Sunday, November 23, 2014

Christ the King Sunday -- November 23, 2014

Living Well. Loving Well.

Matthew 25: 31-46

31“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. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then 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; 35for 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, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then 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? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And 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.’ 41Then 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; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I 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.’ 44Then 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?’ 45Then 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.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

I’ve told you about my friend Kathy who had a mastectomy and has been undergoing radiation treatments over the past 7 weeks.   All of us who adore her are praying without ceasing that the surgery and the radiation have completely destroyed every last cancer cell in her body.  Hopefully, she’ll soon be back to her usual feisty, outrageous, lovable self.  Even if she’s not up to her usual feistiness for a while, we’ll gladly take her as she is – healthy and healed.

Even Kathy admits it could have been so much worse.  Her family has a genetic predisposition for breast cancer, and many of Kathy’s aunts and cousins have died from the disease.  So for years, Kathy has been incredibly vigilant, almost militant in getting her mammograms.  Her cancer was a slow-growing one and a routine mammogram revealed its presence long before she could have felt a lump.  The early detection almost certainly saved her life. 

Some of us are not quite so vigilant about our health.  We put off regular medical check ups because we think they are a waste of time, or a waste of money.  But many people I know put off check ups because they just don’t want to know if something is wrong with them.  I’ve been known to do that.  One of my favorite sayings is, “If you don’t take a temperature, you can’t find a fever.”   But Kathy’s experience has underlined the importance of taking care of myself by getting those bothersome check-ups. 

The text from Matthew today offers us something like a spiritual check up, I think.  And at first glance, it’s a checkup we’d rather avoid.  Jesus is a little scary here. The idea of eternal punishment is enough to give anybody the heebie-jeebies. But I really hope Jesus isn’t trying to frighten us into being good little sheep.   However, I don’t think this depiction of a final judgment is meant to completely reassure us either. 

What Jesus is doing is taking our temperature.  Jesus seems to be offering for God’s people is a very direct invitation to an honest examination of who we are and how we are doing as disciples.  Just as a good doctor is honestly concerned about our health, Jesus is concerned about our well-being.  Jesus wants us to flourish in this life as well as the next.  In other words, I don’t think Jesus is only talking about doing good deeds so we can get to heaven instead of that hot place.   I think Jesus is just as concerned about the kind of life we are leading in the here and now. 

So do you think we could read this text as if we are opening a gift?  Can we receive this text as the best kind of gift?  A gift that somebody we love deeply gives to us simply because they love us too?  There are very few people in our lives who love us enough to help us know something real and true about ourselves.  Can you think of a moment in your life when someone who loved you told you the truth, even if it was a truth you didn’t want to hear?   Has someone you love given you a truth that had the power to set you free? 

That’s what’s going on in this text from Matthew today.  Jesus is not speaking to strangers, or to a large group of people, but in a very intimate way to his very dearest friends.  Jesus’ time with the disciples is growing very, very short.  Jesus knows that the day is coming in which they will no longer be able to see his physical body.  Jesus also knows that following him is going to become much harder.  So he makes it very clear to the disciples what it will mean to follow him.

The truth about every disciple boils down to this moment of self-examination: how are we living our lives?  How do we spend our time?  Are we paying attention to the needs of people around us?  Or are we not? 

In this text, Matthew shines a bright spotlight, nearly blinding us.  The words in this text are like a laser beam cutting through deep fears and shallow faith, forcing us to decide what it is that really rules our hearts.  In this metaphoric language of sheep and goats, we understand the way we treat one another reflects our love and commitment to Jesus.  We violate other people by not seeing the light of Christ in them.  And when we hear Jesus’ challenging words about how we overlook other people, we know that the line between the sheep and the goats runs straight through the middle of us.  All of us.  On any given day. 

What Jesus is asking of his disciples is incredibly difficult to do.  Giving up self-centeredness and apathy and cynicism seems more difficult than taking on the cross of Jesus. It is difficult for me on a bad day to see the face of Christ in some of the people I meet.  Even on a good day, one smug jerk can knock me right into goat territory. Even though I totally believe Jesus when he says that loving every person who comes into my view is the only response that will save me in this life and the life to come.   And I begin each day vowing to be the most awesome sheep Jesus has ever seen, only to end my day beating myself up for being such a stupid goat.  I feel guilty when I haven’t successfully completed my checklist of the tasks I think I need to do to be a good sheep. 

But the problem with any sort of checklist Christianity is that it becomes all about me.  I  end up not needing Jesus so much as needing to make sure I’m doing all the right things on Jesus’ behalf.   And somehow, doing all the great things on this list -- feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, visiting the lonely, clothing the naked – is no longer about following Jesus, but about me placing myself above people in need so I can feel like I’m being a good little Jesus for them.    The poor, the lonely, the sick, the imprisoned – all of them become objects to rescue.  There’s all of us – the Christians who do the saving of them – the least of these. 

The danger we run into is we forget that not one person on this earth is entirely in one category or another.  Nobody is entirely needy and nobody is entirely without the ability to take care of another person’s need. The poor and the hungry and the imprisoned are not some special category of more Christ-like people.  And you and me and every other person who seek to meet needs aren’t some special category of Christ-like people either.   All of us are sheep and goats.  Very often we are both animals on the same day.

It’s not all about us.  It’s what Jesus is up to in us and in other people, and through the connections we make with one another.

I think it works like this: when someone is in need and someone meets that need, Christ is revealed.  Christ comes to us in the needs of the world, including the needs of our own lives.  All of us are the needy and all of us can meet needs.  And when the connection between two human beings happens, Christ is proclaimed and the redemption of God is known. 

My friend Jannie Swart told the story about his church – Second Presbyterian -- who began a ministry called “The Open Door Café” in downtown Oil City.  Open three days a week, The Open Door Café serves two homemade soups each day, as well as coffee, tea and other beverages.  It’s a lot like your neighborhood Starbucks or Panera, but there is no set price for the food and drink at The Open Door Cafe.  People are free to pay what they would like to pay for the soup and the coffee.  They are also free to pay nothing at all.

The point of this café, according to Jannie, is not to be a soup kitchen for poor people or a place where church volunteers evangelize to the customers.  It’s all about relationships.  As Jannie said often, the Open Door Café isn’t about taking Christ to people outside the walls of the church.  It’s about helping the people in the church see and hear where Christ is at work in their community.  From Jannie’s perspective, the church people are the people in need – to know their neighbors, to build relationships with them, and to learn to see Christ proclaimed in the ordinary, everyday stuff of soup and bread and conversation between all sorts of people who have in common what all human beings have in common. They need one another desperately, whether they know it or not.  Nobody goes into The Open Door Café with an agenda.  Christ is revealed in the connection made between the needy people who are gathered. 

As I write this sermon, my 13 year old is with his church youth group friends, serving folks at The Table at Hot Metal Bridge.  He went to the church after school to help cook the beefy macaroni, make the salad, and pack it all up along with pudding and cookies.  The youth group kids and their leaders drove the food over to Hot Metal Bridge and served it to the motley crew of folks who show up there on Tuesday and Thursday nights.  David has stubbornly avoided church life since I began my work here with you, but since this past September he has been a regular fixture at Sixth Presbyterian.  Mostly because he decided he was interested in doing exactly what he did at Hot Metal.  He wanted to serve food to hungry people. 

You want to know what I think?  I think that my dear son, whose lack of social skills makes him feel disconnected from people he is around every day, was finally overwhelmed with a feeling down deep inside.  Like every human being, David needs to be needed.  Although he probably couldn’t put the experience into words, David ran smack into the living Christ while serving the beefy macaroni. 

Beloved church, if I may be so bold to say this – I suspect this is a deep need among you in this community.  You need to be needed.  You have a deep longing to be a church that loves and serves its neighbors.  You want to be a church that matters deeply to people and connects with them in meaningful, personal ways.  You may even feel a little sheepish that we may have missed out on opportunities to serve and be served as we’ve been distracted by all the issues that distract so many churches. 

The good news is that our terrible tendency to either romanticize or judge or avoid people in great need who need us isn’t the final word on who we are.   Jesus keeps looking for us. Jesus dwells among us whether or not we invite him.  Jesus is powerfully present in places where you hurt and others hurt.   Jesus is proclaimed when you get close enough to someone else to be with pain, in pain and to hold it all with humility and love. 

Here’s the crazy thing.  The sheep have no idea they are serving Jesus when they serve their neighbor.  And the goats are just as clueless when they walk right by him.   We will never have complete reassurance that we are doing discipleship right.  We only have the assurance that our lives are held by God, in this life and in the next.  That is grace, the final word.  God wants us.  God wants us.

You know what the most annoying outcome from a routine medical check-up is?  The check-up where the doctor says – sorry you have to make some changes in your life.  Healthier eating habits.  More exercise.  Get more sleep.  Reduce stress.  And it’s never a surprise, is it?  We know where we’re falling short.  We know we eat too much junk.  We know that we should spend more time walking and less time in front of the television.  We know we should relax and get more sleep.  Sometimes we do make the changes our doctor tells us to make and sometimes we don’t.  What does it matter, right?  An extra piece of pie here and there.   We are experts in denial and imagining that so much of what we do to our bodies doesn’t make much difference.

But Jesus is a little more forceful in telling us that what we do makes a difference.  A big difference. How we treat other people matters.  In a world that seems too big to be changed and too sick to be healed, our lives have more meaning and value than what we imagine. 

At the end of this church year, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, at the end of Jesus’ life – Jesus  is making this personal.  Jesus is getting nebby.  Jesus is getting real neeby about how you choose to live you life not because Jesus wants to frighten you into faith.  Jesus wants to save you – not just your soul, but your whole life.

God wants to save us by giving us the gift of true, deep, authentic human life.

 God wants to save us by persuading us to see ourselves and every other human being as worthy of our tender care.

God’s favorite project is to teach you and me the fundamental lesson that to love is to live.  And the crucial test of our faith is not how fervently we believe, but how deeply we love.[1]   Now and forever. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Paraphrased from John Buchanan’s commentary in Feasting on the Word Year A Volume 4, Proper 29 (Reign of Christ), 336.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What's Happening at Emsworth U.P.? Advent/Christmas Events

Dear Friends and Members of Emsworth U.P. Church:

Whew.  Is it really almost December? 

The last few months at the church have been filled with conversation and prayer, all of it centered upon where we are heading as a church.  We have completed the “New Beginnings” process to see where we are, and are now entering into the Unglued Church phase.  Over the next 6 months, we will be working with our consultant, Rev. Deborah Wright, and our Adaptive Change apprentice, Rev. Sarah Robbins, to imagine a new future for our community of faith. 

Many thanks to all of you for your enthusiastic and thoughtful participation in the process so far.  I know it’s tough and tiring work, but it’s important work.  Although the Gospel of Jesus Christ never changes, we cannot deny that the world around the mainline church is changing, and changing quickly.  For churches to continue their work in meaningful ways, we must undergo an honest assessment of how we are or are not reaching out to our community.  We must focus on being church as opposed to getting people to come to church.   Despite all of the uncertainty, I remain convinced that Emsworth U.P. Church has the potential to become a vital faith community in our little corner of the North Boroughs. 

Stewardship is more important this year than ever as we seek to continue our work at Emsworth U.P.  You should have already received your pledge card for 2015 in the mail, and I hope you will send or bring it to the church as soon as possible.  This year, we are asking each of you to consider increasing your pledge to the church by at least 1%.  That’s it!  If you need a pledge card, please call the church or pick one up when you come to worship.

Meanwhile, Advent season is upon us, and we are looking forward to enjoying our holiday traditions.  I remember a pastor saying that the traditions of this season are important to observe because, without them, “we would anger the old people and confuse the children.”  My view is not quite so cynical, I confess.  Our conversations over turkey and stuffing, our carols and cookies for the at-home members, our engagement in the Advent Conspiracy, our gathering in candlelight on Christmas Eve – all of these traditions draw us close to one another and ever closer to the coming Christ.  I hope you will be able to join us for one or all of these events in the coming weeks:

First Sunday of Advent:  Sunday, November 30th (Mark Shannon preaching) + Kickoff of the Advent Conspiracy.

Advent Turkey Dinner:  Sunday, December 7 after worship followed by One Voice Advent Concert at 2:30 p.m.

Decorating the church and caroling: Saturday, December 13 at 10 a.m. (decorating) and noon (caroling)

Congregational meeting to elect church officers:  Sunday, December 14 after worship

A Service of Hope and Healing on the Longest Night:  Sunday, December 21 at 4 p.m. at Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon (Pastor Susan preaching)

Christmas Eve Service:  Wednesday, December 24th at 7 p.m.

1st Sunday After Christmas Day (Joint Worship Service at Community Presbyterian Church of Ben Avon):  Sunday, December 28th at 10:30 a.m. (Pastor Susan preaching)

Many thanks, also, to all who assisted in refreshing and repainting the mini-meeting room over the past 2 months.  If you haven't stopped by in a while, please do!  Among the great volunteers who showed up and did marvelous work include Tom Smart, Bez Stellfox, Jon Stellfox, Erin Williams, Dan Williams, Sue Schneider, Paul Zende,  Mary Tadler, Molly Tadler, David Rothenberg and Susan Rothenberg.  We also have some lovely new round tables to use for our meetings and gatherings so we can see each other face to face!

Thank you for all you do for and mean to Emsworth U.P. Church.  May the peace of Christ, the love of God, and the friendship of the Holy Spirit accompany you in these days of gratitude and anticipation as we prepare to welcome Emmanuel, God with us.

In shared ministry with you,

Pastor Susan

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ordinary 33A -- November 16, 2014

Merely Human

Anton Schmid

Matthew 25:14-30       
      14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then 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.’ 21His 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.’ 22And 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.’ 23His 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.’ 24Then 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; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But 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? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 

The meaning of this parable has probably been established so firmly in your mind that any one of you could preach a sermon on it.  We all know this parable well…so well in fact, that it’s hard to think of anything new to say.  Particularly about the third servant –the one who buries the talent in the ground and makes the master really, really mad.  Most of you have an opinion about the third servant – he’s wicked, he’s lazy, he’s a scaredy cat. The most charitable thing you might say is that he understands nothing about the miracle of compound interest.  

It’s almost too easy to beat up on this guy.  Like shooting homiletical fish in an exegetical barrel.  Preachers through the years have been pretty consistent in their critique of the cautious servant.  A commentator summed up some of the criticisms of the third servant, thus saving me the trouble of hunting through the Google to find them:

CH Dodd in 1935 said this is “the story of a man whom overcautious and cowardice led into a break of trust.

TW Manson in 1945 says: “The punishment for neglected opportunity is deprivation of opportunity.”

Dan Via in 1967: “The third servant’s refusal to risk led to repressed guilt, resulting in the loss of opportunity for meaningful existence.” 


One more.  John Donahue in 1988 said that the servants “fatal flaw” was that “Out of fear of failure, (the third servant) refused to even try to succeed.”[1]

There you have it.  “…the moral center of gravity is located in the master’s judgment of the third servant.”[2]  A pretty firm consensus that the third servant got what was coming to him.  Outer darkness and gnashing of teeth sounds about right, right?  Actually, as I read these comments, I swore I could Donald Trump’s voice telling one of his hapless apprentices:  “You’re fired!”

So really, why do we even need to talk at all about this parable?

Well, since we’re all here, we may want to notice some other things.  I’m willing to bet that a couple of you remember from your Sunday school lessons that the amount of money changing hands in this parable is pretty astonishing.  Scholars estimate that one talent in ancient times represented about 15 or 20 years worth of manual labor.  So the five talents given to the first servant represented 75 or 100 years worth of work – probably much more than double the average working lifetime of the people hearing Jesus tell this story.  So right there, Jesus’ listeners were probably blown away at the amount of money the master entrusts to the servants?  Five talents?  That’s nuts!  Two talents?  Still outrageous.  One talent? Well, one talent was probably a little closer to a dollar figure that the average Joe could wrap his mind around, but still – even one talent was a great big chunk of change. 
So we’re not talking about just a lot of money here, but amounts somewhere in the mega millions stratosphere.  Now Jesus may be exaggerating to make a point, but it is clear that he means to say that the master is handing over some serious cash.

The only people who had that kind of money in ancient times were the wealthy elite – 1st century Donald Trumps.  And the wealthy elite got their money in just the way you’d expect – they engaged in trade, got goods to market, ran import-export businesses, and lent money to people at interest.  And lending to poor people, especially farmers, was an extremely profitable line of business.  Farmers often needed help making ends meet when there was a drought or some other major catastrophe.

These loan agreements worked out pretty much as you’d imagine.  Poor farmers would get the best interest rate they could, put up land as collateral on the loan, and hope for the best.  By the time most of them got around to noticing the insanity of the interest rate charged, it was too late.  They had already made their deal with the 1st century version of a pay day lender.  The lender would foreclose and the farmer would lose ownership of the land.  But unlike today’s bank foreclosures, the farmer could usually stay on the land, as long as they were willing to keep working for their master.

So that’s probably the kind of scenario we’re dealing with in this parable.  The three servants are three formerly independent farmers who were dependent upon their very rich master who now owned their land.  The three may have even risen through the ranks to become employees of the master’s financial empire, managing various parts of the master’s business.  As they rose through the ranks, the servants of the master could probably even engage in a little dishonest graft and pocket some extra cash on the side. As long as they kept an eye on their master’s interests and delivered what he expected, the system hummed along.  In fact, the better the master did, the better his servants did.  So it wasn’t surprising that the master invites the first two servants who have doubled his money to enter into his joy:

“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.”   

Being put in charge of more and more things on the master’s behalf meant more and more opportunities for the indentured servant to derive greater wealth for himself.  Those who were higher up were entrusted with more, but it was all good for the master who knew that they had financial incentive to keep an eye on each other.  Those who came back to the master with a greater return were the winners, and it didn’t really matter how they doubled his money.  All that mattered to the master was profit. 

These former farmers weren’t dummies.  They adapted to a system that wasn’t of their making or their choosing.  And the ones who did well, like the first two servants -- earned more opportunities to make their master even more fabulously wealthy. 

A preacher tells the story about serving in a homeless shelter and hearing about a man who had been on the receiving end of a great deal of good Christian advice about how to get back on his feet.  After being coached on handling his addiction, applying for jobs, managing his finances and qualifying for low-income housing, he finally looked at his social worker and said, “Why do you want to fix me up and feed me back into the same machine that grind me up in the first place?”[3]

And thinking about that made me wonder – where did we get the idea that the master who is going on a journey is a stand-in for God? How is it that God in this story is a “harsh man, reaping where he did not sow, gathering where he did not scatter seed?”  How is it that God is the man in the story who got where he was by charging 50% interest on a loan that no desperate farmer, no matter how hard he tried, could ever, ever pay back?

Can the master in this story be the same God who brought the people into a land flowing with milk and honey, drinking from cisterns they did not dig, reaping a harvest they did not plant?   Is this the same God who tells the harvesters to be really lousy at their job and leave enough behind in the field so that those who have nothing to sow can reap anyway?  Is this the same God of a different parable who pays everyone exactly the same wage, no matter what time they showed up for work?  Is the master in this story the same God who in yet another parable appears as a crazy sower who throws seed wastefully all over the place?  

Do we really see God as a master who would say to a starving farmer and his family, “those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away?”

Maybe the master in this parable isn’t God after all.  Maybe Jesus tells us about the master in this parable to help us draw a distinction between an earthly master who invests to turn a profit, to the God we know in Jesus Christ who gives away everything including his own life, simply because God loves God’s people.  Maybe this parable is told by Jesus to help us see God as something other than stern and punishing, as bad as the worst boss any of us has ever had. 

Jesus tells this parable just days before he will give his life away on the cross, not as a substitute or to be punished in our place, but to show us just how far God will go to release us from fear.  The kind of fear that drives us to bury our lives long before we’ve actually stopped breathing.  Jesus spends his entire life giving himself away – feeding the hungry, healing the sick, offering forgiveness and welcoming everyone who recognizes their need for God’s embrace.  And the only thing Jesus receives in return is to be crucified.  And just in case we miss that message of love, God raises Jesus on the third day to demonstrate that death and fear are no longer have to be our masters.  We have been freed to live holy and joyful lives.

Maybe the closest thing we have to a divine figure in this parable is the third servant who refuses to participate in the process.  The servant who sees the system and the master for what it is – a system in which masters harvest what they do not sow, and servants who do not play along are cast into outer darkness. Maybe being cast into the outer darkness seemed a small price to pay in order to escape from a rigged and sick system.  Maybe the third servant just didn’t have the stomach for it anymore.  Maybe his heart was too soft to play the hard-hearted game of the master anymore.  In any case, by digging a hole and burying the talent in the ground, he has at least taken the ill-gotten cash out of circulation – at least for a while. 

You have to wonder what the people who heard Jesus tell this parable had to say about the master and the servants.  You have to wonder what they thought about the third servant.  Maybe they said he was a fool or a coward, just as so many readers and preachers have said throughout the years.  Or maybe, just maybe – the people who heard Jesus thought that the third servant said exactly what they had always wanted to say to the masters in their lives – enough.  Maybe they wondered what would happen if they had the courage to reject the master.

This week in the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen wrote a column about Anton Schmid, a sergeant in Hitler’s army who was so moved by the suffering he observed in the Jewish ghettos in Lithuania that he managed to save 250 Jews before he was arrested by the Germans.  In one of his last letters to his wife before he was executed for treason, Schmid wrote about his horror at the sight of mass murder and of “children being beaten.”  He wrote to his wife, “You know how it is with my soft heart.  I count not think and had to help them.”  In his last letter before his death, Schmid wrote, “I merely behaved as a human being.”

Cohen writes of Schmid, “’Merely’ had become the wrong adverb; ‘exceptionally’ would be better.  Schmid’s resistance was almost unknown.  It can be singular just to be human.  It can be very lonely.  It can cost you your human life.”[4]

So perhaps it is the third servant who may have been the one who risked the most in stepping out of an inhuman system to reveal the truth about the master.  I do not know what Jesus intended us to take from this parable, although I do know one thing for sure. If Jesus wanted us to grasp his truth immediately and avoid the headaches these parables always give us, he might have given us a straightforward book of rules instead of these tricky and twisting stories.  But it seems to me that the third servant is being held up as the only fully, exceptionally human being in this whole sorry story.

So what does this mean for us?  Maybe what it means is that we have also been given talents to manage, and we also have a choice in how we are to use those gifts God has given.  In fact, in the next several weeks, we’ll have questions to ask ourselves as we make those choices.

We’ll have the opportunity to buy gifts from major retailers or pay a few bucks more by buying gifts from small local shops owned by our neighbors, not by shareholders. 

During the Advent Conspiracy, we’ll have the opportunity to buy poinsettias for Meals on Wheels clients or a pair of goats for an African village or a mule for a farmer in the Caribbean.  

We’ll have the opportunity to make a yearly pledge to this church which, by the looks of it, doesn’t look like such a hot investment, does it?  It’s no secret that we’re small.  It’s no secret that we’re not exactly sure where God is calling us.  It’s no secret that this church you love today may be either be even smaller or gone altogether in a matter of years. 
On the other hand, it could be that God may be up to something remarkable among us and that our tiny church may be on the brink of transformation that will lead to new life for our community.  Your pledge today may be an investment that will pay dividends that none of us will ever see. 

Who knows?  In God’s economy, our metrics for measuring what makes a good investment are much different that the measure used by the master in this story or the Donald Trumps of our own time.  In God’s economy, shepherds leave 99 sheep to go chasing after one.  In God’s economy, the first will be last and the weakest among us are the strong.  In God’s economy, one widow’s coin rattling around in the plate matters more than Bill Gate’s whole bank account. 

It’s crazy.  It makes no sense.  It’s an investment strategy that won’t lead to a bigger house or even an easier life.  But it’s God’s economy of grace, pure and simple.  It’s an economy of new life for all things.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Herzog, William R., Parables as Subversive Speech. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994), 152.
[2] Ibid
[3] BBT, “The Parable of the Fearful Investor,” Duke University Chapel sermon, November 11, 2011.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

All Saints Sunday A -- November 2, 2014

Necessary Losses

Revelation 7:9-17           
9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


In today’s text from Matthew, we begin making the transition from hearing about the kingdom of heaven to seeing it in action. Jesus has plucked up a couple of disciples from their fishing boats and takes them on a tour of this new kingdom.  Jesus is on the move, preaching and healing every disease.  And people are beginning to notice.  A lot of people are beginning to notice what Jesus is doing.  Life is starting to become complicated for the disciples.  This kingdom building is a lot messier than they bargained for. 

But Jesus climbs up a hill, and the disciples follow him. Jesus tells the disciples about the new reality of a God that is not only with them, but also with the crowd of wounded, needy people waiting at the bottom of the hill.   These words dare us to imagine that we are there on that mountain, deciding how much further we want to go with Jesus on this crazy quilt jumble of a journey. Because we know that crowd at the bottom of the mountain isn’t going away anytime soon. We live every day with hurting and broken people.  We live every day AS hurting and broken people. Try as we might to keep our eyes looking upward to heaven, or averted entirely, we cannot escape the pressing reality of the life as it is right now.  We cannot deny that we are badly in need of Christ’s healing touch.  For ourselves and for people we love.

The last few months have been pretty awful, because I miss my best friend.  I do.  I miss my best friend who had a mastectomy in August and is now undergoing radiation treatment which has left her ragged and raw and in tremendous pain.  She has kept everyone except her immediate family at a distance, communicating through email, texts and Facebook postings.   I don’t blame her for shutting down. If I were in her situation, I’d probably do the same thing. 

I’ve done my best to respect her wishes, but the loss of her laughter and her listening ear and her physical presence feels an awful lot like death. Which is stupid because of course, she’s not dead.  In fact, she’s doing everything she can do to not die.  And I want her to get well even more than I miss her.

And yet, I am flooded with a heavy sense of loss, because I know nothing will ever be the same after this. Not for us as friends, and certainly not for her.  She will survive the cancer, but her life has been forever changed.  She will, in the fullness of time, be ok, yet nothing about any of this has been remotely ok.   

I am not very good at putting a positive spin on pain.  I do not see people who are suffering as blessed.  I am hard-pressed to see anything good or valuable coming out of my friend’s cancer.  I don’t see anything that remotely resembles a blessing in another friend’s major depression or another friend’s failing marriage or even in David’s continuing struggle with autism.  I do not see blessings in the deaths this year of my mentor, Janie Swart, or my friend Don Polito, both of whom were much too young to be called home to Jesus, as nice as that home must certainly be.  Nothing about any of these losses feels like blessing.  It feels like crap, to put it bluntly.  It’s feels only like grief and sadness and I-feel-like-punching-something kind of anger.

I know, I know.  We are supposed to rejoice always in the Lord and be grateful for all of life, even the parts that really suck.  As if a sunny Christian attitude has the power to sterilize the messiness of it all.  Yet, I confess to feeling distinctly ungrateful as we enter into this month of thankfulness.  My ungratitude extends beyond my own friends and family.  I am ungrateful for the never-ending wars in the Middle East and for the kidnapped Nigerian school girls who will never, ever finish their educations and never, ever come home. I am ungrateful for the growing population of homeless families right here in the North Boroughs. I am ungrateful that Bill McCracken is in terrible pain.  I am ungrateful that Tom’s cousin is losing his job, perhaps the only thing that might keep him sober.  I am ungrateful that Carol McCoy nearly died from an infection. 

I could go on, but you are probably capable of making your own list of things for which you are distinctly ungrateful.  And maybe naming those losses for which we are distinctly ungrateful is something we all need to do before we get to genuine thanksgiving. 

A friend of mine -- a die-hard Kansas City Royals fan -- said on Thursday night, after the Royals lost to the Giants in the World Series, that, “losing is good for the soul.”  “Baseball” he said, “is proxy for the fundamental drama of humanity, with its failing and adjusting, redeeming and overcoming.”   In other words, it is not that loss itself is good for us.  What is good for us is recognizing that the cycle of life, with its ups and downs, celebrations and grieving, gains and losses, is what makes us fully human.  A whole human life is a movement between gratitude and ungratitude, and one cannot exist without the other.  By attaching ourselves to something or someone we care about, even to something as inconsequential as a particular baseball team, we are attaching our heart to the near certainty that our heart will be broken.   And as a Pirates fan, I have entered into many Aprils knowing that baseball would break my heart.  But, as I always say, what else are hearts for?

So it is with friendships.  Relationships.  A full life on this earth means, by necessity, that there will be times when we mourn and gripe and grouse, and enter into periods of deep ungratitude.  Until we have deeply loved into the possibility that loss will devastate us, there can be no blessing.  Darned if you do, darned if you don’t. 

In our text from Matthew today, Jesus says that people who will be blessed will also suffer. Jesus says that losing is not only good for our souls, but also a necessary step to saving them.  It seems that some losses are necessary ones because we cannot receive God’s blessings until we are in a place to receive them. 

You can see this played out in the beatitudes if you invert them…

We cannot receive the kingdom of heaven until we become poor in spirit.  If you are rich in spirit, Jesus doesn’t have much of anything to say to you. 

We cannot be comforted until we mourn our losses.  If you do not allow yourself to grieve, Jesus doesn’t have much comfort to give you.

We cannot inherit the earth until we are meek.  If you think you have all the answers and don’t need anyone’s help in figuring out this God stuff, you haven’t left Jesus much room to teach you.

We cannot be filled with the good things of God until we are hungry and thirsty enough to receive them.  If you are stuffed with junk food theology or sugary sweet faith, you won’t be hungry for the real stuff which is the bread of life.

We cannot receive mercy until we are merciful to other people.  If we unwilling to forgive other people, we probably won’t believe that Jesus forgives us we mess up just as badly.

We will not see God until our hearts are broken wide open to receive God. Jesus will have a hard time getting in to a closed and protected heart.

We cannot be children of God until we are willing to be peacemakers in our families, our communities and our world.  If we are quick to anger, we’ll be following an angry, vindictive God and miss the love of Jesus.

We will not receive the kingdom until we do the right and loving thing, even when it’s the hardest thing in the world to do.  Staying safe and out of trouble is not the path that Jesus is urging on his disciples.

The Beatitudes seem to suggest that the world’s designated losers are winners in God’s eyes. And let’s be honest.  None of us want to be losers.  There’s nothing easy about being merciful to someone who has hurt you deeply and will probably hurt you again.  Peacemakers are ignored, imprisoned or shot.  Being meek and mild instead of assertive and ruthless can land you in the unemployment line. 

And yet, on this All Saint’s Day, my guess is that the saints you remember today are probably the kind of people who amazed you with their open hearts, works of mercy, and all sorts of qualities that made them stand out like a beautiful sore thumb in your life.  Your saints probably weren’t perfect people, and they probably weren’t people who escaped the human reality of suffering, pain or loss.  In fact, like many martyrs and saints throughout the centuries, the saints you’re thinking about today were probably people who taught you something about dealing with pain and loss because you saw how they dealt with their own necessary losses.

I watched Don Polito give himself fully to his family and his church, even as he suffered from life-threatening heart disease.  I saw how his physical weakness was transformed into a tender heart for vulnerable people.

I learned from Janie Swart how hearts and minds poisoned by the sin of apartheid and racism could be healed through the power of the gospel and the courage of God’s people.  I saw how his courage transformed the people he ministered with in South Africa.

I think we're going to be surprised in heaven by the scope of healing we will encounter there. I know that most of us already think of heaven as a place of personal healing. And what a comfort it is to know that our loved ones, many of whom have suffered great physical or mental or emotional illness in this life, will be completely whole in the life to come.

But when John lifts up the veil in this text from Revelation, and gives us a glimpse into heaven, we see it is also a place where all the injustices of this world will finally be made right, where the lowly will be lifted up, the mighty brought low--as Mary foretold in her "Magnificat"--and where God's vision of a community of justice and peace and equality will finally hold sway.

When we gather at this table, we are gathered with all of our saints of every place and time.  And at this table, God sees you too, as the saints you are.  You with all the grief that weighs down your heart.  All of your uphill battles and challenges.  All your doubts and fears.  God sees you and honors you and blesses you, saints of Emsworth U.P. Church.  Blessed are you who are poor in spirit.  Blessed are you who are meek and afraid.  Blessed are you who look at this hurting world and hunger for righteousness and mercy.  Blessed are you who haven’t given up on God’s promise to wipe every tear from every eye.  Blessed are you who are scared and unsure, because you are closer than you know to the very heart of God. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.