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?”


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.


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.


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?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

There's More to the Story!

I cannot begin to express the depth of gratitude I owe to David R. Henson for helping me face the prickly issues in the Gospel reading, as well as the usual suspects (like Kathryn Matthews Huey, Bruce Epperly, and "Working Preacher" contributor Greg Carey).

Seriously, y'all, come by sometime. Lunch is on me.

Matthew 25:1-13

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

I have a confession this morning. Just between us, OK? This reading bothers me.

OK, I mean, I get what the gist of the passage is: be prepared for the Lord's return. The “wise” bridesmaids brought extra oil just in case things ran a little over schedule and the party was late getting started, I get that. If we take this as a metaphor for the return of Christ, then the idea is that Christians should understand that while the Lord's return may be imminent, it isn't necessarily immediate. Don't give up. Stay the course, keep the faith. And hold that perseverance in tension with the knowledge that Christ's return just might be immediate... so stay alert. Be prepared.

And as long as we hold it right there... understand that, historically, the people Matthew was writing to had seen the Temple destroyed, which Jesus prophesied in the previous chapter, and they were expecting Jesus to return in triumph any day now... they had been expecting Jesus to return any day now for a long, long, long time... so the message of not giving up, not abandoning the truth of Jesus in search of some other pleasure or comfort or temporal assurance makes sense... and as long as that is as far as we go with it, everything is fine.

Don't pick at the edges. Don't scratch at the finish to see what's beneath. We're good, right? There isn't anything more to the story. Pass the plate and let's sing.

And maybe that was what Jesus intended. Maybe there really isn't more to the story. After all, he is in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew's apocalyptic passage, which began with Jesus predicting that the Temple would be utterly destroyed, and ends with Jesus talking about separating sheep from goats at the Final Judgment. Maybe all Jesus intended to get across was “be vigilant, be alert, be prepared. Period.”

There is a brusqueness, a harshness in this passage about the bridesmaids, after all, isn't there? It lacks the element of grace we're used to seeing in Jesus' parables – the father who runs to meet the Prodigal Son, the joy of finding the lost sheep or the lost coin, the wild abandon of selling everything to obtain the pearl of great price. Maybe it's like Fred Craddock says, and there are really two types of parables, “those that offer a surprise of grace at the end...and those that follow the direct course from cause to effect as surely as the harvest comes from what is sown. There are no gifts and parties. Together the two types present justice and grace, either of which becomes distorted without the other.”

Still... the passage closes with the admonition, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” That's fine, I guess, but it occurs to me that out of the ten bridesmaids, exactly zero stayed awake waiting on the bridegroom. All of them fell asleep. The only difference – the only difference! – was that half of them brought extra oil.

Oil that they would not share because they might – might! – not have enough. That fact right there drives me crazy! And I don't mind telling you that many of the scholars and commentators that I have read concerning this passage feel the same way.

And the very idea that the bridegroom would punish these five “foolish” bridesmaids for going to get what they needed because of their stingy counterparts... it just seems kind of arbitrary to me. All ten got to the banquet hall on time. All ten of them waited. All ten of them fell asleep. On only one point did they differ. I don't know if I can agree with Fred Craddock. This just doesn't seem all that just to me. There has to be more to the story, doesn't there?

Yes, I confess, I almost went with another reading today. It was a choice between doing that and just kind of glossing over my discomfort, preaching about preparedness and what that means, and being done with it. Nothing wrong with that, it's safe, and it would be true.

And it would be one-dimensional. No depth. And there isn't anyone here who is a one-dimensional person. We have facets, and depths, and complexities and experiences that make us who we are, unique and wonderful and beautiful, and the faith that each of us possess is no different.

So is it enough to say “be like the wise bridesmaids?” Sure, I want to identify with the wise ones... and there are times and subjects in which I feel pretty wise. Some days my lamp burns nice and bright. Some days I think, y'know, Jesus could come back and I'd be OK. I'd be “in.”

But there are days... who am I kidding? There are weeks sometimes, endless dark periods where, if I am honest, I identify more with the “foolish” bridesmaids than I do with the “wise” ones. I doubt, I worry, I harbor fears and gnaw on anger over some offense, where something or another, or several dozen somethings, it seems, overwhelm me, and my lamp isn't so bright. The flame flickers and grows dim. If Jesus came back then, would I be “in?” Is it as arbitrary as this passage makes it seem, is my presence in the Kingdom of God predicated upon what side of the bed I get out of in the morning?

C'mon. Do I even have to say it? No! There is more to the story.

Our faith, our theology, dare I say our God is so much larger than a single passage of Scripture from the Lectionary reading! Yes, we an say the Kingdom of Heaven is like this parable of the ten bridesmaids, and – and! – we can say the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, and like leaven, and like a treasure hidden in a field, and like a pearl of great price...

What I'm saying is, there is more to the story.

We can call the five prepared (but stingy) bridesmaids “wise,” sure, but we can also put them up against the servant in the very next passage of Scripture who, rather than take a risk with the money his master left him with, hid it away and did not use it at all, and was punished severely for his cowardice, or we can compare them to the goats at the end of this chapter who saw the hungry and did not feed them, who ignored the cries of the thirsty or the shivering of the naked.

What I'm saying is, there is more to the story.

So yes, let's take the important base message here – be patient, but be vigilant, because the Lord will return, and it might be tomorrow and it might be today but maybe not – but let's not stop there. Let's not let this be the only lesson.

David Henson asks a wonderful question about this passage, about the bridesmaids who left, seeking oil for their lamps: “...[W]hat would have happened, I wonder, had the bridesmaids simply continued to wait, with sputtering lamps and dwindling lights?

What would have happened had the bridesmaids simply waited in the darkness of the night?

To me, this was their mistake. They left, when they should have stayed. The bridal couple surely would have welcomed their friends into the light of the banquet, unconcerned about the state of their oil lamps, happy just to see their friends waiting for them.

What faith it would have taken, though, to wait in such frailty, in such honesty!”

Perhaps what we see in this parable is a lack of faith on the part of all of the bridesmaids. After all, the wise as well as the foolish are operating out of fear, not trusting the love that the bridegroom has for his friends. If the wise ones really trusted, really believed, they would have shared their oil. So what if they all end up with flickering lamps, weak flames barely hanging on to the end of dry, smoking wicks, weakly beating back the darkness of midnight? After all, the bridegroom is on his way, and he will welcome his friends who have been faithfully awaiting him into the light and warmth and joy of the wedding feast!

There are times I have been like the five wise bridesmaids: I have all my ducks in a row I have enough and a bit to spare, but I have been stingy; afraid that if I gave away part of my excess, that spare bit, I'd end up with not enough.

There are times I have been like the five foolish bridesmaids, too: scrambling to make up for lost time or a lack of resources or cover my bases because I made a mistake, desperately hoping that no one finds out what an idiot I have been.

And you know what? There are even times I have been like the bridegroom. I know, and the context of the passage is pretty clear, that the bridegroom is supposed to represent the returning Christ. But, again, I think there is more to the story, and I want to separate the personality of the bridegroom for the moment from the apocalyptic nature of the parable.

This guy didn't care about protocol, didn't give a rip about how long anyone had to wait on him, he just showed up when he pleased, and he callously excluded half of the bridesmaids because they were away in that moment when he just decided to pop in, never mind that they were knocking on the doors of friends and family and merchants in the middle of the night, desperately trying to make up for what they lacked, trying their hardest to be good enough for the bridegroom.

What. A. Jerk.

I've been that guy. I've spoken out of my place of privilege, judged others harshly for perceived shortcomings, snubbed those who struggle with difficulties that I have never had to deal with, arbitrarily dismissing whole classes of people because they aren't as “good” as I think I am... or as I pretend to be.

I can, if I am honest, identify with every character in this parable in one way or another. And perhaps that is the lesson.

Perhaps the lesson is this: When we find ourselves feeling like the foolish bridesmaids, remember to wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It is a holy place and God will meet us there.
When we find ourselves feeling like the wise bridesmaids, remember to share what we have, even if it scares us.

Especially if it scares us.

Don’t trade temporary comfort for lasting and beloved community. The chance to give of ourself is a holy place and God will meet us there.

When we find ourselves feeling like the bridegroom, remember to open wide the door to the banquet feast. Don’t let hurt feelings and fear insulate us from others. Welcoming those who have made mistakes and who walk in darkness is a holy place. God will meet us there. The Lord's table is vast, and the banquet hall as large as the Kingdom of Heaven.

No matter how thin our light, no matter how dark the night, we wait, not seeking to be anything other than present right where we are. We trust that in the end, when the light of the bridegroom arrives, it won’t matter whether our tiny oil lamps are flickering still or extinguished completely. Rather the light of bridegroom will be enough for all, to illuminate the beauty of the darkness and to bring us in joy to the midnight celebration.

Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.

Alleluia, amen.