Monday, November 28, 2011

Waking, Waiting, Watching

GOSPEL READING                              Mark 13: 31-37                      
31Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.  32“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 34It 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. 35Therefore, 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, 36or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
            Waking, waiting, and watching are the tasks and gifts of Advent.  This patient alertness, however, runs counter to the frenetic spending and socializing our culture prescribes.  More than at any other time of year, the way of Jesus is especially counter-cultural during Advent.  More than at any other time of year, I am grateful now for scriptural reminders to watch patiently, alertly, for signs of God.  I need practice in these Advent attitudes.
            As a young girl, I loved reading the old Nancy Drew mystery series.  I admired how that girl detective could see what the average person overlooked:  the telltale footprints in the garden that led her to the jewel thief, or the single thread of fabric at the crime scene that unraveled the whole case.  I admired her because I was not observant. 
            To this day, I have no eye for detail.  I don’t know what kind of car you drive.  I have never noticed the shoes you’re wearing. I kind of hope you haven’t noticed what I'm driving or wearing.  But I admire people who do notice, especially those whose observations lead to some deeper mystery. People like nature writer Annie Dillard.
            Dillard once declared: “I wake expectant, hoping to see a new thing.”[i]  That could be our Advent motto.  Did you wake up this morning hoping to see a new thing?  Did you ask God to show you something new and marvelous?  Or did you walk into this day settling for the same old same old, assuming that what you saw yesterday is what you will see today, shutting your eyes to the possibility of freshness and change and revelation?  Dare we expect that God might reveal something to us?  After all, revelation might be just around the corner.  I want to wake expectant.  I pray God will show me a new thing.  That is the Advent Attitude I want to cultivate. 
            Because Annie Dillard is alert, she does see the unexpected.  She once caught sight of a mockingbird in a rare and spectacular free fall.  This is her description of that everyday marvel:

            “About five years ago I saw a mocking bird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a 4-story building.  It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.  The mocking bird took a single step into the air and dropped.  His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating 32 feet per second per second, through empty air.  Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact, deliberate care, revealing the broad bars of white, spread his elegant, white-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass.  I had just rounded a corner when his heedless step caught my eye.  There was no one else in sight” (pp. 7-8).  Annie Dillard lives her life looking for the extraordinary, so she finds it. 
            But wakefulness and watchfulness will not always yield something as beautiful and breathtaking as a mockingbird’s graceful landing.  If you and I ask God to show us something new, the vision may not be pretty.  Just dip into the book of Revelation, and you’ll see glorious images of the New Jerusalem, and horrifying images of a beast rising out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads.  Just read the pages of the newspaper prayerfully, empathetically.  Annie Dillard describes both the beautiful and the horrifying in the world.  Here’s another sight she recorded:
            “I was walking along the edge of the creek to see what I could see in the water, and mainly to scare frogs.  Frogs have an inelegant way of taking off from invisible positions on the bank just ahead of your feet, in dire panic, emitting a froggy “Yike!” and splashing into the water.  As I walked along the grassy edge of the creek, I got better and better at seeing frogs both in and out of the water.  I learned to recognize, slowing down, the difference in texture of the light reflected from mudbank, water, grass, or frog.  Frogs were all around me.  Then I noticed a small green frog.  He was exactly half in and half out of the water, and he did not jump.  He did not jump; I crept closer.  At last I knelt on the island’s winterkilled grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog in the creek just four feet away” (p. 5).
            Before I finish describing what Annie Dillard saw, I want to pause long enough for us to see—to pay attention to—her method for seeing.  Dillard is able to see something rare because, first of all, she slowed down.  As we enter the bustle of the Christmas season, Mobilians may not be dashing through the snow this December, but many of us will be dashing along Airport Blvd.  We need a season for slowing down.
            And that’s what writer Annie Dillard models for us:  she slowed down and she studied her surroundings.  And she came very close to the thing she wanted to observe.  She did not attempt to examine all the frogs beside the creek.  She did not generalize about frogginess.  No, she looked at an individual frog, face to face.  Maybe it is helpful for us to put a face on abstractions like poverty, war, immigration.  To know the world’s delights and woes, we may have to see closely one human being as she truly is, and through her eyes know the whole world a bit better. 

            Next Annie Dillard says she knelt at that creek bank.  That sounds like a good method for seeing.  Being eye-to-eye in creaturely mutuality is a way for connecting and understanding.  Humbly kneeling by that little frog in something like a posture of prayer nicely pictures our best means of revelation.
            And what does she see next?  Another image of grace and beauty?  Hardly.  Instead, she catches the rare sighting of a giant water beetle just as its forelegs hook its victim, just as the beetle shoots a poisonous enzyme into the little frog to dissolves all its muscles, bones, and organs, and then sucks the life juices from the frog until it’s nothing but a crumpled sack of skin, floating like scum on the water’s surface.  It’s a description so gruesome I’ll spare you the worst details.  But the point is that revelations of this world are sometimes horrifying.  Yet we cannot turn our heads and pretend not to see the homeless on our city’s streets.  We cannot look the other way when disrespect and prejudice rear their ugly heads in our places of work.  We cannot be blind to domestic violence.  We cannot close our eyes to the planet’s environmental crisis.  Because if we do not see the needs of the world, we cannot cooperate with God’s activity in the world. 
            Another favorite writer, Anne Lamott, says that the two most basic and sincere prayers we ever pray are these:  “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “Help, help, help.”[ii]  But how can we pray those prayers if we are not awake and alert?  To pray that basic prayer of thanks, we must attend to the glory around us.  And to pray the second prayer of help, we must see the suffering that exists in the very same universe.  Yes, tradition teaches us to close our eyes in prayer.  But maybe we need opened eyes to pray and, afterward, to follow Jesus.
Progressive Christians have a chance to hear the Advent call afresh.  We THINK we know the story.  But what if there are dimensions yet to plumb? What if we slow down and pay attention and expect some new revelation this year?  What if there’s a grown-up version of the Jesus Story we have yet to hear?
The children’s story called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever how some people were able to do that.  It’s the story of the Herdmans, a family of six badly behaved children who lie and steal and set things on fire and hit littler kids and smoke cigars.  They are having to practically raise themselves and have never set foot in a church before and have never even heard the Christmas story, but one year these 6 destructive little devils somehow grab the main roles in the church play and take over the entire pageant.  Every other year, the church pageant had been predictable and orderly if boring.  But the year the Herdmans participated, the rehearsals were a nightmare and everyone just knows the final production will be a disaster.  And then the miraculous happens.  In the middle of the performance, it is as if the Herdman children finally start to catch on and the story begins to work its way into their little hearts.  Soon they are visibly overcome with awe as they grasp the meaning of Christmas: God is with us!  Love has come down! And the congregation--which had seen for umpteen times the angels with glittered, cardboard wings--starts to notice that the Herdmans are deeply affected by it all, and they ALL see the story for the first time.

Revelation can happen for us this Advent.  But we must watch for a new thing.  If the Christmas star doesn’t shine as brightly for us anymore, let us search the night sky with eyes of wonder.  Rather than skimming over words like “Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy,” let us expect the angels’ message to leap off the pages of our Bibles.  And when we see “the little baby, lying in a manger, on Christmas morning,” let also take in the fact that his family is homeless, he’s in a cow stall nursed by an unwed mother, and his family will save his life by illegally sneaking into another country.  Have we really seen God in that way?  Because if we can do that, it might change how we see others in similar circumstances.
           A priest once cancelled his subscription to the New York Times. He explained the disturbing stories of war and crime and politics prevented him from praying.  Henri Nouwen was saddened by his fellow priest’s response because, Nouwen said, it falsely assumes that “only by denying the world can you live in it, that only by surrounding yourself by an artificial, self-induced quietude can you live a spiritual life.” Nouwen disagreed.  He argued that “a real spiritual life does exactly the opposite: it makes us so alert and aware of the world around us, that all that is and happens becomes part of our contemplation and meditation and invites us to a free and fearless response.”  Real spiritual alertness deepens our prayers AND strengthens our actions in the world.
          In some ways, new church, Advent is OUR season.  Let us as individuals make use of this period of awakening.  And let us as a brand new congregation wait and watch expectantly for the unique role we can play in God’s Pageant. There are fresh ways of being church.  There are new visions for enacting God’s love.  There are gifts you may be called to share with us as we grow into our fuller potential.  When asked why he keeps coming to church, someone once answered, “It’s strange, but I get this feeling here, like nowhere else, that something is about to happen.”[iii] Collectively, communally, we will follow the Spirit, wakefully, watchfully.  God is still speaking and moving among us. 
PRAYER:  God of Vision, Wake us from sleepwalking through this life in lock step with culture. Help us to pay more attention to our relationships than the sale tables at Dillards.  Let us watch for signs of your coming again and again into this world, that we may greet you afresh, that we may follow Jesus aright. Amen. 

[i] Dillard, Annie.  Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. NY: Harper & Row, 1974. P. 2.

[ii] Lamott, Anne.  Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith.  NY: Pantheon  Books, 1999.

[iii] Copenhaver, Martin.  “Christmas is a Surprise Party”   Online Stillspeaking Devotional.  United Church of Christ.  November 27, 2011.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What if YOU are the Icon?

Text: Matthew 25: 31-46
Icon: Christ in the Margins, by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM
Prior to the following brief sermon, the congregation prayerfully contemplated the above icon.  Especially on Christ the King Sunday, that ironic title of the Christ seems aptly interpreted in such an image.

          Our reading from Matthew’s Gospel is perhaps the Bible's clearest presentation of Jesus’ understanding of God’s judgment.  Although Jesus repeatedly tells his followers (and nonfollowers like the rich young ruler) that God’s love requires us to care for the poor and the lowly, the full force of his radical message breaks through in this, his final, sermon.  We serve the Christ by serving the least; that’s what God cares about, he explained.  But we humans tend to judge differently than God does. The very next chapter in Matthew’s Gospel tells of the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, who was himself judged by very different standards—judged and condemned.  Clearly, Jesus was not a king of this world.
            We “inherit” God’s “kingdom” (Matt. 25:34) when we help the hungry and thirsty, the despised and rejected, when we treat “the least of these” as if they are Jesus.  We may not be judged well by everyone else.  But we are “saved” by “saving” others.  It is not our particular religious beliefs that determine how God will judge us, not according to this story and the thrust of the Gospels.  
            Perhaps “the least of these” allow us to be saved from the egoism and littleness of our lives.  Perhaps we are saved from strife that our petty aspirations inevitably bring.  Perhaps we are saved from loneliness as we give ourselves to others.  By reaching out to others, especially those who have nothing to offer us, we ourselves receive some saving grace that connects us to others and to God.  When we visit someone in prison, we are visiting Christ.  God’s assessment of our lives depends on whether or not we have recognized that the poor and sick, the prisoners and the immigrants, are Christ. . . . .that Jesus comes to us again and again as the stranger we are tempted to ignore or despise.  This may sound as if I’m saying that God’s “saving way” is to do good works through our own effort.  But God’s grace is key here.  God’s grace allows us these opportunities to open our hearts not simply to do good—but to experience God in the process.  Visiting the sick can be done as an act of human will, a duty, and for all sorts of motivations.  But meeting Christ in that moment—is grace.  We are saved to the extent that we respond to one another as if we are responding to God.  
            Our daughter lists her occupation on her Facebook page as “Attorney" and "Public Defender” followed by the tag: “Serving the least of these."  That's a phrase straight from today’s reading.  Our daughter spends most of her day with the very folks Jesus called “the least”: Her clients are all poor.  All in jail.  Many are sick.  Most are mentally ill.  They are the scorned of our society.  She does not condone the harmful actions of anyone.  But she and we are challenged not only to treat others as Jesus would treat them—but to SEE them as if they are Jesus.  That seems a key to Christian spirituality. 
            Much has been said about this game-changing spiritual concept.  Part of this spiritual truth, of course, has to do with our role in actively being an advocate for those on the margins, a voice for the voiceless.  But it also has to do with the ways we are changed when we truly see the Christ in others, even in ourselves.  I said earlier we are saved to the extent that see others as Christ and treat them in that way. But it is also true that we are saved to the extent that we become the image--the icon--of Christ and allow others to see Christ in us.
            I’m condensing a story Carl Gregg shared recently, which he adapted from M. Scott Peck’s version, which originated from various other sources:
            A great monastery located in a beautiful forest once fell upon hard times.  Only five monks remained: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age.
            In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to him to visit the hermitage and ask if by chance the hermit could offer any advice that might save the monastery.
            The hermit welcomed the abbot at his hut.  But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the hermit could only commiserate with him: “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in all the nearby towns.”  The time came when the abbot had to leave.  They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the hermit responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”
            When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the hermit say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just commiserated and read the scriptures together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving — it was something cryptic — was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”
            In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered these words and wondered whether there was any possible significance. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one?
            Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant the Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.
            On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.
            Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred!  Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the hermit did mean Brother Elred.
            But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.
            Of course the hermit didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
            As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.
            Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.
            Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the hermit’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

            What if, my friend, the icon placed before us this evening--the icon we contemplated earlier in this service--was a picture of you?   What if we had meditated tonight upon your image? What if YOU are the Messiah?

Monday, November 14, 2011

You've Got Talent

Today's text, commonly called the Parable of the Talents, is found in Matthew 25: 14-30.

This is a well-worn parable. It is almost always trotted out to make one good but simple point: that we should put our personal resources and skills to good use.  If we don’t, our “talents” may not count for much; we might even lose them completely.  Though simple, this message nevertheless offers us as individuals a chance to reflect on how we are using our resources.  I hope it also can challenge us to “invest” in our congregation’s future through our collective “talents.”  But in case some troubling details in the parable snagged you, let’s attend to them first and trust that the Bible can withstand our scrutiny and questions.  To take the Bible seriously, we need to read it intelligently.

Let’s begin by admitting that the master seems to have treated the poorest of the three servants or stewards too harshly.  Since tradition presumes the master in the story represents God, the parable could suggest God is merciless.  Why was the poor servant punished (sent to the “outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”) when he simply played it safe with his master’s money?  After all, hiding treasure in the ground was a typical way to safeguard valuables in those days. 

We might be able to defend the master’s treatment of slave #3 if we simply do not literalize the parable.  Jesus was not giving financial investment advice to the peasant folk who followed him.  Jesus was talking about how people should invest their lives.  Jesus, who told his followers they had to give up everything to follow him, was recommending a radical and risky way of living. 

Besides, the parable leaves open the possibility that the servant misperceives the master as being harsh and unfair.  “You’ve assumed I was harsh, and you made your choices based on that assumption,” the master says, essentially, in verse 26.  “Alright then,” says the master, “you will live your life with those expectations.”   If we perceive God in certain ways, we will reap the consequences of that perception.  The ultimate reality of God is never fully known to any of us.  But our own perception of God shapes our actions. “You’ve made me out to be a harsh master,” says God to slave #3.  “Okay. That is how you will perceive your reality, I’m afraid.”  If we think God is violent, for instance, we will respond to our world as a people created and governed by Violence.  That verse alone warns us against fashioning for ourselves a God who is cruel or indifferent, for that will be the God we will serve.

Another way to account for the cruelty of the master is to call into question who or what the master represents.  Though we’ve traditionally presumed him to be God, he may actually represent the leaders of earthly economic systems.  Rather than describing the idealized Kingdom of Heaven, this parable may instead be critiquing the injustice of the kingdoms of this world, where the rich get richer and the poor--like the servant with only one talent--eventually lose everything.  Some scholarship supports this upside down view of a parable we’ve used to validate our passion for achievement and accumulation.  Perhaps this Jesus story may have, very early in its transmission, become co-opted by a system that favors the favored and ends up taking away everything from those who have little.  Listen to verse 29 again as if it is a summation of the way this world’s economy works rather than a proclamation about God’s economy and divine will:  “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.”[i]

Whether you believe the parable presumes the master to be just or unjust in this system of rewards, the essence of the story teaches us to assess how we use our “talents.”  Talent, by the way, was a unit of currency whose modern meaning entered the English language through this popular parable.  Those who follow Jesus are responsible for using their “talents” well and regularly discerning if their money and time and skills and education are being used for ushering in God’s realm of shalom. 

Certainly a young church like ours needs opportunities to reflect on the use of our “talents.”  Are we helping one another cultivate our gifts for good purposes?  How are we as a congregation “investing” our talents?  I’m going to share some initial thoughts and invite you to respond with yours during Sermon Talk Back.  I’m going to suggest that Open Table initially received at least 5 talents, and they are named in our vision statement, always printed in the front page, top right, of your bulletin.[ii] 

1.   From the beginning we set out to follow Jesus through Christian love.  We placed Jesus’ love commandment—to love God, and to love neighbor as we love ourselves—at the heart of our faith life.  We said we would stress relationship over doctrine: relationship with God and others.  Rather than declaring what a member had to believe in order to belong, we invited people to simply belong to one another and to God.  And then, for some, believing started to happen, or to deepen.  We invested in love.  And the pay off?  We have more folks to love and be loved by.  The half dozen founders have, directly or indirectly, invited more than 50 people into our midst at various times.  And a group of total strangers has become a family.  Think back on how you felt about these “strangers” a month ago, a year ago, two years ago, whenever you first arrived at Open table.  Consider ways you have invested in these relationships.  Has your investment been rewarded and rewarding?  The most fun I’ve had in this whole adventure has been in forging genuine community with you.  I think our investment in that “talent” has more than doubled.
2.   Our second “talent” was invested in spiritual and social transformation.  Some of you came with more of an interest in developing your inner spiritual resources and you brought great gifts to us from varied spiritual paths and practices.  Others wanted to pool your resources with those working for social justice and peace, and you strengthened us with your experiences, connections, and commitments to social transformation.  Together we are recognizing how interrelated and reinforcing are the aims of inward and outward transformation.  Together we are learning about a freeing faith, about a unifying God bigger than we imagined, about a Jesus we want to know better and follow more closely, about a loving Spirit pervading this world and luring us toward love’s goal, about a Bible that deserves grown up attention.  We’ve expanded spiritual practices and are teaching adult approaches to Bible study.  We’re equipping lay leaders.  At the same time we are more engaged than ever in efforts to support God’s work in the world.  As an individual, you’ll want to ask yourself if Open Table has opened up opportunities for you to engage in inner and outer transformation.
3.   We also were gifted with the “talent” of hospitality as warm and gracious souls joined us.  We invested in or made clear our commitments to biblical hospitality through our name and central symbol: the open table.  Each Sun. we “practice” hospitality around a shared if symbolic meal to keep ourselves rooted in this act.  What we do at the OT is not about reaffirming dogma but reenacting hospitality in the biblical meaning that opens us up to the stranger—indeed to the God who comes as a stranger in our midst.  We further invested our talent of hospitality when we affiliated with the United Church of Christ.  A denomination of extravagant welcome, the UCC has helped us learn more about hospitality and has demonstrated to us warm hospitality. Most recently, our new hosting church, St. Luke’s, has housed us with rare hospitality.  That “talent” is multiplying.
4.   Grace-filled inclusion, akin to hospitality, makes more explicit our receptiveness to diversity.  Our faith community is composed of folks from all social and economic levels, from diverse religious backgrounds, from across the political and social spectrum.  We are black and white and straight and gay and young and old and male and female.  As our denomination says, we believe in unity, not uniformity.  And we have bet the farm that this commitment to include all people, a value that can be scary to some, will nevertheless bring us more rewards than threats. 
5.   Finally, we have centered our common life in worship—which is the regular practice of attending to God’s work in our lives and our world.  We believe that is where the deepest joy resides.  So we have invested in weekly gatherings like this.  You have invested in a pastor to lead these services.  Many of you have invested through worship leadership roles.  You have invested as regular and engaged worshipers not only because you receive from these services but also because you realize your presence here is imperative for the building up of our community.  This weekly gathering does not work without your presence and your attentiveness to God’s presence.  You have invested in our worship by bringing others into this experience.  In many ways we are still the “not ready for prime time” worshipers.  Ours is not a smoothly choreographed liturgy.  But I think you’d agree that we’re finding our rhythm, gaining a sense of how WE worship, and generating high expectations for our worship life together. 
Where do we go from here?  As we enter a season of thanksgiving—of thankful giving—let’s ask ourselves if we feel good about supporting the life of this new congregation with our time, talent and treasure?  Do we believe a church like ours is meeting a need in our community and in our lives?  And if so, how do we want to “invest” in the continued mission of Open Table?

Now is not the time to bury our talents and hit a plateau—in attendance, financial giving, work for peace and justice, community formation, or inner spiritual growth. Now is the time to strengthen our commitments because we now are starting to “get” the point of this whole spiritual endeavor.  In its founding, Open Table was MY vision.  Increasingly it is OUR vision.  Soon it will be entirely YOUR vision.  Is this a vision you want to support?

In just over a year our UCC grant money will end and we will need to be financially self-sufficient.  I believe there are enough of us who believe in our purpose to take us to that sustainable future.  Unfortunately, if a church is not raising money for a church building or something visible, it’s hard to explain to people what their contributions DO.  Ask my husband: It’s much easier for a college to raise money for a new building than for faculty salaries or student scholarships. Our vision of church is not located a building.  Our vision of a theologically progressive Church that loves, and welcomes, and includes, and worships joyfully, and changes peoples’ inner selves and the larger society-- may require a building at some point, but the building is never going to be our purpose.  It might be a means. 
Before we as a congregation begin budget discussions this spring, I ask you to begin praying about your role in supporting the mission of Open Table with your various talents—and continue dreaming dreams for Open Table.  I believe there be a time when a shared vision of our next step captures our collective imagination and ignites us into a decisive action.  A need in our community or world will grip us, an opportunity will present itself to us, and we’ll recognize that our combined “talents” and experiences and passions make us uniquely suited to meeting that need, and the Spirit will set our hearts on fire.  And then we will know what physical resources will be required for the work we’ll do together.

We are going to take some risks.  I mean that both in theological and practical ways.  Theologically, we will live an extravagant Gospel.  We will offer a progressive Christianity that some might find unsettling.  We’ll also take some risks in more practical ways.  That is, we will try some things that won’t work.  We’re going to remain in an experimental phase for some time to test different means of outreach and worship and even different places of worship.  We’ll learn from what doesn’t work for us and try something else. 

But this is what we will not do: we will not dig a hole and bury our talents.  We WILL enter into the joy of our God.

PRAYER: Keep us dreaming, O God.  Keep us using our talents.  Keep us alert for your leadership.

[i] David Ewart says this:  The parable of the talents then is NOT intended to be an introductory lesson how the Kingdom of Heaven is like modern Western capitalism - extolling using wealth to make even more wealth.
As my friend George Hermanson puts it in his sermon, A Kingdom of Surprises, the servant who buries the talents acts as a whistle-blower. He takes a very public action that draws attention to the injustice that has come to be taken as "business as usual."
Burying the talents is a classic piece of non-violent resistance: the servant does nothing to harm anyone, but he makes a public act of refusing to participate in the unjust system of acquiring wealth for the few by impoverishing the many.
The master's wrath is the response of an elite who has been publicly shamed by one of lower status.
It is highly ironical - to say the least - that the master's words to the servant have been taken by the church to be Jesus' words, and have been used to continue to support the very practices that the parable condemns.
I believe this is NOT a "Kingdom" parable; it is a "Wisdom" parable teaching us about the perils and difficulties of the ways of the world until the Kingdom comes. It warns us to continue to expect the rich to steal from the poor; and for the followers of Jesus to expect to be punished by the rich for behaving honourably. (So much for all the stewardship sermons I have preached using this text!)
[ii] Open Table’s vision is to follow Jesus in Christian love, spiritual and social transformation, biblical hospitality, grace-filled inclusion, and joyful worship.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Preparing for the "Oil Crisis"

HEBREW BIBLE READING: Amos 5: 18-24[i]
GOSPEL READING: Matthew 25: 1-13 [ii]

On this day when darkness comes especially early to us, we hear dark scriptures.  Jesus urges us to be awake and alert because “the bridegroom” will come unexpectedly in the darkest of night.  Amos warns also of “The Day of the Lord” in a dark time.  These strange stories have ominous tones and cryptic meanings.

The Day of the Lord carries varied meanings throughout the Bible.  Some contemporary Doomsday prophets use the phrase apocalyptically to forecast a specific date when the world will end.  Radio preacher Harold Camping predicted last year the world would end this past May.  He recently recalibrated to declare October 21, 2011, as the actual time when “all those under the judgment of God would be annihilated together with the whole physical world. " He added, “On that day the true believers will be raptured.”[iii]  Although that revised date has come and gone, I’m sure he will venture another guess soon.

But in light of today’s lectionary texts, I’m wondering just how many times the world can end?  Obviously, only once in the way Camping predicts.  Maybe many times, according to other interpretations.

Camping believes the Day of the Lord will be a decisive once-and-for-all Judgment Day when God condemns to eternal punishment all the people who do not share Harold Camping’s beliefs.

In contrast, Amos’s words of judgment, rendered for a specific people 800 years before the time of Christ, were “directed at Israel’s rich ruling class”.[iv]  Amos believed God was displeased with the way a wealthy minority was crushing the rest of the impoverished population.  Archaeologists and anthropologists estimate less than 5% of Amos’s compatriots were systematically keeping the other 95% poor. 

Until recently, biblical scholars assumed that this economic stratification in ancient Israel was “just the way things were” and the poor could only hope their betters would be charitable toward them.  But maybe there were structural changes that created the inequities and therefore structural changes could have reversed them.  Anthropologists now believe that Amos lived in a period when some nomadic peoples, who knew nothing of social class, were joining an urban society at the very time an exploitative system called rent capitalism was developing.  The peasant farmers were having to sell off more and more land to pay exorbitant taxes.  The rich then gobbled up more land and became richer as the poor grew poorer. 

In earlier times, Israel’s laws periodically leveled the economic playing field (Exodus 23, Leviticus 25, Numbers 36, Deuteronomy 15). Debts were periodically cancelled, slaves released, land returned to its original owners.  However, by Amos’s day that practice had been abandoned.  Meanwhile, the exploiters prided themselves on their pious ways and adherence to religious ritesSo in the verses we read earlier, Amos spoke on behalf of a compassionate God who wanted acts of justice rather than burnt offerings, hymns of praise, and religious rites (Amos 5: 22-23). Amos spoke God’s judgment against heartless religiosity that cares more about rituals than poor people.  And he imagined a day—the Day of the Lord—when unjust practices would end.  The typical Doomsday preacher seems unaware of the context for the Old Testament prophecies.      

Perhaps the Day of the Lord is a recurring phenomenon in human psychology because it’s a recurring theme in human history.  There are pivotal periods down through the ages when it seems that the world as people knew it ended, when a crisis erupted, when a way of life collapsed.  Perhaps this is a time when system-wide flaws run through our own culture like deep geological fault lines ready to break apart former paradigms and completely alter the social-economic-political-theological landscape.  If the Day of the Lord is one of those periodic times when society’s brokenness is exposed—then that metaphorical day is again upon us.

I’m not saying we’re entering the Hollywood plot of one of those apocalyptic movies like The Matrix, The Book of Eli, The Road, The Fifth Element, Terminator, The Postman, Waterworld, Planet of the Apes, etc.  I’m not saying the Harold Camping-types understand the original contexts for apocalyptic scripture.  But in a limited sense, these doomsayers may be onto something.  The Day of the Lord may again be at hand.  I never thought I would say THAT in a sermon.  Please don’t quote me out of context!  But I’m not the only progressive Christian talking about this prominent biblical theme of “the Day of the Lord.”

Others today believe the world as we know it is ending.  Phyllis Tickle and other culture watchers declare we’re living in a hinge time, the likes of which have not been seen in 500 years.  Those occupying Wall Street are saying our political-economic system is broken.  Environmentalists like Bill McKibbin are saying we’ve already passed the threshold for the amount of carbon dioxide our atmosphere can tolerate.  And our friend Brian McLaren is convinced that all our systems--social, political, environmental, economic--are sending us right over a cliff.  The title of one of his books, Everything Must Change, conveys how comprehensive is his warning.  In last week’s workshop, Brian said it may be too late to avoid the cliff.   It may already be too late to reverse our self-destructive systems and make course corrections.  So change is coming—whether we intentionally make the changes or change is forced upon us.

But collapsing systems create opportunity for newness and hope.  The Day of the Lord may strike fear in us when we see it coming because it will mean the end of many things we hold dear.  But this hinge time is also the means whereby we can be saved from systems now in place.  At some point we must pick ourselves up from the rubble and start afresh.  Maybe what is crashing are systems that need to die so that saner, fairer, healthier systems can be born.  The role of prophets like Amos—and McLaren—is, in the words of a hymn we sang earlier, to help us say “no” to a life we hold dear” and “yes to a future we fear.”  The role of the prophets is to “help us to grieve what we cling to and know we must leave: power and privilege and pride in one’s kind with little or no care for those left behind.”  The role of the prophets is to “face the night” and “help us find hope, kindling our courage to change and to cope.” The end of the old means the beginning of something new. [v]  In fact, resurrection hope is at the heart of the Christian faith.

McLaren and  other progressive Christians think we face a challenging time ahead as we move reluctantly to prioritize compassionate care for other people and other creatures so that our planet may survive.  The dying of old systems will be hard to endure and the sharp labor pangs preceding the birth of revised economic, social, political systems will be even harder to bear.  And we can’t expect much help from “Religion with a capital R” because our religious systems--and you and I--are complicit with the other deep dysfunctions sending us down this suicidal path.  What it will take is for the Spirit of Generosity and Compassion to grip us.  It will take our cooperation with the Spirit so that we create a sustainable future for all. We must learn the hardest lesson of human spirituality: to love selflessly those we’ll never meet in a future we’ll never inhabit.

“Alas,” Amos called out to the overtly religious of his day, “You think you’ll fare well in the day of the Lord but it’s not what you imagine.  It’s not an escape plan to some other realm for the privileged.  It’s a shift in systems right here and now.  And you’re not going to like it.”  McLaren and others call out to those today who are so intent on propping up the systems that they will resist the coming changes all the harder.  They will be too entangled in the old machinery to create better mechanisms for governing and producing for our physical needs and staying safe and educating our children and creating beauty and living in peace.  They’ll be so focused on the salvation of their individual souls and the maintenance of the status quo that they’ll miss Jesus’ invitation to help usher in God’s compassionate realm here and now.  They’ll be so careful about being right that they’ll miss chances to love and to serve—which are and have always been the saving ways.  The Day of the Lord requires us to change.  

Prophet Jesus, who critiqued the religious hierarchy of his day, has his own message for those who’ll survive the crash and reimagine and create kinder systems.  The Day of the Lord has the chance of ushering in a fuller vision of God’s reign of shalom.  The Day of the Lord is coming, said Amos the prophet of Israel 800 years before Jesus lived.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, said Jesus.

And as he was fond of saying, the realm of God is like a wedding in many ways.  But the bridegroom, on whom all our hopes are pinned, might show up at midnight and catch us, like unprepared bridesmaids, asleep and with no oil in our lamps.  In the society of Jesus’ day--without electricity, without street lights or flashlights or headlights on cars--anyone out at night needed her own lamp to see by.  Avery basic way one stayed prepared for emergencies and daily responsibilities was to have lamp oil at the ready.  

Who knew that Jesus foresaw an oil crisis?  I make this analogy with tongue in cheek, of course.  But it's interesting that petroleum oil, an essential resource that “fuels” all our current systems, is a limited resource at the root of much of our modern crises.  Our dependency on oil makes us financially, politically and environmentally vulnerable.  Our lack of forethought and preparation relative to this natural resource may leave us, like five of the parable’s bridesmaids, looking foolish.  

A song I sang in my church youth group in the 70s was based on this very parable. It began:
          Give me  oil in my lamp keeping me burning. 
          Give me oil in my lamp, I pray. 
          Give me oil in my lamp keeping me burning. 
          Keep me burning till the break of day.
A second verse we sang to be silly started this way: 
          Give me gas in my Ford, keep me trucking for the Lord. 
          Give me gas in my Ford, I pray.
          Give me gas in my Ford, keep me trucking, trucking, trucking,
          Keep me trucking till the break of day.
Funny how easy it is to turn a parable about preparing for God’s reign into a slogan for American consumerism.

Let’s get inside Jesus’ parable for a moment.  Let's consider how we as individuals and as a congregation and as a culture be “prepared” with God’s illuminating oil.  Although scholars are not certain about the wedding customs upon which this parable is based, it’s likely the bridesmaids had some responsibility for the wedding preparations, possibly to light the way for the wedding processional.  The bridesmaids had to be prepared for their role if they were to serve at the great wedding feast to which Jesus often compares the full reign of God’s shalom. 

However, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids has some harsh words.  For instance, the wise bridesmaids turn to their unprepared friends and say, “You have to get your own oil for your own lamps.”  Is Jesus teaching us to fend for ourselves?  The lesson here is not “every bridesmaid for herself” but “each bridesmaid must be responsible for her own oil that will light her own way.”  The oil of which this parable speaks cannot be simply given to another like a commodity.  Further, only those prepared with their inner light can then take the Light out into the world.  That tells me that we as individuals must first take responsibility to ready our own hearts before we can help usher in God’s coming reign of peace and justice.  We need light to see by before we walk out into the darkness.  There is inner work for us to do so that God’s mercy and loving kindness can shine forth from us.  Part of that work is to learn generosity of spirit. 

I await the next Day of the Lord with both dread and eager expectation.  I have no idea what are the practical, step-by-step actions to prepare our world for what is coming.  We might create or join social network campaigns to humanize our immigrant neighbors.  We might “occupy” the streets of Mobile.  We might register young people to vote or teach school children about their world.  Pause now as you think about your ways of helping your world prepare to welcome God’s reign.
. . . .

While not prescribing specific actions for you to take, I will stress that Jesus’s “be prepared” message is not about selfishness.  It’s not about stockpiling resources like survivalists who hide ammo and canned goods in an underground bunker to be the sole survivors of a coming apocalypse.  Instead, we offer the work of our lives with a spirit of generosity based on our trust in God’s care.  Our complex problems require a communal and often sacrificial approach rooted in kindness and compassionate listening and honest speaking.  Our solutions must be selfless.  But whether you are a Tea Partier or a Wall Street Occupier, you may want to start with inner work fueled by the light of God.  Before we take our lights out into the world’s nighttime, let’s replenish our oil. 

And that is what we try to do here each Sunday.  We practice generosity through financial offerings and patient cooperation within a close congregation and gracious forgiveness of one another’s idiosyncrasies.  We help one another replenish that oil.  We bring others to its source.  We remain hopeful that God is in the darkness and the light.  And each week we celebrate at the wedding banquet to which Christ invites us.   Thanks be to God.

[i] Amos 5:18-24[i]
Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!  Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light;  19as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake.  20Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?   21I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.  22Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.  23Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  24But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.  

[ii] Matthew 25: 1-13
[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.  Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  2Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  3When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  4but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  5As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  6But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’  7Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.  8The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’  9But 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.’  10And 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.  11Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’  12But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’  13Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

[iv] Frick, Frank.  A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. p. 355.
[v] From the wonderful hymn “Where are the Prophets” by William Flanders, printed by permission of the composer for our worship bulletin. See