do this. There was the sect of the Essenes, for example, which John was said to be a member of, and there were the Pharisees, who strictly adhered to every real and imaged letter of the Law.

The glaring difference between all of these people and John was this, though: whereas the Essenes had abandoned Jerusalem completely in protest of how the Temple was being run, and the Pharisees kept themselves from any possible contact with ritual uncleanliness, John attracted the attention of all kinds of people – unclean and forgotten, scared and bored, curious and needy – and he touched everyone that approached him in that muddy trickle of water that was the Jordan river, and baptized them as a sign of their repentance.

Maybe that's why John's Gospel tells us that not only the priests and Levites were interrogating John, but the Pharisees as well. Both groups saw John as a threat to their authority.

And it's no wonder, is it? Just listen to how Luke's Gospel recounts the things John was teaching:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

What should we do then?”the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

That's Luke 3:7-14, by the way.

You see? John was attracting people from everywhere – big cities, small villages, they came from everywhere, out to that spot on the edge of the wilderness, out in the middle of nowhere, because John spoke of a way of living in repentance that didn't depend on the whim of greedy priests or the impossible expectations of the rich Pharisees.

If all it took to be approved by God was to treat others as you yourself want to be treated, if that's all it took to be baptized, anyone could do it!

The priests and Levites, as well as the Pharisees, saw any theology that excluded their spheres of authority as a challenge to that power, and responded accordingly.

Who are you? What possible right do you have to speak of repentance? By whose authority do you dare to offer hope through mere baptism? Who do you think you are?”

I like to imagine John, waist-deep in the sluggish water, busily baptizing, a line of people on the riverbank waiting their turn. There, next to the line but not in any way in the line, is a small knot of very well-dressed, quite shocked-and-offended men, trying not to touch anything, and barking out questions to John, who is only really half-listening as he baptizes person after person.

Who are you?”

I'm not the Messiah, if that's what you're asking.”

Well then, are you Elijah?”

Nope.”

Are you the Prophet that Moses foretold?”

Not him, either.”

Well, then, who are you? Throw us a bone, give us something to take back to the bigwigs in Jerusalem. Speak up for yourself, man!”

John pauses in his baptisms and turns to the small knot of men, crossing his arms casually and grinning a bit. “Y'all ever read the book of Isaiah?”

What kind of question is that? Of course we have.”

Then you know: I'm a voice. The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”

Straight, schmaight, buddy-roe. If you ain't the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet, why are you baptizing people? What gives you the right?”

John reaches down and cups some of the river water in his palm, raising it shoulder high, letting it trickle back into the Jordan. “This? This is what bothers you?”

He turns back and begins baptizing again. “This is just water. If this bothers you, then buckle up, boys. You ain't seen nothin' yet.”

What do you mean?”

I just baptize with water. There's someone here, right now, who will do so much more that I ain't fit to lace up his sneakers.”

There are a few different interpretations of this passage in the Gospel of John. Some commentators believe that the primary aim of this passage is to make it clear that Jesus is a more important person than John the Baptist, which was apparently an issue in the earliest days of the church.

Maybe that's so.

But I also think that John serves as a kind of example for those of us who call ourselves by the name of Christ.

In John's time, things were broken – and I'm not simply talking about inequity and corruption, though that was everywhere. People who were always on the brink of starvation, who worked and scraped by and who desperately needed hope – who needed to know that God was there and that God cared – looked to Jerusalem for salvation and saw that they needed money to buy things for sacrifices, they needed money to pay Temple tax and tithes and this and that and the other, they needed to take time better spent working for the day's food and go to this festival and that “feast,” and they just couldn't do it all. The Essenes and the Pharisees weren't an option, either; the demands of both sects were far beyond the abilities and finances of most common Judeans.

John offered another option. Not an easier way, necessarily, but a more accessible one. And above all, he pointed away from himself, and toward Jesus.

I wonder what all those people who came to talk to John expected to hear? Not the priests and the Levites and the Pharisees in John's Gospel, but the regular folks and the tax collectors and the soldiers of Luke's account.

Did the people expect John to tell them to follow the strict edicts of the Pharisees, or to reject their lives and families and join the Essenes out in Qumran? Did the tax collectors and soldiers expect John to tell them they were beyond hope, that because of who they were and what they'd done in their lives that God hated them?

They'd all probably heard that before. Second verse, same as the first, you know?

But what John said was different: Talking about repentance is one thing, lay aside your greed and fear and corruption and show me your repentance in how you treat one another. And above all, prepare the way – prepare your hearts and your lives for Jesus. He's the one who makes the real change. I can put water on you, I can baptize, but he's the one who brings the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Who are you? Who am I? Who are we?

Whether you and I realize it or not, people are looking to us. What are we telling them?

Do we stack demands on people, requirements they must meet in order to be a part of the Body of Christ? Do we? Do we tell people who are different – different colors, different nationalities, different traditions, different orientations – that God hates them because of who they are? Do we? Do we support a corrupt system either through active participation or through passive silence? Do we?

Or do we speak and do love? Do we offer real hope? Do we speak truth to power? Do we point the way to Jesus?


Who are you?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"...The Least of These..."

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Girardian Lectionary site, as well as Fred Niedner and Terry Cranford-Smith.

The ink to the article I read in the sermon is here.



MATTHEW 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


This is the Word of the Lord.


This past two Sundays, as we've journeyed through the 25th chapter of Matthew, we've seen some different ways to look at parables like the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and the Parable of the Talents. And I said something last week, and maybe the week before, about our reading today – that it isn't a parable but a prediction of the end of days, a foretelling of the Final Judgment. 


I have always really liked this passage. I have quoted that whole “I was hungry and you fed me” part hundreds, if not thousands, of times. This passage gives me a chance to count myself among the sheep and point to other people as goats, and feel good about myself. After all, I am a fan of social justice. I think the right things about the poor and marginalized. I like that, in this passage, Jesus makes following him not about what creeds or doctrines we believe, what prayer we recite, or what church we go to, or how wet we got when we got baptized, but about how we treat the poor, how we regard the forgotten, how we reclaim the marginalized.

I can say, confidently and without equivocation, that in regards to our reading today, I am a sheep.


Except sometimes I am not. Sometimes, in regards to our reading today, I am a goat.


Yes, I have participated in feeding the hungry. If I am honest, though, I have, much more frequently, ignored the hungry. I have, on occasion, participated in giving the thirsty something to drink. But I've also not done that. I have welcomed the stranger, but more often I have feared and excluded the stranger. I've given clothing for the underclothed, and I've also ignored their shivering. I've provided care for the sick, and I've also said, “I'll pray for you!” as I walk away and forget all about them. Yes, I've visited people in prison, heck, I've visited Death Row at a maximum security prison! Surely that gets me some Brownie points with God, right? But I've also actively chosen not to go, not to visit, not to care.


Could it be that I will be approved or condemned based on what kind of day I'm having? Am I a sheep or a goat based on some kind of divine calculus, is there a percentage of sheep-ness I need to achieve to make the cut?


And, if everything is based on an algebraic formula of sheep-to-goat-ness, if I am approved or condemned based on how often I have fed as opposed to how often I have not... why even be a Christian? Doesn't it become a matter of following rules to obtain God's favor rather than relying on the grace of God through the risen Christ for my salvation?ybe I was wrong


And and, what's with this dividing people up in the first place? Us versus them, Jesus, really? What about that passage in Galatians – the same Bible that today's reading is in, by the way – that says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”?


And and and, you're telling me that, one, neither group knew which they were – sheep or goats? And the sheep, whose life is defined by compassion, did nothing while this entire other group perished at the hands of the One they served?


Maybe I was wrong last week. Maybe this passage has less to do with how time will end, and more to do with how we spend the time we have.

Fred Niedner looks at this passage and imagines that, in that moment of separation, the sheep look across the gulf...


“...their eyes wide not with rejoicing or satisfaction, and surely not with gloating, but with astonishment and the kind of fear the compassionate have when they see others in danger. For over there, on the other side, among the goats, are so many of those for whom they have cared all this while, and now what will become of those others? Are they to be separated forever? Who will care for them now?


“The sheep know about many kinds of starvation, illness, and imprisonment. They have fed the hungry with bread made from wheat and given water to the thirsty. They have visited those with pneumonia, cancer and AIDS. They have visited in penitentiaries. But they have ministered to others in need as well. They have provided sustenance for to fill spiritual hunger and the awful thirst for meaning, the very cravings that drove the goats to selfishness and seemingly unconcerned arrogance. The sheep have welcomed and befriended the goats when the goats were so estranged they'd become strangers even to themselves. And the sheep kept visiting the cells of those imprisoned in hatred, the goats who hated everyone, and themselves most of all. And the naked who lived without any chance of another's love to clothe them, or to adorn their faces with gladness, those the sheep had clothed with their own humble garments of affection and care. To those sick to death with the boredom of their world's routine, the sheep had come with the bread of encouragement.


“The sheep had given so much of themselves to those others. How could someone now separate them forever from those others? How could the Son of Man in this moment call them "blessed?" How could they rejoice over their inheritance as they looked across the chasm, toward those who remained lost, sick, naked, and imprisoned in their own pitiful selfishness? How could they ever again sing a glad song?”


In Niedner's retelling, the “Sheep and Goats” becomes, not a foretelling of the end of the world. Rather, the sheep remind Jesus of who he is and why he came, and ask him – well, compel him, really – to go and find those lost sheep, those goats who didn't know they were goats.


“'...You cannot end all this in a stroke of vindictive justice. Son of Man, we cannot in this moment do nothing. We must go across to them,' the sheep insist. 'You must let us go to them."


“The son of man studies them and calmly says, 'You cannot go across. It is too late. For you there is no more time.' For a moment there is stillness.


“'Then you must go,' declare the sheep. 'Son of Man, you must remember now how your own heart quivered in horror in the instant when you saw in Cain's eyes what came bursting from his heart, and his strong hands were upon you. Son of Man, you must remember the moment when the soldiers pinned you to the cross, pounded in the nails, and you were condemned. You must remember the thirst out of which you cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Remember the torture of abandonment! You must go to them, Son of Man!'


“A deep and heavy silence comes over the judgment scene. The Son of Man says nothing. He looks at the sheep, his own eyes now wide, looking like theirs. Then he turns, and he steps across. How could he not heed their voices? He had taught them to talk like that. They were using his own best lines on him. He would go. He could not judge from vengeance. He would have to go -- to Bethlehem, to Calvary, to Antioch, to Rome, to Kansas City, to Calcutta, yes, even to hell. He would spend eternity, if it took that, like a shepherd forever in search of lost sheep, working restlessly to slake the final thirst and break down the last prison. Some might hide from him forever, but his heart told him, and the look in the eyes of those sheep told him, he could never give up. If he was to be king, he must be a shepherd king, a tireless, searching king, a king with holes in his hands and crowned forever with thorns, scouring endlessly the depths of hell, looking, calling. . .”


I'm not saying that we've been reading this passage all wrong, that we aren't called to feed and clothe and welcome and visit, please don't hear that. What I am saying is that nobody is ever just one thing – even the worst of us do good things, and the best of us do terrible things on occasion.


What I am saying is that we get nowhere in life, nowhere especially in our faith journey, if we exist in a realm of “us versus them.” After all, what is it that the praying Pharisee says in the 18th chapter of Luke? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” And that tax collector the Pharisee mentions? “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” Jesus tells the story and concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”


We get nowhere by being better than someone else.


In the end, I can't get away from the fact that neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they were doing... “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison...”


Rather than adhering to a set of laws which governed their actions – laws of love on the part of the sheep, and laws of fear on the part of the goats – these groups acted out of what was already in them, be it love or fear. It isn't what they do or do not do that makes them who they are, it's who they are that makes them do or not do what they do.


And this brings us to another dilemma, doesn't it? If I am a goat, and if I can't just look at this passage and decide, “Well, I'll do good stuff and be OK,” what hope is there?


I have to go back to that Max Lucado quote from last week. “God loves you just the way you are, but too much to let you stay that way.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus never told us to be the light of the world or the salt of the earth. He said we are the light of the world and the salt of the earth.


What it comes down to, I think, is a choice. Be foolish and unprepared like the five foolish bridesmaids, and live in fear of lack like the five supposedly “wise” bridesmaids... Live in fear like the third servant, who buried the talent, or live seeking gain and recognition at the expense of others like the other two servants, and certainly like the traveling slave owner... or turn our gaze outward, away from ourselves, and see the opportunities for grace in the world.


NPR recently reported on an assisted living home in California which shut down last fall. Many of its residents were left behind, with nowhere to go.


The staff at the Valley Springs Manor left when they stopped getting paid — except for cook Maurice Rowland and Miguel Alvarez, the janitor.


"There was about 16 residents left behind, and we had a conversation in the kitchen, 'What are we going to do?' " Rowland says.


"If we left, they wouldn't have nobody," the 34-year-old Alvarez says.

Their roles quickly transformed for the elderly residents, who needed round-the-clock care.

"I would only go home for one hour, take a shower, get dressed, then be there for 24-hour days," says Alvarez.


Rowland, 35, remembers passing out medications during those long days. He says he didn't want to leave the residents — some coping with dementia — to fend for themselves.

"I just couldn't see myself going home — next thing you know, they're in the kitchen trying to cook their own food and burn the place down," Rowland says. "Even though they wasn't our family, they were kind of like our family for this short period of time."



For Alvarez, the situation brought back memories from his childhood.

"My parents, when they were younger, they left me abandoned," he says. "Knowing how they are going to feel, I didn't want them to go through that."



Alvarez and Rowland spent several days caring for the elderly residents of Valley Springs Manor until the fire department and sheriff took over.


The incident led to legislation in California known as the Residential Care for the Elderly Reform Act of 2014.


"If I would've left, I think that would have been on my conscience for a very long time," says Rowland.



We may well choose to waste the one chance we get to live as the flesh and blood of Christ on this earth by living a whole life unmoved by compassion for another human being. But we who claim the name of Christ may also choose to visit those others on their sickbeds of selfishness and to feed those who are starving to death because they have no idea how to give of themselves. We may choose both at different times and for different reasons, but through the Holy Spirit, God calls upon us to strive daily to grow into Christ, to become more like the One who gave himself for the poor, the marginalized, the despised, the forgotten.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ten Talents and What God Says...

I relied heavily on the scholarship and insight of Sarah Dylan Breuer and Mark Sandlin this week. Though I do take the latter to task a bit in this sermon, I really appreciate his words and his insight.

And apropos of nothing at all, here's some really cool music:






MATTHEW 25:14-30
For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘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.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘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.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘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.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

I am absolutely convinced that a parable is never, ever one thing. Not when it comes from the mouth of Jesus, anyway.

The classic interpretation of this parable focuses on the third servant's – slave's – unwillingness to use what he has been given in a productive way. The idea that the man who has gone on a long journey, whose return was a long time in coming, and who reviewed the performance of those he had left behind, is a representation of Jesus at the end of time is unavoidable.

And, I mean, it works. I've preached it that way, right here, three years ago.

I suggested, back then, that the real error in what the third slave did went deeper than just burying money... because of course the parable isn't really about money, and it isn't really about special skills or abilities that (thanks to this parable) have come to be called “talents,” only as soon as I say that, I realize that I and everyone else I can recall preaching on this parable from this interpretation ends up talking about money and talents in some manner, but I digress.

Anyway, I noted that in the next pericope, when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the criteria he uses to divide the groups is whether they fed him when he was hungry. When he was thirsty, did they give him anything to drink? Was he shown hospitality as a stranger, or clothed when he was naked? When he was sick, when he was imprisoned, did they visit him? In the economy of the Kingdom of God, these are the investments that yield the return the Master is truly interested in.

In the common interpretation of the Parable of the Talents, if that third slave had been around today, he would have been the person who was all about making sure his needs were met, he was comfortable, had a reliable retirement strategy and a nice car, decent clothes and plenty of food. He would have fretted about giving money to a homeless person, because they may spend it on booze. He would have relied on government agencies or nonprofit organizations to provide assistance with rent and utilities, all the time complaining about those agencies and organizations, and never actually daring to face the needy on his own. They might be lying, after all. They may cheat him. Worse, once you start caring, once you start giving, once you answer that phone, well, where does it stop? What if there isn’t enough left for the bills?

That third slave would have buried himself in his work, and in his activities, and played it safe, and probably would have been pretty respectable in everyone else’s eyes.

But playing it safe never changed anything.

Ultimately, the Parable of the Talents is about being present. About doing the things that need to be done without fear, with the same extravagant, joyful abandon with which God has lavished grace and love upon us. The point of the parable was not whether the slaves had been given six hundred thousand dollars, or one point two million dollars, or three million dollars, or twelve dollars and a rusty bucket. What interested the traveler upon his return was, what had they done with it?

And what will we do with what we have been given? Bury it, or broadcast it? Playing it safe makes sense, especially in this day and age. It is rational to be afraid. To be uncertain. We might mess up. We might do the wrong thing. We might be taken advantage of.

All of that is true, and I would be lying to you if I were to say it is not possible. But God calls upon us to act, and to act now, to take chances and trust that God will take care of us.

Like I said, interpreting the parable that way works.

But.

Just like last week's bridegroom, the man, the master, this week... well, I'm sorry, but he isn't acting a whole lot like Christ. He's an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labor of his slaves. The profit-making that the master demands would be seen in Jesus' culture as coming, out of necessity, at the expense of other more honest people; it would be seen as greedy and grasping rather than smart or virtuous. The absentee landowner tells the slave whom he treats most harshly that the punishment is specifically for refusing to break God's commandment against usury, a practice consistently condemned in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament.

Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God's people?

Do I have to say it? No.

Mark Sandlin suggests that the hero of this parable is not the master, but the third slave – the one who dared to stand up to the master, to point out his greed and cruelty and injustice. “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed...” Both Sandlin and Sarah Dylan Breuer suggest – and it makes sense – that the next -to-last phrase Jesus utters in this parable: “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...” is perhaps better translated this way: “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

What if – what if – the “master” in this parable isn't God... what if it's us?

The master is us, those with power – including the middle class in America.
Every time we live into our positions of power and then judge those who are struggling on what we see as the margins of society, the master is us. Every time we assume a right to our privileges and label those without those same privileges as “lazy,” the master is us. Even when our places of prerogative are so endemic that we live into the abuse they cause by carelessly supporting the slave labor required to provide the goods we want at rock bottom prices, the master is us.

Ouch.

So which of these dueling interpretations of the Parable of the Talents is the “correct” one?

I want to suggest this morning that we don't have to choose. After all, God is still alive and active, and still speaks to us all where we are – in the midst of our lives and situations, in our own unique language. And note how I said this: God speaks to us.

One of the dangers in preaching, and in Biblical interpretation in general, is the tendency to use Scripture as a teaching tool to bring others into our own points of view. In fact, one of the sources I used this week for this sermon is an article by a writer that ultimately uses this parable as an indictment against a political party that he is not a member of.

I mean, it's a well-written piece, sure. I think it makes good points, but, then again, I am not a member of that political party, either. And just writing or reading something that makes me feel good... at the expense of others... changes nothing. The rich still get richer, the poor still get poorer. It's dangerous.

It is dangerous because nothing changes. As Max Lucado says, God loves us just as we are, but too much to let us stay that way. If I read Scripture to justify myself, but not to grow or change or find direction and answers and bring myself into closer communion with my loving Creator, what good is it to read Scripture at all?

So maybe we do have to choose, but the challenge is to choose to read the parable in a way that challenges us.

If, reading it the traditional way, we are challenged to take what we have and use it in ways which bring hope and healing, which encourage others to put their faith in the risen Christ, if it pushes us to look at what we own in a new and uncomfortable way – not as a security blanket but as a tool kit – then perhaps this is the correct interpretation.

If, by turning the parable on its head and seeing the third slave as the good guy and the master as the one ultimately in the wrong, we are challenged to live beyond our places of privilege, to speak truth to power and to honor those who live in the margins, then perhaps this is the correct interpretation.

Because, ultimately, both interpretations must ultimately be filtered through what Jesus says next, in the end times prophecy about the sheep and the goats, which is, by the way, our Gospel reading for next Sunday. God speaks to us in Scripture, sometimes to comfort the afflicted, and sometimes to afflict the comfortable, but always to lead us to act in a manner which glorifies God and brings hope and healing and comfort and the Good News of the risen Christ to the world.

When the Son of Man comes, he won't say, “Just as you did not do it unto one of the more productive of least of these, you did not do it unto me.” The judgment will not be predicated on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a "sinner's prayer," but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we do these things, and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't. Period.

In the Parable of the Talents, we are the master, we are the faithful servants, and we are third slave as well. This is our story. It is a call to arms, an encouragement, a challenge.

The question is, are we willing to let go of the fear? Are we willing to live into the story of the third slave who confronted the powers that be? Are we willing to risk what little we have in order to heal a hurting world, in order to bring the Good News of new life in Jesus Christ to those in the margins, to those who need to hear it most?