Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent 1 - "Are We There Yet?" version 2.0

Much of this sermon first appeared on November 29, 2009. Please reference the link for original sources.  In adapting the text for 2011, I was blessed with the efforts of my good friends J. R. Daniel Kirk and Terry Ramone Smith.

Isaiah 64:1-9
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.
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. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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.

Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake — for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

“Are we there yet?”

It's a pretty universally accepted truth that if you put kids in a car and go on a journey of any length at all, that question (or one of its variations) will be asked about a hundred times per hour per child. The excitement of going someplace, the anticipation of what awaits, and the tedium of long car rides are a pretty bad mix, so it's no wonder so many cars and SUVs come equipped with DVD players.

Now, as a child I'm sure I asked that question a lot when we went places, but I don't remember that. What I do remember is, when we were headed to one set of grandparents or the other, looking for landmarks that would tell me that we were almost there. When we went to Huntsville to see Grandma Hazel, my mom's mom, there would come a point after we passed the Jetplex that you could see, off in the distance, the very tip of a Saturn V rocket. The bigger and closer the rocket got the closer we were to Hazel & Hunt's.

When we went to Tuscaloosa, to my dad's parents' house, my landmark was the “Burger In A Hurry” at the corner of University Boulevard and 15th Street, it was a small building with a v-shaped roof and a big sign promising fifteen-cent hamburgers. That's where we turned, so I knew we were getting close to Hilda and Red's.

Though I may have asked, “are we there yet? How much longer?” and things like that, in fact when I looked at the signs around me, be it the jetplex or the rockets in Huntsville or the miles of kudzu and the long-since-closed burger joint in Tuscaloosa, I knew we were almost there.

This is the first Sunday in Advent, and the first Sunday in the liturgical church year. The Thanksgiving turkey is almost digested, we've just about rested up from Black Friday, and we're entering in to a wonderful season of building anticipation, waiting for the birth of our Savior and King! The Wise Men are scanning the heavens, the shepherds are moving their flocks through the fields, the angels are tuning their harps.

Yet we start this season of new beginnings with a discussion about the end of time – the words of a Savior not very far from the whip, the crown of thorns, and the nails. Because Advent is not just about Christ who has come, but Christ who will come again.

It's a strange mixture, isn't it? The wise men, the manger, the tree and the ornaments, the gifts and the kids who wake before the sun is up to see what Santa's brought them, peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind – and are we there yet?

Signs in the heavens, stars falling, the moon and sun extinguished, and angels gathering the elect to Christ, who returns in clouds in great power and glory… are we there yet? How much farther?

My friend, J. R. Daniel Kirk, who is Professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, worries that Advent has become too much about Christ’s first appearance, and not at all about the next, final appearance of Christ. He has a point.

He says that we too often slip into the language of “preparing for the arrival of the Christ child” rather than either preparing ourselves to celebrate the arrival that already happened, or preparing for the future advent for which we actually await. We’re celebrating Jesus, but the idea that we’re waiting for his birth too often takes center stage, so we go around shouting “Jesus is born!” as if it had actually just happened, as though the Messiah we’d been waiting for had finally come. In all the talk of “waiting” we too often use language which indicates a posture of waiting for the birth of the Messiah–something for which we are not waiting at all, it has happened! Worse, to say that we are is a denial of the good news itself!

Could it be that the message of Advent is not so much one of two arrivals, one past and one future, or of a great and glorious beginning and a cataclysmic and permanent ending, as it is about one thing: “God's passion, God's dream, for a transformed earth,” (to quote Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan)? I'm not suggesting just a transformed planet, some political Nirvana where wars have ceased and harmony prevails. This is what Crossan and Borg seem to envision in their book “The First Christmas.” Rather, I am speaking of a world full of transformed people whose needs have been met by God's people, and whose lives are defined and founded upon that Christ who has come, who has died, who has risen, and who will come again.

Are we there yet?

Crossan and Borg suggest that Advent is a season of repentant preparation – not “repentance” in the sense of being sorry you did something, confessing and promising to not do it again, as we have come to understand the word, but “repentance” in the original and most correct sense of the word, where we change something. Where we work to make what is into what should be, yes, personally, but also in a larger sense – in the lives and experiences of those around us and by extension everyone on earth.

When did the Christmas season become a time of stress and traffic jams, of holiday jingles playing and commercials running even before Halloween, of searching store after store for whatever the television tells us is this year's hottest gift, of endless shopping lists and Black Friday predawn sales, where all we're left with on December 26th is exhaustion and credit card bills and a stack of gifts to return? We buy things we cannot afford in order to give them to people who, in the grand scheme of things, don’t need them, often only because they are going to give us something that, in the grand scheme of things, we don’t need.

Where I part a bit from Daniel Kirk’s points is that I worry that this time of year is less and less about remembering the birth of the Savior, and more and more about the biggest gift, the newest gadget, the shiniest trinket. We have become so wrapped up in when and whether the next iPhone is coming out, how big a big-screen TV we can buy, what video game or DVD is the newest sensation, that we forget why December 25 is a special day in the first place.

I want to suggest to you this morning that Advent is not about commerce, but about worship: “It starts with Jesus. It ends with Jesus.” Is this not the approach God had in mind for Christmas? “A season where we are called to put down our burdens and lift a song up to our God. ...a season where love wins, peace reigns, and a king is celebrated with each breath.”

Are we there yet? I can't speak for you, of course, but for me the answer is “no.”
Can we get there from here? Yes!

It begins with a simple statement of faith – one which echoes Isaiah’s plea to the God who brought slaves from captivity into the freedom and prosperity that was Israel – “Yet…” that is, “but, however, nevertheless”… “O LORD, you are our Father…”

With God as our Parent, can we not once again find the balance between honoring our loved ones and friends with gifts, honoring the birth of our Savior, and actively waiting on that Savior’s return in glory?

I use “waiting” in the way that Terry Ramone Smith, one of the facilitators of Atlanta’s “Church of the Misfits” uses it – “waiting” in the sense of working for, attending to, providing for needs. Yes, we wait in the sense of patiently – and sometimes impatiently – watching, but we also actively wait, doing the things that Jesus saw as most important – the activities he himself listed in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew as the criteria for inclusion in the eternal Kingdom: Feeding the hungry, because every hungry person, be they a homeless man in downtown Bessemer, or a malnourished child in Malawi, is Christ. Providing water for the thirsty, because every thirsty person, be they a child on a playground in East Lake, or a mother of three in Mumbai, is Christ. Clothing the naked, because every person without adequate clothing, be they a coatless woman waiting on the bus in downtown Birmingham, or a shivering orphan on the streets of Bogata, is Christ. Visiting the lonely and the imprisoned, because every lonely and imprisoned person, be they on Donaldson Correctional Facility’s Death Row or in a bed in the nursing home down the street, is Christ.

This, more than trees and tinsel, more than gifts and carols, is the real message of Advent. It’s a time when we not only put down our own burdens, but we help others lay down their burdens as well. Where we show that love truly does win, peace most certainly reigns, and we celebrate the birth – and the return – of our King with each breath, and every fiber of our being, singing as one voice, as one actively waiting and celebrating Body, “O come, O come, Emanuel!”

Alleluia! Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

No, "Talents" Doesn't Refer To Tap Dancing...

...which is good, since I can't dance.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to

Judges 4:1-7
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.
At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, “The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, ‘Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin’s army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.’”

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Gospel 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 have a dear friend who lives in Texas. A couple of years back she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, underwent surgery and chemotherapy, and eventually beat the cancer.

Or so we thought.

On Friday morning, I got a text message from her that the cancer was back, and had spread. As soon as I could, I called her, of course. We talked about the cancer, about the resumption of chemotherapy this week, about how her oncologist has reasonably high hopes for remission, and of course about faith and hope.

She said something that stuck with me: “You know, this year has just whizzed by. I can’t believe it is almost Christmas. I’ve been so caught up in work and everything else, I haven’t paid attention to the days. I’ve just let them pass. I know now that I have to pay attention, be mindful of each day. Every one of them is precious.”

Our Gospel reading today, the Parable of the Talents, has been used for everything from stewardship campaigns to Prosperity Gospel sermons. It’s been used to promote investment, capitalism, singing in the choir – I could go on and on.

This rich master does something that would have left those listening to Jesus speak gapemouthed – a talent was a measure of money, equivalent to 6,000 denarii, or about twenty years’ wages for the average worker. It’s an outrageous amount of money to entrust to servants, and especially servants whom the man won’t be around to keep an eye on!

And to take twice that amount, or five times that amount, and go toddling off into the marketplace, buying and selling and investing, with no guarantee that you’ll get a penny of profit, or even keep hold of the boss’ money to begin with? That’s insane. Can you imagine that first slave, having to walk up to his master and say, “Look, I lost all that money, every penny. I guess it was a bad idea to invest in Pet Rocks after all. Sorry about that, boss…”

It makes sense to follow the example of the third servant, just hide the money – bury it – so you don’t risk losing it and suffering the wrath of your master!

Only we really aren’t talking about money, are we?

This parable takes place after the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and before the Parable – or, perhaps better put, the prophecy – of the Sheep and the Goats. It is therefore unavoidable that we would identify the man who gave out the money and then left on a long journey with Jesus, who will, not very many days after telling this parable, suffer death on the cross, rise triumphantly from the dead, and ascend to the right hand of the Father, awaiting the time he will return for his own.

With this in mind, I want to suggest to you that the real error in what the third slave did went deeper than just burying money.

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.

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, 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.

After Martin Luther got into trouble with the Pope, he was ordered to come to the city of Worms to defend himself against charges of heresy. And there he stood, in front of the most powerful man in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor. Though he was fearful, he didn’t back down, and left the city of Worms still defending the principles he had outlined in his Ninety-Five theses.

Now, Luther’s friends didn’t trust the Pope or the Emperor, and they knew Martin Luther wouldn’t keep his mouth shut, so, well, they kidnapped him. They took him to the castle of Wartburg.  Luther went around disguised as Squire George, while stories were circulated that he was dead.

While Luther was in hiding, his fellow teacher and reformer Phillip Melanchthon was left in charge of things in Wittenberg. Phillip was the polar opposite of Luther – quiet and retiring and hesitant, and forever fretting over doing the right thing and doing things right.

Many in the Church were recommending rash action and rapid change. Others wanted things to stay the same. Still others wanted a gradual change in church and society. The noise from all sides was deafening, and Phillip just couldn’t decide what to do.

So Phillip wrote Luther, laying out his options in a professorial set of pros and cons in columns and tables. He said to Luther,” If I do this, this could go wrong. If I do that, that could go wrong,” and so on. “I just can’t decide; I don’t know what to do.”

Luther wrote back, “Look Phillip, you’re right. It is hard to know what the right thing to do is. Anything you do will have some sin in it. Therefore, sin boldly, but trust the grace of God more boldly still!”

The Parable of the Talents isn’t about money, but honestly, it isn’t about skills or special abilities either.

It’s 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. After all, it makes sense, especially in this day and age, 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 in the same way that Luther called on Phillip to take chances, we too are called to sin boldly; to act, to act now, to take chances and to trust that God will take care of us.

Henry R. Rust writes of a visit to a tiny Christian church in a village in Kenya, which met in the open air, beneath a thatched roof.

When it came time for the offering, the congregation passed a round flat basket up and down the rows of benches, and people put in coins and small bills.

The basket came to a young woman with two small children. She looked at the basket for a long time. She had no money to put in. Finally, she took the basket and placed on the dirt floor in front of her. Taking off her sandals, she picked up her children, held one on each hip, and stepped into the offering basket; standing with head bowed praying for several minutes.

Then she stepped out of the basket and passed it on.

When that basket comes to us, what will we put in it? Will we put in only our fear and anxiety, allowing them to hold us back? Will we turn inward, stay safe, burying ourselves for safekeeping?

Or, will we drop our guard in the presence of the holy and step boldly into the center of God’s will and way; toddling out into the marketplace, investing these hundreds of thousands or millions that are not ours to give, and doing it with wild abandon, if not in everything, then in the next thing? Will we joyfully and extravagantly give to God the one thing God really wants, our complete and total trust and love?