Monday, December 11, 2017

Sermon:It’s not about the End: it’s about the beginning

December 10, 2017
2 Advent, Year B

It’s not about the End: it’s about the beginning

When was the last time you were stopped on the street or in a store and asked for the time?   “Excuse me, do you have the time?”  I actually can’t remember when this has happened to me, but I know it has.  I remember growing up there was a phone number you could call that gave you time exact time: we would call and set a new watch to that minute and hour.  Fewer people today, as studies are showing, are wearing wristwatches: many of us have cell phone, which we know always displays the correct time. Who needs a watch?

We have a complex and layered relationship with time. 

When we mull over a decision or are not sure if a relationship will last, we say: ‘time will tell.’ ‘Time flies when we’re having fun’ and ‘time stands still’ when things are not going so well. ‘Time heals all wounds.’ Does it? At this time of year, I find that I’m keenly aware of the time of day when it gets dark: this past week the sun was setting at 4:09 p.m. – making it dark by 4:30. Winter has come!

The late clergyman Henry Van Dyke wrote that:
“Time is
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is not.”

All through the readings of this season there is a dominating emphasis on time.  When will God act, break through and bring about lasting change?  The people of Israel waited for centuries for a Messiah, a savior and Advent 101 is all about preparation for that Messiah.  It is about hearing the challenge to the call of Isaiah and become like John the Baptist: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Time.  God’s time in the Bible is kairos, and our time is chronos -- as in chronology.  We know they are different.   How? 

In the Epistle from 2 Peter: v. 8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.  Isaiah 40: All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Life is precious.  It is a gift.  Each moment, each day. We cannot bend time or make it stop, but grow to lean what we are to become and do with what God has given us.

I never grow tired of hearing the verses from Ecclesiastes that Peter Seeger used in his 1960’s hit song, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn.’  They remind us that what we see and experience to be coming to an end is also a moment to turn – that turns into something new.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

There were protests and tear gas on the streets of Bethlehem this past week.  Rocks were thrown.  Police sought to quell the unrest.  Isaiah 40 v. 1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.   Jerusalem on edge in the news: yet again.

The Advent memo to us on the Second Sunday is clear: prepare and be patient.   Patiently wait for the Lord to come like a thief in the night as we hear of fire and the heavens passing away. 

You know, and I know, that however festive the run-up to Christmas is, we are probably preparing for the wrong things. We are inclined to rush, when we should slow down.  In a world that values more, we know, deep down, that we don’t need much to experience joy.  The little things matter much more than the big things.

The many apocalyptic readings of we’ve been reading these past weeks – with images of how the world will end invites us to consider endings and beginnings.

I don’t think this cinematic device is used too much anymore, but all of the big Hollywood movies of yesterday – MGM, 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures – their films always finished with these two words flashed up on the screen:  The End.  You knew when the movie was over. 

As time marches on in our lives, I have found that the endings are tricky to negotiate.

I spend a good amount of time thinking and praying out what you all are thinking and praying about.  So, often, what is on my mind is what you carry in your hearts and around your shoulders.  I see your worry about the health of loved ones: a father with cancer, a mother who broke her hip, a child struggling with depression, a global economy that is shifting and making it harder to survive and prosper than it was just a few decades ago.  I see many try to find the sweet spot between being busy and occupied with life.

All of this makes me attune to what God may be saying to us through the turns and travails of our lives.

The end is really not the end.  The end is the beginning to fuller awareness of the God who gives life. 

The world crucified the son God sent to save the world, and God will would not give up trying to draw closer to all that God created.  God said no to death.  On the third day Christ rose again.  Resurrection.  New life. 

When did you think that your life was over as you knew it – or thought so – and as the days and months passed, that wasn’t the case?

In the moments of our greatest pain and doubt, loss, confusion and fear, we are being held by a God who is unseen.  We are filled with our next breath so that we can keep on breathing by what we call the Holy Spirit, and if we have been open to the greatest mystery – we can imagine and see and feel the face and touch of this God/man the world knows as Jesus.  This holy face of love, peace, forgiveness and compassion.   Whose birth in Bethlehem we are preparing for yet again.   

Following the well-known verses of Ecclesiastes that were set to music, we hear more:  v. 14 I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.  We stand between forever and new in hope. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Moral Issue around Who Gets, Who Keeps, and Who Gives

November 19, 2017
Christ Church, Exeter

The Moral Issue around Who Gets, 
Who Keeps, and Who Gives

Let me just come right out and say that today’s parable is not one that is easy to tie up with easy lessons or takeaways.  Nevertheless, like every gospel, we look for good news -- shades of light to help us on the journey.

What we are to make of Matthew’s words put on the mouth of the master at the very end? For to all those who have, more will be given, and they have in abundance; for from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away?  It doesn’t at all sound fair or Jesus like.

In the debate that is taking place in the halls of congress in Washington, which is called both tax reform or tax cuts, people are asking: who would it favor and who would it hurt?  The conversation is so complicated that it is hard to know how it might impact us. We hear often how the rich get richer and the poor are getting poor and those in the middle are being left behind. Rising income equality is in the headlines.  The 1% vs. the 99%.  The Donor Class, the Middle Class, the working poor.   This is a conversation going on “out there.”  What does it have to do with what we do here: who we are, what we care about and how we pray.  

The New York Times reported this past week that in the United States, “the richest 1 percent have seen their share of national income roughly double since 1980, to 20 percent in 2014 from 11 percent. This trend has resulted in stagnant living standards for most Americans.  No other developed nation is as unequal, and none have experienced such a sharp rise in inequality.”

Sounds political.  Edgy.  Should we care?  I believe we should. Does God care?  After spending weeks and weeks reading through the story of the Exodus, this one thing should be clear.  God hears the cries of God’s people. So when people suffer, God cares. About the oppressed.  The harassed. The bullied. The poor.  Victims.  Those abused, forgotten, deported, imprisoned.  When it comes to watching how riches are shared, our faith should tell us that we have a dog in this fight.  It becomes a moral issue.  

Again: For to all those who have, more will be given, and they have in abundance; for from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away?   How is that right?  

A master entrusts great sums of money to three of his slaves.  The five talents the first slave received was worth, in modern terms, about $2 million.  Even for the slave only given one talent, it was an enormous amount of wealth. More than he could ever imagine.   

I mentioned a few weeks back in the sermon that when you hear a cloud mentioned in the Bible, the presence of God is not too far away.  The same if true when it comes to over-sized numbers: our radar should be alerted.  A master gives out more money than anyone can imagine.  5,000 people are fed with a few pieces of bread and some fish. A host opens up a wedding banquet to anyone who would like to come. A shepherd leaves 99 sheep behind to look for the one that wandered away. A message of grace lays behind this tough parable that looks to be about all judgement. 

Poet Mary Oliver wrote this: “You can have the other words-chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I'll take grace. I don't know what it is exactly, but I'll take it.”  Writer Anne Lamott puts it another way -- “I do not understand the mystery of grace -- only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Let’s play out one traditional way of hearing this story.  If Jesus is the master, it will require us to shake off the images of our Savior blessing children, healing lepers and carrying a lamb around his shoulders.  The long journey the master went on and the eventual return to settle the accounts was the time between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension and his Second Coming that all of the disciples were expecting to come in their lifetime, then the absurdly high currency of the talents have been understood as the many gifts that believers are given to the good of the Kingdom of God. 

So, we have been given many gifts for the good of the faith and the world.  Use them.  Lift them up. Express them.  Give generously. Share. Don’t hid your light under a basket and your treasure in the ground. Give. Risk. Dream. Invest in the future.  When the End does come and with our days numbered, wouldn’t it be better to have made something of what we’ve been given? 

Like the first two slaves who are praised, we will receive our: “Well done.” “Enter into the joy of your master.”  

This view of the parable plays well of course during stewardship season when our challenge is to connect all of this with God’s work in and through us in the world. 

And then there is the rest of the parable.

The master has another side: darker.  More exacting and firm.  To the one who, out of fear, returned only with what was first given, one talent, He said: “you wicked and lazy slave!”

For centuries, the Church spoke of Cardinal, or deadly, sins – the big ones: they were:  envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, wrath and sloth.

Sloth, the animal of the same name who sleeps most of day: the so-called sin that makes the list is one of excessive laziness or the failure to act and utilize one’s talents.  In our country, where the Protestant Work Ethic still dominates, to called lazy is perhaps the worst thing one can say of another person.

We react differently to someone who appears uninterested in using the physical or other gifts given to them: the gift to play music, or run, build things.  The squander or not used one’s gift is seen with much greater sorrow than not having been given anything to begin with.

And that could be the more redeeming message here. 

I commend the book that we’ve been reading here and in town:  $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America. It challenges our stereotypes of those on welfare in this country for putting faces to statistics. Debunks the false caricature of the so-called Welfare Queen of the 1980’s.  It looks into failure of welfare reform of the 1990’s. And it chronicles the lives of real people who cannot find good work or earn enough to support themselves for the low paying jobs they can find.  It shows how millions of people in this country who can qualify for SNAP, or food stamps, exist on little to no cash income. Millions of children in homes living, barely, on $2 a day.  These are people who have not buried their treasure in the ground, but feel buried and passed over by a system that continues to fail them. 

This coming week many of us will sit down at a table to celebrate Thanksgiving Day.  A special holiday in this part of the world as we are only miles away from that first meal shared by the Pilgrims.  The meal we share each week in the Eucharist has thanksgiving to its core.  It is what Eucharist literally means: to give thanks.  Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.  It is right to give God thanks and praise. 

The nature of God is to give in abundance: life, breath, food, water, love: all that is needed to live and be.  How will we respond?